How having a Masters degree may not guarantee success

A new survey reveals that students with a Masters don't always get the jobs they expect

No one doubts that postgraduate study enriches your life, but what about enriching it in riches? When it comes to the crunch, it does not mean the guaranteed, professional job that students might expect, according to a new survey by the Higher Education Consortium for Special Education (HECSE) out this week.

The report, "What Do Postgraduates Do?" looked at the career destinations of 2005 postgraduates in the first six months after graduation. It found that nearly a quarter of graduates in arts and humanities disciplines left postgraduate courses to take on school-leaver jobs. And 17.4 per cent of Masters graduates found themselves six months after graduating either unemployed or stacking shelves.

While, on average, taking a first degree gives students a 45 per cent boost on their lifetime earnings, even professional postgraduate programmes only boost salaries by 5 per cent on average. That might explain why the study also found that while undergraduate numbers are booming, postgraduate student numbers have stayed relatively steady, with Masters programmes growing by 3 per cent and doctorates up less than 1 per cent.

Postgraduate study is a serious investment. Fees alone can run to more than £10,000 with some business Masters costing over £50,000. Add to that living costs and a year's lost income; even if they take out a career development loan, student loans are not available to postgraduates, making the extra degree an expensive proposition.

The expectation of many is that their postgraduate study will pay a premium, snagging them a well-paid job. Look at the averages and you might think they are right. Masters graduates earn over £5,000 a year more than first-degree graduates six months after graduation. But, say the experts, this is skewed by the many older Masters graduates and by the vast sums of money commanded by the MBA crowd.

"A Masters degree is not a passport to a highly paid career," says Charlie Ball, the labour market analyst who wrote the report. Ball says that many employers will be more interested in a year's work experience than a postgrad qualification.

Only a little over a quarter of postgraduates are going into the occupations that traditionally often require postgraduate qualifications. Most of the others will be competing with first-time graduates for jobs. Almost all graduate recruitment now goes through assessment centres. The Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), which represents over 600 employers, reckons that 90 per cent of their members now use these centres. That means qualifications are only good to get you through the door.

The Civil Service recruits graduates and postgraduates through its "Faststream" recruitment process. This consists of online tests and a day at an assessment centre. Only a few of those jobs require Masters degrees. "When we select we don't look at CVs," says Margaret Prythergch, chief assessor at the Cabinet Office. "Having a Masters makes no difference."

Some postgraduates who were advised to take the courses for their career can feel a little cheated. Megan Cuttriss, 28, did a full-time Masters in biological sciences at Bradford University in 2001-2. "I'd been 18 months without sciences and I felt I needed to get my foot in again to be taken seriously by employers," says Cuttriss. "By the end of it I realised it was less useful than I'd thought."

Cuttriss found herself working alongside first-degree graduates at LGC, a UK chemical analysis laboratory. In career terms Cuttriss thinks her Masters was hopeless, but it did remind her how much she enjoyed academic research. After a few years at LGC she quit to take a PhD in molecular microbiology at the University of Surrey.

So how can you make sure your Masters pays its way? It is up to students to use that extra year to set themselves apart from the pack, says Carl Gilliard, chief executive of the AGR. One approach is simply to excel. Gilliard says that City banks look for brain power, so getting a first and a distinction in a subject you love may be the best approach. Or you can go for a professionally targeted Masters programme which builds employability into the course, getting students to make presentations and practice soft skills, like communicating ideas.

Once you have finished studying and find yourself in the interview room the important thing is to know why you did the course that you did. There are few things more off-putting, says Gilliard, than a postgraduate who shrugs their shoulders and says "I didn't know what to do next...".

If you get it right, the rewards can be considerable. Marianne Moore graduated in January from a part-time MA at Middlesex University in youth justice, community safety and applied criminology. She had been interested in youth justice since undergraduate days and says that her Masters brought her passion and her work together.

She now works for Tribal Consulting on youth offending issues. "Doing the essays disciplined me into concentrating on difficult subjects and allowed me to work out what I thought about them in a structured way," says Moore.

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