Beyond a First Degree


There is an increasing demand for young men and women who have been educated beyond first degree level. In part this is due to the needs of both public and private sector employers to have staff who are already ‘up to speed’ and able to be productive from the very start of their contracts. The trend towards contract employment rather than long term careers with single employers also means that it is very much in the interest of the individual to have a solid educational background in order to compete for work, especially as so many more people go to university than what used to be the case.

In marine sciences it can be argued that it makes good sense to choose a first degree in pure science or engineering, and then specialise in marine aspects of the subject at postgraduate level. For example, to work as a physical oceanographer you could choose Physics for your first degree, then take a one year MSc in Oceanography. Gaining a postgraduate qualification enables you to apply for a higher portion of marine science and technology vacancies, and usually leads to entry at a higher pay scales and level of responsibility. Promotion may take place earlier, and you will probably have better long term employment prospects.

There is a very wide choice of postgraduate courses available. Competition for places at some institutes and universities is intense, so you need to look carefully at the options available.


The two main postgraduate qualifications in the UK are:

  • The Master of Science Degree (MSc) – normally a one year intensive, examined, taught course where you will be required to complete a dissertation
  • A Doctorate (PhD) – obtained by working on a research project, and takes three years or more. You have to complete a satisfactory thesis and convince your examiners that you have mastered your subject completely

In addition to the MSc and PhD, there are a number of postgraduate diploma courses available in a wide range of subjects such as Maritime Law, Marine Resource Management, various aspects of marine technology and so on. A careful choice of postgraduate diploma could be helpful in securing a job. Normally these courses do not require a dissertation, and often you will find a number of mature students and overseas students, perhaps sponsored by governments or employers.

Less common are the Master of Research (MRes) and Master of Philosophy (MPhil) degrees. The MRes is a new course designed to teach potential PhD students how to be good researchers, and takes one year. The MPhil is equivalent to an MSc but is based on research rather than a taught course. It is usually only awarded to students who start a PhD then decide to quit after a year or two.

There is also the MEng which, despite its name, is not actually classed as a postgraduate degree. However, with this qualification the new Standards and Routes to Registration (SARTOR) regulations (September 1999) of degree level study before Chartered Engineer (CEng) status can be obtained. In England, the perceived route is for candidates with the necessary A–level results to undertake one of the many four MEng courses that are now available at many universities. Students taking a three year course (including BEng) will normally be required to undertake a further year of study at some stage before they can be considered for chartered status. This further study, referred to as a ‘matching section’, is designed to meet the requirements of both the institution and the individual, and to bring the student to the equivalent of the MEng level.


You will need a good degree classification such as a First or Upper Second Class honours to secure a place on most courses, especially if you are looking for financial support. If a course is not oversubscribed you might be able to obtain a place with a 2.2, but anything less and you’ll find it hard to get a place.


The biggest obstacle for most students to going an MSc course is money. The main funding agencies are the Research Councils such as NERC and EPSRC, and the European Union. Organisations such as the Society for Underwater Technology are also able to fund good candidates, and many universities are able to offer a few funded places. The exact rules change from year to year, so you are well advised to contact funding agencies directly.

At the time of writing, an EPSRC grant covered academic fees and paid about £5500 towards living expenses, with extra payments for students with dependants. NERC grants are similar, and in both cases, they are largely administered via the relevant university department as far as the student is concerned.

If you are unable to secure a grant, career development loans are available from some of the high street banks such as Barclays and National Westminster. A candidate would be wise to have paid off existing student loans first, and should seriously consider whether they can justify the large outlay required for an extra year of study.

The situation is a little easier for students intending to pursue a PhD. Universities will normally fund PhD’s from Research Council grants, or possibly grants from private industry or government (or European Union) departments. A complete list of Research Council awards (Display Notices) is issued to universities in March of each year, and many universities advertise their awards in the national press and scientific or technology magazines. The usual route is to apply directly to the department in response to the Display Notice or other advertisement. Seek advice: discuss with your personal tutor to pros and cons of a PhD course. He or she may well know a great deal about suitable placements and put you in touch with individuals in the relevant department.

The amount of the grant varies from year to year but is a little more than the MSc grant, covering academic fees and a contribution towards living expenses. Since it will take at least three years of research to obtain the PhD you must be prepared to live on a low wage for some time. Many students need extra time to write–up their thesis, so they may need to survive without a full–time job for several months after the nominal end of three years, however, there are undoubted long term benefits in obtaining a PhD which you have to weigh up against the short term losses in income.


After the PhD you may be able to gain a Postdoctoral Fellowship from one of the Research Councils to help you develop your research potential. These are for three years with the potential for extensions of a further two years.

For further information, contact:

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
Polaris House, North Star Avenue, Swindon, Wiltshire SN2 1ET
t 01793 444000     f 01793 444010

The Engineering Council
Woolgate Exchange, 25 Basinghall St, London EC2V 5HA
t +44 (0)20 3206 0500      f +44 (0)20 3206 0501
contact online

Natural Environment Research Council
Polaris House, North Star Avenue, Swindon, Wiltshire SN2 1EU
t 01793 411500     f 01793 411501

The Institute of Marine Engineering, Science & Technology
Manager Professional Affair, 1 Birdcage Walk, Westminster, London SW1H 9JJ
t 020 7382 2600