With tough competition for graduate jobs, many people are seeking to put themselves ahead of the crowd by taking a higher degree in business. While many people with experience decide to study for an MBA, there are plenty of Masters courses in business on offer for people with experience and people with none. In fact, says Charlie Ball, a labour market analyst for the Higher Education Careers Services Unit, business is the largest subject area for Masters courses. “Our figures for MBAs and Masters degrees are combined but we know that courses at this level in a business related subject make up one in six of all Masters awarded in the UK.” The School of Management at the University of Surrey offers 17 Masters courses. Some of these are sector specific but there are other more general courses including management, human resource management, marketing and international marketing management.

Getting a place on these is mainly based on academic qualifications. “It’s like a conversion degree,” says Terry Desombre, head of the School of Management. Graduates of the school who come having had no workplace experience, he says, tend to go into low to medium level jobs in management. “If you want to set up your own business you should probably do an MBA because you would be able to mix with people with different experiences and learn from that. If you do a straight Masters where no experience of the workplace is needed you might mainly mix with people who don’t have other experience.” When recruiting students, Desombre looks for a strong first degree or experience equating to degree level and the ability to mix well with people, work well in a team and show self-motivation. These are the same qualities that Mary Meldrum, head of postgraduate programmes at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School looks for. “Most of the full-time Masters we offer are aimed primarily at fresh graduates. But we do also have a part-time management programme and that works best for students with at least two years’ work experience – many come with a lot more – and they learn a lot from each other as well as from academics.

A Masters in a business subject helps people to become more competitive in the job market and to differentiate them from other people. We help them develop their professional skills like team working and negotiating skills. We try to identify skills that employers say that they are looking for and help students to develop in that area.” But this approach doesn’t necessarily lead to employment says Charlie Ball. People taking a business Masters are much more likely to find employment afterwards if they go on a course with experience, although this is largely because they are often sponsored through courses by their employer and keep their job throughout. “We’ve found that the best outcomes from Masters courses are for people who go onto the course knowing what it is they want to do when they finish. The worst outcomes are for people who think, ‘I’ve only got a degree and I’m not sure what to do next so I will get a Masters in order to make myself more employable.’” One reason for this is that the employment market rarely specifies needing a Masters degree as a qualification for a job, unless you are going into a subject where it is part of the training such as engineering or social work. “Very few job adverts ask for a Masters degree, whereas they do ask for a first degree or a doctorate. So in terms of employability after a Masters you find yourself in the same position that you were before the course except with more debt.” However, there is a way round this for people taking Masters courses where no experience was required. “Getting work experience during the course makes a massive difference. People who go straight from their first degree to their second degree often haven’t worked before and employers don’t like to take risks. If you already have employment on your CV it will minimise this risk.”

‘It fitted in well with my work’

Steve Cant is head of IT Services at Cornwall College. He took an MA in management in 2005/06.

“I did my MA in management through Cornwall Business School in partnership with Coventry University who award the degree. The way that my career has progressed has seen me move away from the “coalface” and into a more strategic management position. I was looking for additional skills that would equip me to make that move and help reposition from a strategic role. The course I took was a distance learning course with block residentials. It worked really well because it fitted in with my work and I didn’t have to take a career break to study. It was all based around a research project that I could make work based as well so there was a real win-win for my organisation in terms of my research project being a real world project for the college that had tangible outcomes, and the college paid for my fees and gave me some time off to study. I have found it extremely helpful. There are two things that you really acquire from this process. One is the research skills and learning a management style of writing. But the other is that the depth of research means that you to develop very strong skills in management and business techniques.”

‘It’s made a big impact on my career’

Andrew Percival, 35, is a sector director responsible for health and education at Taylor Woodrow. His first degree was in philosophy at Leeds University and he then served in the Royal Navy for 10 years before joining Taylor Woodrow. Percival studied for an MSc in the interdisciplinary management of projects at The Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment at UCL, and graduated in September 2007.

“I had worked in the construction industry for three years when I started my Masters course. I felt that I wanted to gain some form of qualification that supported what I had learnt through working in the industry but that was wider than a simple construction related academic course. The course I did was responding to a shortage of executive style training within the construction industry and was designed to develop the future leaders of the industry. I studied part-time and was released for week-long blocks of study, as well as assignments, exams and a dissertation. Getting the MSc has had a significant impact on my career. Because it was a part-time course, it enabled my company to derive immediate benefit through the assignments that were undertaken during the course which were relevant to the business. The benefit of doing a Masters is that it forces you to take time out to think and reflect on what you are doing within your business