Post Graduate+: The real worth of a PhD

Most PhDs are snapped up by academic employers, but a higher degree in economics, for example, may greatly improve your chances of a high- flying job in finance. Philip Schofield reports
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The Independent Online
One in nine graduates chooses to do further academic study. This does not include a similar number who enter postgraduate teacher training and other vocational courses. Why should people likely to have shouldered a heavy debt to take a first degree, then add to their burden by undertaking postgraduate academic study?

There are several reasons, some better than others. Some have merely set their sights on a career for which a postgraduate higher degree is an essential entry qualification. Or they may feel, rightly or wrongly, that a postgraduate degree will increase their employability in an increasingly demanding labour market. On the other hand, there may be areas of knowledge which have so fired their enthusiasm that they feel compelled to pursue them further. All are good reasons which prospective employers will find laudable.

Graduates occasionally take a higher degree to change discipline, either because they have lost interest in their original discipline, or because they think it to be of little value in the jobs market. About half of all graduate jobs are open to all disciplines, so some employers are a little wary of those who think they need to change subject. It is best for those who have changed discipline not to admit that they made a mistake. If they can do so credibly, they should say that a change of course was to develop their intellectual skills further.

Finally, some people take postgraduate courses to defer entry into employment, or because they still don't know what they want to do. Neither is seen to be a good reason, or will be viewed unfavourably by employers.

Does a postgraduate qualification always offer vocational benefits? In the long term the answer is probably yes. But not everyone agrees.

A study of "The Labour Market for Postgraduates" was produced by the Institute for Employment Studies five years ago. This said that the main demand came from higher education itself, and from organisations involved in research and development.

"Outside the academic sector, where at least a master's qualification is usually sought, it is rare to see an advertisement specifying a higher degree in the social sciences or humanities, other than possibly an MBA, or [a degree] in a specialist discipline such as occupational psychology, information studies or transport planning."

However, the study added that areas outside higher education where postgraduate qualifications in social sciences are "deemed advantageous" include economics - in the financial sector - and statisticians in the Civil Service and in many international appointments. Summarising its findings, the report said:

"Outside of the HE 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." The report concluded: "There is little evidence of clear benefits of postgraduate study to individuals in terms of career progress or financial rewards."

However, the postgraduate market seems to be changing, The knowledge content of jobs is growing, and employers are becoming more aware of the importance of their intellectual capital. Markets are becoming ever more competitive. The winners are those who most effectively harness leading- edge technology, processes and systems, Companies need growing numbers of specialists.

Some specialisms can be studied only at postgraduate level. Not all of these are in science and technology. Universities have become responsive to external demand and have created programmes that are highly specific to particular occupations and industries - such as airport planning and management at Loughborough, publishing and book production at Plymouth, concrete technology and construction at Dundee, and aquaculture at Stirling, Other courses, although serving particular industries and occupations, can be less specialised.

There is a wide range of postgraduate courses covering various careers, including marketing, personnel and human resource management, transport and distribution management, security management, journalism, and arts administration.

On the other hand, some postgraduate courses aimed at specific areas of employment - such as the travel industry, financial services and retailing - appear to offer little value to the newly qualified graduate. Most employers in these areas still prefer to recruit first-degree graduates, of any discipline, and then train and develop them themselves. Only later may they send employees on part-time postgraduate courses as part of their career development.

Although the demand for postgraduates outside academe and R&D is growing, other areas are not absorbing the whole supply. The IES comment that many postgraduates are hired as part of companies' mainstream graduate recruitment programmes still holds true. However, today this is not the whole story.

An ordinary degree, once the entree to a higher-level career, is fast becoming the minimum acceptable qualification for white-collar work. Postgraduate qualifications are slowly becoming a passport to many higher- level careers.

Some employers believe first-degree standards are inconsistent, and even falling. Some target universities which appear to have maintained academic rigour. Others now give preference to postgraduates, for their mainstream graduate intake - though these postgraduates are unlikely to be rewarded more, or initially enjoy better career prospects, than first-degree graduates. However, there are indications that in the long term, postgraduates recruited as part of the graduate mainstream eventually overtake their graduate contemporaries, both in earnings and in progression.

For mainstream graduate entry, employers prefer master's to research degrees. People who have spent several years on the essentially lonely task of obtaining a doctorate are often believed to be poor at working with others, to lack practical skills, and, because of their training in academic rigour, to be poor decision-makers; most decisions in industry and commerce have to be made with limited data. Some universities, but by no means all, now provide PhD students with some training in these "transferable work skills" to improve their employability in industry and commerce.

Finally, for those who aim to work abroad, particularly in continental Europe, a postgraduate degree is a distinct advantage. Because our graduates leave university at a younger age than those in most of the rest of Europe, our first degrees are often seen as "inferior". But our higher degrees are well respected, and enhance international employability.