Learn or earn: Is a postgraduate course the right choice for you?

Grad Week: Do employers value work experience more than a postgraduate qualification?

“A masters qualification is really helpful in getting a promotion or when moving jobs, but it’s perhaps less important in the first job.” Photograph: iStock

“A masters qualification is really helpful in getting a promotion or when moving jobs, but it’s perhaps less important in the first job.” Photograph: iStock


Gone are the days when education was capped with a third-level or postgraduate qualification. Today, in most professions, some level of lifelong learning is unavoidable. But for many people who have recently finished their undergraduate degree, deciding whether or not to take on a postgraduate course or go straight into the workplace can be a tough call. And, unfortunately, there really is no one-size-fits-all answer.

Do or die?

Dr Fergal O’Brien is the assistant dean of postgraduate studies at the University of Limerick. “Demand for postgraduate courses is cyclical and driven by the economy,” he says. “In a recession, people may want to stay in education but there are issues around financing. During a boom, there is the attraction of the labour market, whereas a [full-time]postgraduate course may delay it.”

Right now, we are in the teeth of a boom, but Brexit, Donald Trump’s trade war and our relentless capacity to trash the environment could herald a recession. One seemingly obvious decision is to work for a few years and consider a postgraduate course down the line, but the risk is that it can be very hard once you’re earning money to go back to education.

“Many are still choosing to do a postgraduate course fresh out of college,” says Dr O’Brien. “There is a trade-off. You can go into the workforce now and, if there’s a recession in two years’ time, you have to consider whether the employer will value that experience more than a postgraduate.”

Experience or academia?

“It really depends on the employer,” Dr O’Brien says. “When a slowdown comes, new entry positions will have higher entry requirements than before. A masters qualification is really helpful in getting a promotion or when moving jobs, but it’s perhaps less important in the first job. When you’re up against colleagues with the same level of experience, the postgraduate qualification [can help].”

At Trinity College, Shaz Oye, the new president of the Graduate Students’ Union, took 52 per cent of the vote in a three-horse race by promising to fight for the rights of postgraduates and ensuring they are not taken for granted. She says Irish society needs postgraduates, and a qualification is a prerequisite for some for many jobs – but many are saying that courses are hard to fund and that their contribution isn’t adequately valued.

After leaving school, Oye went straight to work. She is one of those relatively rare postgraduate students who was accepted onto a course based entirely on her prior work experience.

“I have never been impressed, if on an interview panel, if someone sitting in front of me has never worked. If they have gone straight from school to undergraduate and then immediately onto a postgraduate, without any work experience, I’m hesitant. Ultimately, there is no shortcut to experience, and you can’t learn everything in the classroom. I have worked in companies where they need people who can hit the ground running – you need to have some sort of experience.”

Make money or spend money?

Postgraduate courses can cost between €7,000-€15,000 depending on what you study and where, but the big question is whether it’s worth the investment. “Research shows it does pay off over a person’s career, but it can be hard right now when the cost is exacerbated by higher rental and living costs,” says Dr O’Brien.

Full-time or part-time?

Either way, there are options. Part-time courses, often delivered fully or partially online, are in demand, because it means people can work and study at the same time.

“Universities are becoming more flexible and adaptable to accommodate the different needs of different learners, including those who are some distance from the college as well as student professionals who may wish to do just one module in an area that will enhance and improve their work,” says Oye.

The downside, of course, is that working and studying at the same time can be exhausting. And, as Oye points out, postgraduate programmes mean that you are, at least, “studying to become a master of knowledge in that specialist field, so you have to be very clear about why you are doing it, and be aware it requires a high level of academic rigour”.

Postgrad or other routes?

Of course, in some instances, a postgraduate is particularly useful, or even essential.

“There are two types of postgraduate students: one group have been studying for three or four years and want to learn more, while another group may wish to change course or reposition themselves,” says Dr O’Brien. “So we see a lot of finance graduates who might, for instance, wish to move into analytics, and a postgraduate course is the route.”

Postgraduate students at DCU Business School also tend to fall into two categories, says Prof Anne Sinnott, executive dean at the DCU Business School: those students opting to convert to business after completing an undergraduate degree in science or the arts, or business students who want to specialise further in a business discipline or in an industry that is of particular interest to them.

Either way, the benefits are clear: “Postgraduate programmes offer a very different learning experience, such as smaller class sizes, tailored course content, opportunities to engage with companies and personal development opportunities,” she says.

“These add value to students’ employment prospects and form a much stronger base for career development than just having an undergraduate degree.”

Some graduates can have the best of both worlds: with a shortage of staff in many areas, many big firms recruit straight out of college in areas as diverse as finance, accounting, pharmaceutical, technology, retail, fast moving consumer goods and elsewhere. This means graduates can go straight into a paid role where they also receive on-the-job training and opportunities for further learning and career progression too.

Free, massive open online courses (MOOCs) may also be a way for graduates to learn new skills: although they don’t lead to a qualification, they can help people to figure out whether a course is a good fit.

Value postgrads – or take them for granted?

At Trinity, Oye’s platform includes entering into a conversation with the college authorities on accepting and recognising that postgraduate and masters students are doing extensive work for the college without adequate payment. “PhD candidates teach, design new modules, assist tutors in labs and classrooms, have their own projects and put in a lot of hours. They may receive a stipend of €16,000 a year in the best-case scenario, but others are on less. This is not enough to cover the cost of rent and living in Dublin. There has been a culture in academia that treats students as lucky to be here, and there has been a lack of recognition that they are service users of the organisation and paying a lot of money. We need innovative thinking to get postgraduate work and study appropriately valued, and this is a hot issue in college life.”

Oye says a rise in research grants for the work doctoral candidates carry out, even by about €4,000, would make a real difference to people’s lives but barely make a dent in the education budget.

Is it worth it?

Oye is careful, however, not to paint postgraduate courses as all doom and gloom. “I loved it the day I came here. I am doing something I adore and would not be anywhere else for any money. I would recommend to younger students who are considering a postgraduate course to think carefully about the type of career they want and the experience and knowledge they will need. Find out what employers are looking for in the areas that interest you. There may be opportunities in some areas, such as drama, to do a continuous professional development course that is much shorter, cheaper and more suitable than a postgrad.”

Do some research

Prof Sinnott says there are plenty of options available for further study but stresses the importance of preparation.

“Employers value lifelong learning and many students will opt to complete a part-time programme or executive education programme as their career progresses and the skills needed in a particular field evolve,” she says.

“It’s never too late. I’d advise anyone thinking of doing a masters to understand their motivation, look closely at course content and be sure to get answers to any questions you may have about particular course. Come to an open evening if you can.”

Show me the money – How can students finance their course?

If postgrads were free and people were paid to do them, the choice would be a lot easier. But just how can a student finance their course?

Springboard is a Government-run initiative that offers free courses in areas of the economy that are experiencing key skills shortages. At the moment, there’s strong demand for ICT skills conversion courses, with one-year full-time and two-year part-time courses open to graduates a year after completing their undergrad. For full details and eligibility criteria, see Springboard.ie.

Postgraduate students can apply for a limited amount of financial assistance: this can vary between €2,000 and €6,270, depending on your personal circumstances. You’ll find more details on Susi.ie.

Various third-levels and their individual faculties or departments also offer scholarships. At UCD, for instance, these include the Réalta Master in Engineering Scholarship and the Caroline Walsh Bursary in Creative Writing. It’s definitely worth contacting the department you’re interested in and seeing what’s on offer.

The Irish Research Council also offers potentially lucrative awards to research students, but the process is highly competitive. See Research.ie.

Tax relief of 20 per cent is available on postgraduate fees. And don’t forget: students can claim postgraduate grants and multiple scholarships at the same time.