Most masters courses are taught in modules, and last one year full-time, at least in the UK; in many European and North American universities a masters course may take two years to complete, or occasionally even longer. Flexible part-time options are available at some institutions. A masters course can allow you to extend your knowledge of a specific area of interest, or to explore new topics unrelated to your first degree.
The masters degrees you will most commonly come across are:
MA – generally arts, social sciences or business
MSt - generally arts, social sciences or business, common at Oxford
MSc – science and technology disciplines (MS in the USA)
MRes – research techniques, often as a precursor to a PhD/DPhil programme
MBA – management and business, usually after a few years of business experience
MPhil – includes a substantial piece of individual research
Subject-specific degree titles such as MEd, MEng
Some postgraduate courses lead directly to a professional qualification required for entry into a particular career. Examples include the PGCE or PGDE for teaching and the GDL for law. However, there are a whole series of other further study options which could be classified as vocational, ranging from six-week courses in computer skills through to the PhD or DPhil in Clinical Psychology, necessary to work as a Clinical Psychologist.
A PhD (known as a DPhil in Oxford) usually requires three or more years' full-time research, involving in-depth study of a specific field, the results of which are presented as a thesis of 50,000+ words. In some countries, including the USA, doctoral students begin their course with a programme of taught modules before beginning doctoral research in year 2 or 3, making the overall length of a PhD much longer than the 3-4 year average in the UK. Examples of typical PhD lengths in countries often applied to by Oxford students: UK 3-4 years, USA 5-7 years, Canada 4-5 years, France & Germany 3-4 years (post-masters), Netherlands 4 years (post-masters).
Most PhD students join an existing research group in a university department under the guidance of one or more supervisors. In the UK there are a growing number of Doctoral Training Centres (DTCs, also known as Doctoral Training Programmes DTPs) funded by UK research councils and offering four year programmes with a focus on interdisciplinary topics and formal training in research methods.
Many taught masters courses contain an element of research via an extended dissertation on a specific topic. Research masters courses offering training in research methods and the opportunity to explore a topic in depth are also available at some institutions. The most common of these degree titles are MRes and MPhil, and these are often seen as a precursor to more extended doctoral level research.