If you want a job, you've got to study

Postgraduate degrees are increasingly in demand and desirable for careers in business, says Francis Beckett
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The Independent Online

As the undergraduate population expands, a first degree becomes less likely to get you the job you want. Employers are more likely than they were to look for a Masters degree in business subjects like finance or marketing. "They want further differentiation," says Bruce Lloyd, professor of strategy at London South Bank University.

Masters degrees in business subjects will become more demanding, Professor Lloyd thinks. As things stand, you can find, for example, a history graduate with some practical marketing experience doing a Masters even though he or she has never studied the subject academically before. "On a postgraduate course you can't assume your students have done the undergraduate work already," he says. "The time will come where people will have to be more qualified at undergraduate level before doing a Masters."

Some employers are impressed by a postgraduate business qualification, but not all. There are big corporate employers who prefer to take people straight from an undergraduate degree and train them up for the relevant professional qualification.

One of these is Friends Provident, the financial services company, which treats an applicant with a Masters degree no differently from one with a first degree. Friends Provident takes on several trainee actuaries each year, mostly straight from a first degree in a subject with a strong mathematical content, such as maths, finance or economics. An applicant with a 2:2 who has done a Masters degree in actuarial science is less attractive than one with no Masters but a 2:1 in their first degree.

Friends Provident is more interested in training people for the relevant professional qualification. Its actuaries are prepared for the Institute of Actuaries qualification, and, says assistant human resources manager Deborah Simmons, "degree classification is a better indicator for whether they will pass the professional actuarial examinations."

At Friends Provident, marketing people are trained for qualifications run by the Chartered Institute of Marketing, and human resources people for those offered by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development. "The professional qualification is more important to us than a Masters degree," says Simmons.

None the less, South Bank's Masters courses in marketing, accountancy and finance, and corporate governance are increasingly in demand, and they do make people more employable. As in most new universities, these courses are mostly studied part time and about nine out of 10 students are from Britain. In the old universities, many of the courses are full time, and about three quarters of the students are from overseas. It's ironic, says Professor Lloyd, that most of the government funding goes to the old universities.

The oldest of the old is Cambridge, where the Judge Institute of Management runs Masters degrees called (since this is Cambridge) Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in finance, management studies, and technology policy. These are full time nine-month courses with a high proportion of overseas students. The technology policy course isexpanding fast - in its second year it has 30 students from 14 countries. The Judge Institute's only part time MPhil, in community enterprise, has a much lower proportion of overseas students.

Many universities try to get the best of both worlds by running their Masters degree in collaboration with the relevant professional body. This does not always work well. Two years ago the Open University Business School abandoned its one such course, a Masters in marketing, run jointly with, and accredited by, the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

The alternative to a Masters degree in a business subject is an MBA with a specialism in finance, or marketing, or whatever it may be. Some employers prefer this. In marketing, for example, there is a trend for employers to prefer a qualification which indicates an understanding of the whole business, like an MBA, rather than a specific marketing degree. But many believe that a "specialist MBA" is a contradiction in terms. Professor Lloyd says: "MBAs should be kept as a generic management product, and they should only be taught part time. Otherwise it is really not an MBA at all, but a Masters in management."

But the specialist MBA still has its defenders. Not surprisingly, some of them are to be found at Warwick Business School, with its history of Masters degrees going back to the Sixties. At first they were simply called Masters in industrial relations. Today Warwick still defiantly calls the subject personnel management and industrial relations instead of the trendier "human resources", yet it has changed the degree to a specialist MBA.