Experience is everything: What postgraduates do during their course can play a vital role in getting a job

New research shows that Masters students are more likely to find a job in the recession than their first-degree counterparts. Postgraduate unemployment, now at 4.1 per cent, is almost half the graduate unemployment rate of 7.9 per cent. But according to researchers, the qualification itself is not enough – it's what you do with it that counts.

"A postgraduate course will not automatically solve your employment issues," says Charlie Ball, deputy research director of the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (Hecsu), which conducted the research. "A bit of paper is not of enormous value to employers – but what you do with that year is. Postgraduate degrees buy time to think about the employment market, make contacts, do some work experience and develop the practical skills you need to get hired."

An interesting divide in Hecsu's research highlights the importance of vocational experience. Part-time post-graduates, who make up almost half of the Masters population, experienced much lower rates of unemployment – 2.2 per cent – compared to their full-time counterparts, who experienced rates of 5.8 per cent. According to Ball, this is because part-time learners are older and more experienced. Many of them have their education funded by their employers, and are easily able to return to professional or managerial roles. Full-time Masters students, on the other hand, tend to move straight in from their first degree and have less experience of the jobs market, so it's not surprising they have more trouble securing employment.

However, Alasdair Monteith, 25, is one example of a student who managed to defy the figures. After taking an undergraduate degree in geography at Lancaster, he moved straight on to the university's environmental management MSc and then landed a job at Middlesbrough Council, where he is now responsible for climate change policy and research. But according to Monteith, it was the vocational work he did during his Masters that made the difference.

"One of the main reasons I stayed on at Lancaster was because they made sure you got the skills that equipped you for jobs," says Monteith. "They've got a great environment centre, and they give you a chance to meet real people in the field. Undergrad was interesting, but you write huge things that nobody reads – the MSc was more focused on skills that were actually useful."

Combining work experience with his degree also impressed his employer. For one day a week during his year-long Masters, Monteith worked at Lancaster City Council. Not only did this help him fund his study, which was otherwise coming out of a career development loan, it also gave him the opportunity to work on the council's internal climate change strategy to reduce emissions.

"Taking that document into the job interview really helped," Monteith says. "But the only reason I was able to carry out that work was because of the skills I developed on my Masters – things such as analysing data, taking a critical viewpoint. Plus the job came with postgrad criteria – they specifically wanted someone with a Masters in environmental disciplines."

Hecsu's survey What do Masters Graduates Do? found unemployment among 32,000 postgraduates had increased just 0.7 percentage points in the 12 months since January 2009. That compared to a 2.4 percentage point increase for those taking their first degree. But according to Ball, postgraduates should not take such figures for granted – graduate unemployment may simply take a while to respond to the downturn.

"We know from past recessions that graduate unemployment tends to peak in the last year of recovery," says Ball. "We are expecting to see higher postgraduate unemployment rates next year. Most Masters graduates will still get jobs – and good jobs; but more of them will be out of work."

Postgraduate applications are also set to increase next year as students continue to put off entering the jobs market. According to a survey of university careers advisers by Hecsu in September, 81 per cent said undergraduates were considering further study because they didn't believe they would be able to get a job, even though many expressed employment as a preference. With even more postgraduates flooding the jobs market, developing vocational skills and links to employers looks set to become even more important for students seeking to distinguish themselves from the crowd.

"At the end of the day, a Masters is another bit of paper. Whether it's been worthwhile is going to come out in the job interview," says Monteith.

"You've got to show you've been taking it seriously and gained experience, [that you are] not just delaying entry into employment – and that means getting out there."