Why do postgraduate study?

Wanting to be on the winning team in the academic arms race? Find out how a masters degree or an alternative postgraduate qualification might improve your career prospects.

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Postgraduate study can open doors, enrich your prospects, and satisfy a natural intellectual curiosity – but take care to make a decision with your interests and future in mind.

If your answer is ‘yes’ to one or a number of the below questions, a masters degree could well be for you.

  • Will a masters improve my employment prospects and give me an edge in a competitive graduate employment market?
  • Am I looking to develop my research skills so that I can continue on to a PhD?
  • Would I like to specialise and develop my expertise in a particular subject?
  • Am I interested in a career where professional qualification is necessary
  • Is my industry one where postgraduate qualifications are recognised and rewarded?
  • Will working on a masters with strong industry or business links increase my employment opportunities?

Research skills and an academic career

A research-based masters will train you to undertake research and original investigation in your discipline. You’ll be supported by your supervisor, whether you are working individually or as part of a research team.

If you’re planning on pursuing an academic career, a research masters provides the groundwork and preparation for a PhD.

Some lecturers don’t have a PhD, but they are in the minority these days as academia professionalises. If you have extensive research or industry experience, you may find that’s enough but, otherwise, following the conventional path will open more doors.

If you’re in the sciences, you may be able to transfer straight on to an integrated PhD course (a four-year qualification, involving a one-year research masters (MRes) and a three-year PhD) after a strong performance at undergraduate level.

Employment prospects

With so many voices all clamouring to be heard in the crowded graduate job market, it can be difficult to get noticed.

  • Studying a relevant postgraduate course will increase your level of specialist knowledge compared to an undergraduate – a marketable benefit if applying for the same role.
  • You’ll have a chance to engage with companies and tutors on your course, opening up opportunities that might not have otherwise been available.
  • While having a masters might not mean a larger salary initially, it can increase the level of responsibility that you’re given and shorten your track to promotion.
  • According to the higher education graduate outcomes statistics provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), postgraduate students are more likely to be employed than their undergraduate counterparts (this will vary from subject to subject of course).

Transferable skills

Not only does a masters give you a greater understanding of your subject, it equips you with a number of other skills valued in the workplace:

  • project management
  • team work
  • critical and lateral thinking
  • advanced research skills
  • data-handling
  • independent working, self-motivation and determination
  • enthusiasm and commitment to your work
  • intellectual rigour.

For some employers, the decision to hire you over someone with just an undergraduate degree will come down to experiences, skills and abilities like these that you’ve gained or honed during your extra time studying, rather than the added line under ‘education’ on your CV. So, it’s a good idea to make an effort to take any opportunities to develop those skills transferable to the workplace.

Becoming a specialist

Your relationship with your tutors and department changes at postgraduate level – rather than being taught ‘to’ at undergraduate level, as a postgraduate you’ll work with faculty.

So, postgraduate study is a chance to:

  • make contacts and network with experts in your field as you establish your own specialism and get known in your own right.
  • work with the academics leading research, many will have authored books you used at undergraduate level.

For graduates already working, it’s also a chance to add an extra dimension to your career. Adding a postgraduate psychology qualification to your management portfolio would transition you nicely into performance coaching and talent mentoring for example.

Changing direction

Decided that you’d like a new challenge? Some courses are specifically designed for non-cognates as conversion courses, providing an intensive academic gateway into a new specialism.

A popular example is the graduate diploma in law (GDL). The 12-month course is designed for graduates without a law degree as an equivalent to having completed a 3-year law degree.

New industry and sector developments offer an opportunity to advance up the career ladder if you’re willing to invest your time in upskilling with a postgraduate certificate or diploma while working.

Professional qualification

For some careers, a professional qualification is a requirement, providing the knowledge and skills that you’ll need to practise. Examples include a number of healthcare professions, teaching, law, and architecture.

A postgraduate qualification isn’t required to be an engineer, but getting chartered is a significant milestone in an engineering career. A common way of engineers fulfilling the academic requirements of chartership is an approved postgraduate course.

The postgraduate premium

In some sectors, a postgraduate qualification can bring what has been described as ‘the postgraduate premium’.

Clearly, the earning potential very much depends on the sector and whether your postgraduate qualification is related to your career. A petro chemist shouldn’t expect a large increase in earning potential with a masters in Victorian gothic literature. But with advanced research in filtration techniques it would be a much more realistic expectation. This is particularly the case in industries that respect advanced level qualifications and the expertise.

Furthermore, mid-career postgraduate students taking courses that require a level of experience such as an MBA or an advanced engineering qualification to become chartered can expect to see a sizable increase in earning potential.

Recently, there has been more discussion over what’s been described as the academic arms race. In a crowded marketplace with increased competition for jobs and an oversupply of graduates, some are suggesting that an undergraduate degree isn’t enough.

For many industries and areas of work, however, there are alternative ways of gaining the transferable skills, improved knowledge and industry contacts postgraduate study can provide – such as through work experience. If, having read the benefits in this article, you decide that postgraduate study is right for you, conducting research into the different courses on offer should enable you to choose the one that will benefit you the most.

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