Back to advice

What can a postgraduate qualification do for me?

Tuesday 10 January 2012 Postgraduate

Thinking about further study but not sure whether it’s right for you? Worried that your first degree might not make you stand out from the masses? A postgraduate qualification might be able to give you the edge over your competitors.

‘Finding a job is really tough, especially for arts degree graduates,’ says Jess Townend, a recent graduate from Newcastle University.

‘I spent the summer travelling around Asia and didn’t really think too much about getting a job. I’ve been back a couple of months now and haven’t had much success in getting interviews. I’m starting to consider whether a postgraduate course might help me get a foot in the door.’

Further study might not be the first thing on most graduates’ minds after three to four years of hard graft, however like Jess, you may find that the job offers are not as plentiful as you first hoped. With an undergraduate degree no longer the draw it used to be for employers, many new graduates begin to consider going back into studying.

Postgraduate degrees are broadly split into two types – taught and research. Taught Masters are like a beefed-up version of undergraduate degrees, with three years of leisurely learning and exams packed into one intense, challenging year, with a growing focus on employability. Expect to carry out work experience placements alongside your studies.

Research degrees can take longer to complete and often lead towards careers in academia. The starting point for most research degrees is a Masters of Research (MRes), which can be converted into a PhD if you want to extend your study. The onus will be on the student to come up with a search topic and you will have to be able to work independently. This can be a lonely experience for some, but research students benefit from the freedom to explore a subject that interests them in depth.

Postgrad potential

Sometimes a postgraduate qualification is the only way you’ll be able to break into the sector you want. This can particularly be the case when your undergraduate degree isn’t relevant to your future career aims. Many postgraduates find themselves taking ‘conversion courses’ in order to get the necessary skills they require after switching options. Conversion courses are available in almost every subject, but are particularly popular in areas like teaching, IT and law. They tend to focus on vocational attributes and many are accredited by professional bodies, meaning that they are highly valued by employers.

Ruth Sutton is the programme director of Manchester Metropolitan University’s Graduate Diploma in Law (GDL). She agrees that conversion courses are increasingly focused on professional skills.

‘We have traditionally offered students independent research projects in one of three areas, but the study emphasis is starting to change,’ says Ruth.

‘We now focus much more on professional skills, key graduate attributes and how to get a job. The focus is more on the professional side of things.’

Research degrees

Graduates taking a research degree generally have aims at the opposite end of the scale to those taking conversion courses. Instead of intensive cramming and a short-cut into industry, researchers are looking to broaden their knowledge of a particular subject, while adding new ideas and information.

Chris Ford is currently researching a PhD in robotics at Plymouth University. He says that a PhD helps both his academic knowledge and his employability.

‘The idea behind researching a PhD is to place myself higher on a list of interview choices by having that extra degree, but also to choose the most interesting and challenging topic in my area that I could,’ says Chris.

‘Researching a PhD is a hugely different experience from being an undergraduate. You are treated s a member of staff and given a great deal of responsibility within the university. A lot is expected of a PhD student, not least in how they are perceived as ambassadors for the university and also at times through teaching degree students about their areas of expertise.

‘Essentially, you are being trained to be a professional researcher. The final thesis and viva examination are the overall proof of the kills you have learnt. I hope to stay at Plymouth after my research and perform post-doctoral duties, which will hopefully lead onto a lectureship,’ he adds.

World of work

Some employers used to be wary about taking on postgraduates, worrying that they had spent too long in education and not enough time developing employability skills. These employers were concerned that postgraduates became too comfortable in the university environment, and lacked experience and commercial awareness. There was also a concern that some postgraduates – particularly PhD students – may have overspecialised.

Happily, this is less of an issue today. Most postgraduate courses have a strong emphasis on employability, with work experience and industrial placements the rule rather than the exception. Masters students can expect to spend a lot of time researching future roles and getting information on the best way of getting into employment.

It’s also important to remember that the benefits of a postgraduate degree extend beyond getting that first job. Your qualification will be looked upon favourably when promotion opportunities arise, even if it isn’t essential for your immediate job prospects. It’s all about playing the long game.

A postgraduate degree can be the difference between getting the job you want and joining the graduate scrapheap. However, you need to think of the qualification as part of a wider package, rather than as our defining feature. Think about how the qualification can fit in with your wider career plans, and choose your course wisely. It could be the most important decision you ever make.