Researching transition and the student experience at Masters’ level – a few reflections on what’s out there

I have recently been reviewing the research literature on transition to postgraduate taught study and, more broadly, the student experience of Masters students. Having previously carried out a research study on transition to university in Modern Languages with my colleague, John Canning, I have been surprised to find that in contrast to the substantial body of research at undergraduate level, there is relatively little literature on the transition and experiences of postgraduates (especially at Masters’ level). What there is makes for interesting reading.

Almost all publications refer to the paucity of research and comment on the way in which postgraduates are neglected at policy level in comparison with undergraduates (e.g. Bowman, 2005; Wakeling & Kyriacou, 2010)

Concerns about access to postgraduate study, funding and the low numbers of UK students embarking on Masters and doctoral courses have received attention in several recent reports. These include The Postgraduate Crisis from the 1994 Group, The Higher Education Commission’s Inquiry into postgraduate education, Alan Milburn’s University Challenge report on social mobility, The Sutton Trust’s Postgraduate Premium report  (which considers the increasing need for postgraduate qualifications in the workplace) and the British Academy position statement, Postgraduate Funding: the neglected dimension (which focuses on funding for Arts & Humanities).

A particularly interesting piece of recent research was conducted by Wakeling & Hampden-Thompson on behalf of the Higher Education Academy, Transition to higher degrees across the UK an analysis of national, institutional and individual factors – this covers patterns of progression to PG study across the 4 UK nations and highlights the low rates of participation among UK students (compared with EU students) as well as the under-representation on Masters and doctoral courses of women, students from lower socio-economic groups and some ethnic groups.

The diversity of the student body and its implications has received attention in a number of studies (e.g. Bowman, 2005; Morgan & Jones, 2012). This is a particular issue at Masters level where a large proportion of students are part time and/or returning to education after a period of time away.

Students’ motivations for embarking on Masters’ courses have been considered in several research studies (e.g. Stuart et al, 2008) and have also emerged in the Postgraduate Taught Experience Surveys (PTES) (for doctoral students see the Postgraduate Research Experience Surveys). Findings of the PTES surveys indicate that Masters students are largely positive about their experiences of teaching and learning and that they perceive themselves to have developed a range of useful skills on their courses. Other existing studies have reported that students benefit from smaller seminar groups and greater opportunities for discussion (e.g. Stuart et al, 2008).

However, students have also been found to experience a variety of problems. Taught postgraduates often feel isolated from the university community – in line with their part-time status (Tobbell, O’Donnell & Zammit, 2008). Important skills such as essay writing, critical thinking and technological skills can be problematic as can the discourse of independent learning (Tobbell, O’Donnell & Zammit, 2010; O’Donnell, 2009). The interdisciplinary nature of many courses can, additionally, leave students feeling that they don’t have a departmental home (Tobbell, O’Donnell & Zammit, 2008).

Despite the relative lack of research and the seeming marginalisation of postgraduate concerns in the UK, there is a small and interesting literature highlighting these issues and calling for more research and development in specific areas. The recent policy focus from the 1994 Group, British Academy, Sutton Trust etc. should also help to concentrate some attention on this group of students.

Further reading

Bowman, H. (2005) ‘It’s a year and then that’s me:’ masters’ students’ decision-making, Journal of Further and Higher Education 29 (3), 233-249.

Higher Education Policy Institute & British Library (2010) Postgraduate Education in the UK

Mistry, J., White, F. & Berardi, A. (2009) Skills at Masters Level in Geography Higher Education: Teaching, Learning and Applying. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 33 (1), 123-148.

Taylor, J. (2002) Changes in teaching and learning in the period to 2005: The case of postgraduate higher education in the UK. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 24 (1), 53-73.

Tobbell, J., O’Donnell, V. & Zammit, M. (2010) Exploring transition to postgraduate study: shifting identities in interaction with communities, practice and participation, British Educational Research Journal 36 (2), 262-278.