The transition from life as a student to the world of work has a marked effect on how people see their ideal employment environment, and on which organisations they regard as their dream employers.

That's the clear message from a survey published this week of more than 4,000 British graduate professionals, all having one to 10 years' work under their belts, as compared with a survey earlier this year of 11,000 students who had not yet entered the job market.

Both surveys were carried out by the Swedish research firm Universum, which describes itself as an employer branding organisation, and which sells the detailed results of its research to major employers, who tailor their appeal to potential recruits and treatment of existing employees.

In the most recent survey, graduates now in employment were asked a series of questions probing their perceptions of 130 leading employers. The results present a sharp contrast to the responses given to similar questions by undergraduates six months previously.

The most marked difference is that the working professionals give an overwhelming thumbs down to employers associated with the financial sector, such as banks, insurance companies and management consultants, while the students largely ranked them as desirable employers. This difference of opinion emerged despite the fact that both surveys were conducted during the recession, when the finger of blame was being pointed at many firms in the financial sector.

The contrasting views came out when respondents were asked to select their five ideal employers, having first identified which of the 130 firms they would "consider" working for. Universum used the "ideal" selections to compile a list, for each group surveyed, of the most popular employers.

In the list based on views of the working professionals, not one employer in the financial sector came in the top 20, while five such firms featured in the top 20 preferences expressed by students. PricewaterhouseCoopers, for example, ranked ninth among the students but 32nd among those established in the world of work. And the bank and financial management firm JP Morgan, 16th in the student list, languished at 60th in the professionals' ranking. A possible explanation for this discrepancy is that the potential precariousness of employment does not really establish itself in someone's mind until they are in a job, and therefore have something to lose.

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Christopher Van Mossevelde, Universum's global communications co-ordinator, thinks it's partly caused by the high-level wooing operation mounted by financial firms in students' final years. "I think the Big Four (accountancy and consulting) firms are extremely active on campuses," he says, "and there is much more communication with university students at large than to people already working."

This factor probably contributes to the sinking popularity of financial sector employers evident in the survey out this week. Compared with the survey of working graduates a year ago, PwC dropped 12 places down the "ideal employers" list, and JP Morgan sank 17 places. HSBC, down 14 to 32nd, and Barclays, down seven to 45th, were other eye-catching drops.

So what sort of firms are desirable to graduates in work? A strong category is retail. Employers such as Cadbury, Marks & Spencer, Boots, John Lewis, Tesco, and Sainsbury's all featured in the top 30. And there's national loyalty as well, with most of the top 30 employers being British companies. Those employers in the highest places are also British – namely the BBC (first), the NHS (fourth), Virgin (sixth) and, the Ministry of Defence (seventh).

The highest ranked financial employer was the Bank of England in 23rd spot. The credit crunch also seems to have affected the broader attitudes of those in work, who have a pervasive concern about the future.

When asked about career expectations, 56 per cent of respondents named job security among their three top career goals. A year ago only 45 per cent ranked the factor so high. None of the other factors, such as having a work-life balance, being intellectually challenged or having a job with international travel, rose in importance to anything like the same degree.

Universum's market manager for Western Europe, Anne Margrethe Mannerfelt, cautions firms against thinking that this widespread sense of insecurity among graduate staff entitles them to take employee loyalty for granted. "When the economy picks up, these employees will be looking for new opportunities and employers will be faced with a challenge," she says. "Companies cannot afford to neglect their employer brands."