Fourth Level - <p>This section has information on postgraduate opportunities available in Ireland</p>

Fourth Level

Fourth level education follows on from Third Level, or Higher Education. The term refers to postgraduate education which typically leads to a Masters or Doctoral qualification.

The big question facing all students in their final year of college is ‘what to do next’? The main options are:

  • Look for a Job
  • Take some time out to travel or
  • Do a postgraduate course

Approximately 25% of 3rd Level students in Ireland opt to do a Postgraduate Programme. However, students sometimes take a haphazard approach to the selection of the postgraduate course. This can lead to a difficult and very expensive year or more of study in a less than interesting course.

So, it’s very important to consider all angles when thinking of further study.

Reasons for Pursuing Postgraduate Study

Some of the most common reasons cited for choosing further study are:

  • Wanting to specialise in an area
  • It’s essential for a chosen career path (e.g. teaching, law, psychology)
  • Wanting to focusing on a career area having initially done a general degree
  • Desire to broaden your knowledge base
  • Aim to increase employability
  • Don't know what else to do
  • Not ready to begin a career/find a job
  • Have a general interest in a particular area
  • Want to convert to another subject area (with a conversion course)
  • Want to change career direction

Fourth level study allows students to make much more informed career decisions. Not only can the higher level skills and knowledge you develop enhance your employability, but your connection with a new group of peers will increase your network of contacts, creating more opportunities for the future.

Types of Postgraduate Study

In Ireland, fourth level education is offered in all Universities, in most Institutes of Technology and through a range of private and professional organisations.

[Click here for direct links to college postgraduate studies area]

Fourth Level Qualifications are included in the National Framework of Qualifications (NFQ) at Level 9 and Level 10.

Master degrees and postgraduate diplomas (first stage of a master degree) are placed at level 9 with doctoral degrees at level 10.

Postgraduate Diploma 

This qualification may help you to become more 'vocational' - closer to the particular field of work or profession e.g. Higher Diploma in Education for teaching. The subject area may be different to that studied in your first degree. Sometimes it is possible to 'convert' into a masters e.g. from IT undergrad to business masters. A good quality first degree required for many courses.


This is one of the most common postgraduate qualifications. Most courses contain a substantial taught element, although this may involve fewer hours of teaching than an undergraduate degree. Some are primarily or entirely research courses.

Master's titles awarded include (but are not limited to):

  • MA (Master of Arts)
  • MBA (Master of Business Administration)
  • MEd (Master of Education)
  • MPhil (Master of Philosophy)
  • MBS (Master of Business Studies)
  • MSc (Master of Science)

The most common format for a masters course is a combination of taught modules followed by a research project, although there is considerable variation. Most taught masters courses are one year in length if completed full time, or two years if studied on a part time basis.

The MBA (Masters in Business Administration) is one of the most popular postgraduate degrees, and the qualification is recognised worldwide. It is a form of taught masters course, but because of its popularity and relation to the business world it is often treated as a separate type of qualification.

Most MBA courses take around one year's full time study to complete, but some take up to two years. Many courses are available on a part time or distance learning basis.

Most MBA courses are not only postgraduate, but also ‘post experience’ courses, with several years in industry expected. MBA courses are often very expensive, but MBA graduates also have high average incomes.

Doctorate - PhD

A traditional PhD is a substantial piece of original research, presented in a thesis (essentially a long essay or report) and examined by a viva (an oral exam in which the candidate is questioned about their work). It takes several (3-5) years to write a thesis by research.

Studying for a PhD develops extensive skills and independence, appropriate to many jobs. However, employers may be less familiar with the benefits of PhD study in this respect, and you may have to market your transferable skills to prospective employers after graduation.

Vocational courses 

Some postgraduate programmes qualify graduates to practise in a particular profession. For example, the postgraduate qualification to become a patent agent or a speech therapist, or the new graduate route into medicine.

Other vocational courses are directly linked to, though not compulsory for, entry into a particular employment sector. Examples include journalism, human resources, business or Law e.g. the Bachelor of Law (LLB) is a postgraduate degree lasting one year -  most students continue from the LLB degree into the legal profession.

Programmes such as the Chartered Institute of Management Accounting Certificate in Business Accounting(CIMA) lead to professional accreditation for students with any degree discipline.

Students already employed in the relevant sector may be sponsored by their employer to gain a professional qualification in this way. Employer support might include arranging the course, day release to attend it, payment of course fees and/or time off for study and exams.


Postgraduate programmes differ in duration and delivery method:

A number of taught Post-graduate  programmes are available on-line by distance learning. For example, students who live on the other side of the world have been tuning in to on-line lectures at IT Sligo. Employees from Australian based multinational CSL Biotherapies are among 800 on-line students studying a range of 21 online courses offered by the institute.

Important considerations when choosing a PhD programme include:

  • Choice of institution and its reputation for your area of research;
  • Your research topic;
  • Finding a suitable supervisor, and
  • Funding support

A very good quality primary degree i.e. first class or upper second class honours, is needed for access to a PhD programme. 


Life after postgrad study can mean big relief that studenthood has finally come to an end, but it can equally mean increased debts to repay, ongoing expenses and difficult decisions like moving back home until the perfect job comes your way.

Recent figures from The Higher Education Authority indicate the following for Master's and PhD graduates:

  • 57% are working in Ireland
  • 10% are working oversees
  • 12% are engaged in further study and training
  • 1% are on work experience schemes
  • 16% are seeking employment
  • 5% are unavailable for work or study


Detailed information on studying at Postgraduate level is available at:


Fourth Level - Postgrad Course Database

FindAMasters - Masters Search

FindAPhD - PhD Search

Ploteus - Portal on learning opportunities throughout Europe

Euraxess - Research careers Ireland

Affordable Colleges -  affordablecollegesonline database of international online programmes.

Two research councils have been established in Ireland:

  • For the humanities and social sciences - IRCHSS Irish Research Council for the Humanities & Social Sciences
  • For science and technology - IRCSET Irish Research Council for Science, Engineering and Technology

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