'I picked the MSc in management because it gives you a broad overview'

A postgraduate qualification is a major investment but for Allison Farr, a student at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, it's one that is already starting to pay off. The 33-year-old with a background in corporate hospitality is in the second year of a part-time MA in strategic marketing and reckons the programme has already helped secure a new job.

"I wanted to move into sales and marketing roles and I'm sure the fact I was doing this course contributed to getting my new job," says Farr, who is now a sales manager at D&D Wines International.

This will be reassuring for many of those signing up to study a business-related Masters. There is little doubt that these qualifications are marketed at those keen to enhance their career prospects.

"In the first instance, employers are judging you based on what you look like on paper," says Farr. "A Masters gives you an edge to stand out from the crowd."

This is a view shared by many who sign up for a Masters before they encounter the world of work. Many new graduates believe it is worth investing up to £18,000 for an additional year's study in order to leapfrog lesser qualified rivals.

Yet it isn't always clear whether these high-flyers are landing postgraduate level jobs. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, postgraduate employment rates are excellent, with almost eight out of 10 of the 2003/4 cohort in employment within the first year of completing their studies and a further 10 per cent in a combination of work and further study. A Skills Task Force study found that postgraduates usually command much higher salaries than first-degree graduates, with men expected to earn up to 20 per cent more than their first-degree counterparts and women up to 34 per cent more.

Yet research conducted by the University of Strathclyde's Careers Service and the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services in 2000 found many graduate recruiters do not have a different recruitment process for postgraduates, who then enter the job market at the same level as first degree entrants. The research also found that while employers valued the specialist knowledge and maturity of postgraduate applicants, they found their lack of industrial and commercial awareness to be a drawback.

Given the confused picture, Professor Huw Morris, dean of Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, says students need to weigh whether a qualification will deliver the career returns they expect.

"Research seems to show that there are new categories of graduate jobs emerging which require these postgraduate level skills," says Morris. "But if the jobs you're applying for don't require postgraduate level skills then you are paying a large sum for an extra badge that just helps you avoid the cut when employers are looking at applications."

This can be a difficult call to make. Recently, the number of specialist business education Masters has exploded. Morris says some of these new qualifications are gimmicks, driven by income-hungry institutions seeking to get bums on seats to recoup a drop in MBA income.

A quick scroll down the options on the Prospects database (www.prospects.ac.uk) reveals a bewildering array of business and management Masters. Take your pick from an MA in business andmanagement in emerging markets (the University of Reading), an MSc in business decision management (Coventry University) or an MA in cross-cultural communication and international management (University of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne).

Jane Harrington, associate dean of Bristol Business School, advises students to treat the process like a job application.

"Candidates should speak to a careers advisor, do some profiling and target their applications accurately," says Harrington of Bristol Business School. "They should visit institutions wherever possible and speak to alumni to check whether the programme will put them on the right path."

One potential source of help is the Association of MBAs (AMBA), which has started to accredit what it calls pre-experience Masters in general management. AMBA accreditation is a stamp of quality to help students and employers make sense of what is on offer, says AMBA chief executive Jeanette Purcell. The list of accredited programmes is available on AMBA's website (www.mba world.com).

Dr Saleema Kauser, lecturer in strategy and head of the Global Business Analysis Masters programme at Manchester Business School, advises students to consider the reputation of the institution.

"Employers do look at the quality of the business school because it's another filter for them to apply," says Kauser. "If you have a Masters from a business school with a highly-ranked MBA then that can only help you."

Mohammad Asadhayat, now studying with Kauser, narrowed the range of Masters open to him by deciding to focus on Manchester Business School.

"I wanted to come here because of its worldwide reputation," says the 25-year-old who has a diploma in tourism and an MA in economics from Pakistan and is keen to join one of the big consultancies.

These Masters level qualifications can range from the generalist - such as the MA in management, sometimes described as the "poor man's MBA", designed to equip someone from an arts or technical background with a good overview of management principles - to the specific, such as an MSc in mathematical trading & finance or investment management, both of which are offered by Cass Business School.

Cass, part of London's City University, offers very specialist programmes for those looking for a career in the City.

"Over the last three years there has been a surge in jobs in the City of London but we find employers want people who have a good understanding of the industry and who don't require such intensive training," says Mario Levis, associate dean of MSc programmes at Cass. "Our Masters have been mapped out for these City careers."

These courses are not cheap - around £18,000 for an 11-month programme - but Levis points to the higher salaries these postgraduates can command in the City, where the starter salary can be £30,000 upwards.

For today's debt-laden students, it's important that education leads to well-paid employment. This career-focused education is apparent in the interest in professional qualifications, such as the exams run by the professional accountancy bodies ACCA and CIMA or the Chartered Institute of Marketing's CIM qualification.

"Candidates see how having a professional qualification can boost salaries," says Aaron Etingen of the London School of Business and Finance. "And employers like these qualifications because they are a recognized standard of quality worldwide."

LSBF students can opt to combine their professional qualification with an MBA - the work load is manageable because about 50 per cent of the modules are very similar, says Etingen.

"This is common in Canada and Australia but it's new in Europe," says Etingen. "Employers like this combined qualification because it's a way to shortlist the very ambitious candidates."

Peter Hall is a housing information systems manager at South Gloucester Council. He is in the third year of a part-time MA in management at Bristol Business School.

My first degree was in maths and computing back in the Eighties so this has been quite a different experience. I'm writing 4,000 word assignments now rather than computer programmes. It does take a while to adjust and get your brain ticking over again but I think it's been very good for me.

I'm very fortunate because I'm being sponsored by my employer. It's not just the funding they've helped with: they've also supported me in terms of study leave and finding people for me to research.

It's been horrendous to fit it around a full-time job. You have to write off about one day a week in terms of your personal time and it takes out your evenings and weekends. But I already feel like I'm getting something out of it. There have been practical spin-offs at work: I'm rethinking how we arrange training for our IT people and how we approach change.

Because I'm in a technical role, I was interested in doing something that would broaden out my skills and open up some more career opportunities. It would be interesting to move into roles where IT is part of a wider portfolio of responsibilities. This has definitely given me some credibility and confidence to talk beyond my own technical specialism.

Maria Alexandrou is studying full-time for an MSc in Management at Cass Business School in the City of London.

I've come straight from doing a BSc in economics at City University. I wanted to do the MSc because it's another tick on an employer's checklist: so many people have first degrees, have a 2:1 and postgraduate qualifications. I don't see this as getting ahead but just keeping up with the competition.

I'm finding it very different from my first degree, where everything was very focused and we were spoon-fed information. Here the range of modules is much wider and we have to reflect on what we're learning and take it to the next step and I find that very exciting.

I picked the MSc in management because it does give you a broad overview of business administration. It seems to have a lot of crossover with the material covered in an MBA but you don't have to have five years of experience to do it. I also like the fact they get lecturers in from the real world, who have really achieved things in business and have grown their own companies.

It's a big investment. I took out a loan but I was also awarded a scholarship, which took some of the pressure off. You have to look at it in the long term and how it will pay off in the future because hopefully it means you'll get a better job at the end of it.