How to choose a master’s course

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Wherever you apply, use our quick pointers on how to make sure the course and the university you choose for graduate study are a great fit for you.

Working in the library at St Peter’s College | Photograph by Yuanbo Edgar Mao (DPhil English)

Choosing a course format

Start by thinking about the skills, knowledge and interests you’ve acquired over time and how you want postgraduate study to take them forward — what do you want to use this qualification to do next?

You don’t have to be completely sure about this right now, but thinking this way will start to give some structure to the hundreds of options out there (Oxford alone offers almost 350 graduate courses).

Do you want more research experience? Do you want to narrow down or change your subject focus? How long do you want to study for? A longer course might be a better basis for a competitive application to a PhD later on, but it’s a more substantial commitment to that career path. Do you want to study part-time? This option is increasingly popular (about 1 in 5 Oxford students are part-time) and could allow you to work or continue with other commitments alongside your study.

One year, two years or more?

A one-year master’s course will usually be a very intensive way to learn, focusing on a specific area that you want to work in or research. More rarely, you will also find one year research master’s which are focused specifically around gaining more research skills, though more typically you’ll find two-year courses where the first year focuses more on teaching through lectures and seminars and the second year focuses on a longer piece of research.

If you’re interested in a two-year master’s, make sure that you look at the research interests of academic staff in the department. Staying at the same institution often means that you can expand your research project into a thesis, potentially with a supervisor already familiar with you and your work.

If you’re really interested in research and can’t wait to get into the lab, there are also four-year programmes available which combine a master’s course with a DPhil/PhD in one application (sometimes called a ‘1+3’ arrangement) in a particular research area. These courses often have fully funded places available (including living costs) and in the first year you’ll learn research skills and write a research proposal together with your potential supervisor.

Choosing a university

When you’re thinking about where to apply, remember that a good academic fit always works in both directions — there’ll be published entry requirements you’ll need to meet, but to make a convincing application and a good choice you should consider where’s the right place for you.

You want to study a particular subject and perhaps you already have a university in mind to apply to, but think carefully about why exactly this university is the right place for you to study this subject. What interests or qualities of the academic department and its staff make it attractive to you? How will its facilities (eg libraries, labs etc) and connections (eg industry links, clinical networks) help you in your professional and academic development?

Talking to others about your plans can be a great way to gather your ideas and organise your priorities. Academic staff and students at other institutions are especially helpful in getting a broader picture of where you should consider.

Exploring your options

Use your academic department’s website for an overview of their research, academic staff and course content, but bear in mind that each institution is structured differently. Particularly in areas like medical sciences and social sciences, there can be substantial overlap in expertise and there might be more than one academic department with a suitable course. Explore any related courses suggested by the department.

In the sciences, some universities like Oxford and Cambridge mostly offer four-year integrated masters’ courses at undergraduate level, so there are fewer options available for a standalone master’s at these institutions. If that’s the case for the university you want to apply to which has particular strengths in your preferred subject, you might be able to apply straight to DPhil/PhD or you might need to complete a master’s elsewhere.

Invest your time wisely

When you’ve got some options you’re interested in, you’ll need to look really carefully at the entry requirements for the courses you’re interested in to check the grade you need, the subject area your previous study should have covered, and any other requirements like language ability or GRE scores. Make sure that you can make a competitive application before you invest your time and effort in an application.

At Oxford, many master’s courses are designed to build on the knowledge and skills from undergraduate study in a specific subject area, so you’ll usually need to look at courses in a similar field. The two-year MPhil in Economics, for example, requires an undergraduate degree with a strong quantitative preparation. However, some courses may take students from a wide range of related subjects — our MSc in African Studies, for example, can build on any relevant background in humanities or social sciences.

Your turn!

You can find an overview of our graduate courses, African studies to Yiddish Studies, in our Courses A-Z list.

You can filter by part-time, full-time, course length and academic department, and each course page has full entry requirements, tuition fees, contact details and a checklist of what you’ll need to send with an application:

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Graduate Study at Oxford
Applying for graduate study at Oxford

A perspective on masters’, DPhil (PhD) and other graduate courses from Graduate Admissions at the University of Oxford