Posted on by Achim D. Brucker, licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0.

Thoughts on PGT and PGR Programmes

Universities in the UK (and the discussion in this post is based, and most likely limited to, the UK academic sector) accept students with a UG (BSc) degree into their PhD programs. Thus, students in the UK often wonder about the differences between doing a postgraduate taught degree and a postgraduate research degree. But also if you have already your MSc finished (or are close to finishing it) and are considering applying for a PhD programme, it will be useful to understand the differences in the application and selection process.

One of important difference between a taught program and a research program is that a research program is an individual programme: it is all about you (and your supervisor). In contrast, a taught program is mass event (the “mass” can be relatively small, i.e., cohort sizes of postgraduate taught programs are often in the medium double-digit range). This has consequences on selecting the right university (or research group) and strategies for making your application successful.

Taught Postgraduate Programs

Let’s start with looking at Taught Postgraduate Programs. When applying for an MSc programme, you are often one of hundredths applicants and decision if your application is successful or not, is often taken by a dedicated admissions team, based on your marks in your undergraduate studies, checking that you satisfy the admission criteria. Only in exceptional cases, when, for instance, you want to replace certain requirements (e.g., an undergraduate degree that teaches programming) by job experience (e.g., if you worked as a software developer), your application is read carefully by an academic.

Of course, you want to study at a university with a good reputation. But, most importantly, you want to learn the topics that really motivate you and that build the basis for your envisioned career path. Hence, carefully check the description of the programmes you are applying for (and for the modules offered) to avoid disappointments. For example, not every programme that has ``cybersecurity’’ in its title, will cover those areas of cybersecurity that you are interested in. This will also help you, if you are considering a PhD after your MSc: PhD supervisors consider it an advantage, if they have already supervised the M.Sc. Research Project of a student. And, if the M.Sc. Research Project and your PhD topic are aligned, it gives you a head-start for your PhD.

Research Postgraduate Programs

While, in the following, I am focusing on PhD programmes, similar consideration are valid for the much less common degree “MSc by Research” (a one-year MSc degree that is purely based on an individual research project). A postgraduate research program, as the name suggests, focuses on research. There are usually only a few taught modules (e.g., in the UK it is very common that research students need to complete a module on research methodology). Hence, both the application process and the PhD studies are centered around you, our research topic, and your relationship to your PhD supervisor. This observation should guide both the selection of the best suitable supervisor and the documents that your application process

If you want to do a PhD in a certain topic (and, if you want to do a PhD, you should have an idea, in which area you want to do it), look out for potential supervisors that are knowledge in your area of interest, e.g., they have published papers that are, broadly speaking, relevant to your PhD topic. For example, even though I am doing a lot of research in cybersecurity, there are many areas of cybersecurity, I am not supervising students on, because I lack the necessary expertise.

In your application, you should demonstrate that the expertise of your future supervisor is useful for your PhD topic. Ideally, your application refers to one or several papers written by the research group you are applying at. In a certain way, the reputation of the university is less important (compared to a taught programme). Rather, try to understand if your research topic and your personality fits well into the research area and supervisory style of your week/month: some supervisors meet their PhD candidates at least weekly, others future supervisor. For example, how many supervisory meetings are planned per only every other week or less often. Similarly, some supervisors are more involved in the actual research than others. What is best for you, depends on your personal needs and your research topic. Some topics require a closer supervision than others. If accepted, you will need to work with this supervisor for the next 3 to 5 years. Also, at the end of your PhD, your individual work will be assessed both by the PhD committee and by future employers (that will also look at your publications and your PhD thesis).

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