The myths surrounding postgraduate study

Recently, with other members of the AGCAS (Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services) postgraduate task group, I’ve been conducting research to explore some of the myths surrounding postgraduate study.  With widespread media perception of a depressed graduate market and a devalued first degree it is understandable that many students embark on postgraduate study in the hope that it will offer them a competitive advantage when applying for jobs.  I’ve interviewed some of our graduate recruiters to see if they agree.

Do employers have a separate entry point for postgraduates?

One of the first questions asked was about separate entry points for postgraduates.  I know that this is of real significance to some postgraduates, after a Masters and a three or four year PhD you don’t necessarily want to apply for something that you feel you could have applied for four or five years before.  The reality is that there are very few employers who offer specific entry points for those with postgraduate qualifications, unless you have significant work experience and can therefore be considered as ‘experienced hire’.  I think it’s important to consider the additional skills that you have gained from postgraduate study and how you will sell these to an employer.  You will no doubt find that your application is far more competitive than it would have been a few years ago.  Although a postgraduate qualification may not be recognised in the application process, one graduate recruiter did tell us that, ‘being able to draw upon a wider range of experiences during the recruitment process can only strengthen a candidate’s application’, whilst another said that he, ‘would expect someone with a PhD to bring something additional to the table and expect to give them more responsibility more quickly given their additional experience’.

Do postgraduate students get paid more?

For many, postgraduate study is a significant financial investment, so it’s not surprising that you expect to be paid more.  Salaries vary widely depending on the company, the role and the organisation. It is unlikely that your postgraduate qualification alone will command a higher salary, although there are exceptions.  One recruiter told us that ‘salaries are determined by the particular role and location, not the candidate or their education’.

Are there any advantages to employing postgraduates?

We asked employers if they saw any advantages to employing postgraduates over those graduating with a first degree.  Most employers do recognise that postgraduates, particularly those that have undertaken research, may offer a ‘broader toolkit’ of skills, but the qualification itself is not enough.  Those with postgraduate qualifications are expected to be given responsibility faster and achieve promotion faster, but one employer stated that, ‘once you start a job the question is whether you can do that job well or not’.  Another told us that, ‘other than a 2:1 degree classification, experience in related work fields to the area applied for is seen as more valuable than further education’.

Does a postgraduate qualification make up for not having a 2:1?

Finally, I see many examples where graduates have embarked on a Masters degree to compensate for a poor first degree.  So, how did the employers respond to this?  Unfortunately, most of the graduate recruiters that we spoke to do have a minimum entry requirement of a 2:1.  There are some employers that will accept applications below this entry requirement, but only with evidence of extenuating or mitigating circumstances.  One of our recruiters commented that, ‘we will accept applications from people who do not meet our academic requirements provided that there is a strong justification for why we should consider the application’.  One example of this maybe significant and related professional work experience.

So, why do postgraduate study?

This small study has highlighted an ambiguous reaction to postgraduates in the job market.  If you’re thinking about postgraduate study I think it’s important to be clear about your motivations.  A passion for your subject and a desire to further your knowledge should be high on your list.  It maybe that the qualification is essential for your future career, but if not, then there are no guarantees of improving your employability.  Of equal importance is taking advantage of developing new skills and more importantly being able to articulate these skills to an employer.  Your breadth of examples could offer you a real competitive edge in the application process, but don’t assume that the employer knows what you’ve been doing for the last four years – you need to tell them!  Work experience is also key, with PhD internships becoming ever more popular.  To be competitive think about the package that you’re offering:  academic excellence, skills and experience.

The original article will appear in the next edition of Phoenix (AGCAS), October 2012.

Dr Samantha Cathro, Postgraduate Careers Adviser

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