The path to completing a master’s degree, By Muhammad Jameel Yusha’u

Muhammed Jameel Yusha'u
Muhammad Jameel Yushau

After writing the short piece on how to complete a PhD,  some of my readers queried me for being somewhat biased by jumping to discuss how to complete a PhD, but ignoring the thousands of intending students who would like to pursue a master’s degree. So this week’s contribution will focus on how to pursue the middle degree, a transitional degree that prepares you for the doctorate degree.

Different countries have different means of teaching master’s degree. It also sometimes depends on the university. In some places the master’s degree takes two years to complete, but the reality is it can take upto five years. This is common in many African and Asian countries. In Nigeria I know sometimes a person can spend up to eight years to pursue a master’s degree, a time which is enough in other places to finish a bachelor’s degree, masters and PhD altogether.  But today I will focus on the UK system.

There are basically two types of master’s programme offered in most UK universities, the first is called the taught masters degree, in which the student graduates with M.A, M.Sc, M.Eng, MMed.Sci etc. This is the common master’s degree that most students apply for and is normally completed within 12 calendar months. It usually starts in September although some universities do have January intake. Under the taught master’s programme, the student normally takes between five to seven modules divided across two semesters. In the remaining three months, you will be required to write a dissertation, and averagely the master’s dissertation is 15,000 words, in some universities it can be up to 20,000 words while some do accept less. Those who finish the two semesters without writing a dissertation, or fail the dissertation module are normally awarded a postgraduate diploma. Some universities offer extension for the dissertation to be re-submitted.

There are two key routes to the taught postgraduate master’s degree programme. The academic route and the professional route. It is important to understand the distinction between the two because many students do join one form of programme, and along the line they realise that it doesn’t suit their interest, and they either struggle or start demanding for change of programme.

One of the key aims of a master’s degree is to prepare the student to join the industry, and at the same time acquire the necessary skills to pursue a postgraduate research degree. The professional master’s degree is practice based. For instance many universities that offer master’s programmes in broadcast journalism, or transport engineering employ workers from the relevant industry to teach in the universities, as such the training received under this programmes will basically prepare you to imbibe the practical skills needed when you get employed. Even the method of assessment follows the same pattern, of course you will be asked to write few reports about the practical work you have undertaken. So make sure you read the programme brochure carefully and understand what you are getting yourself into.

As for the academic route, the programme prepares the student to acquire research skills, it normally incorporate key courses like research methods, statistics, and the modules are normally assessed by writing an essay or a review that relies heavily on journals, books and other sources that help the student to develop a critical mind. It is important especially for those who teach in universities to understand this. Because if by any chance you pursue a professional master’s degree, when you return to your university, you will certainly struggle, both in your personal development, and you will pay the price more, when you register for a PhD, because if you lack the necessary research skills, the universities normally ask you to join some master’s students and take those essential courses like research method.

In some cases some students will find themselves pursuing a professional master’s programme but with an eye in the academia, in this case my suggestion is, speak to your programme leader to consider giving you the research module option among the modules you will take, so that you can go ahead and write a dissertation, and it will be a win-win situation for you.

The second type of master’ degree is called M.Phil (master of philosophy), which is mater’s by research only. This is meant for students who have a limited funding to pursue a PhD, so they can apply for the M.Phil and spend two years to develop a research proposal and do some basic research work that will equip them with sufficient research skills, so that they can become independent researchers. In other cases, the first year of most PhD students is called M.Phil, this is to enable the student acquire enough research expertise, and then he can upgrade to a PhD, if his research fails to meet the standard of a PhD, he would be asked to either add a year or make some corrections and then receive an M.Phil. Where a completed PhD failed to meet the required standard, instead of the student losing three to four years he has spent, the universities normally award an M.Phil as a consolation.

Some important points to note. Equipping yourself with writing skills, particularly academic writing, will be essential to a successful degree. Understand that the one year master’s programme is a “crash” programme, so it is very demanding, each module will have essays, seminar presentations, group work etc. You will be given the deadlines in your first week at school, so take the deadlines seriously, do not wait until the end of semester before you start writing your essays; otherwise you will “crash”.

As soon as possible, familiarise yourself with the library resources, particularly how to access electronic journals. That way you can have access to all the reading lists recommended by the tutor. Never miss your classes, and listen attentively to the lecturer, as sometimes you may struggle to understand the accent of some tutors. Develop a personal timetable and allocate enough private study hours for each module you take. Try and acquire a diary and mark the important dates for the submission of your assignments.

When it comes to dissertation, think of a topic that is easy to research, and without the hassle of travels, etc, as your resources are likely to be limited, and you may not even have enough time, remember you only have three months to write a dissertation. One of the common mistakes made by postgraduate students is to be over-ambitious by thinking of a topic that will change the world. Take it easy my friend, acquire the degree first, and then you can go on and change the world.

As you pursue your programme, do not forget the date the contract for your accommodation will end, as the only language the landlords understand is the payment of their rent. So make sure you plan and avoid putting yourself in unnecessary stress; book your return ticket early, and if you would like to continue with a PhD, make sure you have an offer before you leave. Have a nice study period!

*Dr. Yusha’u (, a former staff of the BBC, teaches journalism at the University of Northumbria at Newcastle, England. He is a weekly columnist for PREMIUM TIMES


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