Transitions from Undergraduate to Taught Postgraduate Study: Emotion, Integration and Ambiguity



McPherson C, Punch S & Graham E (2017) Transitions from Undergraduate to Taught Postgraduate Study: Emotion, Integration and Ambiguity. Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice, 5 (2), pp. 42-50.

The notion and terminology of ‘transition(s)’ have long dominated discussions of pathways from youth to adulthood and have increasingly come to characterise the educational journeys people make, with a strong emphasis on the shift from schooling to undergraduate study. However, the transitional experiences of postgraduate students have been significantly overlooked with powerful presumptions around postgraduate students being educational ‘experts’ and ‘naturals’ obscuring the often highly challenging nature of their transitions. The lack of literature in this field is most pronounced around the taught postgraduate (PGT) population, about whom the least is known. This is due in part to ambiguousness around PGT study itself (Glazer-Raymo, 2005) which falls between the clearly-defined undergraduate and doctoral degrees, and has been declared as the “forgotten sector” (Millward, 2015) of higher education.  This paper addresses this gap in understanding by synthesising the available literature on PGT transitions, and on postgraduate transitions more generally, alongside qualitative focus group data from a small-scale project with Masters students and supervisors conducted at a Scottish university. It finds that transitions to PGT education are complex, emotional and challenging for most students, and highlights some institutional practices that can isolate, confuse and hinder the progress of Masters students.  Thus, the paper argues that, contrary to conventional assumptions, transitions from undergraduate to PGT education are not inevitably straightforward and can be characterised, at least initially, by anxiety, self-doubt and disorientation. Key challenges for Masters students do not necessarily relate to the higher learning materials, but the lack of clarity around what PGT level study entails and the limited opportunities for integration and sense of belonging. Greater clarity of expectations and earlier feedback, alongside peer support, can help to smooth transitions to postgraduate study. The paper also highlights the particularly difficult transitions of students unfamiliar to the university and identifies challenges specific to funded and non-funded students.

taught postgraduates; educational transitions; institutional practices; integration

Journal of Perspectives in Applied Academic Practice: Volume 5, Issue 2

Publication date31/12/2017
Date accepted by journal14/05/2017
PublisherEdinburgh Napier University

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Professor Samantha Punch

Professor Samantha Punch

Professor, Sociology, Social Policy & Criminology