Room to improve? Postgraduate study could boost career prospects

Whether you want to further your career, change direction, or pursue your passion for a particular subject, a postgrad might be for you

An additional qualification might help you stand out from the crowd in a competitive graduate market. Photograph: iStockphoto

An additional qualification might help you stand out from the crowd in a competitive graduate market. Photograph: iStockphoto


Postgraduates were once considered the preserve of a distant élite. Today, the numbers opting for fourth-level are rising steadily, and a postgraduate qualification can give an edge to job applicants, particularly in roles requiring specialisation.

But there’s a lot to consider. Should you go full-time? How can you fund it? What course is right for you? And what will help you get ahead in your chosen career?

Do a postgrad, or get to work?

Learning is always worthwhile, whether or not it gives a boost to your career. It’s a worthy sentiment, but we all need to earn a living and pay the bills, so most people have to weigh up the short-term loss of earnings and the cost of postgrad fees against their long-term employment and wage prospects.

Figures from the Higher Education Authority show that a postgraduate qualification does boost employment chances. In addition, postgraduates are more likely to make more money over time: 28 per cent of PhD (doctoral graduates) and 22 per cent of master’s degree and postgraduate diplomas earn over 45,000 per year. This compared to just 3 per cent of undergraduates with an honours degree.

Why take on a postgraduate course?

Different people have very different reasons. Some simply have a topic that they are passionate about. Some need to update their skills or train in a particular area: you can’t, in most instances, become a secondary school teacher, solicitor or barrister without a postgraduate qualification.

You might be looking at medieval literature because you love it, food innovation because you want to set up a food business, or molecular medicine because you need to update your skills to advance in the workplace. But whether it’s a humanities course which hones your critical thinking and research skills, or a science course that equips you with particular information, you will get a step up on the career ladder.

All that said, don’t finish your undergraduate and then a postgraduate course for the sake of it, or because you feel you should. You’ll be focused on a particular subject for a year or more so it’s really important you make the right decision. If you don’t know what you want, take a few years and work – you can always go back to education later.

Full-time or part-time?

One of the biggest questions for all budding postgraduates. We know that the vast majority of part-time postgraduates – more than 76 per cent of them – are over 30 years old, while a further 18 per cent are between 25-29. Between childcare and family responsibilities, work commitments and a personal life, most just can’t afford the time and costs of going full-time. Part-time postgrads are often but not always spread out over the course of two years: potential students need to decide for themselves whether to get it over with as fast as they can, or have two years of study on top of work.

Even among full-time postgrad students, it seems that the majority take some time out between finishing up on their undergraduate course and starting a postgrad. We know that 32 per cent of full-time postgrads are over 30 years of age and another 30 per cent are between 25-29. Just 38 per cent are 24 or under; these are students who have engaged with their college careers service and taken on a course because they have an idea of their preferred career choice.

Pay your own way or get funded?

We’re all entitled to free primary and secondary education, and the State will pay for one undergraduate course for all citizens – albeit a payment that requires a top-up through the college registration fee. For postgraduate degrees, however, most people will have to pay their own way.

How much will it cost? There’s no average fee: a certificate course will be significantly cheaper than a taught master’s, but a taught master’s can vary in price from around €4,000 to €10,000 or more. Business courses may be slightly more expensive, as can specialist courses in science and medicine – while an MBA can cost over 20,000. If you’re doing a PhD or research master’s, you have to pay an annual fee for the duration – these can be in and around €6,000, but vary from one institution to the next. Most university, institute of technology and college websites have an easily accessible list of fees, either accompanying each course webpage or available through the fees and grants office.

There are sources of support:

– The Susi postgraduate maintenance grant has been reinstated and you may be eligible for a contribution of €2,000 or a grant of up to €6,270 towards the cost of fees.

– Some employers will pay postgraduate fees if the qualification is relevant to your work, although they may require a commitment that you work with them for another few years.

– The Irish Research Council provides grant funding for postgraduate research students, primarily doctoral candidates. There are many other sources of funding: when applying for courses, ask the department or school about scholarships.

– Tax relief is available on some postgraduate courses that are at least one academic year long.

– You’ll find more details on financial support and bursary or scholarship schemes on

Online or traditional?

The internet has revolutionised education. Many colleges offer distance or online courses; at the very least, the average number of hours that postgraduates are required to be physically present on campus has fallen as more lessons are provided online.

On top of this, is one of the many sites offering free online courses from some of the world’s top universities. Meanwhile, Moocs (massive online open courses) give people a chance to learn skills without getting certified: sometimes you just want the skill and don’t necessarily need the piece of paper for it – an editor, for instance, might not care that you have a postgraduate Master of Science in data journalism; you just need to be able to show them that you can work with data.

For some students, however, being physically present on campus, having a network of other students to talk to, and talking to lecturers – not to mention the fire of exams and assignments – can be a strong and necessary motivator.

One course or another?

Still not sure of the right course for you? Check out some of those in our guides, look up the college websites, or see