Careers advice and planning

What is a graduate job?

21 Jun 2023, 15:40

What's the difference between a graduate job, a graduate scheme, a graduate programme and an entry-level job? Understanding your options is a vital step towards the career you want.

Picture shows a graduate standing in the middle of a stone maze, signifying the decisions over a first graduate job

Many major employers in the UK offer opportunities solely for graduates. These can come in the form of a graduate ‘scheme’, sometimes referred to as a graduate programme, or an entry-level job vacancy advertised specifically for graduates. These openings can sometimes be locked to a particular degree discipline or employment sector, but there are also many that are open to graduates of any subject of study. Below, we answer the questions ‘what is a graduate job?’, ‘what is a graduate scheme?’ and provide an overview of how difficult they are to get, who is eligible and where in the country you might work.

What is a graduate scheme or graduate programme?

A typical graduate scheme is a time-limited training programme, usually lasting one to three years. It’s the employer’s template for producing an appropriately qualified professional. The scheme will probably be highly structured, with work interspersed with in-house training and, potentially, study for a qualification accredited by the professional body for your occupation, such as the Institution of Civil Engineers for graduates working in civil engineering (this could also be a short course or diploma in a relevant field).

This is typically how graduate recruits at big companies in professions such as banking, accountancy and construction are trained. It may well be that a graduate scheme rotates you through various branches of the business or the firm’s specialisms.

Our graduate schemes page offers an overview of graduate schemes in different career areas.

In some career areas, different terms are used to describe the period of training at the beginning of a graduate's career that leads to professional qualification. For example, trainee solicitors undertake training contracts .

What is a graduate job?

‘Graduate job’ is a wider term than ‘graduate scheme’. It describes employment for which you won’t be hired unless you have an honours degree (see below for what to do if you have a foundation degree instead). But a graduate job doesn’t necessarily mean the employer enrols you onto a defined programme of structured professional training – so it might not have the ‘scheme’ element.

The list of jobs with the graduate-only label used to be shorter – for example, being a doctor is a graduate career from way back in history. Teaching has become a graduate profession and most journalists now have degrees, although this was predominantly a career open to school leavers via an apprenticeship or an equivalent route (this is still possible, but less common). A degree is also a standard entry requirement for many jobs in IT, the service industries and technical trades, and there are niche roles that are so specialised that it’s felt that you need to have a very focused BA or BSc to compete within them.

Strictly speaking, you can enter some of those areas of employment with a qualification at a lower level than a degree, and some employers are creating specific training programmes that include professional qualification and are aimed at school leavers. Generally, however, in many professions, having gone to university is either an advantage or a requirement.

Is having a graduate job also the key to a higher salary? According to the Institute of Student Employers (ISE), the average graduate earns over £10,000 more per year than the average non-graduate, based on a survey from 2022. However, it may take time for graduates to establish themselves in their careers and for their earnings to reflect that. Graduate salaries vary widely, and not all graduate jobs are with massive firms that have big recruitment needs and large salary budgets. Salaries also vary across career areas, as our overview of graduate starting salaries in popular professions explains.

What is an entry-level job?

An entry-level job is the term given to a role that is designed for those with no prior experience in a similar sort of position. This could be a part-time job at a supermarket that requires no experience or training before you start, or it could be a junior professional role at a company. You may also see graduate schemes and programmes referred to as entry-level roles. Generally ‘entry-level job’ is a broad term that can be applied to many different types of positions, but when not applied to a graduate scheme or programme, expect a job that you should be able to apply to with little to no experience that will likely train you up while you work in order to do the job. Just be aware that some entry-level roles may not continue your professional development in the same manner as a graduate scheme or programme.

Can I get a graduate job with a 2.2 degree?

You can be accepted onto a graduate scheme with a 2.2. According to the ISE, less than 50% of their major employer members surveyed now stipulate a 2.1 requirement – the lowest it has ever been. There is also an increase in CV blind recruitment (in which HR professionals remove personal details and institution names from CVs before giving them to assessors to avoid any preconceptions influencing the hiring process).

How many graduate schemes should you apply to?

There is no single correct answer as to how many graduate jobs you should apply to at any one time. The number will vary depending on what other commitments you have personally and academically. Competition can be fierce for graduate schemes, so each application will need to be thoroughly researched and unique to each individual employer, which can take a significant amount of time. You may also need to practise psychometric tests and prepare for interviews and assessment centres if you are successful. Ultimately you can apply for as many positions as you feel comfortable with, but it all depends on how much time you have, how much you have already practised applying for roles and how much you know (or don’t know) about the employers that you are applying to.

You can see a loose outline of the sort of preparation that you need to do for each application with our article on application planning for graduate job hunters and our big guide to graduate job application forms will help you get started.

How difficult is it to get on to a graduate scheme?

It is difficult to get on to a graduate scheme. Remember that much of this will come down to competition and how you stack up against other candidates. As we’ve mentioned above, there are employers that will accept you on to a graduate scheme with a 2.2, but the reality is that the better you do at university, the more likely you are to be appealing to employers with minimum grade requirements.

When you do come to apply for a graduate scheme, it will be hugely advantageous for you to have relevant work experience. It will prove your interest in the sector and demonstrate that you have developed the required skills in the role – plus, many employers compare the amount of work experience candidates have when deciding who to interview. However, outside of the most competitive sectors (including law, finance and consulting), it isn’t always necessary for you to have experience in the exact sector if you can prove your interest in the sector, and demonstrate that you have gained the required skills, in other ways. You’ll also need to clearly articulate your skills and whatever experience you do have and show that you share the company’s values .

You can find a wealth of resources in this article and elsewhere on targetjobs, but if you do find that you’re struggling, check out our article on struggling to find a job after graduation .

Where in the UK can you find graduate programmes?

There are a host of statistics on where the most graduate vacancies are in the country, from the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) 2020 report that suggests 45% of their members ’ (usually the largest of the large firms) vacancies are in London, to the Office for National Statistics figures that suggest that in 2019 around 22% of graduates were working in London. We could blind you with a series of numbers, but the trend follows very much what you’d expect: large urban centres tend to have a higher proportion of graduate jobs. London being the largest, will account for a significant percentage, followed by the surrounding affluent areas of the South East and North West, and the Midlands and North East.

The sector that you want to work in may affect your location, with some sectors dominating certain regions. For example, much of the UK’s professional, financial and legal services are based in London and the South East (though not all), as is much of the country’s media and technology sector. This doesn’t rule out working elsewhere. Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester, for example, have seen an increase in the number of law firms taking residence in the cities. A huge proportion of UK manufacturing takes place in the Midlands, and there is a significant amount of real estate and property activity in the East of England.

Just because there is a high concentration of employers in your chosen sector in an area does not necessarily mean that you have to move there to work. The truth is that you can secure a graduate scheme close to home, no matter where you call home – a Universities UK report from 2018 indicated that some 42% of graduates who went to a local institution stayed locally to work. If you do decide to relocate, however, you might want to check out our guide on how to successfully relocate for a graduate job .

Perhaps to be expected, there is some correlation with average salary in terms of popularity of location. For example, graduates in London are likely to earn the most (£33,460) while graduates in Northern Ireland are likely to earn the least (£18,713), though do note that the cost of living differs massively. If you want to know more about the general landscape for graduate jobs going into 2023, check out our article on the trends affecting the graduate jobs market in 2023 .

What if your first job after graduating isn’t what you really want?

Don’t be downhearted if your first job after graduating is not a traditional graduate job or isn’t what you really want. If you’re working a bar job or retail job, for example, you are still gaining valuable experience. Check out our articles on the top ten skills you can get doing a bar job and retail skills you can add to your CV for some tips and tricks about understanding and presenting your experience.

You generally have a window of about 2–3 years after you graduate in which to secure a position (this varies by employer, so always check on any schemes that you really want to apply to ahead of time) so there is no immediate panic after you finish university to begin a scheme. The reality is that a good length of employment, as well as developing your skills and experience, will be valuable when you come to make an application for a graduate scheme – just make sure not to miss the deadline or the window of time after you graduate. We’ve answered some of the most common questions relating to first jobs and length of time you may spend in one in our article on how long you should stay in your first job .

And if you are studying for a foundation degree, you can explore ways to top up your qualification to help you compete in the graduate jobs market.

When should you apply for a graduate scheme or programme?

Many graduate employers open their schemes to applications from September or October with a deadline in November or December. The application processes can be lengthy, with interviews and assessment centres in the spring of the year after. There are a host of need-to-knows and caveats with this timetable, all of which can be read in our article on when to apply for graduate jobs .

targetjobs editorial advice

This describes editorially independent and impartial content, which has been written and edited by the targetjobs content team. Any external contributors featuring in the article are in line with our non-advertorial policy, by which we mean that we do not promote one organisation over another.

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