A business Masters can help graduates from non-vocational first degrees find their way, says Kate Hilpern

Graduating from university wasn't quite the victory that Alex Lefley, 22, had hoped it would be. The first problem was that he had a degree in geography. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does have fewer obvious career options than a degree in, say, accounting or engineering. His second challenge was that he got a 2.2. "The graduate market is incredibly competitive now and I realised I needed something to make me more employable," he says.

Like a growing number of graduates, Lefley opted for one of the raft of business postgraduate courses now on offer to non-vocational graduates. "I wanted to get a greater overall understanding of how modern business works and I hoped employers would notice a vocational Masters more than my first, non-vocational degree," explains Lefley, who did an MSc in marketing at Norwich Business School.

He was right. Now employed by a top PR and marketing agency, he finds that many aspects of the course are directly relevant to his job. "In fact, I think it would have been directly relevant to a range of jobs in business, besides marketing."

Indeed, he says, although the MSc was in marketing, "I was also taught a lot about more general business issues, such as accounting and finance and e-business."

Linda Peters, programme director at Norwich Business School, says the uptake for the five business masters degrees aimed at non-vocational graduates run by the school has grown from 10 to 140 since they began eight years ago. "What we've found is that while many students' personal interests are satisfied in their first degree, they get to the end with no knowledge or skills in business and management, which is where most of the graduate jobs are," she says.

It's not that their first degree is deemed irrelevant, she insists. "Far from it. We've had people who studied arts going on to jobs in arts management." A philosophy graduate might just as easily go on to become a specialist in business ethics.

Some graduates taking business courses gain places on graduate recruitment schemes; others start up their own companies. "One became head of franchising relationships for BMW in Taiwan - a very fast track position for one so young," says Peters.

Tony Sims, course director of the MA programmes in business management and international business management at Kingston Business School, calls the new brand of courses "the young person's equivalent of an MBA".

Restrictions mean that true MBA courses are only open to those who already have three years' work experience behind them. "With our courses, however, we actively discourage students from the UK from having too much business experience. In fact, the courses are known around the college as the 'pre-experience management masters'."

Sims says most applicants haven't made up their mind what they want to do, but they know they want to stand out. "From the students' point of view, it's about making yourself more attractive to the business world and from the employers' point of view, it's about getting that bit more from graduates."

According to Mary Meldrum, Manchester Metropolitan University's head of postgraduate programmes, "These are tough courses, so we need students who aren't afraid of working very hard." Which is why most business schools require a good 2.2 or above and a hunger for success.

In addition, she looks for good time management and communication skills, as well as the ability to work well in a team. Expect to improve all these skills and more by the end of the course, says Joe Kelly, 23, who has just completed an MSc in management at Lancaster University Management School. "My team working skills were improved dramatically, largely as a result of working with international students," says Kelly, who has a maths degree from Bath University.

Like most of the business conversion courses, his had a high percentage of students from around the globe. "I had no idea that there would be so many nationalities represented when I joined. Out of 76 students, there were just nine or 10 Brits," he says.

"I found myself working in project groups with Greeks, Finns, Italians, Indians, Chinese and Thai people. Working with these different cultures brought out my ability to work with others; I think it's because you have to work harder at communication and overcoming differences, and you have to adapt the way you do things very slightly all the time."

Once on a course, students (who pay anything from £6,000 to £9,000) usually get the chance to go down specialist pathways, such as e-business, international business, marketing or general management. It's worth exploring what specialist opportunities are available, as well as thinking about whether you'll be more suited to a theoretical or practical course.

The MSc in management at Kent Business School, for example, is very practical. "Everything is underpinned with a theoretical approach, but what we want the students to come away with is practical abilities," says Chris Bristow, postgraduate programme director at the school. "We use a lot of case studies of real business issues too. For example, we might look at Easy Jet and branding for an exercise."

All the business schools that run the conversion courses report that a lot of young people don't think about their long-term career aspirations when they chose their degree subject at 17 or 18 years-old. "They finish their degree with no work experience and no real feel for the outside business world, and so an extra year of intensive training really helps," says Caroline Elliott, course director at Lancaster University Management School.

'It involved an extra year out, but I believe it's a time-saver in the long run'

Edward Wilmott, 22, has just completed the MSc in management at Kent Business School, having done his first degree in classics and archaeology.

In my last year of university, I came to a dilemma over two possible career routes - either specialising in my subject and doing an MPhil or following a more business-oriented career. I decided the second would suit me better and the next step was to provide myself with a firm background of business knowledge.

Although doing the course involved taking an extra year out, I definitely believe it's a time-saver in the long run. When I'm asked to do something in my job related to e-commerce, for instance, I'll be able to do it, and presumably I'll progress more quickly than I would have otherwise. I also think it's made me a better team player.

There were around 120 of us on the course from 18 different nationalities. That meant I learnt not only about business in this country but in others too, so the course gave me a head start in cultural intelligence.

Now that I've finished the course, I have decided to follow the finance route and get the ACA qualification behind me. After that (in another two to three years) I will have the option of going into investment banking or private equity, or I might decide to go down the road of human resources management.