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Seven questions to ask when choosing a postgrad

Research is important when choosing a postgraduate programme that aligns with your academic and career aspirations

It might be an easy decision, a challenging decision or, indeed, a necessary one.

Either way, a postgraduate degree, whatever form it takes, requires commitment and dedication – and often at a stage of life where the demands of family and work life are ramping up a gear.

Elsewhere in today’s graduate coverage, we’ve looked at the reasons for doing a postgraduate course. But what do you need to consider when choosing a course? We’ve put together a handy checklist.

1. Why?

“Why do you want to do a postgraduate degree?” asks Prof Martine Smith, dean of graduate studies at Trinity College Dublin.


“If it is to further your career, look at the programmes on offer and see if they work with business and enterprise. This has become important for nearly all postgraduate programmes.

“Ultimately, you need to ask: what is your interest in this course? It will take motivation and drive to keep you engaged, so it has to be related to something you want to do and are interested in.”

Sinéad Brady is a career psychologist and author of Total Reset: Quit Living to Work and Start Working to Live.

“Will this course give you access to a route you may not otherwise have had, or are you doing it for the love of learning?” she asks. “Is now the right time? Is this really an area to want to be in? And will it help you to earn more money?”

2. Do you need these skills?

“We are among the most overqualified nations in Europe,” Brady says. “So we have to start asking whether we already have the education and technical skills to do the job, but lack the human skills needed. So do you need this qualification, or just more experience on the ground?

“There are some areas where a postgraduate qualification is essential, such as for professional accreditation. But if it is not essential, you have to ask: why are you investing this time and energy? A master’s is about deepening subject matter knowledge, so is it what you need at this stage in your career?

“You need to look at the skills you need, but also the transferable skills that a course will help you to develop. This is because, if you don’t go down the route you initially expected, it is really useful to know where else it could lead to. It’s really worth talking to people who went on to different industries from this course.”

3. Are there links with industry?

What type of postgraduate degree do you want to do, asks Brady. “Is it practical and will it give you exposure to professional companies or organisations in this area? Or is it more theory driven?”

Smith advises students to see what the workplace needs are for people with this qualification, and what skills are needed by business in this area. This applies regardless of the course, as she points out that arts and humanities programmes are often linked with outside organisations, too.

“Our school of creative arts, for instance, has a performance-linked master’s option, and we have interesting programmes around heritage that are linked to external partners,” she says. “Even if there aren’t pathways linked to a specific career, engaging with partners can help students to see where their skill set is – or will be – valuable.”

4. Online, in-person or hybrid?

One of the biggest consequences of the pandemic was the shift to learning and communicating online. Courses that were once inaccessible due to physical distance opened up to people from across and beyond Ireland.

When the pandemic abruptly forced us online, remote teaching largely involved traditional course content delivered remotely. Several years on, however, the entire method of course design has changed, with the key imperative being that they are genuinely engaging for learners.

It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that even though most postgraduate course providers are publicly-funded institutions, the third-level sector relies on the money they bring in to keep the lights on. And, sometimes, just sometimes, this commercial imperative may override what course design is best for the learner.

“There is a lot to be said for in-person connection on a postgraduate course, and course providers do their best to get the right balance,” says Brady.

“There is a different cohort coming to the world of work now, and having gone through Covid [during their undergraduate degree], they may have missed – and now yearn for – that student experience.”

Smith says most postgraduates want at least some degree of flexibility, but the attraction of online-only can wear off quickly.

“As an educator, you want to ensure that you really reach learners, but it is so easy for students to turn off the screen when everyone is not in the room to energise one another,” she says.

5. What are the alternatives?

“We definitely need more robust conversations about people getting qualification after qualification,” says Brady.

“Do we need them all? They will never be a burden to you, but there may be alternatives.”

Traineeships, for instance, see learners take on a specific, work-focused course of learning to prepare them for particular roles.

Apprenticeships, meanwhile, are available in a variety of courses including agriculture, biopharma, finance and recruitment alongside more traditionally familiar craft apprenticeships in areas including construction and motor mechanics.

Alternatively, someone may just need a specific, targeted, professional development course where they acquire a specific skill or skills.

Sometimes employers will want or need evidence of professional certification, but there are many free courses – known as massive online open courses, or MOOCs – where you can learn what you need to know, offered by some of the world’s leading universities, and without any exams. is a database of MOOCs from around the world. Or you’ll find a comprehensive list at offers over 1,000 free courses from across the world with certificates and diplomas, while has thousands of free videos and lectures on a wide range of topics.

6. Should I study full-time or part-time?

There are other options besides a one-year full-time or two-year part-time master’s.

“Micro-learning has really taken off,” says Brady. “These allow learners to take on a specific module in a specific area. It can be a valuable tester to help you decide if you want or need to do a larger master’s.”

One of the great benefits of microcredentials is that students can build up their postgraduate qualification over a number of years, allowing them to make their own decisions as to how they invest their time. A certain number of modules could build into a certificate, a diploma or, over time, a master’s qualification. Instead of having to build your life around your course, you can build the course around your life.

7. How do I pay for it?

A postgraduate course needs to offer a return on your investment, because it is not free, says Brady. Even if you do receive funding, someone – perhaps your employer or the taxpayer – is paying for it.

With this in mind, there are some postgraduate support grants available through Susi. Third levels offer a range of scholarship and funding support, or discounts to previous graduates. offers free postgraduate courses in a range of high-demand areas. Finally, many employers will cover part or all of the cost, although often with a caveat that you commit to working with them for a number of years after your qualification.

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