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


  • Charlotte McPherson University of Stirling
  • Samantha Punch University of Stirling
  • Elizabeth Graham University of Stirling



taught postgraduates, educational transitions, institutional practices, integration


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.

Author Biographies

Charlotte McPherson, University of Stirling

Charlotte McPherson is a doctoral researcher exploring the lived experiences and social capital of young people ‘not in education, employment or training’ (NEET) across the UK at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling. Her research interests include highlighting endemic power disparities between social groups, including those between adults and children/young people, and critically analysing social policy in the areas of youth, social welfare and education.

Samantha Punch, University of Stirling

Professor Samantha Punch is Professor of Sociology and Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Stirling. Her research interests are within the sociology of childhood/youth and the sociology of development, including food practices in residential care; youth transitions and migration in Latin America and Asia; sibling relationships and, more recently, the sociology of Bridge.

Elizabeth Graham, University of Stirling

Elizabeth Graham is a doctoral researcher exploring the experiences of support for pupils with an autism spectrum disorder in secondary school from a sociological perspective at the Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling. Her research interest are within the sociology of childhood/youth and the sociology of emotions. She recently conducted research on gender inequality and identity in the card game of Bridge.


Ali, A., Kohun, F., & Levy, Y. (2007). Dealing with social isolation to minimise doctoral attrition – a four stage framework. International Journal of Doctoral Studies, 2(1), 33-49.

Backhouse, R.E. (1997). The changing character of British economies. In A.W. Coats (Ed.) The Post-1945 Internationalisation of Economies (pp.33-61). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Briggs, A.R.J., Clark, J., & Hull, I. (2012). Building bridges: Understanding student transition to university. Quality in Higher Education, 18(1), 3-21.


Brooks, R. (2002). Transitional friends? Young people’s strategies to manage and maintain friendships during a period of repositioning. Journal of Youth Studies, 5(4), 449-467.


Brown, L. (2009). An ethnographic study of the friendship patterns of international students in England: An attempt to create home through conational interaction. International Journal of Educational Research, 48(3), 184-193.


Chester, A., Burton, L.J., Xenos, S., & Elgar, K. (2013). Peer mentoring: Supporting successful transitions for first year psychology undergraduate students. Australian Journal of Psychology, 65, 30-37.


Christie, H., Munro, M., & Wager, F. (2005). ‘Day students’ in higher education: Widening access students and successful transitions to university life. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 15(1), 3-29.


Clarke, G. & Lunt, I. (2014). International comparisons in postgraduate education: Quality, access and employment outcomes. Bristol: HEFCE.

Cluett, L., & Skene, J. (2006). Improving the postgraduate coursework student experience: Barriers and the role of institution. In D. Kristoffersen (Ed.) Proceedings of the AUQF 2006: Quality Outcomes and Diversity (pp.62-68). Melbourne: Australian Universities Quality Agency.

Department for Education and Skills. (2003). The future of higher education. Retrieved from

Department for Innovation, Universities & Skills. (2008). Higher degrees: postgraduate study in the UK 2000/01 to 2005/06. Retrieved from

Glazer-Raymo, J. (2005). Professionalising graduate education: The Master’s Degree in the marketplace. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.

Goluvushkina, E., & Milligan, C. (2012). Developing early stage researchers: Employability perceptions of social science doctoral candidates. International Journal for Researcher Development, 3(1), 64-78.


Haggis, T., & Pouget, M. (2002). Trying to be motivated: Perspectives on learning from younger students accessing higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 7(3), 326-336.


Harley, D., Winn, S., Pemberton, S., & Wilcox, P. (2007). Using texting to support students’ transition to university. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 44, 229-241.


Heussi, A. (2012). Postgraduate student perceptions of the transition into postgraduate study. Student Engagement and Experience Journal, 1(3), 1-13.

Higher Education Academy. (2015). The Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey 2015: What do taught postgraduates want? Retrieved from

Higher Education Academy/National Union of Students. (2013). Learning journeys: Student experiences in further and higher education in Scotland. Retrieved from

Higher Education Funding Council for England. (2004). Widening participation and fair access research strategy. Retrieved from

Higher Education Funding Council for England. (2013). Trends in transition from first degree to postgraduate study: Qualifiers between 2002-03 and 2010-11. Retrieved from

Hussey, T., & Smith, P. (2010). Transitions in higher education. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 47(2), 155-164.


Janta, H., Lugosi, P., & Brown, L. (2014). Coping with loneliness: a Netnographic study of doctoral students. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 38(4), 553-571.


Kallio, K., Kallio, T., Tienari, J., & Hyvonen, T. (2016). Ethos at stake: Performance management and academic work in universities. Human Relations, 69(3), 685-709.


Lue, B., Chen, H., Wang, C., Cheng, Y., & Chen, M. (2010). Stress, personal characteristics and burnout among first postgraduate year residents: A nationwide study in Taiwan. Medical Teacher, 32(5), 400-407.


Mattanah, J.F., Ayers, J.F., Brand, B.L., Brooks, L.J., Quimby, J.L., & McNary, S.W. (2010). A social support intervention to ease the college transition: Exploring main effects and moderators. Journal of College Student Development, 51(1), 93-108.


McCormack, C. (2004). Tensions between student and institutional conceptions of postgraduate research. Studies in Higher Education, 29(3), 319-344.


McEwen, L., Duck, R., Haigh, M., Smith, S.J., Wolfenden, L., & Kelly, K. (2005). Evaluating the ‘postgraduateness’ of vocational taught Masters environmental courses: Student perspectives. Planet, 14, 8-12.


McMillan, W. (2014). ‘They have different information about what is going on’: Emotion in the transition to university. Higher Education Research & Development, 33(6), 1123-1135.


Menzies, J.L., & Baron, R. (2014). International postgraduate student transition experiences: The importance of student societies and friends. Innovation in Education and Teaching International, 51(1), 84-94.


Millward, C. (2015). Postgraduate education. Retrieved from:

Morgan, M. (2015). Supporting postgraduate taught student transitions into and out of study. Retrieved from

Morris, C., & Murphy, C. (2011). Getting a PhD in law. Oxford: Hart.

O'Donnell, V.L., & Tobbell, J. (2007). The transition of adult students to higher education: legitimate participation in a community of practice? Adult Education Quarterly. 57(4), 312-328.

O’Donnell, V.L., Tobbell, J., Lawthom, R., & Zammit, M. (2009). Transition to postgraduate study: Practice, participation and the widening participation agenda. Active Learning in Higher Education, 10(1), 26-40.


Panda, S. (2016). Personality traits and the feeling of loneliness of postgraduate university students. International Journal of Indian Psychology, 3(3), 27-37.

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education. (2004). Access to higher education development project. Retrieved from

Reay, D. (2002). Class, authenticity and the transition to higher education for mature students. The Sociological Review, 50(3), 398-418.


Ruud, C.M. (2015). Social networking and social support: Does it play a role in college social integration? Paper presented at the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago.

Sastry, T. (2004). Postgraduate education in the United Kingdom. Oxford: Higher Education Policy Institute.

Scott, P. (1995). The meanings of mass higher education. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Symons, M. (2001). Starting a coursework postgraduate degree: The neglected transition. Paper presented at the Changing Identities: Language and Academic Skills Conference, University of Wollongong.

Symons, M., & Samuelowicz, K. (2000). Working with research students in language and learning: The learning dimension of our work. Paper presented at the National Language and Academic Skills Conference, Monash University.

Tinto, V. (1975). Dropout from higher education: A theoretical synthesis of recent research. Research Review of Educational Research, 45, 89-125.


Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Tobbell, J., O’Donnell, V.L., & Zammit, M. (2008). Exploring practice and participation in transition to postgraduate social science study. Retrieved from

Tobbell, J., O’Donnell, V.L., & Zammit, M. (2010). Exploring transition to postgraduate study: Shifting identities in interaction with communities, practice and participation. British Educational Research Journal, 36(2), 261-278.


Treby, E., & Shah, A. (2005). Bridging the gap between academia and practitioners: Training coastal zone managers. Planet, 14, 16-17.


Universities UK. (2016a). Higher education in numbers. Retrieved from

Universities UK. (2016b). Patterns and trends in UK higher education. Retrieved from

Wakeling, P. (2009). Social class and access to postgraduate education in the UK: A sociological analysis (unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Manchester, Manchester.

Wakeling, P., & Hampden-Thompson, G. (2013). Transition to higher degrees across the UK: An analysis of national, institutional and individual differences. Retrieved from

Wakeling, P., & Kyriacou, C. (2010). Widening participation from undergraduate to postgraduate research degrees: A research synthesis. Swindon: NCCPE and ESRC.

West, A. (2012). Formative evaluation of the transition to postgraduate study for counselling and psychotherapy training: Students’ perceptions of assignments and academic writing. Counselling and Psychotherapy Research: Linking Research with Practice, 12(2), 128-135.


Wisker, G. (2012). The good supervisor. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.


Wisker, G., Robinson, G., Trafford, V., Creighton, E., & Warnes, M. (2003). Recognising and overcoming dissonance in postgraduate student research. Studies in Higher Education, 28(1), 91-105.


Zaitseva, E., & Milsom, C. (2015). In their own words: Analysing students’ comments from the Postgraduate Taught Experience Survey. Retrieved from

Zuber-Skerritt, O. (1987). Helping postgraduate research students learn. Higher Education, 16, 75-94.







Original Research