By Charlotte Lauder |

The move from undergraduate to postgraduate is a daunting, yet exciting one. As you move cities, countries, or even just accommodation, you look forward to cracking on with more studying and reading, and to experience life as a young ‘academic’. Masters degrees, both taught and research-led, are good opportunities to do all of the above. It is an additional year (or two) to develop skills and grow as an independent researcher. There are lots of possibilities too: the chance to find new avenues of potential research projects; absorbing new historiographical or methodological approaches and perspectives; and, above all, meeting new people, or getting to know acquaintances better.

However, at the same time, Masters degrees can be frustrating. Coming from a four-year undergraduate degree, as opposed to a three-year, a Masters can feel like another year in a routine you may already feel comfortable in. For some, the Masters degree can feel like an unnecessary pre-PhD experience. For example, on a research-led Masters, how much of your PhD project do you investigate in your Masters thesis? Or, for someone on a taught Masters, how do you balance your time between expanding methodological coursework and conducting primary research that will help develop your PhD thesis?

Ironically, the most trying and stressful task for any Masters student is applying for said PhD. Just as students begin to settle into their new classes, research deadlines, and secondary reading lists, the panic of applications comes a-knocking. Where am I applying to? Who is the best potential supervisor for this project? What even is my project(!)? Once these answers have been procured, more worrying questions begin to settle in: where is my funding coming from? As many PhD candidates have assured me, it is a manageable task to get a supervisor and an institution to accept you, but it’s the funding which inevitably either births or kills the PhD dream. If, like me, you sometimes suffer from mild-imposter syndrome, the stress about securing funding and constantly ensuring that you come across as an ‘attractive doctoral candidate’, for a handful of competitive funding opportunities, only induces questions like ‘am I good enough to do this?’ and ‘is this project even worth it?’.

I can imagine, at this point, there are a hundred PhD candidates screaming at me whilst they read this, for there are a lot of ways to overcome the stressful time of applying for a PhD whilst completing a Masters. One is to begin applying early and to seek support early too, by contacting potential supervisors and academic referees before they become weighed down with teaching and administrative duties. (Helpful further advice on this can be found on this blog). However, at the root of this counsel is the presumed fact that, in order to begin applications early, you already need to have your PhD proposal thought out. This includes the issue you want to investigate, your methodology, your sources, and the debate you are engaging with. What if, like me, you have always wanted to do a PhD, but you don’t necessarily have a completely finished topic, and you only arrive at the ideal project after a couple of weeks thinking and talking it over with your brand new academic supervisor(s)? Doesn’t this make the Masters degree seem futile and unhelpful – a distraction – when a PhD application is the harder task and demands the most amount of your time? Now I can hear the screams of post-doctoral and early career researchers who apply for academic positions and research fellowships whilst simultaneously trying to complete their doctoral thesis and teaching commitments. I concede I am in a dead-end. Maybe the bifurcate reality of the Masters is simply an unavoidable training ground for the spinning-plate existence that is to come after the PhD, the post-doc, the research fellowship…

Here, I raise another point about the pre-PhD experience: the opportunity to get involved in academia. It would seem logical that to fill the time in hearing back from funding sources you should try to get more experience of ‘academic things’ to test out your research ideas and to network with like-minded academic folk. The obvious answer is to attend research seminars, speak at conferences, attend plenary panels and workshops, and, if possible, submit articles to  journals. Sure thing! Except, no: apart from research seminars (which actively encourage graduate students to attend), conferences, workshops, and journals – which are all intellectually stimulating, helpful, and informative for prospective PhDs – are more often than not reserved for actual PhD students and early career researchers who understandably need these outlets for their own public speaking, research and engagement experiences. So how do we – academia – cultivate good PhD candidates and good PhD projects when the possibilities for Masters students aren’t extensive? Just like the PhD, a Masters can be solitary and lonely too. All the while, as the funding situation becomes more and more restrictive and uncertain, I have to come up with a blinding PhD proposal that will secure the coveted golden nuggets of money. In many ways, I am quite jealous of PhD candidates and their outlets for academic discussions and support for sharing their experiences (much like this blog).

To end positively, I would say to my fellow Masters students approaching the big step into the unknown, that I stand with you, and I am thinking of you. As this week marks the halfway point of my Masters degree, I can reflect on an amazing experience that I would recommend to anyone who doesn’t feel ‘finished’ after their undergraduate. If I have learnt anything, it is that a Masters degree is about biding your time. It is not a magnus opus; rather, it is a time to absorb as much knowledge, advice, and academic experiences as possible. A Masters student is a greyhound waiting in the race gate, quietly buzzing; a PhD student is one who has been finally let out to run the track.


Charlotte Lauder is from Edinburgh and studying for a Masters in modern British and European history at the University of Oxford. She specialises in modern Scottish history (begun during her undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh), and is writing her thesis on the relationship between regional, local and national identities in nineteenth century Scotland. You can find her on and on Twitter @checkpointchaz

Image 1: Dogs Pixabay