A Masters can boost your employment prospects – but only if you match it with work experience

In a tight graduate job market, more and more arts and humanities students are staying on at university to study for Masters degrees. But do these additional qualifications make you more employable? Opinion remains divided, although the stats suggest they can give you an edge. Charlie Ball, deputy research director of the High Education Careers Services Unit (HESCU), which researches graduate employment trends, says that the unemployment rate for Masters graduates in the arts, social sciences and the humanities was 6.5 per cent last year, compared to 10.7 per cent for first degree students in the same subjects.

Courses with relatively low unemployment rates at Masters level include English, history, linguistics, languages, journalism, music and drama. Subjects with higher than average unemployment rates at Masters level are archaeology, design, fine arts and philosophy. Unemployment rates in these subjects, however, are still below those of students who have only first degrees in those subjects.

Some lines of work require Masters level qualifications, such as university teaching and research, librarianship, archiving, working in art galleries, museum curating, interpreting, translating and heritage industry jobs.

A high proportion of new clergymen have Masters in theology and many entrants to journalism now come with Masters in the subject. Masters degrees are also common among art and design students.

Sophie Miller, assistant director of career development at the University of Birmingham's Careers and Employment centre, says the question of whether a Masters degree will increase someone's employability will depend on the area of employment they are planning to go into.

"We don't generally find that employers request it,'' she said. However a Masters degree, she added, can help make a student stand out. "The closer a Masters degree is linked to an occupational area, the more advantage students gain from it,'' she said.

"Students need to be able to demonstrate the skills, knowledge and confidence they have gained as a result of studying for a Masters degree. And some vocational MA courses do help students to get the industry connections they need.''

Jeff Goodman, director of services and employability at Bristol University, said that graduates often pick up new skills on postgraduate courses. It's worth doing your homework on a university first, though: he recommends investigating what graduates generally go on to do after their course has finished. "It's really important that a student thinks through why they are doing a Masters course and what they are hoping to gain from it,'' he said.

Skills needn't always be directly vocational, either: many students will pick up transferable assets, too. "Data collection and analysis, enhanced communication, research and project management skills," are among those listed by Steve Fish, director of careers at the University of Sheffield.

Tom Davie, deputy head of careers at Durham University, agrees that studying for a Masters is an intense experience that can help a student cope with pressure, while developing analytical and problem-solving skills.

The range of employment achieved by Masters graduates from Durham in 2009 certainly back up these claims. Students in anthropology, English, renaissance studies, philosophy, medieval history and international relations went on to become a management consultant with VSO, a sub-editor at the Evening Standard, an advertising account executive, a manager with IBM, a parliamentary research intern and an advisor to Amnesty International.

"Employers are seeking commercial awareness, particularly from arts and humanities graduates," says Dr Paul Redmond, head of careers and employability at the University of Liverpool. While Donna Miller, European HR director at Enterprise Rent-a-Car, warns that: "I would prefer to see a candidate with a first degree and work experience than one with a first and second degree and no work experience." If someone has taken a second degree, she added, the discipline didn't matter as much as whether the student had thought about how it would make them more employable.

"It is important that students doing an MA in an arts subject find ways to build on their employability skills at the same time as studying,'' says Carl Gilleard, the Association of Graduate Recruiters' chief executive.

"An arts Masters degree might make a difference," adds Stephen Alambritis, a spokesman for the Federation of Small Businesses. "But employers might fear that a candidate is more academic than practically-minded."

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