Posted on 29 Mar '23

Subject Matters – Exploring Postgraduate Audiences (Part 1)


  • Academic subjects typically attract younger PG students, whereas the reverse is true for more vocational fields
  • All PG home audiences are potentially a lot older than we expect, particularly in AHSS subjects
  • Flexible study, particularly blended provision, is actually the preferred option for prospective PGR home students in some disciplines

The diversification of PG is something we've been talking about a lot recently as the overall shape of domestic and international audiences grows and changes.

But it's easy to lose sight of something that's always been diverse: the vast range of specialisms studied by Masters students and the effectively infinite(!) range of research topics pursued by PhD students.

So what about the demographics, interests and motivations of these audiences? Just how different is someone who wants to study a Masters in Physical Sciences from someone who wants to study a Masters in Law?

It's normally quite hard to tell. A typical one-off PG survey starts to run into trouble once you're segmenting across multiple dimensions (study preference + age + subject + nationality, etc); the samples get too small and the findings become questionable.

But Pulse isn't a typical PG survey. Taking a healthy sample from the second half of last year gives me over 7,000 UK domestic responses to explore in this post.

Approaching the subject(s) at hand

Given the vast range of PG subjects, I'm going to stick to broad disciplines here (trust me, there's more than enough interesting stuff at this level).

I'm also going to restrict most of the data to PG home (domestic UK) responses. The study abroad context potentially masks the diversity that comes from subject intentions.

Finally, there's way too much here for a single post. So this is 'Part 1', looking at the age and study preferences of different audiences (the 'who' and the 'how'). I have a 'Part 2' in mind to cover motivations and concerns (the 'why' and the 'if').

PGT age by subject

PGT home audiences are getting older, but how much do age profiles differ by subject area? A lot, it turns out.

I've arranged the above visualisation to highlight the clear demographic split between more 'academic' STEM subjects with a younger audience and the more 'vocational' subjects with an older audience. I doubt this surprises anyone, in and of itself, but it does reveal just how stark that difference is: Over half of the people searching for a Masters in Life Sciences or Physical Sciences are 18-24 (likely graduate continuers) versus less than 20% for Education or Clinical Sciences.

We can see that Arts & Humanities appeals to the oldest audiences (which isn't hugely surprising) but that around 15-20% of Law, Computer Science and Physical Science audiences are 45+ (which perhaps is).

One final thing I'd draw your attention to here is how much of these audiences are returners. If you're marketing a PGT subject where that purple section is below 50% then more than half of your searching audience is 25+.

PGT study preferences by subject

Our Pulse tracker consistently shows a fairly even split between online, blended and on-campus study for PGT home, so it's interesting to see how this looks across different subjects:

The split is still fairly even, overall, but there's definite variety. Some of this tracks what we've seen in terms of demographics (we know that older audiences prefer flexible study).

Examples like Psychology are a bit more surprising; around a third of this audience is 18-24 (significantly higher than for subjects like Arts & Humanities, Education and Clinical) yet interest in on campus study is lowest here. This probably reflects a greater interest in flexible retraining across all age groups – and reminds us not to pigeonhole PG audiences based on a single variable.

The only other thing I'd mention here is that there are substantial audiences for all study modes across all subjects. If this is the fabled 'new normal' then flexible provision is here to stay for PGT home (assuming we let it).

It's a very different picture for PGT international, which I'll include for contrast:

At least 75% of the audience in every subject opts for on campus study; people who want to study a Masters abroad do want to study abroad.

There is still some variety here (looking again at Psychology and, interestingly, Law). The 10-15% of prospective students interested in flexible provision isn't to be sniffed at either (that's 10-15% of some pretty big audiences, after all).

PGR age by subject

The age profile for people considering a PhD is obviously older than for a Masters, but there's a lot variety here too:

I've deliberately kept the same order for all of these charts so that you can more easily scan and compare. The result is that this PGR visualisation seems to lack all rhyme and reason, precisely because the age profiles here are so different from PGT. And that's quite interesting, I think.

It's the 'natural' science subjects that have the youngest audiences again, probably reflecting the fact that these are more likely to recruit straight from BSc. Something similar may be happening across Computer Science and Engineering.

Elsewhere, it's surprising just how small the proportion of 18-24 year-olds (which can include Masters graduates, after all) is for most other subjects. Indeed, more than half of the people searching in most non-STEM fields are aged 35+.

One hypothesis might be that younger (continuer) audiences are less likely to search on a site like FindAPhD (vs being directed to opportunities by current tutors). But that's not actually the case (more than half our total PGR survey audience are current students).

Instead, I think there's a genuine challenge and opportunity being presented here. The potential audience for PGR is a lot older than we probably think it is – and that's just the audience that are already searching. Are you doing enough to reach beyond the campus for PGR? Above are some of the subjects most likely to reward you if you do.

PGR study preference by subject

We typically see a much higher preference for physical study amongst prospective doctoral students, and that's generally true across subjects:

Again, it's STEM subjects that typically prefer on campus, but flexible study is actually the majority option for all AHSS disciplines apart from Law and Business.

Key here, I think, is understanding (and helping prospective students understand) what 'blended' learning means at PhD level. My own doctorate (Gothic Literature – yes, I have always been very cool) may as well have been blended for all the time I spent studying at home vs in a library. Is the recruitment challenge here more about redefining and redescribing existing research programmes rather than redeveloping them?

There's more to say...

I've already seen some interesting data around how drivers and barriers for postgraduate study differ across subjects and I plan to cover that in a future post. I'd be happy to take suggestions if there's something you'd really like to see for this (or another) topic.

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