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Posted on 8 Aug '23

Writing for a Masters vs PhD Audience: What’s the Difference?

Prospective postgraduate students are a diverse audience, so how can you make your messaging as targeted as possible? In this blog, Sarah Hastings-Woodhouse, one of our Content Writers, reflects on the similarities and differences between writing for Masters and PhD applicants.

Over at FindAMasters and FindAPhD, our student-facing content provides advice, information and inspiration for prospective postgraduates looking to take the next step.

I’ve been producing content for aspiring Masters and PhD students for almost two years now, so I thought I would share how my experience of creating content for these two audiences has compared. What are the biggest similarities and differences? And how can they help inform your own recruitment strategy?

Similarity #1: Keeping it simple

Readability should always be at the heart of your content, no matter the level of prospective student you’re targeting. You can use the same bullet-pointed, digestible explainers you might produce for your undergraduate market all the way up to the PhD level.

Prospective PhD researchers are likely very adept at wading through dense, poorly paragraphed PDF files. But this probably isn’t their preferred format for receiving information about your funding opportunities or application process.

You might worry that producing equally readable content for every audience could come across as condescending. Shouldn't it get that little bit more advanced with every rung climbed on the academic ladder?

But the technicalities of postgraduate applications, funding and study are already very complicated. It’s up to us to make them as accessible as we can. And while we know that our audience can parse complex text, this requires cognitive energy they’d rather spend elsewhere.

Using the Hemingway app to edit our content helps keep us in check so we know that our writing is easy to understand at a glance. Where possible, we aim for a readability grade of eight across both sites.

Similarity #2: Addressing common concerns

Alongside accessible content, both Masters and PhD students are often in need of a little encouragement. It’s tempting to imagine prospective PhD candidates as the more self-assured of the two audiences. After all, they’ve been round the academic block several times!

But our experience is that people considering both levels of study often harbour similar worries and doubts. Just how hard will it be to get a Masters or PhD? What if I’m not good enough? Am I as smart as everyone thinks? Myth-busting content addressing this suite of concerns is a popular staple on our Masters and PhD blogs as well as the usual funding, application and study abroad content.

When writing for a postgraduate audience, remember to emphasise that anyone who wants to do a Masters or PhD can if they work hard enough (this doesn’t mean that everyone should, but that’s a subject for another post…).

Difference #1: A splash more cynicism

We owe it to our audience to acknowledge the fact that postgraduate study is challenging, and we make sure to emphasise this in both our Masters and PhD content. That said, we have found that our PhD audience tends to be more receptive to (and perhaps less intimidated by) the slightly darker side of things. We’ve not shied away from discussing the perils of PhD burnout, and our popular PhDiary series features candidly titled pieces such as “It’s ok not to be ok” and “Everything is on fire”.

We’re not saying that content targeted at Masters students should be rose-tinted, or that it shouldn’t discuss the challenges of postgraduate study (ours often does), but dark and cynical humour can play particularly well with a PhD audience.

Difference #2: Getting into the weeds

A huge variety of potential students visit our websites and attend our study fairs, all with different goals and at different stages of their postgraduate journeys. But to make a (very wide) generalisation, prospective Masters students are more likely to be casual pursuers of postgraduate information, who are open to a range of paths. It’s more common for those considering a PhD, however, to know what they want to research, and to be ready to put their plan into action.

This means that Masters-themed content can be more top-level, while PhD-themed content is generally more detail-oriented. Obviously, we still have plenty of nuts-and-bolts style content explaining the fundamentals of Masters study. But it’s often easier to cast your net a little wider when it comes to targeting Masters students, for example with listicle-style pieces advertising the breadth of your course catalogue, or the career options available for graduates of various disciplines. For our PhD audience, we focus more on long-form guides with lots of detail to support their research.

Difference #3: Mind the student journey

We make sure we cover all bases in our evergreen content, featuring long-form guides on everything from applications to careers on both FindAMasters and FindAPhD. But, of course, what to promote for each audience in our blogs and newsletters (and when) has been informed by our research into student journeys.

One slightly surprising find is that Masters students are more likely to consider their career prospects during the application cycle itself, while this is less likely to be the case for PhD students.

Another important consideration is that there tend to be two application cycles for Masters programmes (one in the winter and one in the spring) whereas as there is only one obvious application cycle for PhD students (ending in December/ January). You can break these audiences down even further into UK and international students (international PhD applicants may be searching for external funding opportunities well into the summer after they apply, for example). Taking these differences into account, possibly through persona work, can help you get the best content in front of your audience at the right time.

Hopefully, this post has given you some inspiration when it comes to producing your student-facing content! To get more insights into the postgraduate market, read the takeaways from the student panels at our recent virtual study fair and marketing conference.

FindAUniversity take pride in being experts in postgraduate education. Follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram for regular insight, comment and case studies.

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