If, according to the higher-education minister Kim Howells, it's a good time to be a graduate, does that mean that it's an even better time to be a postgraduate? The jury is still out.
"The better qualified you are, the more options are open to you," says Mike Hill, chief executive of the UK's official graduate careers service, Graduate Prospects, which last month claimed that Masters graduates are a step ahead in the employment stakes. Its report found that almost eight out of 10 of all 2003 UK Masters students were working six months after graduation. The figures, says Hill, are proof that a Masters is a passport to employment and can even catapult an astonishing 24 per cent of these highly qualified individuals straight into management.
But statistics don't tell the whole story. Increasing numbers of Masters students are sponsored by their employers - the fact they have a job or step up into management on graduation is no surprise, given that their employer has bought their loyalty by paying for their qualification. Hill agrees that this trend does make a difference, albeit small, to the figures. Moreover, as the National Union of Students is keen to point out, many debt-laden postgraduates are forced to take low- salary jobs that don't reflect their training or qualifications or aspirations.
And a Masters qualification is no guarantee that you will leapfrog up the salary structure. A survey by Incomes Data Services found that a quarter of organisations paid a premium to graduates with higher degrees in 2003, working out at a cross-sector average of £913 more for a Masters degree. That still leaves three-quarters of firms paying little financial heed to the additional qualification - and that matters when a one-year Masters can set you back around £10,000 (roughly £3,000 for the course and, depending on circumstances, £7,000 living expenses).
The notion that a Masters degree will help you to stand out from the first-degree crowd is also losing ground. Gary Argent, graduate-recruitment manager at LogicaCMG, the IT company, says that a good proportion of the applications arriving on his desk are from people with more than one degree. "Often, they have done a BSc in computer science and then specialised in telecoms or information security, which are quite hot topics for us," says Argent. "But you need to ensure that the Masters is relevant. If you're going to invest that kind of time and money, you need to be confident that it's something that an -employer will find attractive."
Some subjects are more employer-friendly than others. According to the Graduate Prospects report, 83 per cent of those with Masters in social studies found work within six months, closely followed by the biological sciences (81.8 per cent). Life's tougher for arts and humanities specialists. A recent history-of-art Masters graduate, who can't find a job in her chosen field and is working in a clothes shop, is mulling over doing a PhD so that she can pay back her debts while teaching. She isn't alone.
Of course, postgraduate study shouldn't purely be an exercise in enhancing the CV. It should satisfy your intellectual hunger for a subject, stretch your abilities and develop new skills. Yet research shows that 42 per cent of final-year students considering further study are chasing enhanced career prospects, with 41 per cent seeking vocationally specific courses. For these career-minded types, it is important to do some homework before committing to the investment. "Research shows that careers advice is vital," says Mike Hill of Graduate Prospects. "It's important your course opens up, rather than closes down, the career options that you are interested in."
A Glasgow University psychology graduate, David Cunningham believes that his MA in public relations helped him to walk into a job with the top London agency Lewis PR four years ago. "The MA cost about £6,500, which is a lot when you have just graduated, but the investment definitely paid off," he says. "It was a bit of a Mickey Mouse course, but I will always put it on my CV because it is recognised in the industry and it opened doors for me."
If you're not passionate about your subject, or haven't identified a course tailored to your career goals, then it may be best to stop at a first degree and plunge into the increasingly buoyant graduate job market. "Last year was better than 2003 and we predict that 2005 will be even better," says Dan Hawes of the Graduate Recruitment Bureau. "We have a shortage of graduates in some areas, particularly in IT and some engineering disciplines. In IT, people can practically walk into a job right now."
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