Helena Pozniak
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Post Graduate Overview 2014

The Independent

When radio reporter Jenny Cuffe returned to study more than 40 years after she first left university, she felt obliged to keep a vocabulary book at her side during her first term of a postgraduate degree. “I left in 1972 with an English degree. I hadn’t even come across post structuralism. Suddenly I was faced with long words completely new to me.” Cuffe funded herself through a part time masters in transnational studies at the University in Southampton. She went with a specific project in mind around migration – a subject she’d covered as a reporter and experienced in her voluntary work with refugees. “I needed a rigorous academic framework to allow me to look into something in more depth than is possible in the space of a 40-minute documentary. But I also wanted a personal and intellectual challenge and something that would enable me to take a slightly different route.” Now embarking upon a funded PhD looking at the wider effects of migration upon Zimbabwean families, she’s looking forward to at least two field trips and is talking to producers about possibly transforming her research into theatre. “I want it to be more than a bound PhD on a shelf.”

For many, like Cuffe, postgraduate study opens up new directions. For others, especially those straight out of a first degree, it unlocks elusive career avenues and helps job applications stand out by demonstrating commitment and interest in an area. Others pursue research out of sheer love of a subject. The worst reasons for pursuing postgraduate study are to avoid the job market, says Kirsten Roche at the careers department of the University of Edinburgh, where about a quarter of graduates go on to further study every year – nationally 13 per cent of students go on to further study or training, and another 5.9 per cent go on to work and study. “The key thing is check what employers in your field want and whom they hire – sometimes taking a year to get work experience is a cheaper route,” says Roche. But in some fields a postgraduate qualification – most obviously in law or niche technical industries – is often a prerequisite. It’s also an efficient way of building a professional network – good universities organise professional speakers, seminars and work placements. “Focus tends to be on getting the degree because that is what postgraduates perceive to be ‘buying’,” says Professor Zahir Irani, dean of the School of Professional Development at Brunel University. “In fact, they are buying the whole learning experience and opportunity to engage with others through their student status.” Canny postgraduates, especially those with a year or two of work under their belts, will keep a weather eye on their professional contacts throughout their course, says Georgina Kilner, head of early career postgraduate studies at Henley Business School at the University of Reading, who urges her masters students to network ferociously and frequently. “No one is going to network for you. Postgraduate students who do well are those who accept the market is tough and make themselves extremely marketable,” she says. “Many already have their own professional contacts when they apply.”

Finding the cash for another year of study, especially after the hit of high tuition fees, is undoubtedly a squeeze; some students may be eligible for a career development loan, while others work alongside. Government funds are available for some courses such as teaching, heath care or social work. Specific industries will also contribute to some postgraduate education. But research council grants for taught masters, particularly those in the humanities, are few and far between, despite an overall rise in numbers of postgraduates. While research councils still fund some one-year courses which form part of a PhD, it’s worth digging around individual universities for extra pots of money – the University of Southampton for example, offers a variety of scholarships in specific areas.

By contrast, many employer-run graduate training programmes appear an attractive option for a selection of cash strapped but high-achieving graduates. However these have been scaled back substantially since the down turn and many don’t offer the breadth or transferability of a postgraduate degree, say academics. “Skills (from employer-led training) aren’t designed to be as portable,” says Kilner. “Very often employers train graduates only with skills specific to their industry or organisation.” By contrast, she says, postgraduate study equips you with critical thinking, an analytical mind-set and sound judgement – the very competences employers value.

Universities – especially those offering competitive courses – are impressed by students with a sense of purpose. While very few institutions will interview face to face for taught masters, they expect prospective postgrads to have a clear idea of what they will gain from a course, what they can offer and why they’ve chosen a particular university. They expect a personal statement which digs deeper than the undergraduate counterpart. Admissions departments can spot a generic application a mile off; but equally they’re usually very happy to chat over the phone to prospective students, as are the individual academic departments. Former civil engineer Paul Gill says he owes his success to solid research and a considered plan before embarking upon MBA at Ashridge Business School. He specifically sought out a course which would develop leadership rather than management ability. Inspired by an international business experience which was part of the course, he founded a social enterprise Sonas World, which aims to empower women and children in developing countries. “My goal (before the MBA) was to start a social business and I knew I needed to develop business skills,” says Gill. “The MBA acted as a catalyst and I realised how I could create impact where it was most needed.”

Merely the idea of stepping up to a higher level of study puts off many a prospective postgraduate, yet many universities support student development with additional study skill modules. Some such as Southampton also allow doctoral students study breaks of up to two years to cope with external difficulties, be they financial or family-focused, says Dr Andrea Reiter, a reader in German and director of graduate programmes for humanities at Southampton. Many research students also work part time she notes, but researchers are supported and monitored regularly, she says. “UK universities offer much closer supervision of doctoral students than elsewhere in Europe – it’s a very strict process.”

While many universities advertise application deadlines, these can be nominal – popular courses fill up quickly and any funding is snapped up, so the earlier you can apply, the better. Likewise you might be able to secure a place if a course has vacancies late in the academic year.

Latest government figures show numbers of taught postgraduates over five year from 2007 to 2008 have climbed and then steadied in the last two years. Some science and maths related subjects and creative arts have climbed sharply, and overall numbers have risen 13.6 per cent. This reflects awareness that a fast evolving job climate requires an adaptable workforce, says Kilner. “There are so many career options now that we are seeing a need for continuous professional development. Whatever qualification you opt for, it probably won’t be the last studying you ever do.”

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