Halfway house or ivory tower?

Postgraduate study needn't be self- indulgent.
THE PROSPECT of continuing as a student ad infinitum can be appealing to final year undergraduates. If you don't mind the constant ache of poverty, it can appear the ideal way to ease yourself from the cultivated cocoon of campus life into a rather abrasive and often dumbed-down outside world.

But is it a halfway house, or more of an ivory tower? Is it an easy option, or a struggle from start to finish? And at the end of it, will you be any more employable? Like much else in life, it's down to your motives, talent and willingness to put in sheer hard work.

At first glance, it seems that British graduates are at something of a disadvantage. Further study is still not regarded by many employers as necessary or valuable, as it is in Germany - where five years of study is the norm - or the US, where graduates often continue with two years of graduate school after a broad-based four-year degree. Perhaps the nearest equivalent we have in the UK is the MBA, the career development tool for that extra boost into a top management position. Many firms will sponsor employees on such a course. The Ph.D., on the other hand, is still regarded as the fulfilment of a personal whim rather than a desirable qualification in a candidate.

Morag Williams admits that her doctorate, studying little-known playwrights, was something of a self-indulgence, but felt she should seize the chance that an unexpected First from Oxford afforded her. "I took a year out after university and decided that if I could get the funding to do it, it would be a rather advantageous way to spend the next three years."

What's more, she found that the discipline of doing it developed some transferable skills, such as perseverance and self-motivation, which she has subsequently used in her job as an editor. She also became adept at card-indexing and formulating databases. "You need to be really organised, not just at managing your time but managing the research. You have to make sure you don't go back and read the same thing two or three times. You also need to enjoy being on your own, and not mind spending hours in a library on fruitless searches, and know when you've got enough."

Being structured and completing work in segments was important to her progress. "My supervisor used to set me semi-flexible deadlines and I had quite a clear idea about what I wanted to do. There was a sense of logical sequence - it wasn't two years of research and 'Then what?'"

For Emma Laws, now 25, a three-year doctorate was too much to contemplate after three years as an undergraduate at Durham. Instead, she went on to do a one-year masters degree in information management at Aberystwyth. She was conscious that a postgraduate qualification could catapult her application to the top of the pile when pursuing jobs with rare books. "It gave me a kind of professional qualification. If I hadn't had it, I would never have been able to get the kind of job I now have."

Upon leaving Aberystwyth, she got a job at Windsor Castle, working with the Queen's collection of rare books. She is now at the Victoria and Albert museum, and hopes to begin another masters degree in September. This time, she is studying part-time over two years, looking at the history of the book - a subject she chose "simply because I think it will help me to focus my career more".

Being a postgraduate was different in many ways from being an undergraduate, she recalls. "The main thing was the age of the people on the course; they're not just 18 to 21. When you're only there for nine months, it's very fleeting and your friendships are more like professional friendships. As an undergraduate you can get by with not doing much work: you can get your finals polished off in a few weeks. At Aberystwyth, I spent most of my evenings working." Money was also something of a problem, but she took out a career development loan, looking upon it as a future investment.

But Elizabeth Wilkinson, careers adviser at the University of London Careers Service, advises that if your main motivation is to improve your employment prospects, you should ask the department about the destinations of previous students and look at the existing departmental contacts with employers.

She adds: "Postgraduate study is such a significant investment in time and money that it is absolutely crucial to research carefully what is being taught, who does the teaching and what resources are available, because there can be a considerable variation. In choosing a supervisor, there are three factors I would urge them to look at: obviously, academic suitability, but also their record of supervision and finally, personal chemistry."

Postgraduates looking ahead to employment should remember to present their work and themselves in the best light, she says. "It's important that they market to employers the personal qualities that have developed through research, as well as the knowledge: for instance, a good capacity for self-direction. They have often shown a great deal of perseverance, and they may undervalue this."

For more details about further study, look at the virtual careers library at http://www.careers.lon.ac.uk or individual university websites.