postgrad reading a book outside the Natural History Museum.
postgrad reading a book outside the Natural History Museum.

Postgraduate Taught Skills

What are the differences between Master's and undergraduate study?

At Master’s level the subject content you will be studying will be more specialised and focused than at undergraduate level. You’ll be expected to engage more deeply and critically with the subject matter, often working with the latest research findings in your discipline. Studying at Master’s level can feel like a significant step-up from undergraduate studies, especially if you are studying an entirely new subject area and/or if you are returning to study after a long break.

Lightbulb icon Top tip: Make sure you understand what is expected of you by making sure you understand the learning outcomes and assessment criteria at the beginning of the course and returning to them regularly.

Lightbulb icon Top tip: If you are changing disciplines or returning to academic study long after completing your undergraduate degree, getting to grips with referencing styles and specific terminology, academic cultures and programme and disciplinary expectations can be challenging! It is important to seek guidance from your Department/Faculty and tutors early on in your studies.

Skills development at Master's level

During your Master’s studies you will build upon the academic skills you developed as an undergraduate and will develop skills in new areas as well. As a Master’s student, tutors will expect you to think independently, to problem solve, to find your own learning materials, to devise your own research plans, to develop well-structured arguments and to organise your time effectively.

The short length of most Master’s programmes means they are often a demanding introduction to postgraduate study. Dedicating time to identifying which academic skills you need to develop will help to ensure you get the most out of your Master’s programme—here are some common academic skills that postgraduate taught students usually benefit from developing further:

  • Managing extensive reading lists
  • Identifying key points in academic texts
  • Writing critical introductions/conclusions/methodologies/literature reviews 
  • Organising a longer research project, e.g. a dissertation
  • Using new data analysis software
  • Developing new lab or fieldwork skills

Lightbulb icon Top tip: Make sure you take advantage of the opportunity to develop a skills development plan with your tutor or College advisor by thinking through which skills you’d like to develop. Where possible, talk to students who have already completed your Master’s course and investigate additional discipline-specific skills training opportunities offered by your Division/Department/Faculty, as well as finding out about support from the Bodleian Library.

Lightbulb icon Top tip: The University’s IT services also provide a range of free training and software.

The following sections provide some general skills development guidance to help you make the most of your Master’s studies at Oxford.

Studying at Master's level

Master’s programmes require you to engage more critically with a broader range of materials than undergraduate programmes. You will be expected to read more widely, to think about concepts and methods more deeply and more critically, and to make connections across your disciplinary field or between fields, particularly if you are studying an interdisciplinary programme. In some cases, for example, if you are starting to study a new discipline, you will also be ‘learning’ the subject material, but in most cases you will be working towards becoming an independent researcher, developing your individual research interests, following up on things that are new to you or you’re not sure about, and, importantly, finding your own ‘academic voice’.

Ways you can find your ‘academic voice’ include:

  • Approaching a question from a variety of different perspectives and accepting the ambiguity of a topic being interpreted in multiple ways
  • Questioning existing interpretations and approaches 
  • Comparing and contrasting a wide range of sources to develop your own arguments and interpretations of the material you’ve read 
  • Creatively presenting evidence to support your claims
  • Devising your own questions about a topic and then reading and thinking independently to find the answers
  • Keeping accurate records of what you have read, highlighting questions as they arise.

Working with your peers on your Master’s course can be an excellent way to support your independent learning. For example:

  • Material will often be covered at a fast pace and preparing for or reflecting upon seminars with your peers can help you to get the most out of your classes
  • Group work provides you with an opportunity to learn from others—your peers will bring different knowledge, experience and perspectives, all of which can increase the breadth and depth of your understanding
  • Working as part of a group creates opportunities for you to develop your communication and team-working skills.

Making the most of seminars/classes

Seminars/classes play a key role in introducing you to the academic community—a group of students and academics creating, sharing, and applying knowledge. You should make sure that you have completed any required preparatory work and reflected upon the readings or tasks so that you are ready to contribute to the discussion with your tutor and peers during the seminar/class.

Lightbulb icon Top tip: You will get the most out of your Master’s seminars and classes when:

  • You share your opinions and responses to the assigned material and engage in discussion and debate with your classmates and tutors 
  • You collaboratively develop new ideas or ways of looking at things 
  • You actively engage, ask for clarification, ask questions, make connections and test ideas
  • You listen carefully to the opinions/perspectives of others
  • You make effective notes in each seminar/class
  • This webpage provides guidance on effective note-taking.

Managing your time at Master's level

Working independently involves managing your time to ensure you can complete all the necessary tasks during your course. It’s important to get the balance right between weekly seminar work, assessments and longer research projects, making sure that you don’t spend too long on a 2000-word seminar essay, for example, so that you inadvertently mis-manage your time on a 12,000 word dissertation in the process.

It’s also important not to let things build up, as the short length of a Master’s course means that it can be hard to get back on top of things if you fall behind.

Lightbulb icon Top tips to manage your time effectively during your Master’s:

  • Be proactive, and if you experience problems managing your academic workload, always talk to your tutors to seek their advice
  • Talk to your tutors and course coordinator to clarify exactly what the expectations are for the different elements of your Master’s course
  • Use a diary to help you plan ahead to help ensure that you don’t miss any deadlines
  • Estimate how long it will take you to complete each task and work backwards from the deadline to make sure you have enough time—remember to put in time for the longer dissertation throughout the year too so that you are not trying to do all the research and writing right at the end
  • Remember that juggling a number of different deadlines, keeping on top of class work, and getting through assigned readings will be challenging at times—it’s ok to change your goals or to adjust your schedule
  • It’s important to be realistic about what you can achieve
  • The time management page has some practical guidance on how to organise your study time effectively.

Lightbulb icon Top tips for Approaching your Masters

  • Think about each assignment as an opportunity to develop your academic skills, not as something that has to be perfect
  • Remember that you won’t always be able to read everything on a reading list – that is ok – learning how to read selectively is one of the key academic skills you’ll be developing during your Master’s at Oxford.

Part-time students face the added challenge of balancing academic study with other commitments and thus time management can be a particular challenge. Even if you are doing a part-time programme there will be periods of intensive activity when you have to juggle a number of demands made on your time. Remember to talk to your tutors if you need advice on managing your workload.

Reading at Master's level

You will find that you have to read significantly more at postgraduate level than at undergraduate level, getting into both greater depth and breadth with what you are reading. This means you need to develop and/or enhance your effective reading skills. Below are some suggestions to help you:

Start by considering what you hope to gain from your reading. For example:

  • Are you reading to be introduced to a topic or are you looking for something more in-depth? 
  • Do you need to situate something you already know into a wider disciplinary context? 
  • Do you want to focus on the particular approach, the evidence used or the theoretical framework used in the reading materials?

Try not to be deterred if you don’t understand something you’ve read at first. Your understanding will develop over the course of your Master’s studies and remember that your tutors are there to help.

Lightbulb icon Top tips to support your reading at Master’s level:

  • For science disciplines it may be helpful to scan papers by reading the abstract and discussion sections first; for humanities and social sciences subjects, it can be helpful to first to scan the introduction and conclusion of texts
  • Be selective and always keep your essay or research questions in mind as you read
  • Read broadly to help develop a breadth of understanding:
    1. Monographs (single-authored specialist scholarly books)
    2. Edited collections
    3. Textbooks (especially as a starting point)
    4. Academic journal articles
    5. Professional journal articles
    6. Book reviews

Don’t be afraid to put your reading down if something isn’t relevant or helpful—you can always come back to it later.

Lightbulb icon Top tip: You will find that you need to find additional readings, beyond what tutors have assigned, more often than you did at undergraduate level. Following references in the assigned readings can be a good strategy for delving more deeply into a topic, as can browsing the physical shelves around a particular call number in the Bodleian Libraries or browsing through the more focused academic journals online. The Bodleian Libraries provide a wide range of guidance to support your Master’s research.

Reading critically at Master's level

Master’s programmes expect you to critically engage with literature, sources, data, methodologies etc. and to assess their validity and value. This requires you to do more than just remember or understand what you have read, but also to use this knowledge to analyse, evaluate, apply and create. This is particularly relevant when you are writing your dissertation.

In part, critical engagement comes from reading more broadly across a subject and delving more deeply into specific areas than you would be expected to do at undergraduate level so that you can reflect on what you’re reading in a variety of ways.

Here are some practical ways to read more critically for postgraduate level study:

  • Approach: 
    1. How has the topic been approached in the paper/text? 
    2. What questions have been asked at the beginning? 
    3. What assumptions inform those questions? 
    4. Why has this approach been taken?
  • Methodology: 
    1. What evidence is used to support the claims? 
    2. How has that evidence been generated? 
    3. Has contradictory evidence been ignored?
  • Alternatives: 
    1. How else could the question have been approached?
    2. What other sorts of evidence could have been used? 
    3. What conclusions might those with a different perspective draw?
  • Context: 
    1. How does this study fit into the broader literature on the topic? 
    2. Is what you have read part of a debate? 
    3. Is what you have read breaking new ground with new material, approaches, data etc.?

Bearing the above questions in mind while you read can help you read actively and critically instead of passively, enabling you to engage with the material instead of just providing a summary.

These are also the sorts of questions you need to consider when designing your own research project so that you can situate your research within the broader field of your discipline, justify your work and ensure that any conclusions you draw are well-evidenced and reasoned.

Writing at Master's level

Writing at Master’s level requires you to effectively communicate ideas that are going to be more complex, more nuanced and more theoretically informed than they were at undergraduate level. This doesn’t mean that you need to write more complicated longer sentences, but rather that you need to write clearly and precisely.

Lightbulb icon Top tips for enhancing your academic writing skills:

  • Write shorter sentences - these are easier to read and can make your writing clearer
  • Write shorter paragraphs - this provides you with more opportunities to return to the question and to clarify how what you’re saying connects to your developing argument (this is called ‘signposting’)
  • Because there is rarely only one answer or solution to a question or problem use ‘hedging language’ to make it clear there are possibly alternative conclusions 
    1. For example use ‘suggests’ instead of ‘proves’ or add in words like ‘sometimes’ or ‘likely’ instead of more definite and fixed works
    2. Be clear about the context in which your claim applies by clarifying which particular experiment set up or specific group of people in a specific time and place your argument relates to
  • Only use technical or discipline-specific language because it succinctly articulates a concept, not because it ‘sounds academic’
  • Explicitly relate each point you make back to the question/argument that you have been asked to address
  • Use descriptive writing (facts, figures, descriptions, summary of events) sparingly and only as evidence for your argument 
  • Evaluate the strengths and limitations of your evidence
  • Carry on reading while you’re writing 
  • Explicitly draw on the work of other scholars in the field, not just by referencing them, but by commenting on how their research illuminates a particular point or connects to your argument 
    1. For example, pointing out the limitations of a study you have read demonstrates that you are thinking critically
  • Build in time to set your work aside and then return to it after a break (ideally at least 24 hours) to revise.

A key way to develop your academic witing is to actively engage with the feedback you receive from your tutors. Most programmes will include opportunities for feedback on your written work and you should also approach seminars and tutorials/supervision meetings as opportunities for additional verbal feedback.

In order to get the most out of feedback opportunities during your Master’s, it’s important for you to be proactive. For example:

  • Identify areas you want to work on and prepare questions to ask your tutor before your seminars/classes/supervision meetings
  • Take notes so that you can apply the feedback at a later date 
  • Write down all of your ideas, even if they’re not yet fully developed, and discuss them with your peers and tutors
  • Always ask for further clarification if you’re not sure what your tutor means in their feedback.

Dissertations at Master's level

Planning your dissertation requires that you have a good grasp of the disciplinary field so that you can identify a viable research question, situate it within the existing literature, and explain why and how it can make a valid academic contribution to the field.

Lightbulb icon Top tip: Reading other Master’s dissertations can give you a good sense of what is expected and how ambitious you can be.

You will be supported by your supervisor as you plan your dissertation, but here are some questions for you to consider early on:

  • How long does your dissertation need to be? The word limit will influence the structure and scope of your project
  • How focused should your dissertation be? Master’s students often start off with a far too broad approach to the question
  • What are the key deadlines? In addition to the final submission deadline, you and your supervisor should agree interim deadlines for chapters/sections
  • How will you manage your research notes? You might want to try using note-taking software or you might be happy with sticking to something familiar like taking notes by hand or in Word. This webpage provides some note-taking guidance
  • How will you manage your references? Again, referencing software can be very helpful to help you keep on top of your bibliography. The Bodleian Libraries provide iSkills training on a variety of subjects including reference software
  • How will you gather your data? The bulk of your time will be spent gathering your data from the lab, from an archive, or on fieldwork and the scheduling of this will need to take into consideration other commitments you may have. It’s also important to allow for delays so that you have plenty of time should your research not go to plan
  • What tools will you use to help you manage your time? Adding deadlines, experiments, fieldtrips etc. into a calendar is essential, and you might also want to think about using a Gantt-chart style planning tool that breaks down a project into its composite parts, estimates how long each will take, and then maps each task as a time bar on to a chart to help you visualise your time and tasks and thus helps you plan effectively.

Lightbulb icon Top tip: Thinking about gaps in the literature, different theoretical or methodological approaches, or the motivations underpinning a study can help you devise a research question.

Lightbulb icon Top tip: Wherever possible, read examples of previous year’s Master’s dissertations. Not only will this give you an idea of how to structure your dissertation, it can also be helpful to see how others have engaged with the literature and how they have framed their research in the disciplinary context.

Good academic practice

Because a Master’s programme is about you entering into an academic community, it is essential that you continue to apply good academic practices in all aspects of your studies. This means you need to pay careful attention to detail and to always be rigorous in your referencing.

Lightbulb icon Top tips for referencing are:

  • Full and correct referencing is an essential part of academic practice and should be practised when you take notes as well as when you submit written work for assessment
  • Get into the practice of writing down the full citation and page numbers for all your notes 
  • Make sure you always clearly indicate where you have directly quoted from a source by using quotation marks
  • This page provides more information on plagiarism.

Remember that inadvertent plagiarism that results from inaccurate note-taking is still an academic offence.

Next steps after your Master's

While you are studying, you will be networking, seeking advice, and making applications for further studies, internships, volunteering, or your next job/enterprise/project. If you are planning to stay in academia you should seek advice early on from your tutors about conferences, funding, next projects, and publishing opportunities.

If you are planning to stay in academia you should seek advice from your tutors about conferences, funding, next projects, and publishing opportunities.

If you are planning on leaving academia there are extensive resources available at the Oxford University Careers Service as well as from your peers and tutors. There are also additional resources available to you through the University’s alumni network.

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