Saturday, 3 June 2017

Levelling up: How I Became a Badass Master from a Doe-eyed Undergrad.

Graduation 2015, look how adorably doe-eyed I am!
The main question I get asked is how I got onto my masters, which is a valid question since it’s not as easy as undergrad and requires a lot more work. One of the biggest things for me was the application process was unlike UCAS in every way – you had to apply to each university individually, and write up an individual personal statement for them too. So you thought writing that one personal statement in college was hard? Try writing it out in 4 different ways! And whilst battling a dissertation or work or whatever commitments you have, it can be extremely daunting which is why I’m here to help you.

Where do we begin? What do you want to do?

It seems like an obvious question, but it’s not. There are plenty of subjects out there and whether you want to continue doing what you did at undergrad or a specific branch of it, you have to know what you’re searching for. For example, I moved from psychology to cognitive neuroscience – still psychology but a specific branch – one that I know I was qualified for, so be sure to pick something you know you’ll be able to get into, otherwise it’s a waste of energy for both parties who’re sending and receiving the application.

Now what? Look at courses and universities!

You know what you want to do, now you just have to go around looking for universities that offer the course you want! For the specific course I wanted to do (Neuroscience and Neuroimaging), only a handful of universities offered that specific one, so to broaden my chances I looked into courses that did neuroscience but offered imaging as a possible module or feature. There’s a possibility not all universities will offer the course you want so look at ones that are close to what you want to do with modules that you’d be happy doing. Be sure to look at the teaching styles too – some people aren’t happy with lectures being the predominant type of teaching, some of you may want more practical modules being offered so be sure to see how the teaching styles differ between the courses you want to see if they’re right for you, otherwise you may find that you’re disappointed when you’re doing 8 exams in the summer when another course you were looking at chose to do only 3 exams and 3 coursework pieces.

There are a few ways to go searching for courses, you can do a search of the course you want to do on google and find them that way. Another method is to get up a list of universities and search for them individually through that. This was handy since there were some universities that offered the course I wanted to do but didn’t come up in my initial search. The best way though, is – it gives you a great breakdown of the courses available, the University statistics, course statistics, all sorts of information, so I highly recommend looking on the website.

At this point you should also consider looking at open days.

Entry requirements.

This is the most obvious one and should probably be one of the first things you look at before you look at anything else. If you can’t fulfil the entry criteria then there’s almost no point in applying. I say almost because some universities may take other things into consideration such as lots of relevant work experience or unbelievable passion exemplified by extracurricular activities that can’t be ignored. On average, universities ask for a 2:1, but some will ask for 1sts only or 2:2 minimum, so keep an eye out and be sure that you can fulfil the entry criteria or you’ll be disappointed.


One of the most daunting things for me was references. So, during your 3 years at university you would’ve thought that you would’ve built a repertoire with enough lecturers/teachers to give you an academic reference – WRONG. University is unlike school, you probably never interact with your lecturers on such a level and they probably won’t even know you by face – only assignment grades or email addresses. Your best chance of an academic reference is your dissertation supervisor or your personal tutor. Unfortunately for me they were the same person, and usually you require 2 or 3 references so I had to ask around until one of my lecturers was kind enough to give me one.

Reference letters – This is only if you already have a copy of them, which is helpful in some cases but some universities will expect the reference to be sent directly from the email address of whoever it is from, so make sure you have the contact details of your referee. For reference letters you have already, it’s best to make sure they’re headed on university stamped paper and have some form of signature on them (either scanned or digital).

I've written up some templates on requesting an academic reference so have a look!

Now it’s time to big yourself up!

Personal statements at college were a chore, but I think for my masters it was really good since it gave me a chance to self-reflect and appreciate my work and who I am. Your personal statement is what will get you onto the course – a good reference is a given since if someone can’t provide a good one, they won’t do it, so there’s no worry there, and in regard to grades – they’re not individual, if your overall grade is the classification they need and you know you’re on the right track then there’s no worry. Your personal statement is, in essence the exam of this whole thing. It has to be right, and you have to convince them that you’re the person for this course since these things are more than just academic – they’re much more difficult than an undergrad degree, there are generally limited places on these courses and they want to make sure that you’re passionate about it otherwise they’ll assume you’ll drop out which reflects poorly on them. You need to sell yourself as a person, really big yourself up but don’t be arrogant. Tell them how capable you are and that you’ll be an asset, you want them to want you!

I’ve added some tips and downloads for you to use on myresources page for writing a personal statement, so have a look!

Finance and funding.

The worst part of all of this is the financial side. Masters degrees are expensive – and I mean EXPENSIVE. Mine cost £5500 and an additional £2000 for the research fees (It was an MSc(RES) so bench fees for research and practical classes made it more expensive), and that was almost 2 years ago – I checked recently and the price has gone up by £1000. Generally, an MRES will be more expensive and if your course offers things like practical classes then they will need to cover those.

Now, if you already have the money to fund a course and accommodation, materials and everything else then you can move onto the next stage, but for those of you who are unable to do that then I highly suggest looking at scholarships and bursaries your university offers, especially ones for low income families. It’s really important to be aware of deadlines – once they’ve passed then you have no chance and will have to find alternative funding. Barclays and Co-op do personal development loans which can help you out with up to £10,000, so they’re worth looking into. I believe student finance have chosen to extend their loans to masters’ students as well, and if I’m correct they’ll lend up to £10,000 as well so that’s also an option, but remember that £10k is not enough for fees and accommodation if you’re paying for both. You need to consider all of your expenses when applying.

Departmental bursaries are also always a good thing to look out for as they’re not always advertised, and sometimes charities are willing to help you out too if you fit their need for it – eg. Autism charities may help if you have autism, or schizophrenia charity for schizophrenic students who are excelling in their studies etc. So, consider charities that may be able to offer you a hand as you may well need it. Books are expensive, overdue book fees are all too real and food is necessity; not a luxury.

Organise your paperwork!

Overlooked very often but the only way your application is processed is if you have the relevant paperwork, so be organised and make sure you have everything you need at hand. The last thing you want is your application to be slowed down because you forgot to send off your transcript or reference letter. For me, I had a folder dedicated to applications – “Application Supplements” – Where I kept all my personal statements for each university, titled with the name “Personal Statement – [Name of University]”, Transcripts for each year, scholarship personal statements, scans of ID (Passport, provisional license etc.) if applying abroad and anything else.

Naming your files are important (to me anyway) since when you upload them, that’s what they’ll be seen as – so try to help out the administrative team on the other end by naming the files so they know what’s what. Having your reference files named as “82hdksitg.PDF” will be frustrating and annoying, whereas “Reference (P Murphy)” will be easier. Honestly, at this point it’s just being considerate and organised – it’ll be easier for you to find and know what it is too.

Transcripts are your number 1 priority. Either those or degree certificates. You WILL be asked for either your degree certificate or a copy of your transcript to date, so make sure you have a copy of them or your application will be slowed down or not even get processed. The same goes for degree certificates if you already have them; they’re your proof and without those the university won’t believe your ability to get a 1st or 2:1. If you can’t get a hold of it through your student portals or whatnot, ask the administrative services at your university, they’ll be able to help you get a copy.

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