All study, no work...

So, does postgraduate study give you an edge in the job market? Or do those extra letters mean nothing to employers at all? Caitlin Davies investigates

If you want to do postgraduate study because you think you'll get a better job, then join the club. This is, after all, one of the most common reasons for taking the postgraduate route. But just how highly do employers rate applicants with postgraduate qualifications? The answer, in many cases, is - not very.

Recent research from the Institute for Employment Studies (IES) found that many employers tend to view postgraduate courses as simply a chance for further study. But what some employers are not aware of is that, in the process, students learn crucial skills of self-motivation, self-management and resilience.

This research comes at a time when the demand for postgraduate study is growing faster than it is for undergraduate study. Last year, there were about half a million postgraduate students. Yet little is known about career decision-making or progression among postgraduates.

The IES research examined the experiences of almost 300 postgraduate students from the University of Sussex. The good news is that the graduates tended to find "relevant and rewarding work" soon after completing their studies, with many now working in "high level occupations". Some had moved into teaching and research, and others into health, social welfare, business and the public service. Most of the interviewees said postgraduate study had been a good investment of time and money. "I felt that the course helped me to move up the pay scales at an accelerated rate," one student said.

And, indeed, you are likely to be better paid than an undergraduate. A Labour Force Survey last year found the weekly earnings of full-time graduate employees to be £573, but for those with higher degrees, the figure was £672. And for women, the difference is even clearer: female postgraduates earn up to 34 per cent more than their undergraduate counterparts.

But, according to the IES report, many students feel that employers still need to be convinced of the benefits of postgraduate study. According to one interviewee, "Postgraduate study is very different from undergraduate study, where you are much more spoon-fed. Employers need to realise that postgraduates bring with them the ability to just get on with it."

One of the researchers, Linda Barber, says it's important to note the differences between the experiences of postgraduates from vocational courses and those on other courses. Vocational courses are, by design, more tightly aligned with employer needs - for example, the PGCE teacher-training course - and students on vocational courses found the move from study to work much smoother.

Timing is also an issue. Some of the IES respondents felt that they should have delayed their courses until they really knew their career plans, while others felt that, if they left postgraduate study until later in life, it then came too late to provide a real career boost.

Barber says that a good number of postgraduates need more careers advice before, during and after study. This view was seconded particularly by those who were studying on non-vocational courses. Many relied on informal networks, such as family and friends, while advice from academics was patchy.

Research at the Lifelong Learning Institute (LLI) at the University of Leeds has also found careers advice to be lacking. Its researchers have been following the trials and successes of a group of 24 full-time Masters students before, during and after their degrees. The reason many started a Masters programme was to get better jobs, and those who did applied sciences were clearly focused on a career to begin with. But those taking business conversion courses had very little idea of a specific occupation, and those studying philosophy and classics had very little idea about careers at all.

Nine of the students were returning to full-time study after a stint in the labour market where they felt their jobs didn't reflect their graduate status. "One of the problems last year was that I was being a secretary, and suddenly I was this lonely little secretary with all the clever people," said one interviewee. "I was this nothing in the company, seen as probably a bit thick."

Some saw a Masters as a way to study their subject in depth without thinking much about career plans, while others had "a strong desire to defer labour-market entry".

So they just didn't want a job? Not quite, says the researcher Helen Bowman. "Yes, some of the students did want to put off looking for work, but it would be wrong to say this was their only motivation to continue with full-time study."

However, in some cases the decision to continue studying was, in effect, a non-choice. "I finished my [undergraduate] degree and I thought I was not really ready to get a job or do anything and I didn't really know enough about the area I wanted to go into," said one student.

The Leeds study showed that, by the end of the course, the postgraduates who knew they had made the right decision tended to be those on vocational or semi-vocational courses, such as interpreting, applied sciences or graphic arts. Yet, for some who had chosen a Masters because of strong links with an industry, disillusionment set in when they saw there were few openings after all. One student said that, while she enjoyed her applied science course, she also realised that there weren't a lot of industry jobs out there: "You're not going into a 30-grand-a-year job, no matter what people tell you, because they just want you to do the course."

The second phase of the Leeds study, due to be completed next July, looks at students' career paths 18 months after they finish their courses. In the meantime, the study found that there is poor career guidance available, and even when it is available, many students just don't want to use it. Some students had no idea where the careers services were, even by the end of their courses; others were put off by bad experiences of careers guidance at school. "I just didn't want to go in there and be told, 'Oh well, you're unemployable,'" said one philosophy student, while a classics student said he got a nervous twitch whenever there was a careers fair.

The Leeds study concludes that employers are often looking for characteristics that fit in with the ethos of their particular company, rather than specific qualifications. That means that those who pursue postgraduate courses to improve their job prospects need to be more focused - and to receive better careers advice right from the start.

A CAREER-BOOSTING POSTGRAD DIPLOMA

Nick Gendler is a careers coach whose own career has seen a number of sudden changes in direction. He's moved back and forth from university to full-time work and while he feels postgraduate study has its benefits, employers still value experience more than study.

Gendler graduated with a humanities degree from Manchester Polytechnic in the mid Eighties. He found his degree "led to nothing in particular", so he got a job in market research.

Progression was slow and after six years he realised he'd had enough, so he decided to take a year out to study an MBA at Warwick Business School. "In the early Nineties, an MBA was seen as a passport to a corporate career," he says, "but, if I'm honest, I just wanted to stop working in market research and go back to education, which I'd really enjoyed."

Once he'd completed his MBA, Gendler realised he didn't want to work in a corporate environment, so he set up his own business. Initially he offered market research consultancy, then he set up a mail-order gift company. Four years later, and now the father-of-two, he wanted a change, as well as more money. So he joined a recruitment consultancy, where he stayed for five years until he was made redundant.

It was at this point that Gendler asked himself what he wanted to do with his career - and he decided to become a careers coach.

When a friend began training to become a counsellor, he thought this could be an interesting angle. The course would give him the listening and empathy skills he would need as a careers coach. Gendler is half way through a three-year diploma at Metanoia Institute in London, and says his latest foray into the world of postgraduate study has helped him to get work.

The 42-year-old runs a freelance outplacement consultancy called Workjoy. Part of the time he's contracted to a large organisation, but he also does individual coaching work. Gendler says it's a mistake for people to think that staying in university somehow gives them a passport to a senior-level job. "It doesn't," he says. "A PhD tells an employer that you're intelligent, but you still need work experience. I don't think that, ultimately, employers make a final decision based on a course."

As for postgraduate applicants being devalued by employers, Gendler says universities have a vested interest in people doing their courses, so of course they'll say employers should take more notice of postgraduate qualifications.

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