How can postgraduate study further your career?
Whether you’re an undergraduate contemplating staying in higher education or a professional considering a return to study, if you’re thinking about postgraduate study then you’re not alone. The last five years have seen more students jostling for places on postgraduate courses than ever before. Given the turbulent nature of our economy and our challenging job market this means that it’s more important than ever to be sure that the postgraduate experience is the right choice for you. For many, it can be a stepping-stone to a dream job, but there are no guarantees. It may sound obvious, but probably the best reason for taking the postgraduate plunge is because you are genuinely stimulated by academic study – there’s little point otherwise.
While a postgraduate qualification can be intellectually satisfying, there is no guarantee that it will improve your employment prospects: it is worth noting that the gradireland Graduate Salary and Graduate Recruitment Trends Survey 2013 points to recruiters largely favouring work experience over fourth-level study. This means you need to consider carefully whether your degree will give you the employability skills you need. Some postgraduate qualifications may offer professional recognition or exemption from professional exams. For some professions – for example law, accountancy, teaching, medicine and academia – further study is essential (see page 10 for more on conversion courses), while in other areas, such as journalism, politics and economics, it can give you a valuable head start. In other areas, postgraduate study can add a more specialised dimension to your undergraduate degree. For example, a business and finance degree followed by postgraduate study in accounting, or a chemistry degree followed by a masters in biomedical science show a clear development of academic interest.
What is employability?
Employability can be defined as a set of attributes, skills and knowledge that make graduates more likely to gain employment and be successful in their chosen careers to the benefit of themselves, their employer, the community and the wider economy. As politicians strive to boost Ireland’s ‘smart’ economy, and the numbers of students applying for postgraduate courses continue to rise, many fourth level institutions have responded to the increasing calls from employers and educators alike for a more comprehensive framework of skills to be incorporated into postgraduate syllabuses and the HE institutions have tailored their courses accordingly.
Many universities now offer structured PhDs alongside more traditional research-based doctoral programmes. These go some way to bridging the gap between the isolation of solitary academic experience and employer friendly professional development. Structured PhD programmes are designed to develop a range of transferable skills as well as the advancement of knowledge through original research, and ultimately maximise the employability of the students at the other end. Maynooth University and NUI Galway both offer fully structured PhDs across a range of disciplines and a growing number of institutions offer structured PhDs in certain subjects.
Strengthening your skills sets
Upskilling means acquiring and sharpening the skills sets required for specific professional areas, such as IT or accounting. However, you don’t need to commit to a full-time degree programme to improve on certain areas of interest: short courses are manageable ways of increasing your knowledge in a specific field. Many HE institutions offer part-time evening or weekend courses, such as Limerick College of Business Studies, which runs a part-time accountancy course for those looking to become chartered management accountants. (See page 9 for more on part-time courses.)Whatever professional area you choose, by improving upon your measurable, ‘hard’ skills you are actively increasing your employability. And if a total career change is what you’re after, then there are plenty of conversion courses that will set you on your way. See page 10 for more on converting your degree.
What to expect
The leap from undergraduate to postgraduate study can be daunting in terms of pace, academic rigour and intensity, so it helps to be prepared. Undergraduate degrees tend to be very structured by nature, with timetabled lectures, seminars, tutorials and labs, regular assessments, a final-year project and end-of-year exams. Postgraduate courses, with their emphasis on individual study, are very different beasts. They are necessarily more focused on a particular area or discipline, and the commitment you’ll be expected to invest in terms of time, self-motivation and application needs to follow suit.
Postgraduate students are more closely aligned with academia and can be integrally involved in the operations of their department. In research areas in particular, you may have to attend international conferences and maybe even present your findings at the event. If you've managed to secure funding for your studies (see page 27 for more on funding) then you’ll hopefully enjoy a slightly less frugal student lifestyle than your undergraduate days. If on the other hand you’re financing yourself, then you will probably have to juggle work and study. This balancing act can be tough, especially at a time when many of your peers are working and enjoying the benefits of a full-time salary. Hang in there, stay focused and remember what made you want to continue your studies in the first place.
Why do postgraduate study?
- for the love of your subject
- to broaden your skills set
- to change direction
- to pursue a career in academia
Don’t do it…
- to put off getting a job
- just because your parents/tutors/friends think you should
- if you’re suffering from study burnout
- just because you’re not sure what you want to do yet