Careers clinic for postgraduate options

Deciding on a course can be confusing. We matched three students with career advisers to thrash out their options

Deciding on a postgraduate course can be massively confusing. Unlike in school, where there’s no end of advice from parents, teachers and guidance counsellors, the hunt for the right postgrad is more of a solo enterprise. Here, we connect three people from different backgrounds who want to apply for postgrad courses with careers advisers. What are their concerns and queries, and can we find answers for their problems?

All these conversations have been edited for space.

Postgraduate applications are made through the Postgraduate Applications Centre which can be found at

Alan Hayes

Alan is 23 and has been at CIT for five years. He studied three years of civil engineering for a level 7 degree and is in his last of two years studying structural engineering at level 8.


He will finish up in May and, while he has a job sorted with an engineering consultancy firm in Cork, he’s looking at a part-time postgraduate course. This is because in order for an engineer to become chartered, they need a master’s degree and a certain amount of experience. Alan admits he hasn’t put a huge amount of thought into his options yet, but time is ticking.

He says he is open to doing a master's in another part of the country. Alan spoke to independent expert Andrée Harpur of Andrée Harpur and Associates, a careers consultant whose clinic is based in Dublin. Andrée has worked as a guidance specialist since 1992 and conducts detailed careers consultations using a tailor-made approach for each client. She has a master's from UCD and is a chartered member of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors in Ireland (

Alan: What are the various postgraduate options available in Ireland in the field of civil, structural and environmental engineering?

Andrée: Engineering is a huge field and it would be impossible for me to list all of the options here. However, I always advise my clients to try to keep their undergrad and their postgrad studies as aligned as possible.

In our longer correspondence, you say you have completed an undergraduate degree in structural engineering and that you enjoyed it. You also say that your major project for your last year is in construction; you also are enjoying this. It would look very congruous in your CV to continue with structural engineering in your postgrad studies.

However, if it is a case that you did not enjoy the subject of your major project and you don’t want to continue in this area, this will mean that you might need to open up the whole area of engineering again and to identify exactly which area really does interest you. You would then specialise in this area in your postgraduate studies. I have outlined these options below.

Alan: At present I have a job arranged following my completion in May, therefore I would be looking at a part-time postgraduate course. What options are available? What is the duration of these courses?

Andrée: Keep in mind that postgraduate studies are a huge undertaking in terms of finance, time and energy. I would always advise my clients to keep things as simple as possible.

You are very fortunate that you have very suitable courses for you right on your doorstep in Cork. Cork Institute of Technology runs the following part-time courses. These would allow you to follow on seamlessly from your undergraduate studies and work at the same time: part-time CIT structural engineering (MEng; Civil); engineering (environment and energy ) MEng; construction project management MSc.

These other courses may be of interest too: NUI Galway: MAPPLSC (occupational safety engineering and ergonomics) full-time and part-time; University College Cork (online) engineering – information technology in architecture, engineering and construction. MEngSc UCC; Dublin Institute of Technology – MSc in geospatial engineering; Dublin Institute of Technology – MSc engineering simulation and modelling; Trinity – part-time civil engineering

Part-time courses range from two to three years.

Alan: Are there colleges which offer online delivery of postgraduate courses?

Andrée: Yes, there are but these are usually in the area of technical design and IT. Because construction is so practical, I would advise a taught course. The Open University runs a master's course in engineering: courses/postgraduate

Alan: What is the breakdown of fees for postgraduate studies?

Andrée: The fees for postgraduate courses are not standard and vary from college to college. They can range from €5,000 to € 13,000 depending on your course. Colleges will allow you pay in two tranches. However, if you need other methods of payment, do call and negotiate with the college. At postgraduate level you are now more a service user or client than a student and you are paying dearly for that privilege. Feel free to contact the college, talk to the course coordinator and make sure the course you are choosing is the right one for you. Contact the fees office of the relevant college for exact fees.

Alan: What are the deadlines to apply for course commencement in September 2016?

Andrée: Again, at postgrad level, the dates vary. Some colleges say April 30th, others say sooner. I would advise applying as soon as you make your decision. If you find a course you would like later than April 30th, contact the college and talk to them – they may still have places.

Alan: Are the postgraduate courses accredited by Engineers Ireland?

Andrée: It is imperative that any course you do is accredited. All courses run by major institutions will be accredited, but it is a great idea to always ask the question anyway.

Alan: Would there be a greater range of job opportunities available to me if I was to complete postgraduate studies?

Andrée: Theoretically, yes, but it depends on how you plan your master's. Always start with a career plan. Never do a master's for the sake of doing one. Choose a subject that you really enjoy. Decide what career area you would like to target on finishing your degree. Choose specialist subjects and minor theses in your master's that will line up with your career aspirations after you are finished. For example, if I wanted to go into sustainable engineering, I would choose a thesis topic that might look at energy efficient/green buildings. When I finish my master's, I can then say that I have this specialisation – I am then more employable.

Catríona McGrath

Catríona McGrath (34) went to New Zealand in search of adventure. She planned to stay for just a year or two. But she fell in love with the country and the outdoor lifestyle. Now, four years later, she feels it is time to either come back or commit to staying there.

Catríona originally studied law in UCD and then did a master’s in international relations in DCU. She liked both courses and, afterwards, spent a number of years working for the legal aid service in Ireland.

All that time, however, she held a secret: where she really wanted was to work was in engineering. She’d always wanted it but, when she was filling out her CAO form in 1999, Ireland was in boom-time and, with copious jobs in law, a careers adviser steered her in that direction. The fact that she was a woman and engineering was seen as a man’s job may have worked against her.

It's not too late. She'd like to do a postgraduate course, but hasn't settled on one. We've connected her with careers adviser Fergal Scully to have a look at her options. Scully is a guidance counsellor in Rathmines College and Bray Institute and has also worked in guidance roles in Dundalk IT, UCD, St Joseph's Second Level and Ballyfermot Partnership. He is also a former president of UCD students' union.

Catríona: At 34-35 am I too old to retrain in a totally different field?

Fergal: I know it can be a daunting experience changing careers like this but it is also an exciting time in any person's life. No, you are never too old. I personally moved from electronics to community work in my early 30s, so I have some experience of this myself.

These days, employers are used to people coming onto the jobs market having qualified from mature student studies. You may have many years general work experience and the transferable skills that go with that; these can be a selling point.

Catríona: My background is law and international relations but I am interested in a more mathematical or technical field like, for example, engineering or maths, or even computers. Is this too big a leap?

Fergal: No. Indeed the Government is actively encouraging this through, for example, the Springboard* and Momentum programmes. You will, of course, have to research exactly what kind of retraining it will entail and what offers the best job prospects. That said, I would advise against choosing a new area of study just because there are jobs available. It's much better to care about the subject. I would recommend meeting a lecturer or tutor from your chosen area to discuss what is required in the field of study that interests you.

Catríona: Would I need to go back to being a full-time undergrad? If there are shorter courses, what's the best way to find out about them?

Fergal: Full-time study is a unique experience and is probably the best way to increase your knowledge but it is not essential. Most courses have a part-time equivalent and there are an increasing amount of shorter postgraduate conversion courses that are available both full- and part-time. Conversion courses are typically a one- or two-year taught program for graduates in any subject which intensively cover a new area preparing you for that job market.

Catríona: What kind of costs would I be looking at? I am "mature" but I already have a degree and a master's, would I be liable to pay full fees for whatever I choose? Are there funding options?

Fergal: The Free Fees Initiative and Student Grant Scheme do not cover those with an undergrad or postgrad degree already, so you will be liable for full fees for most types of course you choose. See for more information.

Fees vary depending on the course and college type. They can be as low as a few hundred or as high as € 20,000. There are some free courses provided by various State labour market activation schemes such as Springboard; see to see if you qualify. Beyond this, you could discuss a student loan with your bank.

Catríona: My last question is whether I'm even suitable for an alternative career path and what path I might be suitable for?

Fergal: Generally, as a guidance counsellor my philosophy is to help people find an area that interests or excites them. If you can find a new interest or passion then the hard work necessary for success becomes a labour of love. Discussions with guidance counsellors can help in this regard. There are also many websites offering free interest tests which can help highlight new career areas you may be interested in researching. See or CareerPortal's Self Assessment tool.

*Springboard+ is a Government programme offering free courses up to master's level in areas where there are employment opportunities in the economy. They are delivered in higher-education institutions across the country. Springboard has been running since 2011, with more than 10,000 people enrolled so far – 40 per cent of those are back in work six months after their course. There are 280 free, part-time and intensive conversion courses for eligible applicants to choose from in growing sectors including ICT, international financial services, business management, digital marketing and construction. Most courses are part-time, so you get to keep social protection supports. Spring courses are enrolling now. See

Rebecca Melvin

Rebecca Melvin (22) has a BA in legal studies, society and politics from NUI Galway. She started college in 2011 and, she says, loved every second of it. Rebecca got involved in societies and the students' union and, during last year's marriage referendum, was the SU equality officer. Now, she is the SU vice-president and education officer and she has worked in a busy pharmacy in Galway city centre for five years.

Her term as education officer will finish up this summer- and now she needs to think about what she will do when it’s over.

Rebecca says she is quite organised and good at managing teams and motivating large groups to get jobs done quickly and efficiently. She loves working in the pharmacy and is interested in working in the pharmaceutical industry.

We put her in touch with Mary McCarthy, a careers adviser with UCC Student Development and Employability, and a student development consultant with more than 20 years’ professional experience of assessment, evaluation, support and facilitating people to clarify their careers goals. McCarthy is also a part-time lecturer and has researched and written careers education resources.

Rebecca: My degree is in legal studies, sociology and and politics from NUIG. If I was to do a postgrad, would it be wise to do one in a different college to my degree?

Mary: Many students face this dilemma. The most important decision is to identify the right course. Location should come second. You want a course that gives you an opportunity to deepen your knowledge and skill set in subjects that are interested in and enthusiastic about. If you're thinking of an academic career, then it becomes more important to move colleges.

Rebecca: I am looking into the area of business and law. What type of postgrad would tie both together? Mary: At least six colleges have courses with business and law combinations. These are mostly higher law (LLM) degrees. You should consider whether your interests lie in the legal aspects of business and commercial matters in general, or more distinctly in business. An LLM will equip you for more specialised knowledge for application in legal practice, while MSc or MBS options, valuable as they may be, will not.

UL runs an LLM in international commercial law and sample subjects include international business transactions and global competition law. UCC has an LLM in business law with sample subjects including corporate insolvency and rescue, and intellectual property and internet regulation.

UCD’s MSc in international business law teaches a wide choice of modules from two distinctive business and law streams while TCD has an LLM in international and business law.

I suggest you research all of these courses in more detail. A detailed a detailed outline and module descriptors of each course is available on each college's website. You can also look at, which has a useful search facility.

Rebecca: I don't necessarily want to practise law – eg solicitor or barrister. Would doing a postgrad in law/business open many doors for graduate jobs?

Mary: Approximately 40 per cent of graduate employers are open to recruiting graduates of any discipline. Most of the employers in this category offer graduate programmes. To find out more about current opportunities, take a look at GradIreland.comand pick up a Gradireland Directory 2016 from the Careers Service.

If you do not wish to get a professional practice qualification and your primary interest lies in law, it would be useful to find out more about non-practice career options. NUIG's School of Law has an excellent , very informative booklet entitled Alternative Careers in Law, compiled by Charles O'Mahony.

If you are more open to the idea of a non-legal career in business, then a postgraduate course is an ideal gateway to new career path direction. There are a lot of postgraduate conversion courses available in both distinctive and combined areas of business/IT/finance. Some examples include: UCC’s higher diploma in corporate finance and accounting and the MBS in information systems for business performance, Maynooth University’s master’s in business, NUIG’s higher diploma in business and UCD’s master’s in marketing practice.

Rebecca: I'd like to do a postgrad with valuable work placement. Is there any postgrad/ college in particular known for this?

Mary: Many courses do require that you undertake an industry sector-linked project. However, integrated work placement postgraduate course opportunities are less common in business and law postgraduate courses and conversion courses which are usually intensive learning experiences.

At NUIG, the MSc in electronic commerce and the MSc in marketing practice have placements but you would need an undergraduate business degree to be eligible.

Rebecca: What postgrad/ college would be the best for student-teacher engagement? Are postgrads given mentors/ supervisers? Is there an opportunity for postgrads to teach tutorials to undergrads or secure other work in the college?

Mary: In order to get detailed information on student-teacher engagement and mentorship, you need to contact the course director – the details are almost always evident on the course webpage. The course director should also be in a position to tell you about employment patterns of graduates of the course. Many postgraduate students teach tutorials to undergrads, usually first years. This would almost always only apply if you already have a undergraduate degree in the subject.

Rebecca: I work in a pharmacy part-time which I love. Is there any postgrad that would appeal to future employers in the pharmaceutical field? Would doing a postgrad in law and business help me secure a job in the pharmaceutical industry?

Mary: The pharmaceutical industry needs graduates from more than the scientific field. Opportunities exist, particularly in HR management, information systems, finance and accounting, and supply chain and logistics, among others, It is possible to move into these areas through completion of a postgraduate conversion course. will outline all courses on offer. Look carefully at the entry requirements to make sure that they are conversion programmes and open to graduates from any discipline.