How to stand out from the crowd

With up to 70 graduates chasing every job, a postgraduate course could be the answer

In one of the poorest job markets for many years, many students are finishing their undergraduate degree courses and wondering what their best options may be. Many students may feel that going further in higher education is not for them, but with up to 70 graduates reportedly chasing every graduate-entry job, many are finding that they have to keep their options open and consider pursuing a postgraduate qualification to increase their job prospects.

According to recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), as many as 16 per cent of graduates gained a first-class degree and a surprising 50 per cent a 2:1, or upper second class degree, which is usually the minimum required to enrol for a Masters degree course or a doctorate (PhD) course. In uncertain economic times, it seems that more graduates are considering enhancing their job prospects by continuing in higher education.

In 2010-11, there were a total of 588,720 students on postgraduate courses in the UK, a 1.7 per cent increase on the previous year. Of those on full-time courses, 132,190 students were resident in the UK, with the rest being from other EU countries and further afield. In comparison, of the 278,705 students in part-time postgraduate education, 242,840 of them - the vast majority - were domiciled in the UK, suggesting that for many British graduates the option of doing a postgraduate course over two or three years, rather than one-year full-time, is often more desirable.

At The University of Manchester, there were around 5,000 students doing Masters degree courses in the period 2011-12, of whom 3,200 were PhD students. Dr Tim Westlake, director for the student experience at the university, says; "We have seen a rise in the number of Masters degree students since 2005 and an increase in the number of non-EU students coming to take postgraduate courses here. Recent research by the British Council shows that as countries become wealthier, more of their students want to study abroad, particularly the UK, mainly in the science and technology fields, and, in future years, this will be a challenge to the arts and humanities portfolios of many universities."

Surprisingly, the number of graduates from outside the UK studying for a Masters degree at British universities outstrips the total of British graduates studying for the same qualifications. This contrast can be particularly stark in some speciality subjects - for example, at Manchester, 150 non-UK graduates are studying for a Masters in chemical engineering, compared with only 15 UK graduates.

"We've noticed that there's more of a trend for undergraduates to choose courses where they can aim for a Masters straight away, such as the MPharm course [a Masters degree in pharmacy] we offer, which is a four-year course that includes a professional qualification and some work experience," says Dr Westlake. "Costs of a Masters course are also a big factor for many graduates, with some costing around £13,000 in tuition fees and an MBA costing around £32,000."

But, given that during a recession one would think more graduates would be taking postgraduate courses, all universities do not report the same experience. At Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, which specialises largely in science and engineering, there has been a 28 per cent increase in the number of non-EU graduates on Masters degree courses, compared with a two per cent fall in UK or EU graduates.

Michael Bates, head of recruitment and admissions at Heriot-Watt, says that, as the university's degrees are highly-regarded and geared to specific careers, more graduates are snapping up jobs if they are offered one.

"Many of our courses, such as petroleum engineering and chemical engineering, are designed for particular industries, and we have links with industry in Scotland. If our graduates apply for jobs and get an offer, I think more are inclined to accept in view of the current recession," says Bates.

However, some universities are seeing a big increase in Masters degree courses specifically tailored to particular careers. Buckinghamshire New University, has seen a steep rise in applications for social work, nursing and healthcare management courses. Of the 9,000 students at the university, 650 are postgraduate students, which is small compared to the large universities, but its courses are strongly vocational, and are becoming increasingly popular.

"We have seen a big upsurge in the number of graduates wanting to do a management qualification following an academic degree course, and this has been most noticeable in the health and social care field," says Bob Cozens, deputy director of student experience.

Recent research also shows that more graduates are interested in working in the creative and crafts sectors than at any time in the last 20 years and the university is well-placed to meet that demand. It incorporates the National School of Furniture and runs MA courses in art and design practice, which includes ceramics, fine art and furniture design. On completion of the course, 95 per cent of its students manage to find a job, says Cozens.

"Many of our students have done an arts degree, or a related discipline, and want to work in the creative field, and they are looking for a career where they can use their creativity, says Lynn Jones, course leader of the MA in furniture design. "Around 15 years ago, most of our students were all recent graduates, but now we're seeing more mature students, who've worked in industry for a while, coming on to our courses."

The university has links to the local furniture industry, a major employer, and the course includes furniture restoration and conservation, as well as work placements in country houses run by the National Trust.

Liz Ret, 24, took her first degree in design and applied arts and spent several years working in the furniture industry. "I then decided that I didn't have all the skills I needed for furniture design and I found out about the MA course, which sounded ideal," she says. "I then applied for funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council Fund, which gives bursaries, and that allowed me to take the course. I had to give up my former job, so it was a big step, but it's something I wanted to do. The university environment allows you to be a bit wilder in terms of design, but then you have to be aware of the commercial aspects as well, which is easier to do if you've already worked in the industry." She is now working with a major furniture design company in London as part of the course.

Postgraduate qualifications in the business field are one of the main areas of expansion. Coventry University has seen a five per cent increase in enrolment by UK students on postgraduate courses in 2011-12, including oil and gas management, international business and human resource management. Professor Ian Marshall, deputy vice-chancellor at Coventry University, says: "We mainly offer MSc courses in business, environment and society, and engineering and we are seeing steady growth in these fields. As some of these industries - such as oil and gas - are global, we have many international students coming to study on our courses, and many of our UK students then go on the work abroad."

Some universities have also managed to carve out a reputation for postgraduate courses and have become a magnet for high-achieving students. For example, over a third of the students at City University London are on postgraduate courses, with some of the largest courses in business, law and journalism, a total intake of around 7,500. “We have some professional and very specialised Masters courses at the university and, as a result, we have a large volume of applicants,” says vice-chancellor Professor Paul Curran. “For instance, at the Cass Business School, which has a strong international reputation, we have around 9,000 students applying for the MSc’s in Business , but we only have around 2,500 places. In Law, we offer a Bar qualification and this attracts a large proportion of of applicants from Oxbridge. Some students are funded by employers, some by means of scholarships while some are self-funding, for example, there are those who take voluntary redundancy from their jobs and use their severance pay to fund their Masters, and as an opportunity to change direction.”

For many students with a general degree in a subject that they want to use directly in their careers, a Masters in a specific field can give them a head-start in the job market. Robert Stewart, a 28-year-old psychology graduate, decided to take a Masters in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) at Buckingham New University. "I wanted to go into the clinical psychology field and a few years ago the Government launched a new initiative called Improving Access to Psychological Therapies, which aims to make psychological therapy more widely available to patients," he says. "So taking the Masters in CBT seemed like the right way to go as there should be more job opportunities in that area. Many of the students on the course are mature students working in the NHS, such as mental health nurses, who now want to upgrade their skills. The CBT approach is now being applied in the business field as well, so there could be other job opportunities there."

Stewart has finished his course and found a job in east Berkshire. As postgraduate students across the country struggle to find jobs, he is one of the fortunate ones.

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