Alternative options to graduate programmes

Graduates are advised to reach out to people who work in their area of interest

Not all jobs are advertised and graduates are advised to look at the hidden jobs market. Photograph: iStockphoto

Graduate programmes can seem like the Holy Grail but they’re highly competitive and they’re not the right fit for everyone. So, if you miss out on one – or you’re just not interested – what are your options?

“There is often a rush at this time of year,” says Aisling Conroy, career development manager at the University of Galway.

“This is because so many students are working to put themselves through college and perhaps doing more hours than they should be due to the rising cost of living. As a result, they can sometimes neglect their career development during term time because they simply don’t have the capacity.”

With so many of today’s third-level courses increasingly incorporating a semester-long professional work placement, Conroy says that many students who do well on these are offered a job as soon as they finish college. But this is just one route, with other graduates going on to a postgraduate course or pursuing a professional qualification in law, accounting or other areas.


“If you decide that you don’t want to get into the bigger graduate programmes, that is fine,” says Sinéad Brady, a career psychologist who works with graduates and companies. “Sometimes the smaller organisations can be a better fit, particularly because their functions are not as siloed and there is much more cross-functional collaboration. These smaller companies may still have global operations and it gives the graduate a chance to see the business in a rounded way.”

Conroy says most University of Galway students are not going to work in the big corporates but in entry-level positions in the small to medium-sized enterprises. In their job search, graduates need to cast a wide net and not simply respond to advertised roles.

“You will of course find jobs advertised in the careers office, on LinkedIn, on job recruitment sites or on,” Conroy says. “You can set up alerts for jobs of interest so that you are notified of them.

“But not all jobs are advertised. Graduates also need to look at the hidden jobs market. This involves getting a list of companies they want to work at to target and reach out to them. Make speculative applications for jobs in certain sectors, particularly NGOs and charities, as these may not always be promoted.”

Graduates will also need to reach out to people who work in their area of interest. This can sound daunting, particularly for first-generation students, students from disadvantaged backgrounds and students from migrant or non-Irish backgrounds who are less likely to have professional connections.

“Some students don’t have a good network,” says Conroy. “Those are the students that often need our support, although even those with connections may not always want to use them.

“Today, however, technologies – particularly LinkedIn – make it easier to reach out to people working in the area that interests you. Reach out to people that you admire, especially if they are alumni. Do not go in with a hard ask, such as for a job; instead, ask them for a conversation about their job and career.”

Graduates can be reluctant to do this but most people will respond and give you some time – not least because it helps the more experienced worker to have a think about their industry and where it is at, which can be useful exercise for them.

Indeed, many professionals may even be keen to mentor people who are new to their industry, as it can help them to brush up on their own skills; just avoid seeming entitled or pushy.

“Every conversation that you have about your career is useful – whether that is with a friend’s neighbour or a stranger on LinkedIn who might mention to you that there is a referral programme in their company,” Conroy says.

As always, a polished, error-free CV, targeted to the role in question, is a necessity. A CV with spelling and grammar errors will suggest a lack of attention to detail and can result in it being binned straight away. But getting a good CV together will also help job applicants to sharpen their focus and highlight their strengths.

Covid-19 and its long tail means that many graduates leaving college today may have missed out on the part-time work and college activity that usually helps ensure a strong CV.

“Employers don’t expect students to have a CEO level of skill and competency,” says Conroy. “They know that some of the class of 2024 couldn’t get work, so this is where you might highlight your group projects, teamwork, involvement in clubs and societies, and volunteer work.”

Last but not least, the most valuable resource is your college’s career service. Most of them offer continuing, free support for two or three years after a graduate leaves college and they can help link graduates with employers, advise on interview skills and CV tips, provide CV review sessions, give information on where graduates from your programme are going each year, and direct graduates to a range of useful artificial intelligence tools and surveys.

They have dedicated, experienced professionals who can provide graduates with free support and advice – use them, because you’ll miss that when you have to pay for this kind of service in future.

What beats working after college?

Continuing education:

Depending on your qualification, you may or may not need to consider a postgraduate course. Students who graduated from certain professional courses, including health science, veterinary, architecture and social care, may already have the necessary qualifications to jump straight into their career. Students from broader courses, including humanities, business and science, however, may need to engage in further training.

This is where graduate recruitment programmes can be useful, as they often provide graduates with that missing piece.

But, if you’re not interested or you’ve missed out, postgraduate education is increasingly flexible, allowing learners to build up credits module by module, often remotely and around a schedule that works for them.

Apprenticeships – or there’s another option:

“Some level six, seven or eight graduates are finishing their undergraduate course and then taking on an apprenticeship, where they can earn and learn at the same time,” says career psychologist Sinéad Brady.

“We are so used to people doing an apprenticeship first but this is a viable option that we don’t always think of.”


This is another option that can allow someone to gain specific skills for specific roles, with vocational training usually delivered over six to 20 months.

Take a year out:

Not interested in a graduate programme or more education? Now is an ideal time to take a year out and go abroad. Students can look at the Canada visa programme, which allows them to work for a year, or apply for similar programmes in Australia and New Zealand. There may also be chances to work in EU countries.

We highlight these countries because they are relatively open to Irish graduates and also because they tend to offer better pay. Graduates could, for instance, choose to work in Australia, save up some money and then take the opportunity to travel around southeast Asia and Indonesia, before they ultimately find themselves tied to a full-time job.