There are more than half a million people undertaking postgraduate study in the United Kingdom today, which is an increase of 47 per cent in the past 10 years.

Much has been written about the massive rise in undergraduate students, but the parallel rise in postgraduate places has been less well chronicled. Yet undergraduate student numbers have only risen by 32 per cent in the same period.With 442,000 newly qualified first-degree graduates hitting the market every year, individuals wishing to distinguish themselves in the race for success see a higher degree as essential. In manufacturing societies, experience is always valued more than mere pieces of paper. But the shift in the developed West to a knowledge-basedsociety has inevitably seen the possession of qualifications becoming more important.

Statistics would suggest that postgraduate study is a wise investment. The latest figures for employment show that, of those seeking work, 96 per cent of postgraduates had secured employment six months after graduation, compared to 92 per cent of those with just a first degree and 75 per cent for the whole population. To put it anotherway – at 4 per cent, unemployment among postgraduates is half that among first degree graduates.

Delving a little deeper into the statistics produced by the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveals that the largest increase over the 10-year period has been in people taking full-time courses, especially taught Masters courses. This is surprising, given that funding for these courses has virtually disappeared. Subjects that fall within the broad categories of business, mass communications, art and design, and subjects allied to medicine, have seen the greatest increases but biological sciences, architecture and planning, law, maths, computer studies and languages have all more than doubled the number of places on offer. The subjects that have maintained steady growth rather than a massive explosion are veterinary science, agriculture, education and physical sciences.

It is perhaps worth noting that the best employment rates are recorded for the subjects that have expanded the least – veterinary science and agriculture. The traditional professions, such as medicine, education and law, also fare well. Somewhat surprisingly, computer science and, perhaps less surprisingly, art and design have the lowest rates of employment; and mass communication, which includes the much-maligned media studies, sits on the mean, with 96 per cent employment.

The Government seems fixated on these employment rates six months after graduation and sees them, together with salary levels and the “graduateness” of the jobs entered, as some kind of gold standard by which to assess return on investment. Postgraduate students themselves are less preoccupied with such worldly things. Although many profess to be undertaking study to improve their employment prospects, just as many are doing it out of interest for the subject, and this is perhaps reflected in the marked rise in the number of students who are aged 30 and over in the current cohort.

Higher education institutions have contributed to this explosion. Postgraduate courses, if chosen and marketed wisely, are a good source of income for cashstrapped institutions and for this reason, prospective students should make detailed enquiries about the genuine vocational worth of postgraduate degrees. With my careers adviser hat on, I would advise prospective postgraduate students to consider their motives carefully and check that their aspirations will be met by the chosen course. This sounds simple but can be quite difficult to achieve. A bit like holiday brochures, most university prospectuses promise the equivalent of the sandy beach just outside your bedroom window but rarely deliver to quite this standard. Talking to past students about their experiences, checking out what employers think of particular qualifications and an indepth study of the syllabus should be the minimum research undertaken before application. Sadly, most people spend more time trying to tap into sources of funding than in researching whether they are going to spend their hard-earned cash on something worthwhile.

Don't get me wrong; I am not suggesting that some courses are dodgy. All postgraduate courses reach the required standards but that doesn't mean they are right for everyone. Just as I would be driven crazy having to spend a holiday on a beach, I know many people whowould find my preferred holidays on a boat on the Thames an unbearable penance. Choosing courses is the same: you need to find the one that really suits you – so check them out, and step up to study at the Postgraduate Study & Training Fair on 23 January at the Business Design Centre, London N1 (www.careers.lon.ac.uk/postgrad). The writer is director of the CareersGroup, University of London

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