English Studies

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If you are considering studying English at postgraduate level then there is no need for us to rhapsodise on its inherent, intangible virtues; the chances are you are already well aware of them.  

English Studies at Postgraduate Level

What does need to be said, however, is that the demands of studying English at postgraduate level are far greater than they are during the undergraduate stage. For one thing, students are expected to leaven their natural enthusiasm with scholarly equanimity, applying more independent, analytic and creative thought processes to their work. Moreover, as postgraduate degrees tend to be narrower in scope – and therefore far more in-depth in their treatment of topics – it is important that students opt for an area of study for which they have a genuine passion.

Range of courses

Fortunately, the subject range within English is broad, which means there should be something to accommodate all tastes. Perennial favourites include English (general), Creative Writing, Comparative Literature, and Drama and Theatre, all of which are run by a number of colleges as taught programmes. These generally follow a similar structure to undergraduate degrees in that they are delivered through class-based lectures and are assessed through a combination of essays (usually between 3, 000 to 5, 000 words in length) and exams.

Where they differ noticeably is in their teaching approach; for instance, classes are much smaller, meaning that the learning experience is a more intimate one with discussion playing a vital role in the development of students’ ideas. Such interactions often affect the shape of students’ theses topics, which represent another key component of postgraduate study. A dissertation accounts for a major portion of a student’s overall degree grade and acts as a barometer for assessing his/her ability to carry out independent research, as well as his/her capacity to critically engage with, organise and articulate research findings.


Taught programmes are normally full time and of a year’s duration (note that part-time courses usually extend to two years). Thanks to the variety of courses on offer, students may elect to refine their knowledge of Ireland’s literary heritage (e. g. UCC’s MA in Irish Writing – Theories and Traditions) or get to grips with broader international perspectives (e. g. Maynooth University’s MA in Postcolonial and World Literature); they may focus on literature in a more general sense (e. g. UCD’s Modernity, Literature and Culture) or on the history and development of a particular genre (e. g. MA in Children’s Literature – available from Trinity College Dublin, or as a two-year part-time option from St Patrick’s College Drumcondra).

While students are required to stay within the confines of their chosen field, they are also afforded the freedom to focus on more specific subject matter from the wide array of selected course texts. A big advantage of this format is the presence of seminars, which greatly assist postgraduate students by providing guidance, and by instilling discipline and motivation.


Those who feel that they are already in possession of such qualities may be interested in enrolling on a research programme. In order to obtain an MLitt research degree, a student must produce an original piece of research or criticism, which should be approximately 60, 000 words in length – the result of two years’ labour.

A PhD demands even greater academic rigour and self-motivation: the thesis at this level – which can be up to 100, 000 words long – must be a worthy addition to the collective body of knowledge on the particular topic in question. Anyone considering this option should be aware that it is an onerous undertaking, lasting for up to four years. However, students are not entirely alone in the endeavour, as a supervisor will be assigned to guide them, Virgil-like, through their research.

Career Progression

Employment opportunities for taught and research English postgraduates are diverse. Graduates (generally of research degrees) often take up academic positions, but other established career paths include journalism, research, publishing and marketing. The research skills honed and developed over the course of a programme are valued in any industry; and it will be apparent to a prospective employer that the student is capable, organised, motivated and, of course, an eloquent communicator.

On a final note, conversion courses allow those without a background in English, or those who do not have an honours degree, to study the subject at postgraduate level. The Higher Diploma in Arts at UCC (taken either as a one-year full-time or a two-year part-time option) covers important elements of undergraduate English degree programmes, thereby providing students with the foundational knowledge necessary for further study.

Search Your Options Now

Whether looking at taught, research or conversion programmes you can browse options for studying English at postgraduate level on Postgrad.ie


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