Could an online postgraduate course be right for you?

Gavan Naden
For working parents, online courses can be the only way to study as a postgraduate. Photograph: MoMo Productions/Getty Images

Full-time, part-time, online, or a mix of all three – the variety of postgraduate study options can be bewildering. This wide choice, however, does give scope to suit prospective students’ differing circumstances and lifestyles.

While traditional campus-based courses remain the most popular, there is an increasing interest in online study, with its flexibility and easy access. Edinburgh University’s head of submissions, Iain Sutherland, says that online courses are proving particularly attractive to those students who may have family and work commitments.

As with most universities, he says, advice is available on Edinburgh’s website: “We have a postgraduate recruitment team to help and run postgraduate open days, along with online sessions to give people an overview of what the courses involve.”

Manchester University’s head of distance learning operations, Ian Hutt, says that online postgraduate courses take between two and a half to five years to complete. “Each module runs over 10 weeks and we like people to commit about 15 hours a week to study. We have study advisers to help people schedule their time.”

And if a course dovetails with what they’ve done before, he says, “it can work well – especially as many come with experience and renewed vigour from previous learning”.

Matt Broadway-Horner preferred the campus option and, after searching for a full-time postgraduate course that would accredit him as a psychotherapist, enrolled at Goldsmiths, University of London. “The full-time course required one full day per week of teaching and supervision in a class, plus one clinical morning. It made my week rather tight, but that kept me focused on getting the assignments done on time.”

It’s proved very beneficial as Broadway-Horner recently returned to Goldsmiths in a teaching and scholarly position, and has authored books and research on the LGBT experience, particularly sexual and mental health, and the ageing process.

Alternatively, part-time study in class, while demanding, allows students to keep working while they study. Mother of two girls, Jan Noble, opted for this route, so she could maintain her job, but also enjoy interaction with other students.

“I was in my mid-40s and working as a nurse manager in a hospice. I went into King’s College London to do a part-time master’s in advanced nursing practice in palliative care,” she says. “I was very privileged, as funding was arranged by my employer. However, if I left within two years after completion, I would have had to pay a percentage back.

“It was quite an effort – while my friends were going out, I stayed in and studied for three years. But it’s made a huge difference to my life and career.”

Why study online?

  • Online courses provide opportunities to learn and engage with people from different backgrounds and experiences.
  • You can study anywhere in the world, provided you have access to the internet and a computer.
  • Consider testing the waters beforehand by doing a free Mooc (massive open online course). Providers include Coursera, and FutureLearn.
  • Online postgraduate degrees should provide the same standard of teaching as a “campus” degree.
  • Use the Sconul scheme that grants access to a range of institutional libraries.
  • If you have a family, or are working, self-discipline is essential, so set easy, manageable goals.
  • Keep notes, otherwise you’ll find yourself continually returning to the online platform.
  • Many courses can be extended over several years if students require extra time to complete the postgraduate course.
  • Consider asking your employer to finance the course, as it may well benefit them as well as you.