How to write a winning personal statement for postgraduate study

application_-_pen1A personal statement is your chance to make a great first impression when applying for a postgraduate course. It provides a space for you to convince the admissions tutor(s) that you have the motivation, relevant knowledge and academic capability to successfully complete the course, and reflect well on the institution.

When writing your statement, always check whether the admissions team has written instructions on what to include and how much to write – and if they have then make sure you follow them! Often, however, you will be largely left to fill in the blank space yourself – and in that case we recommend you write about 500 words, which equates to approximately 1 A4 page.

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Converting to Law

The University’s MA in Law programme offers a wide choice of career paths – both inside and outside the legal sector. William Bartoli-Edwards, a Bristol Music graduate has posted a blog about this innovative postgraduate programme.

Why the MA in Law?

As a first year Law MA student who also completed an undergraduate degree at the University of Bristol, the MA course has lived up to my hopes and expectations. My initial decision to enrol on the course was taken because I felt that, despite having taken steps forward in my academic development during my BA, I had not quite satisfied my academic curiosity and development. Therefore, looking for a course that gave me more academic challenges, but also complemented my initial degree, was a focus which quickly led to the Law MA as the ideal outcome.

When comparing the course to the GDL the Law MA seemed to suit my needs better; the GDL was more of a practical solution to being able to practise law, rather than an academic endeavour. Similarly, Bristol stood out in comparison to those other universities offering an accelerated LLB course. The MA provides a basis to support many more opportunities for further study and professional development outside the field of law, as well as offering the opportunity to preview an LLM, with the optional module in the second year being chosen from either the LLM options or a Master’s level research project.

Diverse range of options

For me, personally, because my undergraduate degree was in Music, Bristol, being a media and creative centre, lent itself well to support my continuing professional development, leading to a University Internship Scheme with Aardman Animations. This is also an example of how diverse law is as a subject. Not only does it enhance all of the sought after skills, such as critical analysis, but it is likely to complement most interests or sectors since specialist knowledge as well as practical knowledge often go hand in hand. Therefore, for example, a specialism in contentious music litigation is now a possibility for me.

Alternatives to Law careers

Nevertheless, a non-law focused career is equally possible. For me, with a passion for music and the music industry, there are a variety of jobs and possibilities which the transferable skills from law complement in the commercial music environment. In an industry such as music, ‘career paths’ are less common, or at least less clear, compared to many other professional areas. This is where the skills of the MA will be increasingly valuable. The critical thinking and the ability to analyse any situation you are dealing with means carving out your own, specialist, career path becomes much less worrisome.

Finally, the department itself is one full of enthusiasm and energy. The professors are extremely willing to help whenever and with whatever you need. From my experiences of other courses, within and outside of the University of Bristol, this course offers a great deal of personal development that is hard to find elsewhere.

Thanks William!

To find out more about a career in the Legal sector check out the Careers Service website – http://www.bristol.ac.uk/careers/be-inspired/career-sectors/legal-services/

I think I’m on the wrong degree course!

change course

The Careers Service sees many students in this particular situation every term, and an appointment with one of our careers advisers can help you to think about your career options with a change of subject, as well as the potential consequences of leaving your degree programme altogether.  Here is some advice for three of the most common dilemmas we help with related to this area.

I like this university but I want to change my degree subject

This is potentially trickier than you might think.  Being admitted onto one programme of study doesn’t mean that you can simply swap to another.  Each school or department carries out its own recruitment and has different numbers of places available on each course.  There may not be a place available for you to switch from Chemistry to Biology, for example, just because you are already a student in a particular university.

To clarify your options, find out who the admissions tutor is for the course to which you want to transfer; this information is usually found on the website for each school or department.  Ask if they have any available places and if they are willing to consider your case based on your existing academic performance and career plans.  Do bear in mind that if you are performing poorly in your academic work in your current subject, it may be a challenge to convince another department that you should be admitted to their programme.

If you want to make a radical subject change, such as moving from Mathematics to History of Art, a careers adviser will be able to help you consider your career options and any long-term implications. Do be aware that about two thirds of graduate recruiters don’t mind which subject your degree is in (unless you want to be something like an engineer or doctor!) as long as you have the right transferable skills and some work experience to offer.

I want to do the same subject but I don’t like it here!

As above, you need to contact the admissions tutor for the course in which you are interested at the university you want to move to and see which options are available to you.  Will you be able to transfer credits or will you have to repeat a year and maybe take some additional units?  Remember that degree courses in the same subject can be structured and taught very differently between institutions, so take the time to check and make sure that you are making the right choice this time.

If you need to repeat a year and this involves taking time out from study, then obtaining work experience could be a valuable addition to your CV and potentially make you more employable than if you hadn’t spent some time in the workplace.

I don’t know if I want to be at university at all

It could also be the case that being at university right now just isn’t working for you.   It’s perfectly okay to change your mind if you feel that you have made the wrong decision to start a degree.  You could go out and work for a while and then return to education later, if you like, although your funding opportunities may be affected by how long you suspend your studies. We have copies of the AGCAS publication Changing or Leaving Your Course at the Careers Service, for advice on these practicalities.  A careers adviser can help you to decide which route is best for you at the present time.  You will also need to speak to your Faculty Office and Student Funding about how to withdraw from your programme and what implications there are for your fees and loans.

Bear in mind too, that many people have successful careers without being graduates.  A lot of entrepreneurs and small business owners are self-starters who are good at marketing their skills and services.  Some of the larger corporations involved in graduate recruitment also now offer training schemes post A-Level for those who don’t want to go on to university for whatever reason, so it’s really worth looking for alternative routes into a career you would love.  The path may not be straightforward and progress may be slower, but your career will ultimately be based on how well you do a particular job and not on a degree classification, so you will eventually be on a level playing field with graduates in the same industry.

Whatever your dilemma, it won’t be anything we haven’t heard before, so do come into the Careers Service and ask if you can talk to someone about your options or start by looking at the advice on our web site on changing or leaving your course.

Dr Tracy Johnson, Careers Adviser

Image:http://www.itworld.com

Finding hidden sources of funding for your postgraduate study

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So, you’re thinking about doing postgraduate study. You’ve researched all your options, chosen the subject you want to specialise in, found the institution you want to go to. Your dream of further study is almost within your grasp, but that nagging question remains: how exactly are you going to pay for it?

Or perhaps you’ve already started your postgraduate course and you’re looking for some extra funding to attend a conference, do some further research, or top up your dwindling maintenance allowance.

Whatever your situation, you’ll know that obtaining funding from more mainstream sources, such as funding councils and scholarships, is becoming increasingly difficult as budgets go down and competition for the remaining money goes up. What you might not know is that there is another significant source of postgraduate funding which could potentially help you: the voluntary sector.

There are a large number of charities and trusts which are prepared to give small but significant amounts to postgraduate students. The downside is that these funding opportunities are all advertised separately in various different places (if at all) and it can take a huge amount of time and perseverance to find them. However, the University of Bristol Careers Service has a subscription to a resource which can make looking for this funding a whole lot easier.

The Alternative Guide to Postgraduate Funding pulls together information about over 600 charities which provide awards to postgraduate students into a single searchable database. The database includes brief details about each body and the funding it offers, with web links or contact details so you can find out more information. The Alternative Guide to Postgraduate Funding also includes advice about how to make a successful funding application. And because the guide is not exhaustive, it also includes tips and strategies to help you search for other sources of funding which might not be listed in the guide itself.

You can access the guide in three different formats:

Web resource: This version has a searchable database, video clips giving helpful advice, and some handy tools to help you in your search for funding, including a ‘Personal grants manager’ and a ‘Personal statement assistant’. Go to the Alternative Guide to Postgraduate Funding gateway page and set up a free personal account, or log on directly if you’re using a PC on campus.

PDF document: The guide is also available as an electronic document via the Careers Service website. Go to our ‘Browse electronic resources‘ section and search for ‘Alternative Guide’.

Print copy: We also have a print copy of the current guide, along with copies from previous years, in the red folder at shelf location 4b in the Careers Service.

The guide is available to all current University of Bristol students and to registered graduates.

And, remember, if you need further help looking for postgraduate funding, the Careers Service Information Team will be delighted to help you. You can contact us by phone or email:

Tel: 0117 9288237

Email: careers-resources@bristol.ac.uk

Alternatively, you can drop in to the Careers Service and chat to us in person. See the Careers Service website for details of our current opening hours.

Best of luck finding your funding!

Tim Riley, Information Specialist

How to write a winning statement for postgraduate study

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This post is intended to help you get that all-important personal statement right when applying for Masters programmes and other postgraduate courses.  To make sure you get the appropriate tone and content, you need to think about your application from the perspective of the admissions tutor.  I see a lot of statements written in the style of academic essays, offering lengthy thoughts on key concepts in the field, but this isn’t what is required.  The tone and points you make should resemble a job application more than academic arguments.  Here are my tips for keeping your statement in the ‘yes’ pile.

  • First, I’m assuming that you have done your homework and thoroughly researched the course.  Does the teaching style suit you?  What jobs do graduates of the programme go on to do? Have you talked to potential future employers to find out if you need to do the course, or are you satisfied that you want to do it for your own development? Can you fund the course and your maintenance costs throughout?  If you haven’t thought these questions through, then visit our Postgraduate Study pages for advice.  It is also a good idea to telephone or email the course admissions tutor if you have any questions before applying.
  • Now, structure your statement around the following points to make sure you’re including what the admissions tutor wants to see:
  • An introduction that gets straight to the point

Be clear and direct at the beginning of the statement, and don’t waste time discussing the ins and outs of academic debates within the subject of the course.  Go straight in with why you are applying for the programme and get their attention.  It’s ok to personalise this as genuine motivations will really stand out over those applications where people are applying for courses without having thought it through, or just can’t think of what else to do.  Mentioning an inspirational person you met or a life experience that got you interested in this area can grab the reader’s attention straight away.  For graduate medicine, for example, many students have experienced life-changing events that led them to choose to become a doctor.

  • Do you have the academic capability to complete the course successfully?

You need to provide specific evidence here of the skills and knowledge you have gained during your undergraduate studies that will provide a good foundation for a postgraduate programme.  Provide clear examples of when you developed specific skills, such as managing your dissertation, learning about team work in a group project, or improving your problem solving abilities, using the STAR framework to capture what you learned.  Highlight units that you studied that are relevant to this new programme and how they will provide you with useful foundations.  If you are applying for a programme that is quite different from your undergraduate subject, then you will need to spell out how your skills and learning are transferable to this new discipline.  Don’t assume that the tutor knows what you have to offer; they need to see that you can articulate this clearly to them, rather like making a sales pitch.

  • Why have you chosen this particular programme at this particular place?

Just as if you were applying for a job, you must show that you have researched both the institution and the department offering the course and be clear about why you have chosen them.  Are there particular specialists you are looking forward to working with?  Why does the teaching style appeal to you?  Are there individual units that attract you?  If you are applying for a course at your current undergraduate institution, you still have to do this!  Be clear about why you want to stay, as it is by no means given that you will get a place on a Masters just because you’re already studying in the same place, especially if it’s a popular programme.

  • What are your future plans? What will this course lead to?

The admissions tutor will want to see clear evidence that this course is going to help you get further towards the career you have in mind, as this means you are more likely to be motivated during your studies and complete the course.  It’s ok to have more than one job option in mind when you apply and it’s also perfectly fine to change your mind later, but it helps if you can demonstrate a goal towards which you will be working by completing this programme of study.

  • What else do you do that could have given you relevant skills?

It’s important to leave space for a paragraph that talks about your co-curricular interests and activities, as many of these can provide valuable skills and experience you can bring to a postgraduate programme.  Any client-facing experience from shop, café or event work can provide the essential people skills needed for teaching, social work or legal training, for example, so it’s important that you explain specific occasions when you enhanced these skills, again using the STAR framework.

So, when completing a postgraduate statement, it’s important to keep in mind the perspective of the admissions tutor and their requirements.  That way, you’ll hit the right target and stand a better chance of getting that place.  If you need some more inspiration, you can:

Good luck!

Dr Tracy Johnson, Careers Adviser

(Image: http://www.postgrad.com)

PGCE or PGDip? A quick guide to postgraduate qualifications

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If you’re thinking about postgraduate study, then you won’t be the only person having trouble distinguishing your MPhil from your DPhil, or a PGCE from a PGCert.  Here are a few of the main postgraduate qualifications explained, as well as some tips for choosing which one is right for you.

Masters degrees

Master of Arts (MA), Master of Science (MSc), Master of Education (MEd), to name just a few!

Often referred to as a taught masters, these degrees usually take one year full-time (or two years part-time) after the completion of an undergraduate programme.  You will attend lectures and seminars for about nine months, leaving another three to research and write up your thesis.  You may need one in a specialist area to advance careers in sectors such an international development or in actuarial work, but many people also choose to complete one to enhance their knowledge of their undergraduate subject.

(Master of Research) MRes

If you are considering a career in research, either in industry or academia, then a research-led masters may be a more relevant route for you than a taught one.  There is a greater emphasis on the thesis, which can be up to 40,000 words in length, compared to around 20,000 for a taught masters.  An MRes can also be awarded to students who have worked towards a doctorate but have not achieved the required standard.

Master of Philosophy (MPhil)

This is a more advanced, research-based masters degree, and can sometimes be completed as preparation for a doctorate.

Doctorates

A doctorate demonstrates that you have made an original contribution to your academic discipline, engaging in three to four years of committed research and producing a thesis.  The traditional model of a doctorate that people have in mind is usually that of the lone student working closely with their supervisor.  However, there are now many different kinds of doctorates available and which are delivered in a variety of ways.

A Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) can still be undertaken alone but you could also be part of a research team and may be supervised by several academics or even industry professionals to address different aspects of your project.  A DPhil is simply what Oxford University calls a PhD. A DEng is a doctorate in engineering, and this can involve considerable time spent in industry on placements, as is also now the case with some science doctorates.

Other options include practice-led doctorates, which require something like an exhibition alongside a thesis in art and design or performance-based areas, or a doctorates by publication, where publishing a certain number of articles or a book can be taken as evidence of your expertise.  The latter is more common when you have already been working in an area for some years.  This is also the case for professional doctorates, such as the Doctor of Education or EdD, where experienced practitioners will present a portfolio of evidence as well as a thesis to achieve this qualification.

Postgraduate Certificates & Diplomas

Postgraduate certificates and diplomas fall between undergraduate and masters degrees, offering training in both vocational and academic areas, with qualifications taking months rather than years to complete.  For example, careers advisers can complete a postgraduate certificate in careers guidance (PGCert), followed by a postgraduate diploma (PGDip) and, if they are really keen, go on to an MA in Careers Guidance, where they would take on a research element in an area that interests them.

Entry into areas such as law and teaching also require study at this level, with aspiring solicitor and barristers completing the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL), if they do not already have a law degree, and would-be teachers studying for the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE).

Key points to consider

If you are currently thinking about whether or not further study is right for you, and what kind of qualification to take, then do come in and talk to us at the Careers Service.  Many students think about taking a masters degree because they can’t think of what else to do after graduation, and this could be a very expensive year out of the labour market without enhancing your prospects if you don’t choose wisely.

We always recommend speaking to potential employers or  contacts in the areas of work that interest you to find out if you need to take a postgraduate qualification and, if you do, which ones would  be most relevant.  Our web site contains more information about postgraduate study, as well as information about how to fund it.

Finally, watch out for workshops at the Careers Service this autumn on choosing postgraduate study as well as on specific options such as the Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL) and teacher training via the PGCE.

Dr Tracy Johnson, Careers Adviser

(Image: http://ipdraughts.wordpress.com/2011/08/20/postgraduate-diploma-in-ip-transactions-an-update/)

The myths surrounding postgraduate study

Recently, with other members of the AGCAS (Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services) postgraduate task group, I’ve been conducting research to explore some of the myths surrounding postgraduate study.  With widespread media perception of a depressed graduate market and a devalued first degree it is understandable that many students embark on postgraduate study in the hope that it will offer them a competitive advantage when applying for jobs.  I’ve interviewed some of our graduate recruiters to see if they agree.

Do employers have a separate entry point for postgraduates?

One of the first questions asked was about separate entry points for postgraduates.  I know that this is of real significance to some postgraduates, after a Masters and a three or four year PhD you don’t necessarily want to apply for something that you feel you could have applied for four or five years before.  The reality is that there are very few employers who offer specific entry points for those with postgraduate qualifications, unless you have significant work experience and can therefore be considered as ‘experienced hire’.  I think it’s important to consider the additional skills that you have gained from postgraduate study and how you will sell these to an employer.  You will no doubt find that your application is far more competitive than it would have been a few years ago.  Although a postgraduate qualification may not be recognised in the application process, one graduate recruiter did tell us that, ‘being able to draw upon a wider range of experiences during the recruitment process can only strengthen a candidate’s application’, whilst another said that he, ‘would expect someone with a PhD to bring something additional to the table and expect to give them more responsibility more quickly given their additional experience’.

Do postgraduate students get paid more?

For many, postgraduate study is a significant financial investment, so it’s not surprising that you expect to be paid more.  Salaries vary widely depending on the company, the role and the organisation. It is unlikely that your postgraduate qualification alone will command a higher salary, although there are exceptions.  One recruiter told us that ‘salaries are determined by the particular role and location, not the candidate or their education’.

Are there any advantages to employing postgraduates?

We asked employers if they saw any advantages to employing postgraduates over those graduating with a first degree.  Most employers do recognise that postgraduates, particularly those that have undertaken research, may offer a ‘broader toolkit’ of skills, but the qualification itself is not enough.  Those with postgraduate qualifications are expected to be given responsibility faster and achieve promotion faster, but one employer stated that, ‘once you start a job the question is whether you can do that job well or not’.  Another told us that, ‘other than a 2:1 degree classification, experience in related work fields to the area applied for is seen as more valuable than further education’.

Does a postgraduate qualification make up for not having a 2:1?

Finally, I see many examples where graduates have embarked on a Masters degree to compensate for a poor first degree.  So, how did the employers respond to this?  Unfortunately, most of the graduate recruiters that we spoke to do have a minimum entry requirement of a 2:1.  There are some employers that will accept applications below this entry requirement, but only with evidence of extenuating or mitigating circumstances.  One of our recruiters commented that, ‘we will accept applications from people who do not meet our academic requirements provided that there is a strong justification for why we should consider the application’.  One example of this maybe significant and related professional work experience.

So, why do postgraduate study?

This small study has highlighted an ambiguous reaction to postgraduates in the job market.  If you’re thinking about postgraduate study I think it’s important to be clear about your motivations.  A passion for your subject and a desire to further your knowledge should be high on your list.  It maybe that the qualification is essential for your future career, but if not, then there are no guarantees of improving your employability.  Of equal importance is taking advantage of developing new skills and more importantly being able to articulate these skills to an employer.  Your breadth of examples could offer you a real competitive edge in the application process, but don’t assume that the employer knows what you’ve been doing for the last four years – you need to tell them!  Work experience is also key, with PhD internships becoming ever more popular.  To be competitive think about the package that you’re offering:  academic excellence, skills and experience.

The original article will appear in the next edition of Phoenix (AGCAS), October 2012.

Dr Samantha Cathro, Postgraduate Careers Adviser