It’s almost Christmas (yay!). If you’re anything like us (a carbon-based life-form) you’ll be taking stock as 2016 draws to a close. Perhaps you graduated this year, or you’re about to graduate next summer. Some of your friends might be scrambling to submit their masters degree applications. Should you join them?
Our Christmas present to you is hours of laborious research on job market trends, employer perspectives and expert opinion poured into this concise article – so all you need to do is ruminate over a mince pie. Enjoy.
Research conducted in 2013 for the Sutton Trust revealed that the number of people who hold a masters degree in the UK has jumped from 4% to 11% since 1996, which is a huge increase. Particularly when you consider that in 1981, 58% of the population aged 26 and over had no qualifications at all.
With this huge increase in people choosing a masters degree, it can create a feeling of being left behind: that without that qualification, you simply won’t be able to compete in the job market. Having a masters degree buys you membership to the graduate degree club.
The case for choosing this course of study is more compelling in light of research by the Chartered Institute of Personnel Development. Comparing figures from 2004 and 2010, the number of undergraduates who were working in jobs that didn’t require a degree rose from 40% to 60%. A masters degree could be the deciding factor that separates you from your peers.
Ever heard of the “postgraduate premium”? Research for the Sutton Trust also found that those who hold a masters degree could expect to earn up to £200,000 more over a lifetime, than their less qualified peers.
Of course, employability and earning power aren’t the only incentives for a masters degree.
A very good reason to study for a graduate degree is if you’re hoping to change careers, but you don’t have the skills to get into your desired field. It’s a great way to gain the skills and knowledge you need to make that transition.
Further study enhances your education and gives you the opportunity to delve deeper into a subject you’re passionate about, around a new group of people who could offer new perspectives. You’ll become part of a chain of knowledge; learned wisdom handed down to you from your professor, as his/ her professor handed to him/ her.
If academic recognition’s your bag, or you’re interested in research-oriented fields (science or history), the opportunity to return to university for a masters degree is tempting. You’ll be granted access to a community of academics, where any groundbreaking discoveries you make will count, and be celebrated. In a masters programme, you’ll have access to all the resources and facilities you need to make that groundbreaking discovery.
These all seem like very strong reasons to pursue a masters degree, don’t they? Before you make your mind up, let’s look at some cons…
They are expensive. Done.
Well, not quite. There are plenty more cons on our list, but the steep expense is probably the biggest bar to entry to a masters degree programme for most people. The cost can vary greatly depending on the length of the course, whether or not you have to move closer to your chosen university, and what that university’s rank is: you’re typically looking at £6k-£9k per year, but for Oxbridge courses you could pay up to £30,000 per year. Do you really want more debt?
As the current government cuts deeper into the education budget, sources of funding appear to all but have evaporated (don’t worry, we’ll give you some resources at the end.) It also appears to be harder to gauge the impact these cuts are having on the graduate workforce, we struggled to find statistics on the most recent masters degree uptake.
Beyond whether or not you can afford to take up a masters degree, there are others cons that could affect whether or not you want one.
You might not see a return on your investment for a few years after graduating. Just because you now hold a masters degree doesn’t mean you’re immediately going to double your earning power.
You’re also operating at a deficit once you leave your masters degree. The two or three years times the cost of the course, plus your living expenses, plus the cut to your earning power while you work full time towards the qualification means you leave with a huge amount of money to recuperate. Let’s hope you go straight into a well-paid position if you do choose this path.
It doesn’t matter what the figures say about postgraduate earning power – there’s no guarantee that you personally will land one of those jobs.
In fact the extra qualification might not improve your job prospects in any serious way. If you study something particularly niche and want to stay in that field, your options are almost limited to research and teaching opportunities. If an economic crisis is on the cards, your qualification level might turn employers off: you’re a more costly acquisition than your less qualified peer.
Arguably, the most important factor is your time of life and emotional readiness. If you have gone straight from school to university, staying at university might limit you having valuable work place experiences. It may foster a so-called professional student problem; if you’re a little afraid to leave university and go out into the big wide world.
If you’re a little older, you might have a family, or a codependent. This limits your options regarding moving around to find the right scheme, and any choices you make will impact your family.
Because that’s the most important thing, right? Some choice quotes regarding employers attitudes towards postgraduate programmes:
Carl Gilleard of the AGR told the Guardian that you should seriously consider your masters degree choice and which skills and expertise it will enable you to bring to you target employer. If you can’t see how it will help you move in the right direction, reconsider:
“Some of the skepticism that surrounds postgraduates comes from the experience of interviewing them and finding many have been unable to articulate what they have gained from their programmes and what they can bring to the workplace.”
Bryony Moore is a trustee of the Association of MBAs, and probably got herself in trouble when she spoke to the Guardian;
“…there is no substitute to ‘doing it’ versus ‘studying it’. Qualifications are hopefully an enjoyable, life-enriching process and a means to an end but when you come to applying that knowledge it is a completely different thing.”
This seems to emphasize the importance of skills learned on-the-job, so what do employers want?
Perhaps the best answer on whether or not to take a graduate degree comes from Nathan Parcells, CEO of Intern Match. He suggested that grad degrees are an important part of a more holistic journey of personal enrichment:
“Use this opportunity to deepen your understanding of the space, network with insiders, and gain additional knowledge through internships. Build upon your masters degree.”
Want the masters degree, but don’t want to pay £6bajillion a year? Here are some other options.
Determined to study in the UK huh?
Here are some lovely resources to get you started. Alternatively, read on for other options to graduate degrees.
Here’s how some others financed their degree, courtesy of Postgraduate Search TV
Your guide to the application timeline.
Find cheap digs through the airbnb of student accommodation, uniplaces.
Other Avenues for Further Study
Graduate Diplomas & Short Courses
If you’re looking to fine tune skills but you don’t want to commit to years of further study, a graduate diploma or a short courses at adult education colleges could be the right move. They don’t carry the academic weight and aren’t as highly regarded, for obvious reasons. However they will demonstrate to employers that you’re keen to continue developing and that you have gained a more specific skill set to suit your chosen industry.
An employer-run graduate scheme is a great opportunity to hone your skills and learn on the job, under the careful watch of experienced professionals. Industry training is invaluable and your experience plus years in the field could pip a highly qualified, less practically experienced candidate.
This is something we found out about the other day, why weren’t we told sooner?! Mooc-List aggregates Massive Open Online Courses, which are typically university run and totally free. Not everything’s up to date, and it’s not the slickest website so you have to dig around – but it’s a great way to continue to develop specific skills and continue that process of life-long learning.
Other Ways to Improve Employability Without a Graduate Degree
Create a portfolio Career
We have talked about portfolio careers on the blog before. Simply put, it’s a way to express numerous different skills by accepting lots of different part-time roles. Together, your work experience will help course correct if you fancy a career change. Gain short burst of voluntary experience or intern, and build the skills set for the career you want without going back into education.
Go It Alone
40% of UK workers would like to be self-employed. This can be daunting, so we’re not suggesting that you go fully self-employed. A great way to gain the skills you need is to initiate a project, see it through and show off about it at interview (or on your JobLab profile).
Brush Up On Your Employability Skills!
Develop Soft Skills Instead…
Word to Yo Mama
However you feel, the across-the-board, consistent employer stance is that you shouldn’t start a masters degree because you think you need one. As we’ve discussed, it’s a huge commitment with loads of repercussions – both positive and negative. A graduate degree is a life-changing decision (it could take up to 7 years to finish!) It could broaden your horizons and fan the flames of passion for your subject, but it could cost you a bomb and make relationships and jobs hard. For that reason you’ve got to really think hard about whether or not it’s worth it for you, no one else.