Convert your skills on a postgraduate course to give yourself new job prospects
Conversion courses offer those not happy with their initial choice of study a second chance to start again in a new field
Students at NUI Galway, which offers conversion course options allowing graduates to “convert” their skills to a new industry or profession. Photograph: Patrick Henehan
Postgraduate courses traditionally focus on helping graduates specialise in their chosen fields to gain an edge in the jobs market.
But over the past 10 years, third-level course providers in Ireland have also responded to a demand for career-focused courses that allow graduates in one discipline to “convert” their skills, knowledge and experience to a new industry or profession.
In most cases, conversion courses are taught through master’s or postgrad diploma-level programmes of one or two years. Some conversion courses have been around for more than a decade but the variety is far greater today, according to Dave Kilmartin, head of the Dublin Institute of Technology’s career development centre.
“The range of them, the amount of them now available to graduates is enormous by comparison to what it was ten years ago,” he says, with courses in a broader sweep of disciplines such as journalism, psychology, social work, social policy, health therapies, librarianship, science and technology and media and communications.
From an individual perspective, he says conversion courses are an opportunity to change tack; to make a conscious decision that your current role is not for you and get the chance to start again. “That’s very important for a lot of people – they’re getting the opportunity to kick off again in a structured way through a programme in a field they never got into in the first place.”
They may also be helping to offset the consequences of some poor or patchy careers guidance services at second level. “One of the challenges at second level is that there’s been a cutback big time in the provision of career guidance counsellors to help people make choices,” said Kilmartin. “Students will always veer towards certain choices if they fail to take into account the economic environment so they often make wrong choices because of that.”
Indeed, balancing your passions with the likely prospects of employment needs to take into account changing economic factors. At the same time, diversifying your skills can only make you more employable in the longer-term, allowing you to ride out the economic peaks and troughs that might affect your new sector, or even others you might switch to in the future.
“I think the traditional notion of careers has gone. The idea of going into a third level course and then becoming an engineer or whatever, deciding to take that road for the rest of your life is gone,” said Kilmartin. “It’s about making the best choices you can in your career as a lifetime journey rather than a systemic choice that brings you to your destiny and that’s it.”
Many employers now respect conversion courses, and particularly the advantages of hiring candidates with a broader educational background. These courses offer the opportunity to demonstrate transferable skills, commitment, interest and self-motivation. Kilmartin adds that a change in career direction can show personal strength, and can set you apart from traditional graduates.
Tony Donohoe, head of education policy at employers organisation Ibec, agrees. “The reality is that the business environment changes so quickly that many people have had to change career course.
“The idea of a job for life is starting to diminish rapidly, and that’s down to changing consumer trends, changing demographics, and new technology.”
Thanks to Government initiatives like Springboard and ICT Skills Conversions, which fund free or heavily subsidised places in IT and other tech growth areas for unemployed but skilled professionals from other industries, switching to ICT has been among the most popular conversion routes in recent times, particularly since you don’t generally need a science or engineering background.
Indeed, such is the level of support the sector currently gets, ICT is perceived as one of the easiest to convert to, but Kilmartin insists this is no longer the case, mainly because funding for these initiatives is set to dry up shortly.
In terms of entry criteria, the most flexible sectors to convert to are IT, law, business and the arts (including anything from media and PR to librarianship to arts administration to social policy and psychology). Conversion courses in these disciplines generally accept graduates from any background.
Other professions, such as medicine, engineering and some health-related disciplines will require, at the very least, a relevant background. “For pharmacy you can do a postgrad entry route but you still have to do four years study in that area of medicine,” said Kilmartin.
Similarly, a switch to engineering usually requires a science or health background, while for some health therapies like occupational, speech and language and dietetics, course providers look for either an arts/social science or science degree.
If you are determined to switch to medicine even without a medicine or science-related degree and are prepared to do another four years of study, some medical schools accept a minimum 2.1 BA hons degree in any discipline, although you must also do reasonably well in the GAMSAT (Graduate Medical Schools Admissions Test).
Some industry bodies for fields like accountancy or law will happily recognise conversion courses when registering and accrediting new entrants. “If you want to become an accountant, say, a one-year course will give you some exemptions from your professional exams,” said Kilmartin. “Law is the same; you can often get exemptions from some of your professional exams, but you still have to do the exams, so be aware of that.”
With others, such as occupational or speech and language therapy, you can do a two-year conversion course and become qualified on graduation. But if the entry criteria or criteria for membership of relevant professional bodies is not crystal clear to you before you apply (and they change regularly), it is absolutely vital to check with the course providers and professional bodies themselves.
For instance, for the new two-year professional master’s in education, which has replaced the one-year Hdip, your primary degree must be recognised by the Teaching Council before they can register you as a secondary school teacher.
Kilmartin, a member of the Association of Higher Education Careers Services (AHECS), concedes the task of researching conversion courses isn’t quite as straightforward as it could be, while the quality of the “information transmission” from some colleges and bodies regarding entry criteria needs some work.
As well as the comprehensive Qualifax.ie site, Postgradireland. com, produced in association with AHECS, is a useful website with listings and information on everything to do with postgraduate options. You can type in the term “conversion course” to narrow down your search, but not all of the available conversion courses across the country may show up, so it’s worth checking out other sources.
Some colleges, such as DIT, Maynooth University and NUI Galway, have sections on their websites devoted to conversion course options. Funding is another serious challenge, with the range of options “not huge”, says Kilmartin.
With fees for conversion courses ranging from €3,000 to €15,000, you’ll need to be sure enough of your chosen path to make such a hefty financial investment in your future career.
Although the maintenance grant is a thing of the past, postgrad students may be entitled to €2,000 towards the cost of fees if they pass a means test or get up to €6,750 towards fees and essential field trips if they live in a disadvantaged area.
There is also the Back to Education allowance if you are unemployed, a single parent or have a disability and are receiving social welfare. It’s worth remembering you are entitled to 20 per cent tax relief on tuition fees, which was capped at €7,000 for the 2013/2014 academic year.
Conversion graduate profile: Patrick Parfrey
Sometimes just dipping a toe in your first chosen field is enough to tell you you made the wrong choice, even if the job prospects at the time looked rosy.
Patrick Parfrey, 25, from Cork, was doing his six-month work placement in KPMG working in insolvency and receivership. This was in 2011, when such work was in high demand during a difficult time for the economy. “I didn’t enjoy that type of work. It wasn’t for me,” he said.
On graduating from his BSc in finance degree in 2012, he decided to look for a conversion course into another business discipline but with a focus on marketing. He settled on the MBS in management and marketing conversion course at UCC after speaking to a number of its graduates.
“I had an interest in business, I really enjoyed the business aspect of the finance course, but I also had an interest in how people think, and why they think certain things and decide things, so that aspect of consumer behaviour was something I was always interested in. This course has a module in that and it allowed me to delve into it further and see what it was all about, and I really enjoyed the module.
“One half of the course is about management, the other marketing, so it proved a great fit, a great grounding on running your own business and managing people.”
Today, Patrick is the director and co-founder of Instamedia, a digital marketing agency based in Douglas, Cork, that recently marked its first year in business. Deciding to become an entrepreneur rather than an employee was a relatively easy one. “I looked at options for jobs in digital marketing in London, but the graduate salaries being offered really weren’t great.”
So he teamed up with co-founder Olan Hodnett, who had some agency in-house experience, and set up Instamedia. They moved from working in a kitchen in Cork to an office employing five people in Douglas in the space of a year.
What advice would he give to others considering conversion courses? “The first thing I would say is, talk to people in the industry you are interested in and try and get a feel for what they think of it and the pathways.”
You should also be sure enough of the path you’re taking because of the financial investment that might be needed, he said. The one-year UCC MBS course costs €9,000, so you “might have to take out a loan”.