Get ahead with a postgraduate course

Graduates can benefit from staying in higher education, says Paul Dinsdale

In one of the poorest job markets for many years, many students are finishing their undergraduate degree courses and wondering what their best options might be. Many students may feel that going further in higher education is not for them, but, with up to 70 graduates chasing every graduate-entry job, an increasing number are considering doing a postgraduate qualification to increase their job prospects.

According to recent figures, as many as 16 per cent of graduates gain a first-class degree and a surprising 50 per cent now gain a 2:1, usually the minimum required to enrol for a Masters degree course or a doctorate (PhD) course. With such stiff, quality competition in the job market, it seems that more are continuing in higher education. According to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Authority, in 2010-11 there were a total of 588,720 students on postgraduate courses in the UK, a 1.7 per cent increase on the previous year.

At Manchester University, there were around 5,000 students doing Masters degree courses in 2011-12, of whom 3,200 were PhD students. Dr Tim Westlake, director of the student experience, says: "We've seen a rise in the number of Masters degree students since 2005 and an increase in the number of non-EU students coming to take postgraduate courses here."

In fact, the number of graduates from outside the UK studying for a Masters degree at British universities outstrips the total of British graduates studying for the same qualifications. This contrast is particularly marked in some specialties – at Manchester, 150 non-UK graduates are studying for a Masters in chemical engineering, compared with only 15 UK graduates.

Postgraduate qualifications in the business field are one of the main areas of expansion. Coventry University has seen a five per cent increase in enrolment by UK students on postgraduate courses in 2011-12. "We mainly offer MSc courses in business, environment and society, and engineering and we are seeing steady growth in these fields," says deputy vice-chancellor Professor Ian Marshall. "As some of these industries, such as oil and gas, are global, we have many international students coming to study on our courses, and many of our UK students then go on the work abroad."

Not all universities are reporting the same experience, however. At Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh, which specialises largely in science and engineering, there has been a 28 per cent increase in the number of non-EU graduates on Masters courses, compared with a two per cent fall in UK or EU graduates.

Some institutions are seeing a big increase in numbers on Masters degrees specifically tailored to particular careers. Buckinghamshire New University, for example, reports a steep rise in applications for social work, nursing and healthcare management courses.

Research also shows that more graduates are interested in working in the creative and crafts sectors than at any time in the last 20 years. Buckinghamshire incorporates the National School of Furniture and runs MA courses in art and design practice, which includes ceramics, fine art and furniture design. On completion of the course, 95 per cent of its students find a job.

Liz Ret, 24, took her first degree in design and applied arts and spent several years working in the furniture industry. "I didn't have all the skills I needed for furniture design and I found out about the MA course, which sounded ideal," she says. "The university environment allows you to be a bit wilder in terms of design, but then you have to be aware of the commercial aspects as well, which is easier to do if you've already worked in the industry."

Some universities have also carved out a reputation for postgraduate courses and have become a magnet for high-achieving students. For example, a third of students at City University in east London are on postgraduate courses, mainly in business, law and journalism. "We have some very specialised Masters courses at the university and, as a result, a large volume of applicants," says vice-chancellor Professor Paul Curran. "We also see some applicants who take voluntary redundancy and use their severance pay to fund their Masters and use it as an opportunity to change direction."

For students with a general degree in a subject that they want to use in their careers, a Masters in a specific field can give them a head-start in the job market. Robert Stewart, a 28-year-old psychology graduate, decided to take a Masters in cognitive behavioural therapy at Buckinghamshire. "I wanted to go into the clinical psychology field and a few years ago the Government launched an initiative aiming to make psychological therapy more widely available to patients," he says. "There should be more job opportunities in that area."

Stewart finished his course and has found a job in Berkshire. As students across the country struggle to find jobs, he is one of the fortunate ones.