Signing up to a degree is a huge decision, so it’s vital to find out everything you can at your interview. Katie Puckett pinpoints the 10 questions you really need to ask

You’ve admired the glossy prospectus, visited the campus on a sunny day, and earmarked a stool in the student bar – but do you really know what you’re signing up to? Admissions tutors warn that students and postgraduates sometimes have a tendency to subscribe to a romantic idea of what a course involves, only to be brought up short when the reality hits them a few months in. So if you’re thinking of doing a BEng, MSc, PhD, or any other of the many courses around, here are 10 key questions you should be asking.

1. Is it accredited?

If you’re hoping the course will be your first step to a professional qualification, it needs to be accredited by the relevant professional body. This is one of the most important things to find out, and should be top of your list at the start of the process – if you’re asking at interview stage, you may already have wasted an application.

It may sound obvious, but Jeremy Spicer, admissions manager at the University of the West of England (UWE), is surprised by how many students take it for granted that their chosen course has the right credentials. “Sometimes they’ve looked at four or five courses and see they have accreditation and they make the assumption that all courses are accredited,” Spicer warns.

Non-accredited courses may have lower entry requirements, and it is possible to attain chartership, if you enrol on a top-up course afterwards. But if you want the shortest route to chartership, beware: it is often impossible to transfer from a non-accredited course to an accredited one later in the day without restarting. Spicer says: “We quite often get calls from students in the first year of an unaccredited course asking if they can come on to our second year. Often we can help, but they may have to take a step back or do extra study.”

Your eventual career path needs to be a factor early on in your course decision, and there’s little room to hedge your bets. Few courses have accreditation by more than one body, although there are a handful, such as UWE’s Architecture and Planning, accredited by not only the RIBA and Architects Registration Board but by the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) too, or Property Development and Planning, accredited by the RICS and RTPI.

There’s a further complication in that while several courses may be accredited, they won’t all be accredited to the same level. For example, some engineering degrees result in an incorporated rather than chartered engineer qulaification. It is still possible to become chartered after taking the BSc rather than the BEng, but it will take an extra step. Students need to decide on the most appropriate route for them. Spicer suggests that some students may be uncomfortable with the high entry requirements and academic demands of the chartered course, and prefer to work towards the lower standard, to start with at least – and there is still strong demand for incorporated engineers.

2. How much will it cost?

With degrees becoming increasingly expensive, getting to grips with different sources of funding is an afternoon well spent. There are grants, bursaries, allowances for people on certain benefits, fee loans and maintenance loans, and their availability can depend on your age, income and any previous qualifications and where they were obtained.

Part-time funding is means-tested so not very generous if you’re already working, but if you lose your job or employer’s support, it’s worth knowing what else is on offer. The government website Direct Gov on this is particularly helpful..

You should also scrutinise course descriptions to see whether bursaries are available for certain courses, and how you could qualify. Each university has a different policy on awarding bursaries, whether to high-calibre individuals or overseas students as an incentive, so it's worth asking.

3. How will you help me to get a job?

David Baldry, acting department head at the school of the built environment at the University of Salford, suggests asking what a university’s typical employment rate is, what type of companies graduates go to, and what the school or college will do to help you find a job afterwards. Universities should be able to demonstrate a high proportion of graduates in employment, and a strong network of employers. At a good university, employers will come on recruitment visits, and there should be recruitment fairs for graduates and placement students.

Some courses may be entirely sponsored by employers, such as the Construction Management BSc at Salford. Every student is sponsored by a major company such as Laing O’Rourke, Bovis Lend Lease and Skanska, and benefits from financial support and work placements, before taking up a permanent position at the end of the course.

4. But what will I really learn?

You would assume that a list of courses all accredited by the same professional body, complying with their guidelines and delivering up the same qualification would be similar, wouldn’t you? Where this is generally the case for disciplines such as building surveying, for more open-ended professions like architecture, course content can vary wildly from institution to institution.

The University of Bath’s degree course, for example, has a rather technical focus, with a lot of engineering, whereas if you want a more conceptual, artsy approach, you’d be happier at the Bartlett in London.

“It’s not just a spectrum from techy to arty – different schools take different philosophical approaches to the subject too,” says UWE’s Spicer. “We need to explain to students that they need to find a course that fits with the way that they think about architecture and their own aptitudes.” Applying to the wrong course is a wasted application, he adds – for example, a techy course may not consider you unless you have studied maths to A level.

Degree shows, held in June, are a very good way to see exactly what students have been working on, as are conventional open days. But you could also find out a lot at home from reading between the lines. “A lot of information is published by universities about their courses, if you read it properly,” says Spicer. “It’s about not making assumptions.”

A good course can open many doors, so it’s worth asking around about the university’s reputation too. Professional bodies could be useful sources of advice on all types of course. If you’re already working, talk to colleagues about their experiences and senior staff about where they’d recommend.

5. Can I be flexible?

This is particularly important if you’re intending to balance further education with a full-time job, or you’re not sure how far you want to take your studies.

Generally a conventional masters course is one year full-time, or two part-time. But universities may offer other options – for example, at the University of Reading, you can postpone the decision to take a masters and spread the work over five years. Modules can be taken either as part of a masters or for CPD purposes, with or without an assessment. Even if you don’t want to sign up for a two-year part-time masters initially, if you take the assessments and build up 180 credits over five years, you can convert them into a degree. “It adds more flexibility, so it’s very popular with students,” says Milan Radosavljevic, a lecturer and school director of enterprise at the University of Reading. “You do not need to go though a certain schedule of modules, you can take any when you have time.”

At the University of Salford, Baldry says its HNC/HND course in construction and property can also lead to a related degree if students get the right grades and choose to specialise – something to ask about at interview.

Mature students shouldn’t underestimate their potential, he adds. “Part-time students are very task oriented, in some ways they’re better at managing their time than the full-time students fresh from school.”

There's also considerable flexibility should you need to defer your studies for financial or health reasons, switch from full to part-time, or vice versa. Baldry notes that during the boom years, students sometimes cut their hours and took up attractive employment opportunities – now he has seen the tide turn as people who've lost their jobs choose to continue studying full-time.

6. Are the teachers top of the class?

Obviously PhD students will be very interested in the research interests of the department, but it’s also a useful indicator for undergraduates.

“If a department has got a track record of research, you can count on state-of-the-art teaching too,” says Radosavljevic. “All of our research is translated into modules.”

The Times Higher Education Supplement, ranks universities by a number of criteria, including research. You could also look on the website of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council at its database of past projects. Radosavljevic suggests looking at all the projects a particular department has done in the last three to five years, and checking how much industry collaboration they’ve had.

Universities’ own websites also list individual tutors’ research interests. If you are considering a PhD, it’s essential to establish contact with potential supervisors. “Just applying for a PhD position isn’t really sufficient. You have to build up a relationship over time,” advises Radosavljevic.

7. Can I do an industry placement …

Many batchelor’s degrees offer students the chance to work in industry for a year during their studies, usually between the second and third year. Apart from the obvious financial advantages of a year of paid employment, Baldry says work experience can also help students get the most out of their final year. “As an experience it can’t be beaten, it improves academic performance in their final year and their employment prospects. Many people get offered permanent positions following their placements.”

8. … somewhere exotic?

Few careers can rival the globetrotting potential of construction, and if working abroad is something you’d like to do, it’s never too early to ask your university what help it could offer. Some may be able to arrange international placements, particularly for courses such as quantity surveying and construction management. Baldry says this will usually come down to the contacts individual tutors have in the industry, though Salford was approached recently by a Dubai company looking for students to work on luxury hotel fit-outs in their placement year.

9. How will you stop me getting bored?

You don’t just want to be chained to your books the whole time, particularly not with a practical subject like construction. Ask your admissions tutors about site visits and a mix of learning experiences such as team-based projects and presentations by industry representatives. “A whole variety of activities make up a course,” says Baldry. “Ten to twenty per cent of less conventional classroom activity is a reasonable benchmark.”

10. Can I do it in my dressing gown?

Students who live some way from an institution, are based overseas, or who just prefer to study at home might want to consider distance learning. These courses can be much cheaper than part-time equivalents and also allow you to keep working full-time.

The College of Estate Management, for example, offers distance learning qualifications in a variety of property and construction-related disciplines, some of which are accredited. “The big advantage is flexibility,” says Gary Reynolds, head of construction. “You don’t need to be in one place, you can do it at home and work during the day, all you need to do is log on.”

He recommends quizzing an institution on how a course is structured, how it’s assessed and how much time you’ll need to devote to it. Studying alone is not for everyone, so it’s worth asking how much support the institution could offer you.

CEM uses a variety of methods to keep in touch with students, on a one-to-one basis or via online communities and discussion sessions, and delivers content through not only written materials, available online or through the post, but through video and audio files too. “We like to think we cater for all types of learning,” says Reynolds.