Helena Pozniak
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With more students going to university than in the past, job-seeking graduates need to do something special in order stand out from the pack.

The Independent

With more students going to university than in the past, job-seeking graduates need to do something special in order stand out from the pack. For some this means some deft networking, a well-placed internship or further study - and sometimes a postgraduate qualification allows them to do all these at once.

New specialist masters courses are springing up to meet professional demands, and universities are beginning to collaborate with business to create specific training. Within reason you can study almost anything at postgraduate level, from the quirky to the deeply practical to the highly academic: from wildlife documentary film making to brewing science to nuclear physics.

But crucially, will this get you a job? Yes and no, says Charlie Ball, deputy director of research at the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU) which publishes “What do graduates do” every year. Many students wanting to prolong student life do drift into further study, but they’d do better to weigh the benefits ruthlessly, especially as the jobs market for graduates has picked up recently. Postgraduate study is also pricey on the back of student debt. “If you know what you want to achieve and aim for that with a postgraduate degree, you’re likely to find it an easier passage than if you go in without a clear plan,” says Ball. “Otherwise you’ll find yourself in the same boat once you’ve qualified.”

After graduation nearly eight per cent of students go straight on to master’s courses according to latest figures for the Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA), though many more embark upon a course a year or two down the road – at the last count universities award around 168,000 postgraduate qualifications every year. Just under 60 per cent of masters students study full time, and they tend to be younger than their part-time counterparts – nearly 80 per cent of them are under 30.

But students’ motivations aren’t purely professional – research by HECSU says 73 per cent of students decide to continue because they love of their subject – though only a fraction go on to academic research. “But it’s a great time to continue study before you have a mortgage and kids,” says Ball. But of course, costs will largely dictate any decisions for current graduates: applications for grants and new funding introduced recently by universities have been oversubscribed, showing that many more students would probably go on to further study if they could afford it.

With three out of a six years of a medical degree underway, University of Manchester student Nusiba Taufik took the brave decision squeeze in an extra year of study – in her case an MSc in Healthcare Ethics and Law at Manchester. She knew this would be a wise career move in an area in which she was particularly interested, and which might broaden her future career choice. She also wanted to develop academic writing skills. “Medicine is so broad, there isn’t much time to delve very deeply into areas you find stimulating – I was able to do this a lot more during the course of the year.” Some benefits were unexpected, such as mixing with graduates from different disciplines as well as with experienced clinicians. “We were very diverse – that made for some lively and productive discussions which doesn’t happen at an undergraduate level.” While work was more isolated than a medical degree, a Facebook page kept her in touch with other post grads.

Taufik hopes this experience will pay dividends down the line, when she might want to work on ethical research committees or even lecture in the field. In fact, masters can help students find a better quality job says Ball. Six months after graduating, three quarters of full-time masters graduates in employment in the UK were in professional or managerial jobs. Figures released last year by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showed that almost half of recent graduates are in non-graduate jobs. Part-time masters fare even better in the job market, but, as Ball points out, they would - many of them are already working before they start their course.

“I think you can often see that candidates with the MSc are a lot more mature and grounded than those applying for BSc-level roles,” says an employer quoted by a report published this year by Universities UK and HECSU. “They can come across a lot more decisive and clearer when you’re interviewing candidates.”

And the job market for master’s students is slightly more concentrated in London, where top jobs in finance and consulting are eagerly hunted by business and management postgraduates – numbers of management related masters have flourished in recent years. Six months after graduation, nearly 88 per cent of the LSE’s prestigious masters in management graduates found work on an average salary of £39,000, with the likes of Barclays and McKinsey as top employers. But this elite two-year programme is among the most expensive and challenging at around £24,000 - £25,000 a year.

After many years of working with masters students, Norman Day, director of careers and employability service at the University of Hull is familiar with the motivations of postgraduates, which range he says from intellectual curiosity, a wish to keep options open through to a desire for a better job, and none are mutually exclusive. He’s often asked which course has the best job prospects. “The answer is that there’s no clear answer. It depends on so much.”

Often postgraduates will find themselves competing for graduate-level training with major employers, and the fact they’ve undertaken an extra year of study won’t automatically give them a head start, says Day. However, being able to spell out convincingly why they chose a certain route will impress employers and present an obvious way in which they can prove their dedication. “The most employable masters students are those who make the full and best use of the curricular, co-curriuclar and extra-curricular offer during their time on the programme: the ones who can present the benefits of what they have learned…or gained work experience or done voluntary work, or who can reflect on their learning and who can really sell themselves in a competitive market place.”

Often masters will contain an element of work experience and specialist masters may be taught by faculty with strong industry links, from business through to digital industries and creative arts. And if a masters has a more academic focus, then students can “big up” the intellectual and analytical skills they’ve acquired, says Tammy Goldfeld, deputy director of careers at the University of Manchester. “Any postgraduate who has undertaken a research project will have learnt how to review a mass of information, be able to focus in on what’s important, put together a coherent argument with evidence to back it up, and be able to present and defend their point in a persuasive manner,” she says. “In this information heavy age, what employer wouldn’t want someone who can do that?”

While science masters tend to be valued by the finance and consulting industries, undergraduates should be aware how few positions at the top of the ladder in science academia, says Dr Timo Hannay, managing director of Digital Science who has a research background himself. Think long and hard about further study, he warns – under one per cent of PhD scientists become professors for instance. But the intellectual workout from a masters qualification is highly valued. “(Scientists) often benefit greatly from their training even it’s not put to use in the lab.”

While fewer than 10 per cent of jobs advertised on graduate jobs boards require a postgraduate qualification, that doesn’t mean the degrees aren’t valued, says James Frearson, graduate manager at totaljobs.com. London’s finance centre certainly appreciates postgraduates, while in Scotland the oil and gas industries are hungry for engineering specialists. Don’t underestimate the values of soft skills such as time management gained on an intensive course, he says.

Certain professions such as law, accountancy and teaching have an established postgraduate route in, but graduates are beginning to report that a masters is becoming a prerequisite for other careers, says Ball. Masters graduates in careers as varied as social work, surveying, speech therapy, environmental health and counselling and more said they wouldn’t have got their job without one.

Taking a postgraduate course is in some ways a bigger step than choosing an undergraduate degree, say career advisers – it can send you down a specialist path. “But having a specialism doesn’t limit your options, says Damian Flynn, lead engineer with Parker Hannifin, who took a masters in computer aided mechanical engineering at Kings College London. “It’s about attuning your education. If you can focus in one area, you can probably adapt to another anyway.”

Ciara Reddington, 23, won a scholarship from M&S to cover tuition fees for an MSc in International Fashion Marketing at GCU London. She graduated in 2012 in international commerce from the University of Ireland in Galway.

“My first degree was very broad and I knew I needed to specialise. I came across this degree by googling it – I wanted to be in London because all the heads of the fashion houses are here. I’ve always been interested in fashion – I’m a “girly” girl and love putting outfits together and looking at how shops alter their collections according to the demographic. I haven’t found the work too difficult so far, but I do have a background in business. M&S have assigned me a mentor and I’ve just done an internship in head office looking at brand and marketing. I’m under no obligation to work there when I finish – but from what I’ve seen I’d like to. When you choose a masters it’s important to research properly – read the description of the modules and look at job descriptions and recruitment websites to see whether it meets employers’ requirements. It helps to talk to current students first hand to get their advice and really understand what the course is like.”

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