Should you consider a postgrad during the pandemic?

In a recession, people may want to stay in education but there are challenges

"Demand for postgraduate courses is cyclical and driven by the economy," Fergal O'Brien, assistant dean of graduate and professional studies at the University of Limerick, told The Irish Times in 2019.

“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.”

“Many are still choosing to do a postgraduate course fresh out of college,” said 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 [degree].”

Fast forward to 2020, and few of us put “global pandemic” alongside Brexit or a trade war as the cause of an economic recession. So what does O’Brien think now?


Why consider a postgraduate course during Covid?

“We haven’t even defined this as a recession but it is a strange time,” he says. “Anecdotally, it does seem that graduate opportunities are limited and some who had secured positions had their offers deferred. There are not as many graduate entry jobs out there. The usual options of emigration or travel are off the table because of Covid-19. Students are looking at their options for the next six-12 months – minimum – and a postgrad course is a perfect fit. It could be a chance to get that postgrad out the way quite seamlessly, and then you can hit the road running and pursue your career.”

Prof Martine Smith, dean of graduate studies at Trinity College Dublin, says employers will ask applicants what they did during the pandemic. "I'm not saying that the answer has to be a postgraduate degree, but it does offer a way to develop new skills, meet new people and get valuable experience. Because it doesn't seem like things will ever return exactly to how they were before, there is an advantage to gaining new skills. And you will have made a conscious decision to do something or learn something new."

Adam Clarke, postgraduate officer at the Union of Students in Ireland, recently finished a postgraduate course in digital marketing at IT Carlow. "I don't think you should do a postgrad just because you can't find a job," he says. "If you want to make yourself stand out, go ahead, but postgrads are a lot of work and not something you should do just to kill time. I think employers will always value experience more than anything else."

That said, Clarke’s own experience was very positive. “I made friends, learned about the sector I want to work in and got lots of ideas,” he says.

Smith says that Trinity has seen “some increase” in Irish applications for postgraduate courses. “But at this stage it is hard to see how many of them will convert to students.”

What do employers value more: qualifications or experience?

Smith is wary of presenting graduates with a binary choice where they have to figure out whether employers place a greater value on a postgrad qualification or work experience. “Increasingly, postgrad programmes build in internships and work placements so you get the industry experience plus you can develop a network.”

How should you choose the right course for you?

The course should be in an area that you’re really interested in and would enjoy researching, says Clarke. “When you select a postgrad course, find an institution or institutions that have a course you want and that fits with you. Contact the people who deliver the course as they can give you an insight into whether it’s for you.” Be aware of the costs, Clarke advises. This isn’t just about the course fees but also the costs of not working if you’re doing a full-time programme, as well as travel and other costs.

How can you fund a postgraduate course?

"There are sources of support but they are not as structurally organised as at undergraduate level," says Smith. Susi (Student Universal Support Ireland) offers some level of postgraduate support, while tax relief of 20 per cent can be claimed on fees. All the universities run various scholarship programmes, while the Irish Research Council runs a competitive scheme to support PhD and research masters students (although the bulk of its funding is directed to PhD researchers).

Springboard+ offers free and subsidised courses at certificate, degree and masters level in areas where there are skills shortages, although at least a year must have passed before a graduate from an undergraduate degree is eligible for a place on a level nine course. The Human Capital Initiative, announced by the Government in June, has added significantly more free places. See for more information.

How will postgrads be delivered with the pandemic ongoing?

Different third-level colleges are taking different approaches, but most will be delivered through a blend of online and in-person teaching.

“Trinity has committed to some face-to-face interaction over the course of our programmes and schools [departments] have been working hard to deliver flexibility,” says Smith. “We have invested in upskilling our lecturers and tutors for online course delivery but do feel strongly that face-to-face is an important part of the student experience and you should interact with the academics you’re working with. We will have some programmes where it’s fully or almost entirely delivered online because that’s already the norm internationally, and others where there might be an element of lab or placement work that can’t be delivered online. So we are trying to find ways to ensure students have that face-to-face while still reaching out to students who are immunocompromised.”

At UL, students will have one week on campus and three weeks off-campus where they will be online with learning technology and supports provided through a new role in the university: learning technologist.

“They are supporting us around moving material online, how to deliver online programmes, how to engage classes and moderate discussions and how to deliver top-class online education as opposed to simply putting material online,” says O’Brien.

What are some downsides of a postgrad course?

"PhDs are not funded adequately and the average stipend rate still works out lower than the average wage," says Clarke. "We hope that the Minister for the new Department of Higher Education, Simon Harris, addresses working conditions for researchers. And there remains more funding for science, technology, maths and engineering than for arts and humanities."

Postgraduate profiles

Gillian McGinley: Maynooth University

"I finished my undergraduate in social science at Maynooth University this year and am just starting my masters of social science in rights and human policy there.

“I’m a mature student and I have four children and my youngest is just about to start junior infants.

“I don’t know if I would have done the postgraduate course without the pandemic. When the outbreak happened, it felt like the right time to continue education because I didn’t know if the children would be able to go back to the childminder if I was working full-time. I know a lot of people have found this time so unsettling but, for me, it has been calmer.

“My course is full-time but lectures take place two or three days a week, with the rest of the time for assignments, study and research. Because we are a smaller group, a lot of our work will still take place on campus.

“I am genuinely so appreciative of the support that was given by Maynooth’s applied social studies and sociology departments and their lecturers. The encouragement and confidence they instilled in me throughout the undergraduate degree definitely contributed to my decision to go on to do a postgrad.”

Cara Edwards: TU Dublin

“I’ve just finished a masters in strategic management at TU Dublin and before that I studied business and law at the same university.

"After I got the opportunity to represent TU Dublin at an undergraduate business strategy competition in Canada, I realised that I really enjoyed this area and went straight from my undergraduate to a masters.

“Of course, the pandemic changed a lot but TU Dublin’s response was really impressive and they made sure we could still learn.

"I began applying for graduate programmes during my masters as a lot of the applications are in before you complete the course. I got accepted on to the Enterprise Ireland National Graduate Programme in February.

“My postgrad gave us the chance to work on live company projects and organise events, and really prepared us for a career. It is daunting for students looking for jobs with so much uncertainty, but I feel that a postgraduate course differentiates you from other candidates.”