Postgraduate study is on the rise. According to the National Postgraduate Committee, demand for postgraduate courses in the UK has increased by 41 per cent in five years, compared with 8 per cent for undergraduate study. The Prospects Postgraduate Directory for 2006-07 reveals that there are more than 58,000 postgraduate courses and research opportunities in the UK and Ireland this year, with hundreds of thousands more available throughout the world.
The potential benefits of further study are many. Postgraduates can develop project management skills, work at the cutting edge of research, and gain qualifications and experience that could give them an edge in a competitive job market.
Here, the stats look good; according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, just 4.8 per cent of UK Masters graduates and 3.9 per cent of PhD graduates were unemployed six months after graduation in 2004, as opposed to 6.1 per cent of undergraduates. The average salary of a full-time Masters graduate was £22,452, compared with £17,029 for an undergrad.
But it should be remembered that a higher proportion of UK postgraduate students are mature students. They are more likely to have experienced permanent employment and be taking a course relevant to their area of work. For example, the most popular UK Masters level subject in 2004 was business studies (incorporating MBAs). Nearly three-quarters of the 5,355 students who took this subject were over 30. It's no surprise they were more likely to be employed, and paid more, than an undergraduate seeking a first permanent, full-time job.
Postgraduate study is most beneficial when it fits within the context of a carefully considered career plan. Some students progressing on to postgraduate courses straight from an undergraduate degree believe that, because they are not yet leaving academia, they can postpone career planning. In fact, it is essential to research the career implications of a postgraduate qualification.
Is an employer likely to value a postgraduate qualification, or prefer a year or two of work experience? Is the course accredited? What are the specialist research interests of the department? What about funding; might an employer consider corporate sponsorship? Are scholarships available? Do any private trusts or charities, or research councils, offer help?
Studying overseas may appeal, and tuition fees and living costs may be lower. Language may not be a barrier; many European countries, such as Sweden, now teach courses in English. With 45 countries involved in the Bologna Process, which aims to improve the comparability and compatibility of higher education courses and qualifications across Europe, the mobility of students and staff across the Continent seems likely to increase.
The University of Manchester's annual Postgraduate Study Fair takes place at Manchester's G-Mex Centre on Wednesday next week. It's an ideal opportunity to investigate hundreds of postgraduate courses, not only across the UK, but also in locations such as Australia, New Zealand, the USA, Germany and Ireland. More than 85 universities will be promoting their postgraduate opportunities, and advisory bodies such as the US Educational Advisory Service and the Arts and Humanities Research Council are attending.
The writer works for the Manchester Leadership Programme, Careers & Employability Division, University of Manchester