A degree of excellence

Some jobs demand a postgraduate qualification. But which will be best?
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Many people today undertake a degree in financial hardship and complete it in substantial debt. Nevertheless, one in nine of those who successfully graduate go on to pursue a higher degree. A similar proportion seek postgraduate vocational qualifications in teaching, social work, psychology, architecture, medicine, the law and other professions. What are the vocational benefits and disadvantages of postgraduate study, and what are the study options available?

In 1945 only one in 50 school leavers entered university, most destined for careers in the administrative grades of the civil service, in medicine and in academe. They were a vocational elite. By the Sixties the proportion had risen to one in 17 and industry and commerce had also become major recruiters of graduates for careers in management, or as technical specialists. A first degree remained a desirable passport to higher-level careers.

Since then, jobs have become more complex and need greater intellectual skills. Consequently the level of attainment expected of entrants into army careers has risen. Today one in three school leavers enters higher education. Moreover, the Confederation of British Industry would like the proportion to rise to 40 per cent (a level already achieved in Scotland). An ordinary degree is fast becoming the minimum acceptable qualification for white-collar work.

It might be assumed that postgraduate qualifications have taken over as the passport to higher-level careers. However, this is only partially true.

Some careers can be entered only with a postgraduate vocational qualification - teaching, social work, and the law, for example. There are usually diploma courses. There are specialisms within science and engineering which can be studied only at postgraduate level. A postgraduate degree is usually the minimum needed for an academic career, or to work in research and development; employers in these areas want postgraduates who have taken courses or conducted research which is directly relevant to their interests.

However, many postgraduates continue to study for non-vocational reasons. Most employers are happy to accept those who pursue specialist courses because they are of passionate interest to them - regardless of vocational value. They are less enthusiastic about candidates who lose interest in their original subject and change direction, or those who vaguely believe that further study will enhance their career prospects. Even more disliked are those who undertake further study just to defer a career decision or entry into the job market: graduates must be able to give a "good" reason for undertaking further study - both to university admissions staff, and, later, to recruiters.

Many employers in industry and commerce are worried by the inconsistency of first degree standards. Many organisations recruiting for their mainstream graduate entry now target universities that have maintained a reputation for academic rigour. However, some give preference to postgraduates over those with first degrees. On the other hand, these postgraduates, once recruited, are unlikely to be rewarded any better, or enjoy better career prospects.

For mainstream graduate entry, employers prefer masters' to research degrees. Those with a PhD are often believed to lack commercial awareness, to be poor team players, to lack practical skills - and also to lack decisiveness, because they have been trained not to make decisions on incomplete data. Most decisions in industry and commerce have to be made with limited data.

There is an almost infinite choice, with about 11,500 postgraduate courses in Britain. The first decision is whether to study for a research degree (usually a three-year PhD), or a taught course (a master's degree for most academic courses, or a postgraduate diploma for most vocational courses).

In choosing a course, four factors should be looked at. Should you continue at your Alma Mater, or go elsewhere? What are the standards of teaching and of research? And does the course teach transferable skill and, where appropriate, give opportunities to work with employers outside the academic world?

Staying at the original university to take a higher degree is the easiest option, but advisable only if the postgraduate course is undeniably the best in its field. A new location, academic staff, student body, culture, library, ideas and so an will widen a student's horizons.

Teaching standards in departments are assessed by the Higher Education Funding Councils (HEFCs). As far as possible, seek a course in a department rated "excellent" or (under the HEFCs new system) awarded 22 to 24 points. Ignore the institution's reputation and study the ratings.

For research degrees you should look at the HEFC research ratings. These are on a range from 5 (some research of international excellence with the rest of national excellence) down to 1 (research of national excellence in none, or virtually none, of the areas). A separate scale ranks the level of staff participation in research.

The importance of transferable skills was emphasised in the Association of Graduate Recruiters' submission to the Secretary of State's review of higher education. It said: "Although Higher Education should not be regarded as just a route to better-paid employment, the process should encourage the skills necessary for graduates to adapt rapidly to the world of work."

The Institute for Employment Studies has also observed that "in industry and commerce the majority of postgraduates are recruited as part of companies' mainstream graduate recruitment programmes, where personal characteristics and evidence of relevant work experience are important selection criteria".

Some universities, such as the graduate school of University College London (UCL), provide formal training in research and transferable skills for postgraduates. At UCL this is an induction programme of short courses covering research strategies and methods, library technology, computer skills, statistics and other topics. There are also courses in transferable skills.

Other universities embed transferable skills training into their courses. However, many universities give little or no attention to these skills. In choosing a course, it is wise to look for such skills training and, where appropriate, for opportunities to carry out projects with commercial firms.