Q&A: Applying for Postgraduate Programs

Thinking of applying for postgraduate studies, but not sure where to start or what to expect? Three ULAB committee members have shared their own recent experiences and advice. If you have any more questions for Amie, Tom, or Pippa, contact us and they’ll be happy to answer!

If you are currently outside of the UK and considering applying for postgraduate study here, you might like to read about how it went for Amie’s friend Liza, from Germany, who has also answered our Q&A 🙂

Amie




Name: Amie Fairs

Age: 23

University of undergraduate degree:
University of Edinburgh, MA (Hons) Linguistics

University of postgraduate degree:
University of Edinburgh, MSc Psychology of Language

What areas of Linguistics are you interested in?
psycholinguistics, neurolinguistics, developmental linguistics, phonology and phonetics, dialogue.

At what point in your undergrad degree did you decide you wanted to continue your studies with postgraduate work?
I had always wanted to go on to do a PhD, but about halfway through my final year of my undergraduate degree I realised I had no specific idea about what I wanted to do my PhD on! So I chose to do a Master’s degree in Psychology of Language because I knew that I wanted to do a PhD in psycholinguistics eventually, and this is excellent training.

What sort of postgrad work are you/will you be pursuing?

I am on a taught Master’s course, meaning that I take classes for most of the year and then carry out an experimental dissertation and write it up over the summer. After this, I will go on to start a PhD.

Why do you want to pursue postgraduate studies?
As I said above, I always knew I wanted to go on to a PhD and I have always wanted to work in academia and carry out my own research into linguistics and the underlying cognitive architecture of the brain relating to language. Doing an MSc was a natural step for me to get into the academic field.

How did you find out about it?

I did some internet searches, used some websites like findamasters.com, but I also talked to my lecturers at uni and asked them where good places to go were. There are not that many places that do psycholinguistics Master’s degrees in the UK so there weren’t too many places to look at!

Are you sticking with pure linguistics, or are you pursuing something related or totally different?
I now study in the psychology department, and a lot of the people on my course did their undergraduate degree in psychology, so I suppose now I am a little bit more psychology-related. However, I try to make sure all my work is linguistic in nature, as I really feel that in order to investigate things in language you need to have some training in linguistics. All of my courses (except some statistics and research methods courses) are about language, and because of my degree structure I have been able to take courses run by the linguistics department as well as by the psychology department.

How did you decide which program(s) to apply to?

I always wanted to study psycholinguistics, so I knew to look for courses which focused on this. There are a few other courses in the country which do this, but I chose Edinburgh partly because I already live here, and partly because as a graduating student I get a discount on my fees! (That is a tip I recommend – see if your university offers discounts to previous students). For psycholinguistics, Edinburgh is also one of the best and largest departments in the country, so for multiple reasons it seemed like the best place.

How are you financing your further studies?
In my final year of university I had a job, and I saved all my earnings, as well as working over the summer between my undergrad and postgrad. From this, I managed to save up a lot of money to live on through the year of my Masters. I also have two part-time jobs as a Master’s student, which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone because they are a lot of work and it can be very hard to manage your time for study, let alone fit in work as well! I took out a loan to pay for my fees, which I am paying back very slowly. I did apply for a few scholarships but there are not very many of them and the competition is very large.

What support did you get from your university?

Luckily, my university were very supportive, but that might be because I was applying to stay here. Because I was staying within the uni, I didn’t need to submit lots of forms because I was already on the system. However, I didn’t really ask for too much support because I knew what I wanted to do, so I think there is a lot of individual difference in this respect.

Did your decision affect how you approached the rest of your undergrad degree?
A little, yes. When you have another grade to achieve (as most Master’s courses require a 2:1 minimum) I think you tend to make sure you hit it! So I definitely tried a little harder with my final year (I also studied abroad for a year so my final year was the only year which counted towards my degree). I also tried to learn a lot, rather than only remember things to regurgitate in an exam.

Will you/did you have a gap year between your undergraduate and postgraduate studies?

I didn’t, because I knew that I wanted to do a Master’s and luckily I was financially able to go straight from undergrad to postgrad study. I know a few people who took time out to get a job and have some experience of the world before going back into university. I took a gap year between school and university so I felt a little like I had already had my year out!

What was the application process like?
Really simple – you write a small personal statement and submit all your documents, and then it is done.

What do you plan to do afterwards?

I will go on to do a PhD. I have already applied to many places so fingers crossed I get some! And then I will be able to use my Master’s degree 🙂

Do you have any final hints or tips for students who want to go into postgraduate education?

I think that you need to make sure you really want to study the subject you are interested in, because a Master’s degree is very time-consuming and a lot of work. If you don’t like it much before you start, you will hate it halfway through! Talk to the course organisers of the course you want to go into – they are normally really nice and will tell you a lot more about the course that you might want to know, and it also helps you check that it is the sort of place you want to go. Make sure you like the city or town you are going to have to move to – if you don’t, I imagine that wouldn’t be a fun year either! Financially, don’t go into the Master’s worried about not having enough money for the year. You won’t have time to work a lot of hours so it might be best to take some time out, save a little, and then come back – the majority of people on my course have had time out and I am in the minority going into a Master’s straight from undergrad. Get all your forms together before you apply – you will need copies of your transcripts from anywhere you have been (translated into English if they are not) and references. If you can sort this study early it is just a case of adding them to multiple applications. If you want to do a PhD, try to think a bit earlier than halfway through your Master’s about your topic (which is what I did) – there is not enough time to spend hours and hours on applications while you are trying to study! And above all, be excited! Being a postgrad student is quite different to being an undergrad student, and it’s great fun – as long as you want to do the Master’s, you are sure to have a fantastic time 😀

Tom




Name: Tom Rhodes

Age: 23

University of undergraduate degree:
Newcastle University

University of postgraduate degree:
UCL

What areas of Linguistics are you interested in?
Neurolinguistics, philosophy of language/mind, computational linguistics, evolution of language, syntactic theory

At what point in your undergrad degree did you decide you wanted to continue your studies with postgraduate work?
I pretty much knew I wanted to pursue postgrad study during my second year syntactic theory module. At the time, I remember thinking “this is what I want to do for the rest of my life”. At the time, I didn’t really know what cognitive neuroscience was, so I thought syntax was my thing. Although I do love syntax (and will pursue it for fun), I now know that my true calling is in cognitive neuroscience – something I realised mid-way through my third year.

What sort of postgrad work are you/will you be pursuing?

1 year, full-time MSc at UCL on their ‘Cognitive and Decision Sciences’ course

Why do you want to pursue postgraduate studies?
I’m a classic over-thinker. I am fascinated by the universe and, resultantly, I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than dedicate my life to the pursuit of knowledge. I loved my Linguistics undergrad degree at Newcastle, and I’m ready to move onto looking at language – and other cognitive domains – from a more bottom-up, neuroscientific perspective.

How did you find out about it?

Turns out, Google is your best friend with this sort of thing. I talked to some of my academic tutors at Newcastle, and they persuaded me to look elsewhere for postgrad studies in order to discover academic perspectives, and work with a different group of researchers to broaden my knowledge.

Once I knew I was leaving my undergrad uni, I searched for the best centres for neuroscience in the UK, and London came out top. A few clicks later and I was on UCL’s site, and moments later I had discovered the ‘Cognitive and Decision Sciences’ course. I applied.

Are you sticking with pure linguistics, or are you pursuing something related or totally different?
‘Cognitive and Decision Sciences’ isn’t a linguistics course. In fact, the programme is actually led by the Psychology department, and represents a range of academic disciplines: neuroscience, cognitive science, mathematics, computer science, linguistics and philosophy.

The reason I chose this course is because it allows me to build onto my linguistics knowledge, broadening my researcher’s toolkit, so to speak, and providing me with a greater understanding of how the brain implements the mind. The course does have space for 2 optional modules – one of the reasons I chose it over the straight neuroscience course – so I will fill those with syntax and philosophy of mind modules.

How did you decide which program(s) to apply to?

Having written my dissertation on the neurodynamical implementation of language, and having studied philosophy of mind and computational linguistics all in my third and final undergraduate year, I realised that my passion lies mostly in the area of cognitive neuroscience, and theoretical neuroscience. All I had to do then was Google for the best centres for neuroscience. UCL comes out top, and with the excellent diversity of modules, and the ability to select optional modules, ‘Cognitive and Decision Sciences’ was the one for me.

How are you financing your further studies?
Admittedly, UCL doesn’t have the cheapest fees, and London is most certainly not the cheapest city to live in in the world. Additionally, I am not the richest student in the world, and my family doesn’t have the money to support me, meaning I’ve had to really work hard to ensure I’ll have enough cash to cover my fees and living costs.

After I graduated, I started on my year off, working full-time and living at home with my mum to save money. I aim to save £6,0000 this way. I will then apply for a full Career Development Loan worth £10,000, and will have to get a part-time job while I study. Overall, 1 year of living in London and my fees will likely cost me around £22,000. Madness.

That’s why if you want to do a postgrad, you’d better love it.

What support did you get from your university?

My university tutors were extremely supportive towards me throughout my degree, and throughout my application process for my MSc. They advised me to move away from Newcastle and to push myself. They also told me to believe in my abilities.

I remember sitting in the offices of a few of my lecturers, asking questions about various topics I find interesting and discussing a number of interesting problems in linguistics, neuroscience and philosophy of mind, and it’s that stimulating discussion which probably made me realise I should pursue a career in research.

Furthermore, when I was applying for the course and for various funding opportunities, my tutors were quick to provide flattering references.

Did your decision affect how you approached the rest of your undergrad degree?
Absolutely – once I knew I wanted to do a postgrad degree, I realised I needed a First. That really forced me to put my all into every piece of work, into every discussion, and every opportunity.

Will you/did you have a gap year between your undergraduate and postgraduate studies?

I am currently on my gap year, working full-time and living back at home to save money. Life’s pretty long. If I hadn’t had a gap year to save money, I’d have had to go to a less-ideal university, so I’d rather wait a little bit longer for the right opportunity.

What was the application process like?
Third year was already difficult, so adding pressure in the form of having to apply for an MSc was not ideal. Having to make these significant, potentially life-defining decisions at the time when I was writing a dissertation and revising for exams was a challenge. Having said that, the UCL application form was super simple, and my application went through in less than a month.

What do you plan to do afterwards?

Ultimately, I want to be a researcher and academic in the field of cognitive neuroscience. That means a PhD and a lot of financial turmoil and long nights. Thankfully, I’m the sort of person who enjoys the pressure, and devoting my life to a PhD for 3 years sounds like my idea of heaven. Strange? Indeed.

Additionally, I have a pretty large chip on my shoulder about linguistics and where it fits in the larger picture. I’m in the boat that says linguistics should be absorbed into a broader field called cognitive science, and although there are a small number of cognitive science undergraduate degrees in the UK, I’d love to establish my own.

Do you have any final hints or tips for students who want to go into postgraduate education?

If you have a passion for linguistics, don’t stop at undergrad level. Allow your interests to take you down the rabbit hole, and see where it takes you. Start planning for your postgraduate studies early. Funding opportunities pop up as soon as the November/December the year before enrolment, so get accepted onto your course before that and at least you stand a chance of getting some cash.

Finally, I’d say that if you’re like me and you don’t have a lot of money, and you don’t come from a background where your family can help you get through your MA/MSc, don’t let it phase you too much. Think about it this way: A PhD isn’t something that you can just pay for without funding, so if you’re in a bunch of debt after your MA/MSc, your PhD funding can help you pay it off. If you don’t get PhD funding, you’ll get a job, and you’ll pay off the debt that way. Either way, you’re covered financially, so you just have to be confident and take on the debt. The Career Development Loan is a fantastic instrument, so take advantage of it.

Pippa




Name: Pippa Shoemark

Age: 23

University of undergraduate degree:
University of Edinburgh

University of postgraduate degree:
University of Edinburgh

What areas of Linguistics are you interested in?
Computational Linguistics, Psycholinguistics, Developmental Linguistics, Phonetics & Phonology.

At what point in your undergrad degree did you decide you wanted to continue your studies with postgraduate work?
I began to consider it in second year, but hadn’t totally made up my mind until fourth year.

What sort of postgrad work are you/will you be pursuing?

I’ll be using methodological tools from the interdisciplinary field of Network Science to analyse the organisation of phonological word forms in the mental lexicon, and how that influences the development of children’s and second language learners’ vocabularies.

Two of the programs I have applied to are actually based in the School of Informatics, while one is a more ‘traditional’ Linguistics program (but I will essentially be able to do the same research project regardless of which I choose).

Why do you want to pursue postgraduate studies?
Because I really enjoy studying language and cognition, and there are so many questions left to explore. Not only will postgraduate studies allow me to further my own skills and knowledge, I’ll have the opportunity to contribute new insights to the field. Also, the experience I gain in programming, stats, probabilistic modeling, and research methods will (hopefully) improve my future career prospects.

How did you find out about it?

I’ve applied to three different post grad programs at Edinburgh, all of which I initially found out about through talking to members of faculty.

At the beginning of my third year I told my Director of Studies (≈ Personal Tutor) that I was potentially interested in postgraduate studies, and he gave me some advice about where to look and who else to talk to. I arranged a meeting with the Program Director of an MSc at Edinburgh I thought I might be interested in, and had a chat with him about what the program involved and potential funding sources. He also gave me some useful info and advice about similar programs offered by other departments and universities.

I also let my undergraduate dissertation supervisor know that I was interested in pursuing postgraduate studies, and after I’d graduated he kept in touch about potential projects and funding sources he thought I might be interested in.

Once I had developed a clear idea of the research topic I wanted to pursue, I contacted another faculty member at Edinburgh to ask if she would be interested in co-supervising, and she encouraged me to apply to another, brand-new program that I hadn’t previously been aware of.

Are you sticking with pure linguistics, or are you pursuing something related or totally different?
I’ll be using methodological tools from the interdisciplinary field of Network Science to analyse the organisation of phonological word forms in the mental lexicon, and how that influences the development of children’s and second language learners’ vocabularies.

Two of the programs I have applied to are actually based in the School of Informatics, while one is a more ‘traditional’ Linguistics program (but I will essentially be able to do the same research project regardless of which I choose).

How did you decide which program(s) to apply to?

I knew I wanted to apply to Edinburgh because 1) I absolutely love living there, 2) it’s a top ranked institution for both teaching and research in linguistics, and 3) there are good links between the psychology, language sciences, and informatics departments.

The most important consideration for me when choosing which programs to apply to was the funding sources available. The reason I have applied to three different programs at Edinburgh is to maximise my chances of obtaining some funding, as different programs based in different departments are eligible for different scholarships.

If I’m successful in securing funding for more than one program, I will base my decision on the choice of courses in the MSc year, their relevance to my research and their usefulness for future career prospects.

How are you financing your further studies?
I’ve applied for scholarships from research councils. There’s not a lot of funding out there for Masters programs in the UK, but as I’m sure I definitely want to go on to do a PhD, I’ve been able to apply for what are known as “1+3” scholarships, where you secure funding for a Masters program and a PhD all in one go. These tend to be really competitive, but they do cover the full cost of tuition fees, as well as a stipend for your living expenses over the whole 4 years.

What support did you get from your university?

Loads – before applying I approached two faculty members to ask if they’d be interested in supervising my proposed project, and as well as helping me to identify programs and funding sources to apply for, they were really supportive with the whole application process – offering interview advice, giving me constructive feedback on my research proposals, and going to a lot of effort to unearth answers to my questions about complicated funding applications.

Did your decision affect how you approached the rest of your undergrad degree?
Yes, for sure: I chose some of the more intense honours courses like statistics & experimental design, which I knew would be important for the sort of research I’d like to do, rather than giving myself an easier ride and choosing only the more ‘fun’-sounding options with lighter workloads. I volunteered to participate in lots of experiments, and assisted a researcher with some data analysis to gain a bit of insight into the research process. I went to ULAB, first just as an attendee to see other people’s talks and experience a national conference, and the following year I submitted an abstract and presented my dissertation. Being able to say I’d attended and presented at a national conference was really useful when it came to post grad applications!

Will you/did you have a gap year between your undergraduate and postgraduate studies?

Yes. Most of the deadlines for funding applications were around November-January, and at that point in fourth year I didn’t quite feel ready to write a decent research proposal (I hadn’t fully figured out what topic I wanted to focus on yet, was really busy with my dissertation, and had no idea how to structure a proposal anyway) – so I decided it would be best to take a year out and apply the following year, when I could take a bit more time over it.

I’m really glad I made that decision, as straight after finishing my undergraduate degree I did a summer research internship, which helped me to make up my mind that I definitely wanted to keep doing academic research, and gave me some valuable experience which has definitely strengthened my applications. Having been working full time since then, I’m still just as driven to get stuck back into research, so I’m confident I’m doing it for the right reasons.

What was the application process like?
It was different for each program I applied to. For all of them I had to submit a personal statement about why I’d chosen that particular program and what I thought I could bring to it, which was quite straightforward. For two of them I also had to submit a research proposal – at first this was quite daunting because, having never written a research proposal before, I had no idea how to structure it or how detailed it needed to be. However, there were useful guidelines available on the prospective postgraduate pages of the university website, and my potential supervisors were happy to offer some feedback on my drafts.

For one program, I had to make separate applications for admission (to the university) and for funding (from the ESRC). For another, I just had to apply to the university, as funding had already been allocated for that specific program by the EPSRC.

The application process for funding from ESRC was really quite complicated, and it took a fair bit of digging to figure out which programs were eligible, how to register my interest, what the timescales for the different stages were, and so on. I had to submit a separate, more in depth proposal than the one I submitted to the university, as well as different letters of recommendation and a statement of support from a potential supervisor.

For the program that was funded by EPSRC, I was invited for a skype interview. There was a panel of three interviewers, and I had to prepare an audiovisual presentation… but it seems it went okay despite my nerves, as they’ve just made me a formal offer! 😀

What do you plan to do afterwards?

Either stay in academia or go into research and development in industry, depending on what opportunities are available in four years time, and which aspects of the program I enjoy the most and find most interesting. I’ve tried to apply for programs that will prepare me well for either route, combining both taught courses and independent research.

Do you have any final hints or tips for students who want to go into postgraduate education?

My main piece of advice would be just to talk to people! Tell your lecturers, tutors, dissertation supervisor, or anyone who’ll listen, that you’re thinking about postgraduate studies (even if you’re not completely sure yet or only just beginning to consider it), and they’ll be more than willing to offer some guidance and support!

Liza

Name: Liza

What areas of Linguistics are you interested in?

  • in general: cognitive models of language processing and production as a basis for possible disturbances in language disorders
  • link between memory and language or neurology and language
  • language dysfunctions in several neurodegenerative disorders
  • interface between clinical neuropsychology/neuroscience and psycholinguistics
  • language and pragmatic disorders, for example in frontotemporal dementia patients or schizophrenia
At what point in your undergrad degree did you decide you wanted to continue your studies with postgraduate work?
I knew it from the beginning, I think…

What sort of postgrad work are you/will you be pursuing?

Clinical neuropsychology and clinical research in neuropsychology and language

How did you find out about it?
Simply internet research: google “neuropsychology and language, language and psychology, psycholinguistic,…” and then found the University of Edinburgh and this program and considered it as perfectly matching my interests…now I am here 🙂 and I am more than happy about it.

Are you sticking with pure linguistics, or are you pursuing something related or totally different?

Totally different, I am more on the (neuro)psychological side, but some of my courses contain linguistically related content (sentence comprehension, LBBC,…)

How are you financing your further studies?
Private funding (support from my parents), inheritage of my grandmother…

Did you get any support from your university?

Do you mean financially? No….

Did your decision affect how you approached the rest of your undergrad degree?
No, I decided to come to Edinburgh in my very last semester, very spontaneously…

Will you/did you have a gap year between your undergraduate and postgraduate studies?

No, just one gap year right after high school…

What was the application process like?
Quite straightforward, first I emailed the program director Holly and she was really friendly and she really encouraged me to do the application process, then I had to write the motivation letter and the personal statement as required, I asked some friends who are better in English than me to proofread it and I also asked a friend who is studying in the neuroscience field to proofread….Furthermore, I asked two nice professors from my previous Uni to write me recommendation letters. It worked out really well, 3 days after submitting the last document I received a conditional offer

I had problems with my English certificate, though, because I decided to go to UK really spontaneously and my English was not the best. My score was almost as high as required, but only almost (!) Luckily, I was accepted in the end, but I think that is really an exception Holly made for me….

Do you have any final hints or tips for students who want to go into postgraduate education?

If they come from a non-english-speaking country: care about their English requirements early enough…I would have avoided so much stress, I was really freaking out due to that, because I was uncertain about my offer until one week before the program would start 🙂