How postgraduate students spend their study time
The first difference you will notice about becoming a postgraduate student is that it becomes a full-time activity for the whole year. As a postgraduate student the postgraduate programme fills the whole year and you will spend most of your time at university. As a Masters student, although the teaching programme will only take place during semester time, the assignments, projects and dissertation tasks will require you to study throughout the year. You will only be able to take short periods of holiday, in the same way that you might if you were working in a normal job as an employee. As a Doctoral student you will be expected to continue your research and studies throughout the year, with only a few weeks’ holiday. By becoming a postgraduate student you have become a full-time academic.
In addition to working longer during the year, you will also have much more responsibility for how you organise your time during the working week. As an undergraduate student you will have had a timetable. As a postgraduate student you will probably have rather less formally programmed activities and rather more time for reading and individual work.
Masters programmes vary considerably in the amount of teaching time they require. Some, particularly in the sciences , business or vocational disciplines such as Law , may have programmes similar to undergraduate timetables, with 10–20 hours of programmed activities each week. Others, particularly in the humanities or social sciences areas, may have only 5–10 hours of teaching each week.
You may ask, therefore, how programmes with such different amounts of teaching can all be at Masters level. The answer is that what matters is the total amount of study time involved, whether this is in lectures, seminars, lab classes, fieldwork, private study or assignment/project preparation. In the UK the national qualifications framework indicates that a Masters-level programme requires 180 credit points at M-level, with each credit point representing about 10 hours of study time. The project or dissertation must be worth 60 of these 180 credit points, so the pattern of work for a Masters programme will be approximately:
• The ‘taught’ component – 120 credit points, or 1,200 hours of study time. Most universities have programmes where each ‘contact’ hour (teaching, seminar, lab class) expects 3–4 hours of individual study time to support it, so typically this part of the programme will involve about 200–300 hours of contact time.
• The ‘dissertation’ component – 60 credit points, or 600 hours of study time. Much of this will be individual study time, involving data collection in the lab or in the field or in the library and the planning and writing of the project. It will include some direct tutorial supervision, too, but mostly it will be individual work.
Since Masters programmes in the UK are one-year programmes, this means that an average week will involve about 35–36 hours of work
For Doctoral students taking a PhD the time allocation will be different. In the early stages of a Doctoral programme there will probably be formal taught classes focused on research methods and techniques, although these will occupy a fairly small amount of time – perhaps 5–6 hours per week for your first year of study. The rest of your time will be focused on your own research project. For those working in science, engineering or other practical/lab-based fields this research time will need to fit with the demands of the project you are working on and the availability of lab time etc. Most science and engineering Doctoral students, for example, are working on a project that is part of a rather larger programme of work, and so the time you need to be in the lab will be organised as part of that project. For other Doctoral students, however, there will be considerable flexibility around how you organise your research time, and you will have most of the time in most weeks to plan for yourself.
For those taking ‘taught’ Doctorates, then the pattern of time allocation will be similar to that of Masters students during the taught part of the programme, and similar to that of PhD students during the research project phase.
Clearly, organising and managing your time is your own responsibility. You will need therefore to plan your time around:
• The fixed times of classes or lab times.
• The opening hours of facilities such as libraries, ICT facilities and study space such as student offices.
• Your own preferred pattern of working.
• The need to work 30–40 hours per week as a full-time academic student.
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A third of medical students at Birmingham Medical School fail one or more first year exams. Alarm has been raised about the apparent over-representation of ethnic minority students amongst those who fail. In this case study I ask: 1. Is there a connection between students’ ethnicity and performance in end of first year exams? 2. Is the experience of medical students at this medical school conducive to effective learning? 3. What, if anything, could be done to improve students’ learning? I show that there is a link between particular students and exam performance, but the link is with socio-economic background, not ethnicity. Students from a privileged background appear to perform better than students from a disadvantaged background. I argue that this may be due to an environment which is not conducive to effective learning. Using a range of research methods I describe how students are expected to support themselves intellectually to become independent learners while passive educational methods such as lectures and a heavy timetable are favoured and students receive limited formative feedback on their progress. The study ends positively, however, as I identify improvements that could be, and in some instances have been, made to the environment.