After the bust: the postgraduate opportunity

Good rates of employment, a boom in computer science: after weathering the storm of recession, the postgraduate sector is getting back to normal


The postgraduate sector has been in a state of flux over the past number of years. A large influx of graduates hoping to defer their place in the jobs market for another year has been one issue, the cutting of the grants for postgraduates has been another, but overall, it looks as though the postgraduate sector has weathered the storm and emerged on the other side.

It’s not terribly easy to track postgraduate trends. There is no centralised applications centre that can trace what people are studying and where the demand is, but a Higher Education Authority (HEA) report into the first destinations of graduates gives us an idea of the rate at which students have been choosing further study options after they graduate.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the proportion of graduates surveyed who decided to opt for further study, spiked in 2009 at the height of the economic downturn.

That year, a full 44 per cent of graduates surveyed had opted for further study while at the same time employment levels dipped. Since then, the proportions of graduates employed in relation to those opting for further study have gradually normalised and now, the most recent figures show 37 per cent of graduates choosing further study while 52 per cent of the class of 2012 were in employment nine months after graduating.

Rates of employment for those graduating with postgraduate degrees are high: 72 per cent of those graduating with a master’s or PhD qualification were in employment, according to the HEA survey.

“There is a correlation between the qualification achieved and the amount of money earned by graduates,” says Eilis O’Brien, communications director at UCD. “Students with postgraduate degrees tend to be earning more within a shorter period of time.”

HEA statistics show that those with postgraduate qualifications have higher starting salaries in jobs than those without. Just two per cent of those who graduated with a primary degree were earning €45,000 within nine months of starting their jobs. This rose to 11 per cent of master’s graduates while 30 per cent of PhD graduates who responded were earning in excess of €45,000.

‘More focused’
“It makes sense for a lot of students to do a postgraduate degree,” says Séamus McEvoy, the head of career services in UCC. “A lot of students will do a BA or a BComm in three years and then do a master’s. They will have a level nine qualification in the time that many students are just finishing their basic degree.

“They have also had the time in college to grow up and decide what they want to do. It means that postgraduate students tend to be much more focused about what they want to do.”

University career and postgraduate services are seeing their own student trends following similar lines to those that the HEA has recorded. Certainly the axing of the student grant for postgraduate students is having an effect, although the exact extent is unclear. A lot of students are ploughing ahead regardless, according to McEvoy, as they see postgraduate study as an essential extension of their degree.

All are agreed, however, that it is the students who do not have the money and who rely on financial support to get through their degrees, who are affected most by these cuts. The extent of the effect is unknown but it is far more likely that they will be in the jobs market than back in college furthering their education.

Company funding
As the future looks brighter, more companies are beginning to fund their employees through postgraduate qualifications. It’s not widespread and is more common in qualifications such as the master’s in business administration (MBA) programmes and areas like digital marketing where there is a particular need for upskilling within a company.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, graduates of arts and humanities, science and mathematics, business, social science and law are the most likely to opt for postgraduate qualifications.

An interesting turn of events at postgraduate level is in the area of ICT. Úna Halligan, chairwoman of the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs, says there is still enormous demand for graduates at all levels in these areas.

Interestingly, the second most popular master’s programme in UCD, after its teaching qualification, is its MSc in computer science. “We have had to increase places on that programme by over a quarter,” says O’Brien. “The demand has really increased over the past five or six years.”

Demand for ICT conversion courses is also high and the situation looks set to continue as more suitably qualified students (such as those with higher-level maths) enter the third-level system.

“There is much more of an awareness that that is where the jobs are,” says Halligan. “It has been a wake-up call for parents I suppose, the fact that this is an industry where you can get jobs and those jobs are sustainable. ICT skills are very portable . . . We have found that students have huge success rates in getting jobs from graduate degrees and conversion courses.”

O’Brien agrees that this is an area with very high employment rates, even at undergraduate level, but she says, “I think it’s important to remember that as well as the big postgraduate courses, there is a myriad of smaller courses in any area you can think of. You can be as broad as you want to be in terms of your career. Whatever you decide you want to do there is going to be a course there for you.”

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