The degree's in the post

Postgraduate study can enhance your career prospects or be a complete waste of time - so make sure you find the course that's right for you. By Philip Schofield
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There are several reasons why you might undertake a taught postgraduate course, some better than others. You may wish to pursue some aspect of your first degree in greater depth or earn a qualification which may be essential or helpful to your intended career. If you aim to work abroad, particularly in the European Union or the US, a Master's degree is a distinct advantage. These are all excellent reasons for further study.

However, courses are often undertaken by people with misguided expectations. A higher degree doesn't always improve one's prospects in the job market, and employers will often recruit a first-degree graduate who has gained some practical work experience in preference to a postgraduate. Employers also distrust candidates whom they suspect of taking a postgraduate course merely to defer making a career decision.

If your reasons for contemplating a course of further study are primarily vocational, it is worth checking that such a course has real value. For many careers - including teaching, social work, clinical psychology, the law and librarianship - a relevant postgraduate qualification is mandatory. If you want to work in a specialist area of science or technology - a Master's degree may also be valuable if not actually essential. For example, a physicist wishing to specialise in space science, a chemist in crystallography, or a computer scientist in expert systems, is unlikely to find useful employment without a relevant Master's degree.

An appropriate vocational diploma can also be useful in careers as diverse as marketing, journalism, personnel management, tourism and arts administration. On the other hand, some postgraduate courses aimed at specific occupations such as the travel industry, financial services and retailing, may have very little vocational value to the newly qualified graduate. Most employers in these areas prefer to recruit first-degree graduates, usually of any discipline, and train and develop them themselves. Only later may they send employees on part-time courses as part of their career development.

Unless you are choosing a postgraduate course out of personal interest, or you are entering a career where an appropriate qualification is mandatory, you would be wise to get some expert advice. Your university careers advisory service will usually be able to give you sound objective guidance.

It is also worth your while visiting a graduate recruitment fair and talking to some recruiters to get their opinion of the value of your proposed qualification.

If your career ambitions are very specific, it might also be worth writing to the graduate recruitment managers of three or four employers in the career field that interests you. You can get names and addresses from your careers service. Explain your specific career ambitions and ask whether a postgraduate qualification would enhance your job prospects, and if so, what type of course would be preferred. Because you are asking a favour of a busy person, keep your letter brief, and enclose a stamped self-addressed envelope for a reply.

Taught courses at postgraduate level are more intensive than first-degree courses. If you had difficulty in keeping abreast of your work and meeting your deadlines during your first degree, however good your final result, you would be wise to seek the advice of your current tutor. You need to be sure that you have the ability to undertake a further programme of intensive study.

Once you are sure that you can benefit from and cope with a master's degree, you have the problem of choosing an appropriate course. The choice is bewildering as there are now about 11,500 full and part-time postgraduate courses, many with identical titles. The first task is to produce a short- list.

The most detailed guide to postgraduate courses is Postgrad: The Directory of Graduate Studies published annually by Hobsons Publishing. This lists all research and taught programmes, including taught diplomas and certificates. The 1996 edition is published this month (at pounds 99.99) and may be consulted in university graduate careers services. A condensed version, Postgrad: The Student's Guide, provides summary details of all courses and will be published in September. Copies are supplied to each careers service for free distribution to prospective postgraduate students. Hobsons also lists all postgraduate courses on the Internet (

Many new master's courses differ little from first-degree programmes and often consist of modules taken from various undergraduate programmes. These may suit those who wish to broaden their knowledge or convert from one subject to another, but they do not meet the needs of students who want a higher level of specialist study. Alas, unlike some countries, Britain does not differentiate between courses which broaden knowledge and those that deepen it.

In shortlisting courses it is important to be aware that many courses with similar or even identical titles can vary substantially in content and emphasis. It is important to obtain the prospectus of each course which appears to be relevant to your interests, and study the syllabus so you can be sure the course is really what you want.

If you hope to continue in a specialist aspect of your first degree subject, then your current lecturers should be able to give you some useful advice.

A major element in the choice of course is the reputation of the department. Employers are often as much concerned with where a qualification was obtained as the qualification itself. Postgraduate students also owe it to themselves to learn from genuine experts.

Departmental reputations can vary swiftly as academic and research teams break up and reform: do not rely on hearsay or on outdated sources. Your existing lecturers and your careers service should be able to give you some up-to-date advice or indicate where you can get it.

Finally, there is now a system for the assessment of teaching standards in individual academic departments which is run by the Higher Education Funding councils. These assessments are published and should be available for consultation in the university careers service or library. Aim to study in a department where the overall rating is "excellent" or (under the new system of rating points) has been awarded 22 to 24 for its teaching standardsn