Whether training for a specific career, indulging in academic research, or simply sitting tight to avoid the fierce graduate recruitment market, more and more university leavers are choosing to extend their studies. The Higher Education Careers Services Unit (Hecsu) expects that of the near 300,000 students who graduate this summer, 30 per cent will enrol on a postgraduate course – an extra 30,000 students on the recent average.
Universities are already reporting sharp rises in the number of applicants for their postgraduate courses. Warwick University says applications are up 35 per cent on last year. The University of Hertfordshire, which already has a high proportion of postgraduates, has seen a 25 per cent increase. At Manchester Metropolitan, some 920 graduates re-enrolled in 2008, compared with 672 in 2007. The university expects some 1,500 of its graduates to enrol on postgraduate courses this year.
Would-be bankers are among the graduates choosing to lie low. "I always had the plan of doing a Masters but the recession really gave me the boost to do it," says Philipp Jeremias, 25, who is doing an MSc in international finance at Leeds University. "If you get a job, you can't be sure that you're going to be there for long."
But despite this trend, most tutors and careers advisers would warn students against blindly following the flock into further study. "Obviously there are certain professions that demand a postgraduate qualification," says Mike Hill, chief executive of Graduate Prospects, which runs the UK's busiest graduate careers website, Prospects.ac.uk.
"But on taught Masters, there are two main reasons for doing it: one, you have an intellectual itch and you want to scratch it. By all means do it, but before you do, get some careers advice as to how it might benefit you." The second reason to do further study, he says, is to specialise – for example, the English literature graduate doing a Masters in publishing.
Again, in this case, where a specific career outcome is the target, Hill encourages students to ask the hard questions: how much will the course cost? How much will it add to your relative earning power? And how long will the return take to pay off? The bottom line remains the same: will a further qualification help secure that job?
"My advice would be to see your careers service, talk to them about what you're thinking of doing," says Hill. "What are the vacancies? What are the career paths? If you are thinking of doing postgraduate study in a focused area, do some work experience and talk to the relevant firms about it. Before you commit to a number of thousands of pounds, find out what's involved."
Hill also says that employers' attitude to candidates with postgraduate qualifications has changed little. At most, it is another way of "sifting" applications. But another piece of paper will not be enough to secure that all-important job. "If you just have a Masters, you will not stand out against the person who has done three months' work experience," says Hill. "The ideal thing is to have the Masters and the work experience."
The same is true of further academic research. Ross Renton, head of recruitment and access at the University of Hertfordshire, says that now is as good a time as any to spend a year further exploring a subject you are passionate about. Besides: subjects such as history can teach crucial transferable skills that are vital when it comes to getting a job, he says.
But Renton agrees that, on its own, the value of a Masters is debatable. "The individual also needs to have the soft skills – so they're able to talk about their studies at interview," he says.
One of the most popular postgraduate options in recent years has been the law conversion – a two-year programme taking in the graduate diploma in law (GDL) and the legal practice course (LPC) – which puts graduates with general degrees on the path towards becoming a solicitor.
Giles Proctor, head of Kaplan Law School in London, says that in the current graduate recruitment climate, given the choice between jumping into a job or "sitting it out", his advice would be to sit it out. "The GDL and the LPC can be a safe haven," he says. "You've got two years – but you need a purpose. You have to have the will and the desire to do law."
And this desire is vital: the profession is highly competitive and is set to become even more so as graduates in search of high salaries and prestige turn away from the City.
Due to the recession, law firms have been asking graduate trainees to defer their contracts for a year or even two years. But this does not mean that postgraduate study in this area will be wasted. Opportunities are still out there.
"Firms are cutting back but they're not stopping recruiting," says Proctor. This is in part because of the expected workload in the run-up to the Olympics; but it is also because of the experiences of the last recession. "We're seeing a more measured approach to recruitment in recession this time."
Proctor also says that the simple act of choosing to commit to postgraduate study is a powerful gesture: "If you actively do another degree, you're making a positive choice. Firms like that."
Further study can give direction to graduates with general degrees, and take them into unexpected fields. City University in London is popular with postgraduates and is one of the top institutions in the country for getting its students into employment. Alongside its respected postgraduate courses in journalism and health care, City has a thriving cultural leadership programme, aimed at those who want to be involved in arts organisations, from the visual arts to heritage.
"It opens up their vistas on what they could do with their general arts degrees," says Nicola Jennings, director of the cultural leadership programme at City and a tutor on the MA cultural policy and management degree. The course may be taken full-time for one year, or part-time over two years and is, according to Jennings, very professionally orientated: "You're getting an overview. You learn a lot of factual info, but also leadership models and management skills, and your skills develop as a communicator and a writer.
"But most importantly of all, you gain a ready-made network. You meet 20-or-so people in a similar situation. That's a huge benefit."
'A PGCE needs the same skills as any graduate scheme'
Monica Sarpong, 23, is doing a PGCE specialising in business and economics at the Institute of Education in London, having studied business and public policy management at Aston University.
"My Dad was a bank manager, so I'd always envisioned my life as an investment banker or a branch manager. After university I applied to most of the banks I was interested in, and had interviews. But because of the credit crunch, they were laying people off and couldn't even take graduates on.
A friend of mine was doing a PGCE in primary teaching and was finding it very exciting, so I thought, 'Why not?'
I'm so happy that I have now gone into teaching. The course is very exciting. Our tutor plans many activities that make you into a well-rounded teacher and the course is very accessible.
My advice to anyone in a similar position would be to really consider teaching. You need the same skills and qualities you would on any graduate scheme, but with this you really get to see your results, and it constantly stretches you.
Also, the money is better than it used to be and there is the chance that you will get a job very easily if you listen to what your tutors have to say.
I eventually want to be a head of department or head of a school. I want to stay in teaching for ever."