Will a vocational degree harm my son's prospects? Please help me through the IT maze

Grand designs

Q. My son has taken his AS-levels and wishes to study product design at university. His A-level subjects will be maths, Spanish and design technology. I am worried about his choice of degree because it is vocational rather than general. And as he is only interested in taking a BA rather than a BSc, would his career opportunities be limited? A friend of his went on to take an MA as he could not find a company to work with.

A. His career opportunities shouldn't be limited by taking a BA, it's still the recognised route for designers. BA degrees are more art and design focused, BSc degrees are more technical - although interestingly some BSc courses are now looking to adopt "creative" modules to attract those interested in design.

Check that the course includes aspects of professional practice, has good relationships with design companies and provides good placement opportunities (these can provide vital contacts). But while the right course will get him through an employer's door, the all-important selling tool here will be his portfolio. Maybe his friend didn't have one that was impressive enough.

Spanish will stand him in good stead for the emerging Latin American - or indeed American - market. It also broadens the cultural outlook - important when working in global markets. Yes, this is a vocational degree, something that can be seen as an advantage in that his studies are career focused. But it is also a degree, and graduates have a wide range of options irrespective of the actual subjects they studied. He could even retrain.

Product design courses can also be very broad and might include consumer behaviour or environmental issues. If your son is really keen on doing this it might be a mistake to redirect him to something more purely academic. The important thing is that he studies something he likes, and in which he is likely to get a good grade.

Course confusion

Q. I am looking to train in IT but find the number of courses on offer a bit daunting. How do you know which type of course to choose? Do you need a company certification?

A. Start with your own needs. Do you need new skills, or something to certify skills you already have? Can you pick them up yourself over the web, by correspondence course, or do you need classroom training? Do you need a particular certificate from a company (Cisco or Microsoft perhaps) - so-called vendor-specific training? Or will it not be relevant to the area you want to work in? Vendor-specific training will enable you to pass tests run by the company in question - but if you are not intending to work on their products it might not be right for you.

IT careers consultant Mike Walsh recommends checking the course pass rate - 100 per cent pass rates are excellent, he says, but how many people finished the course? Drop-out rates are especially relevant to distance learning. Find out if training of this kind has a time limit - drop-out rates can be high if courses allow you to drift. "Don't be tempted by promises of giant career leaps based on a single certificate or course," says Walsh. "Suitable training develops your career." Ask questions - can you sample the training? Will you have to share computers? What is the instructor-to-student ratio?

Bear in mind that academic training can be viewed by some employers as too theory-based for the working world - do you need to get more practical experience instead?

Careers advisers: Anne Marie Martin, director, The Careers Group, University of London; Lola James, managing director, Career Analysts.

Send your queries to Caroline Haydon at 'The Independent', Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or e-mail to chaydon@blueyonder.co.uk