How to differentiate between postgrad courses

A specialised qualification can help you change career direction or gain new skills

If you are considering doing a postgraduate degree, there is a lot more to consider than the course subject. You will have to differentiate between what type of courses are on offer and, more particularly, you will need to ensure your course has credibility in the labour market. And this can be a major challenge.

But before you decide what you want to study, you should ask yourself about what type of programme you wish to follow: research or taught.

Taught programmes

Taught postgraduate courses can be a continuation of your undergraduate studies or in an entirely new area. The length of a course usually determines its qualification. A higher certificate is generally a 30-credit programme over six modules. A graduate diploma is generally 60 credits and the master’s degree requires 90 credits. Taught master’s often include a research component, possibly during the summer and, in some cases, in an industry setting.

Research programmes

Research master’s, including MLitt’s, generally take 15 months to four years, depending on whether it’s full-time or part-time. If you choose a research-based course, explore the courses in your research area and the quality of the support and supervision offered. You can contact potential employers in your research area for views on the programme’s strengths. Finding out the labour market’s opinion of the quality of support and supervision at this stage will pay dividends when engaging with potential employers near completion of your programme.


Some master’s programmes will facilitate an immediate transfer on to a PhD.


A doctorate takes a minimum of three years. The topic is determined by your area of interest and those of your supervisor. Some PhDs are designed for the lone scholar under the direction of a single expert supervisor. There are also structured PhDs where groups of students come together for transferable skills. Talk to the programme director to get help deciding which structure suits you and your workstyle best.

Quality, credibility and information sources

Ensuring quality and recognition are essential considerations when choosing a postgraduate programme. Quality and Qualifications Ireland (QQI), an agency of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is responsible for the 10 level National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) and for assuring quality of programmes in Ireland.

QQI works closely with education and training providers such as universities, technological universities and institutes of technology that offer validated programmes and make their own awards in line with established quality assurance guidelines. The validation of a programme assures its quality and value and ensures its recognition in the NFQ. Postgraduate programmes will lead to qualifications at level 9 on the NFQ. QQI works with private or independent higher education colleges whose programmes are validated by QQI with students achieving QQI awards.

All these awards are referenced on the NFQ for both undergraduate and postgraduate programmes and are listed by the higher education institutions on their websites.

QQI manages the Irish Register of Qualifications, a new information source which lists 8,000 qualifications, more than 300 providers and 11,500 programmes they offer which lead to qualifications recognised across all levels of the NFQ. This register is a definitive source of all quality-assured courses and is gathered from all providers and QQI.

Additionally, the website has information on 3,314 postgrad opportunities in Ireland, including those not validated by QQI such as courses in Northern Ireland that fall outside the remit of QQI.


Qualifax lists almost 2,000 postgraduate programmes at level 9 master's and level 10 PhD in 47 institutions in Ireland. These range from accounting in UCD, to zoology in NUI Galway. The Qualifax website is a vital information source for all postgraduate courses in Ireland. Updated annually, you can search for programmes under a range of criteria, location, cost and key search words relevant to your area of interest. Qualifax also lists programmes at private colleges and courses leading to qualifications awarded by external awarding bodies such as the universities in the UK.

Aside from programmes included in the Irish Register of Qualifications and Qualifax, reputable postgraduate degrees are offered online by top ranking universities worldwide.

Unfortunately, there are also some worthless postgrad offerings online from colleges with little or no academic credibility. So, for those considering programmes not validated by QQI or similar awarding body, caveat emptor or buyer beware.

ENIC-NARIC centres

If you are considering studying or working outside of Ireland, you can get advice about the recognition of your qualification in another country. The European Network of Information Centres and National Academic Recognition Information Services (Enic-Naric Centres) in the relevant country is invaluable if you are considering studying abroad.

Naric Ireland provides free advice on foreign qualifications and there are centres across Europe providing similar advice at


At EU level QQI's course information from the Irish Register of Qualifications is linked to the European Commission website Europass. Information on courses in all EU member states can be accessed from the upgraded Europass platform in all EU languages including Irish. The Europass platform offers an excellent free career planning tool with a personal e-portfolio and digital resources for securely storing your credentials online. is worth a viewing.

UK and EU options

For courses in NI and the UK, has a comprehensive postgrad section. There are also a growing number of postgraduate programmes taught through English in European universities – see

Online, highly reputable postgrads are offered by bodies such as the Open University and prestigious universities internationally.

What are students looking for in 2022?

“We see students selecting one of three types of course – depending on their own goals and motivation,” says Eilis O’Brien, director of communication and marketing at UCD. They fall into one of the following categories: progression students, who wish to become more expert in their bachelor subject; conversion students, who have a degree in one area but want to add skills and knowledge from another; and professional students, who want the qualification that goes with a particular graduate course. This third group generally have a career path mapped out, so the choice may be more about where and when. The first two groups start to think of postgraduate options around now in the final year of studies.

Job-ready courses

The high-quality Stem graduates emerging from universities and ITs have opportunities, but the competition has also increased, so many go on to graduate level to enhance their skill set.

Mairead Mulvey, the internship manager for science at UCD, offers practical advice to final-year students thinking about taking a master's or PhD: "Many students want their graduate degrees to open career doors and having an internship is very beneficial on your CV and can lead directly to a job offer from the placement company."

Many colleges offer internships as part of taught master’s, particularly in the Stem subjects. “Ten of our science master’s degrees have an embedded 12-15 week internships in semester three, students are matched with suitable organisations and undertake a specific industry project, which is carefully supervised and assessed.

“There has been strong interest from our existing and new industry partners which shows the need to continue to source young talent in the technology sector. We have diversified our portfolio of placement opportunities for science and biotechnology students to offer meaningful work-based learning opportunities in quality systems, commercialisation or regulatory affairs.”

This type of experience can be invaluable. Science graduates with a background in life sciences or chemistry, and thinking about setting up on their own, may consider a hybrid conversion degree such as an MSc in Biotechnology and Business, including completing a business plan with a biotechnology company.

As a hub of biotechnology, Ireland is a good place for science graduates and an increasing number of international students are enrolling here.

Biotechnology master’s and doctorate programmes with appropriate internships are also offered by DCU, UCC, NUI Galway and the TUD.

With 35-40 per cent of undergrads going on to postgrad, careers offices in colleges are crucial in advising undergraduates of their choices by running events to promote master’s and PhD options to their final-year students and preparing applications for graduate studies.

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney

Brian Mooney is a guidance counsellor and education columnist. He contributes education articles to The Irish Times