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Continuing Education

Published on: 1 Aug 2019

Further study for further development:
the primacy of postgraduate studies

A master’s degree opens up career opportunities, enhances clinical practice and can bring huge personal rewards. Since nursing became an all-graduate profession, it has become an increasingly popular choice

By Tonks Fawcett 

For many newly registered nurses, getting out there and putting into practice all they have learned as a student is paramount. However, as graduates, it is also recognised that they will have aspirations to fulfil professional and personal development and invest in their education as part of their lifelong learning.

Their immediate desire may well be to gain knowledge and skills to equip them to carry out their role as a band 5 staff nurse as well as they can, and naturally they are likely to look at the educational provision from their first employer, which is usually in the NHS. To this end, there are developmental and mandatory courses and updates that consolidate and build on nurse training to ensure that every nurse maintains her or his fitness to practise. 

This provision is embedded in the experiential learning of the new graduate registrant, ideally supported by a preceptor in the work environment. Every graduate nurse also recognises that registration with the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) requires evidence of the continual professional development (CPD) necessary for ongoing revalidation. Excellent support for this is provided by the NMC but also by RCNi, for example through RCNi Learning, an online interactive resource. Every nurse also has an annual personal development review where career aspirations can be explored.

Seminars and study days
In whatever area of care nurses practise, there are opportunities, to attend clinical or research seminars or study days as part of CPD, many of which are free or of minimal cost. If non-accredited, a certificate of attendance is always supplied. The attendance of conferences takes this further and can be hugely beneficial not only for the content, but also for the chance to network and share good practice. It may well be that these experiences can also fire enthusiasm to know more, leading to more formal learning.

Master’s programmes

The nursing profession should pride itself on the development of its professionalism over the past 30 years. In the 1970s, only about one in 20 nurses in the UK had a degree and the necessity of such an academic requirement was often viewed with derision. Now, as an all-graduate profession, the importance of a master’s degree for career progression takes on greater potency. So what difference can a master’s degree make?

A master’s programme should equip the nurse with what are often referred to as higher order skills: critical evaluation; clinical decision making; problem solving; and research endeavour demonstrated within theoretical frameworks. However demanding this may sound, at the heart of all such master’s programmes is the improvement of patient and client outcomes and of nursing care. 

A master’s degree opens up career opportunities, enhances clinical practice and also improves nurses’ sense of personal growth and leadership through the acquisition of academic skills, intellectual sharing, the broadening of outlook and greater reasoning skills; hence the number and range of master’s degrees on offer.


The master’s degree is the most common postgraduate degree. It is at level 7 of the Frameworks for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education 2008) and at level 11 of the Scottish Credit Qualification Framework (Scottish Qualifications Authority 2015).

It is important to select the appropriate programme for individual career aspirations and talents. Study can be intense but always rewarding, and can be carried out face to face, online or using a blend of the two. All involve the production of a dissertation or equivalent e-portfolio. They can be taken as a dedicated year out as full-time study, which can be the route that international students take to accommodate visa requirements. However, many nurses in the UK choose to do a part-time master’s degree alongside professional work over two or even three years. 

Programmes usually start with the academic year in September, but sometimes January entry is also offered. Compared with the pre-registration degree programmes, master’s programmes can give more flexibility in terms of study options. Indeed, if an applicant is uncertain about this level of study, a single course or module may be offered by a university as a
CPD ‘taster’, the credit then contributes to the degree if it is subsequently undertaken.

Research degrees

A research degree may be at master’s or doctoral level and will show that the individual has aspirations for a research career in academia or in the NHS leading on a research project, or as an integral part of a research team. For doctoral work, specific attributes that foster the ability to make a significant and independent contribution to knowledge in the discipline of nursing in an original and scholarly way are identified. It is unfortunate though that nurses who pursue a research career are often considered by their peers to have left nursing. On the contrary, they make a most important contribution to the practice and understanding of nursing care. Indeed, they are ‘caring through research’ and those who gain a doctorate are achieving the highest academic award a university can offer.


Historically, people in the UK have not had to pay to become nurses. In the apprenticeship system of the past, nursing students were paid, if modestly, and they received bursaries when nurse education moved into higher education institutes in the 1990s. The notion of charging fees to nursing students is a recent one. To pursue further study as a registered nurse can be costly, but sources of funding are available, be they student loans or scholarships from charitable trusts, societies or universities. Some nurses pride themselves, however, in saving for their master’s degree, recognising the career rewards it can offer.

Whichever path nurses take to achieve the high standards
of patient-centred and compassionate care underpinned with critical thinking and sound research-based evidence, the primacy of postgraduate nurse education is becoming increasingly evident.