Do you feel as if you're facing a maze of options as you weigh up the value of your degree and try to decide what you want to do when you graduate? Here are some key questions for you to answer that will help to clarify the choices ahead. These questions may sound as if they’re asking the same thing, but don’t let their seeming similarity blind you to their crucial differences.
What will you do when you leave university?
A) Get a job as a graduate?
B) Get a graduate job?
C) Perhaps you’ll land a place on a graduate scheme (or might that be a graduate programme or graduate training)?
D) Get any entry-level job you can?
Confused by the jumble of terms? We’ll explain. But first, ask yourself what’s important to you when you graduate.
1. Do you want to enter a profession that you can only join if you’re a graduate?
In this case, you might have chosen B) (get a graduate job), or C) (get a place on a graduate training scheme). You might be looking at careers where a degree is a standard entry requirement, such as law, and want to find out more about conversion courses and routes to joining the profession. Alternatively, you might be interested in joining a graduate scheme run by a big company or public sector organisation, which could offer you training and a qualification in an area such as accountancy.
2. Do you want to start a career where you work towards becoming accredited or chartered, and are then admitted to a professional body such as the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS)?
You’re likely to have chosen C), and will be aiming to join one of the many UK graduate schemes, which alternatively could be called a ‘graduate programme’ or a ‘graduate training programme’. You can find out more about accreditation, chartership and professional training and qualifications in our advice on popular graduate careers.
3. Do you want to start earning by getting a job that generally feels appropriate to your skills, interest and experience, and then moving on into a niche that suits you better?
This is option A). You’ll need to think carefully about what you want and plan accordingly for this to help you on your way as a first step in your career. You could aim to get a job that may not require a degree, and use it as stepping stone to gain experience that will help you progress into a more senior role or a career area that you are particularly interested in.
4. Do you want to get any entry-level job you can?
An entry-level job is a job suitable for someone with no or little work experience in that area. A degree could be an advantage but might not be relevant, and entry-level jobs could also be open to school leavers.
This is a potentially risky path to take. How ‘entry-level’ are the jobs you’re considering, and how will they help you to have the career you want in the long term? You don’t want to sell yourself short.
Understanding the difference between a graduate job and a graduate scheme will help you decide what you want to set your sights on and plan your job hunt.
What is a graduate scheme?
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 study for an external qualification.
This is typically how graduate recruits to 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. You are also likely to work towards a qualification accredited by the professional body for your occupation, such as the Institution of Civil Engineers for graduates working in civil engineering.
You can be accepted onto a graduate scheme with a 2.2. Until recently, many programmes specified a first or a 2.1. While that’s still the case for some employers, others such as Nationwide accept students with 2.2s. And others such as EY have removed degree classification from their entry criteria (and in the case of EY, UCAS points too).
Our guide to graduate schemes offers an overview of graduate schemes in different career areas and a selection of deadlines coming up over the next month or so.
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 simply 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 formerly a career open to school leavers. 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 it’s felt you 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 Office for National Statistics (ONS), the average working-age graduate earned £9,500 more a year in 2016 than the average non-graduate. 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 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 in a coffee bar or on a supermarket floor, you could still gain valuable experience and essential skills that will help you succeed in future applications.
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.