Postgrad education: should you stay or should you go?
What is likely to pay off the most – investing in furthering your education or starting your career instead?
What should you do after college? Should you make a dash for the nearest exit and begin your job hunt or perhaps you should consider continuing your education. Photograph: iStock
Final-year undergrads have all had the conversation: here comes the “real world”, whatever that is.
Some are enthusiastic about getting into the world of work and being truly independent. Others know they will really miss the relative freedom and fun of college. And then there are those who wonder if their degree has truly equipped them with the skills needed for the workplace.
It all leads back to the same question: should I do a postgraduate degree?
During the worst of the recession years, highly-skilled undergraduates struggled to get work and many emigrated. We all heard apocryphal tales of PhD graduates queuing round the block for a job in the local shop. Perhaps doing a double take, undergraduates plumped to stay in education, hoping to ride out the employment crisis and emerge from the postgraduate cocoon with highly-prized skills.
With the economy now booming and employers crying out for graduates, there are signs that this trend is coming to an end. Postgraduate enrolments peaked at 14.5 per cent of the overall student body in 2009, but postgraduate enrolments had fallen to 13 per cent by 2014, and the number of graduates who progress to a masters course is also down. So is it still worth taking on a postgraduate course?
“It is a major investment and you need to think carefully about it,” says Josephine Walsh, head of the career development centre at NUI Galway. “A masters is a very different learning experience, with smaller classes, more involvement and employer engagement. Today’s masters students are putting conferences together and they’re getting good opportunities to develop their skills and employability. In making your decision, it’s worth asking where the graduates of that masters are and what they have gone on to, and the Higher Education Authority requires every institution to gather that data, so it should be available.”
Andrée Harpur, an independent careers consultant, says that anyone looking at a postgraduate course will be investing a sizable amount of time, energy and money, and they need to consider how it will help them.
When a master’s is right for you
“It can be worth doing if you studied this area in your undergrad degree and want to specialise in a particular module for your masters, which will provide you with expertise and make you more employable,” says Harpur. “This can be particularly useful for people with general degrees, including arts and science. It’s also worth considering if you didn’t particularly enjoy the subjects for your undergraduate, and a master’s degree will allow you to change to a different career area, and you might consider a conversion course to change over to a business area.”
Sometimes, a masters is necessary, says Walsh. “Law, [post-primary] teaching and social work are among the courses where you need to have a masters in order to get into the profession.”
However, entry to some postgraduate courses is restricted to graduates from certain backgrounds: it isn’t, for example, always possible to move from an undergraduate arts or business course into some specialist health science courses.
“Once graduates start work, they see that they will have to keep learning and progressing throughout their career,” says Walsh. “They see that, if they take a job, a postgrad will still be there for them in the future, and that an employer may even fund a part-time masters degree. They also realise that, in some cases, their promotional prospects could be hindered if they’re up against someone who has the masters. In making the decision between going straight into work or doing that masters, it’s worth asking if an employer will be supportive of them if they want to go back to education down the line.”
A significant proportion of postgraduate students don’t go straight from an undergraduate to postgraduate course, but instead return to education after a few years in work and decide they want to specialise. Graduate destination reports show that postgraduates will, on average, earn more over their working life.
Finally, Harpur advises, you may consider a masters if you want to get into a particular academic area. “If you would like to teach your subject area in a third-level college, you would need to do a masters degree in your subject and then, in most cases, proceed to a PhD.” (However, it’s worth noting that academia has become one of the most precarious areas in which to work and younger lecturers often struggle to get enough hours, while their older colleagues are overburdened with administrative work.)
When a masters is wrong for you
“I would probably discourage someone from doing a masters solely because they think they will get a certain job out of it,” says Walsh. “You should keep an eye on employability, of course, but only do it if you are genuinely interested. “
Harpur says it is inadvisable to take a masters course just because you can’t think of anything else to do. “I have dealt with students who took a masters degree simply because they thought it was the next step, but it turned out that was not the area that suited them, and they had to consider doing a second masters.
“It is extremely important that your masters degree forms part of your career plan. You need to know why you are doing this course and where it can take you. Are you absolutely sure that this is the area in which you would eventually like to work?”
Graduates should be particularly aware of this when considering an MBA, says Harpur. “I once worked with a client who had wanted to get out of the accounting area and took an MBA to make a career change. Within his MBA, however, he specialised in the area of accounting because he was familiar with it, and it meant he just did a complete circle rather than specialise in a totally different area of business. He hadn’t really known what he wanted to do. By the time he worked with me, we had to consider a second masters.”
Funding a postgraduate course
Postgraduate courses are expensive. Not only do students have to pay fees, but those in full-time courses will find it difficult to also hold down a full-time job. However, there are sources of support:
Springboard: This Government initiative offers free courses in certain areas of the economy where there are key skills shortages. See SpringboardCourses.ie.
Student grants: After years of cuts, postgrad students can now apply for financial assistance. Those who pass a means test, which can be carried out on their income or that of their parents, may receive a flat figure of €2,000. If they meet the qualifying conditions for disadvantaged students, they may get all their tuition fees and essential field trips covered (to a maximum of €6,270). You’ll find more information on Susi.ie.
Individual faculties, departments and higher education institutions offer a number of bursaries or scholarships. These include the NUI award scheme for students with disabilities and the Maynooth University John and Pat Hume doctoral awards scheme. You’ll find more information on StudentFinance.ie or by enquiring with the college department you’re interested in.
Banks may offer student loans but you may get preferential interest rates at the credit union.