Life as a postgrad: ‘You will undoubtedly gain a real sense of personal satisfaction’

Wendy Piatt, director general at The Russell Group, explains why you should consider staying on at university
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The Independent Online

However much they enjoyed their undergraduate years, many students are itching to start a career. But a postgraduate degree is not just for those seeking academic roles.

It can enhance your ability to research, lead, present and communicate – all essential skills in today’s information-rich world. And you can start a course later in life if you don’t want to do so immediately after your first degree.

Some 155,000 students are on postgraduate Masters and doctoral courses at Russell Group universities, including over half of all overseas students studying in the UK for a research-based postgraduate qualification. Indeed, two per cent of UK 25-to-29-year-olds complete an advanced research qualification, compared to 1.6 per cent of European and 1.5 per cent of US people at a comparable age.

Of course, it matters what course you take – and why. Continuing with a subject you like or will lead to a rewarding career is more fulfilling than staying on for want of something better to do. Yet there is a huge range of postgraduate study options, and you don’t always have to take your first degree subject. Many lawyers have undergraduate degrees in other subjects.

There is also a rich diversity within postgraduate education. There are Masters courses, both research-based and providing qualifications in areas such as teaching, nursing or social work. There are postgraduate research degrees and research-based taught courses (MRes) that typically lead to PhDs. There are also professional doctorates in areas like education and psychology. And there numerous diplomas and certificates that may lead to postgraduate qualifications.

Which one you choose will depend on why you are doing postgraduate study, and what you hope to do after graduation. But once you decide on the course, it is important to choose the right university – it may not be where you took your first degree. You should look at the quality and nature of the course, its research facilities, and how it is delivered.

Russell Group research universities, representing 12 per cent of all higher education institutions, are popular for doctorates, awarding 58 per cent of all UK PhDs. Students particularly value their academic excellence. It is possible to combine studies with other responsibilities.

A third of Russell Group postgraduate students study part-time, many while at work. There are also many students sponsored by employers, in addition to university scholarships available for the very best students.

In any case, a postgraduate degree is a good investment: London School of Economics researchers estimate that, over a lifetime, those with a Masters or PhD earn on average 15 per cent and 23 per cent more respectively than those with a first degree. 95 per cent of doctoral graduates are working within six months, some with employers met during research.

I won’t pretend that postgraduate education is not facing financial challenges like higher education generally. We have called for more sustainable postgraduate funding, better targeted at excellent provision to maximise the UK’s global competitiveness.

But we are pleased that the Government’s recent White Paper promised to monitor the impact of higher fees on numbers continuing into postgraduate studies. And while we don’t believe that the new system will have a negative impact on the likelihood of qualified students to study at undergraduate level, we will continue to argue that postgraduates should have access to student loans to cover their fees and living costs, along with both full and part-time undergraduates.

Postgraduate education is still a great opportunity. And, if you choose well, you should certainly find your studies demanding, but – as I certainly did after four years of postgraduate study at Oxford – you will undoubtedly gain a real sense of personal satisfaction and achievement when you finally complete your course.

The Russell Group represents 20 leading UK universities, and is committed to maintaining the very best levels of academic research

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