Should I do a master's degree?

We regularly get asked this question at law fairs. The implication is, of course, “Will doing a Master's degree help me get a training contract or pupillage?”

In a tough recruitment market, going back to uni for a year or two to gain an extra qualification seems an sensible and attractive option. However, we would urge caution. 

The first thing to say is that we're not aiming to put off anyone with a bit of cash to spare and a genuine interest in a subject. There's nothing wrong with study for its own sake. But if you're simply interested in bolstering your CV for that training contract or pupillage application, some different thinking has to apply.

As Simon Myerson QC, author of the Pupillage and How to Get It blog, says: “An MA, unless it speaks for you own intellectual prowess or (just possibly) it is bang on the money in terms of the area of law in which you wish to practice, is not going to get you a pupillage.”

A similar point is made succinctly by Edward Walker, graduate recruitment manager at Pinsent Masons, who told The Guardian: “Chances are, if you haven't met minimum academic requirements by the end of the Legal Practice Course, you're not going to reach it with a Masters. And if you have reached it, but not got a training contract, the gap you have is not academics but elsewhere.” 

What both these quotes hint at is that practically the only use of a Master's when it comes to job applications is to prove your academic ability. And if you have a good degree from a well-respected university, there is no need to prove your academic ability any further – so doing a Master's is pointless (ironically, people like this are the most likely to want to go on to postgraduate study for the sake of it).

On the other hand, if you have a poor degree (a 2:2 or below) universities are unlikely to accept you for a Master's degree course anyway. Besides, that 2:2 is never going to vanish off your CV (we do not advocate lying) and for many firms that will rule you out point blank.

We suppose a scenario in which a Master's degree might materially increase your chances would be one where you had an okay degree from a less well-regarded university. Undertaking a Master's at a more prestigious institution might boost your credentials in the eyes of recruiters. But it would depend on the degree, and on the university, and on other factors personal to you as well. No amount of academic qualifications will help you if you are deficient in other ways.

We'll also accept that in a hypothetical situation where two candidates were equally qualified but one had an MA and the other didn't, the MA might prove the deciding factor. But do you really want to spend a year of your life and a lot of money just in case that exact scenario crops up? Don't forget that there are other ways to get yourself noticed, and these days firms like to see evidence of commercial awareness and entrepreneurialism as much as academic ability. Edward Walker again: "We don't view [a Master's] as intrinsically better than a year spent working in industry.”

Summing up then, while postgraduate study can be a very rewarding experience, we would suggest really considering what benefits a Master's will bring, apart from a couple of letters after your name.


This feature was first published in our newsletter in 2012.