Post-graduate courses: The higher route to a new vocation

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The proliferation of postgraduate courses may leave some graduates feeling bewildered. Philip Schofield charts the way through the academic maze and suggests how to choose the course of your dreams

Young people approaching the end of the school, curriculum are usually amazed and confused by the number and variety of first-degree subjects which can be studied at university. The same feelings are often aroused in first-degree graduates looking at postgraduate options.

Those who do not wish to research a topic of personal interest, enter an academic career, or make a career in research and development, will usually shun a doctorate and aim for a taught course.

Those who want to pursue particular careers may find they have little choice in the course they take. Graduates wishing to enter social work will need to study for the Diploma in Social Work, while those who want to teach in schools and colleges will need the Postgraduate Certificate in Education.

There are many courses which offer vocational advantages although they may not be mandatory for any career. Rather they enhance your chances of finding a specialist niche. Some are highly specific to particular occupations and industries - such as advanced mobile and personal radio communication engineering at Lancaster, concrete technology and construction at Dundee, aquaculture at Stirling and publishing and book production at Plymouth. Other courses, although serving particular industries and occupations, are less specialised.

Those interested in a financial career can choose a variety of options - about 20 institutions run courses in accountancy, others in accountancy and finance. Banking and Finance can be studied at the University of Wales in Bangor, City University, Loughborough and Stirling. Those who aspire to the higher and more cerebral levels of the insurance industry can study actuarial science at City University or Heriot-Watt. Those attracted to finance, but not to industry or commerce, could study charity finance at South Bank or health service finance at Birmingham.

Similarly there are postgraduate courses in many aspects of marketing, personnel and human resource management, transport and distribution management, security management, and other management functions. For those who have only the vaguest idea of what they want to do, there are more general management studies.

However, it would be unwise at this stage to consider a Masters in Business Administration. The MBA is now seen as a post-experience as well as a postgraduate degree, and it is most unlikely that a good business school in Britain or Europe will accept a newly qualified graduate on such a programme. Business schools that do so are not well regarded by discriminating employers and their MBAs have little value in the job market.

The science and engineering departments offer a huge range of specialist courses also aimed at meeting niche interests and needs. For the graduate with a clear sense of direction, or a specific interest, the choice may be easy to make. An engineer with ambitions to run an airport may well choose Loughborough University's MSc in Airport Planning and Management. A physicist interested in sound pollution may opt for Salford University's MSc in environmental acoustics. However, it might be unwise to choose a narrow specialism unless you are really sure of your choice. No one wants to be typecast in a role which cannot retain their interest.

Many science and technology postgraduate programmes can be undertaken part-time. You can start a career, and once you have identified a particular interest or need, choose a part-time specialised course which you can study while working. This can offer financial and learning advantages.

Today those going straight from a first degree to a postgraduate course often have a heavy burden of debt. Earning a salary before starting a new course enables you to clear any debut and supports your new studies. Moreover, many employers will support relevant specialist studies as part of your training and career development. The learning process is also helped because you can relate the theory to your work. Employers will often provide on-going opportunities to put into practice what you are learning in theory.

Many people choose a higher degree course out of interest and not for vocational reasons. If you really want to know more about a subject in which you have developed a passionate interest, that is a good enough reason to take your studies further. However, it is worth bearing in mind that when you enter the jobs market, employers will want to know why you took a higher degree. Enthusiasm for a subject, whatever it may be, is fine. Any suspicion that you stayed on at university just to defer entry into the "real world" is not.

You can choose to study any discipline without wanting to make a career in the field. However, most subjects considered non-vocational are in the arts. Certainly most people would find it hard to think of many career applications for a Master's in Greek drama (Nottingham), death and immortality (Lampeter), Buddhist studies (Bristol), English language and literature before 1525 (King's College, London) or old testament studies (Glasgow and St Andrews).

However, it should not be thought that arts subjects are valueless. Albert Einstein said: "Art is the expression of the profoundest thoughts in the simplest way". Another scientist, Sir David Smith, the former Principal of Edinburgh University, emphasised the importance and value of humanities, describing them as the custodians of our culture. He said:

"The study of them provides profound intellectual satisfaction and pleasure; it provides the fundamentals of ethics and the processes by which we communicate ideas and comprehend languages; and they provide understanding of beauty whether it is perceived by the written word, by music or by the visual senses. The humanities truly provide an excellent education."

There are nearly 12,000 postgraduate courses now available in the UK and making a choice is not easy. However, all postgraduate courses are listed in The Directory of Graduate Studies 1998 (CRAC/Hobson, pounds 99.99). This gives a 120-word description for every course.

A condensed version, giving a one-line listing of each course is available free of charge from university and college careers services. Courses are also listed at on the Internet.