For many people these days a 'masters' is the automatic next step after a three-year undergraduate degree. It deepens the knowledge gained during a first course of study and, in theory, sets you up with everything you need to know for working life after higher education.
In fine art and craft, however, the motivation for doing an MA is often quite different. For a start it's something people generally embark on after a few years in the 'real' world.
"I started my MA because I felt a bit stuck," says artist Page Benkowski. "I was very comfortable with the art I was making and my ideas felt safe and stale. I needed to be pushed. I also wanted to be around a lot of people who were equally actively engaged in developing their own practice."
Page is typical of the many artists who plunge back into an academic environment, often after a break of several years, in order to revitalise their practice. Making art can be a solitary business, even when you're working alongside other artists. Once the door of the studio is closed, you're completely on your own and opportunities for rigorous critique are rare. It's not surprising, then, if your self-confidence and sense of purpose begin to suffer.
There's also pressure to make a living, which leads many artists to pursue other activities and takes them away from the thing they want to do most. Mella Shaw had been organising exhibitions in museums and galleries for ten years, but was increasingly desperate to give her own practice some dedicated time. "Doing the MA at the Royal College of Art was the best decision I ever made," she says. "I now have two careers - which I plan to dovetail."
Similarly, Cadi Froelich went back to college ten years after first studying art in California, because she wanted to take her career as an artist to the next level. She thrived in the collaborative atmosphere of Camberwell School of Art, where she made many friendships among the 40 or so students on her course. When the course transferred to Chelsea halfway through, she had access to an even larger peer-group and wider range of tutors. "I loved the energy of all the students swirling around the buildings," she says. The impact on her practice and professional profile has been immeasurable.
Most MA courses culminate in the end-of-year show, which continues to have a special place in the British art school calendar. For students it's a moment to disclose to others and perhaps even discover for themselves what they have learned and how they have changed. There's something about the process of exhibiting your work that is profoundly, if at times uncomfortably, revealing.
Traditionally, the MA show is also a vehicle for curatorial research and talent-scouting. Who is out there making new and interesting work? Where are the rising stars, the 'future greats'? What motivates them? What materials and media are they embracing? How is the zeitgeist changing?
This is where programmes such as MAstars come into their own. Each year we select a number of MA shows for influential curators, writers and other art professionals to visit. Their brief is simple: choose the student whose work makes the deepest impression and tell us why. This year, for the first time, we have brought all the selections from 2013 together in a celebratory digital yearbook.
The book is a testament not just to the artists and makers whose work is featured, but also to the discerning eye and commitment of our selectors. "Eleanor Nairne is a thoughtful and critical writer and I really value her comments regarding my work," says Mitra Saboury of the curator who singled her out from the Goldsmiths MFA show. "It's these moments of appreciation that encourage and drive me through my practice."
Bridget Harvey from the MA Designer Maker course at Camberwell College of Arts agrees: "Having someone (Louise Taylor) I had never met enjoy my work and select me for this is flattering and exciting." Bridget is also keenly aware of how the web can expand the audience for her work by enabling users to transcend the usual limitations of time and place.
It would indeed be difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to get to all the MA shows in the UK. From Bournemouth to Belfast, the geographic canvas is huge and the sheer range of courses enormous. So why not let our MAstars yearbook take you on a whistle-stop tour of the latest highlights? Just click on the link and leap right in.
Sheila McGregor is the director of Axisweb, the leading promotional platform for UK contemporary art