Strength in diversity
Master’s degree studies refine knowledge and skills that have been previously acquired. Most of the time this is about narrowing down an existing body of knowledge, and sometimes about expanding it. However, many people go to graduate school to gain proficiency in a different field from the one explored in the Bachelor’s programme, albeit a closely related one.
So, how do Master’s programmes accommodate this spectrum of learning and career directions?
A wedding of theory and practice
While it is true that Bachelor’s programmes also combine theoretical and practical education, when it comes to the Master’s curriculum, practice is much more prevalent. There are two main reasons for this.
Because of the very nature of the degree, practice is emphasised to gain more depth in existing skills and body of knowledge. That kind of specialisation can only be achieved with more practice, since the theoretical background is by definition only a broad framework about the way specific skills are practised.
The same applies in cases where the Master’s degree is aimed at changing career path. The presumption here is that the practical skills are either not established in the student beforehand and must be learned from the ground up, or that they are only known in theory.
Here is what alumna Venessa Harmon from the University of Colorado (US) has to say on the subject:
“The Criminal Justice Master’s programme has allowed me to explore and learn in a completely different field from my undergrad. The wide variety of classes and knowledgeable faculty makes studying in a new discipline interesting, informative, challenging and rewarding.”
The second reason for the prevalent role of practice in the Master’s programme is its duration. Since Master’s degrees are about half or even a quarter the length of a full-time Bachelor’s programme, there is a very understandable need for practice to be carried out as often as possible during the much more limited amount of time.
Theory also plays an important role, but in a different way to the Bachelor’s degree. In tune with its premise, the Master’s too focuses on specialisation. Here’s an example. In a Bachelor’s degree in Marketing, theoretical teaching encompasses large swathes of knowledge that cover the entirety of the subject – the 4 P’s model, marketing strategy, sales, the numerous elements of marketing communications, and even accounting. A Master’s degree will typically pick one of those subfields and tackle the theoretical groundwork of that particular subject. In this example, a Master’s degree might focus heavily or entirely on sales, a particular sphere of communications (advertising, digital marketing, PR, etc.), or some other specific part of marketing.
Of course, this rule of thumb has exceptions. There are plenty of Master’s degrees with no specialisation in the title of the programme. Those are typically the Master of Science degrees (MSc), which are more theoretical, aimed at academia or at fields that are more scientific in nature. These types of Master’s programmes are what we referred to in the introduction as ones that are aimed at expanding an existing body of knowledge.
Elective courses, guest lectures and study trips
The structure of the Master’s degree curriculum mirrors that of the Bachelor’s. Lectures form specific courses, and courses are clustered into semesters. However, the similarities end there. Contrary to the Bachelor’s degree’s fixed curriculum, the Master’s degree relies heavily on elective courses. The elective courses system brings many advantages. It is therefore highly recommended to have at least a general career direction in mind when choosing electives – and even better, a clear one. This will help immensely in making the best of a Master’s degree.
Here’s a quick example. The University of Westminster (UK) offers two very different electives in their acclaimed Public Relations Master’s programme: Corporate Communications and Reputation Management on one hand, and Fashion Promotion and PR on the other. A student’s best Master’s experience will depend on whether there is a distinct interest in one of these fields, or a desire to work in either one upon entry into the labour market.
Guest lectures are another high point of the Master’s degree. These differ from visiting lectures, which are given by members of another university’s faculty. In guest lectures, experts from the professional world freely provide their know-how to students by describing compelling case studies about recognisable companies and institutions and showing how the content taught in Master’s courses ties into real-world practice. This knowledge is invaluable. It motivates students by confirming the validity of the Master’s curriculum, but it also serves as a learning tool, since it helps them understand the practical implications of what they are studying in class.
“I benefitted from the talks given by several guest speakers and development practitioners – their insights and personal stories of challenges and growth have contributed more depth to my learning experience”, says Philippines-born Nancy Samonte, an MSc in Communication for Innovation and Development graduate from the University of Reading (UK).
Finally, most well-established universities will organise study trips. The class will travel to a company or institution to see and hear for themselves how professionals apply the types of skills taught in Master’s courses to a paying job. Examples of this may include the accounting departments of companies (when studying Accounting), the European Parliament or Commission (when studying EU-related subjects), or a car factory (Engineering or IT studies).
Diversity in everything
The international Master’s degree’s best teaching resource is the class itself. Smaller and tighter than a Bachelor’s cohort, the Master’s class is composed of dedicated individuals with very diverse backgrounds. Some of them will have already been part of the labour market, others will come straight out of college. Some will be citizens of the country where the university is located, others will have travelled half the world to study right there and then. But what is truly unique to the international Master’s degree is the academic background of its participants. This ties into the idea of specialisation and career change. A student with a Bachelor’s degree in Information Technologies could easily meet another with a finance background in a Master’s programme in Business and Entrepreneurship. The type of knowledge that the two peers can share between them and the different points of view that form their understanding of the courses is absolutely invaluable.
“I was able to have contact with interesting backgrounds and share great international experience, allowing me to learn and expand my personal and professional network. The knowledge that I acquired through the academic year was not only by reading books and papers but also in relevant group discussions within a challenging environment”, says Utrecht University International Management Master’s graduate Daniel de Souza Turle da Silva.
When all is said and done, the international Master’s programme offers some of the best learning and career opportunities currently available. Its incredible range of teaching techniques is both a necessity and a competitive advantage, which will be highly appreciated by anyone looking to enhance their career.