Some careers, such as teaching and social work, need a postgraduate diploma. Others, such as teaching in higher education and research and development work, usually require a PhD. There are also some posts in science and technology that require a master's degree. However, is a higher degree more valuable than a first degree
in the more general graduate job market?
The unemployment rate for postgraduates, at around 4 per cent, is much lower than for first degree graduates. However, a higher proportion of postgraduate students study part time, are sponsored by existing employers, or return to previous employment.
As a new study carried out for the Department of Employment by the Institute for Manpower Studies (IMS) - The Labour Market for Postgraduates - says: 'Low unemployment rates do not necessarily equate to high demand per se: many postgraduates enter jobs where their qualification is neither relevant nor desirable.'
The study points out that there is a considerable overlap between the first degree and postgraduate labour markets. It continues: 'Outside of the higher education sector and research-based organisations, there is little specific demand for postgraduates, especially PhDs. 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.'
This relative lack of demand is reflected in salary levels. Each January the IMS carries out a survey for the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) on how graduate salaries and vacancies have changed in the preceding 12 months. This year the survey found that only 37 per cent of recruiters make distinctions in starting salaries by level of qualification. Distinctions are more likely to be made in the industrial sector (48 per cent), where employers often seek technical skills, than in the non-industrial (28 per cent).
In the organisations that did have differential starting salaries, a PhD/DPhil was worth an extra pounds 2,175 on the median pounds 12,800 salary for a 21-year-old with a second class honours first degree. An MSc/MA was worth an extra pounds 724. Those sponsored by the recruiting organisations, those with a first class honours degree, and those who had taken sandwich courses each attracted a supplement of pounds 500. Mature students, often with previous work experience, drew a median salary supplement of pounds 1,000 - more than those with a master's degree.
Unless a higher degree was vocationally related to the position being filled, the survey found, it was usually ignored. Some recruiters suggested that a non-vocational higher degree could be a handicap.
A statement issued by the AGR, the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services and the Central Services Unit warns: 'The AGR survey confirmed that a postgraduate qualification is not always a benefit when seeking employment. Unless the qualification is relevant to the job, it is unlikely to give any advantage in terms of selection or salary.'
The IMS study similarly concludes: 'There is little evidence of clear benefits of postgraduate study to individuals in terms of career progress or financial rewards.'
These findings related primarily to immediate job prospects and earnings. The career experiences of more than 7,000 students who graduated in 1980 were surveyed in detail six years later on behalf of the Department of Employment. It was found that a professional qualification or a master's degree raised earnings for both men and women while diplomas and doctorates had no significant impact on earnings.
It seems clear that those contemplating studying for a higher degree - unless they are intending to enter relevant academic, research or technical work - should not expect employers to view them any more favourably than first degree graduates. Indeed, employers are rarely impressed by those who enter postgraduate courses (or have taken a year off) without positive and preferably vocationally related reasons for doing so. Deferring entry to a difficult job market is not generally an acceptable reason.
Employers also point out that those with higher degrees sometimes have an unrealistic view of their own work skills. Having joined an employer, some resent having to undergo the same training as first degree graduates. They should recognise that, although they may be a little older and more mature than first degree graduates, they know no more about the world of work.
Looking to future demand for postgraduates, the IMS argues that there is little evidence that more opportunities will become available for postgraduates than for first degree graduates.
The real value of a non-vocational higher degree may, however, be immeasurable. Little research has yet been done into the 'quality' of jobs done by postgraduates and the relevance of these to their qualifications. It may be that they eventually do work which is intellectually more rewarding than that done by first degree graduates.
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