Picking a postgraduate course can be a big ordeal. When students sit down to choose their undergraduate course, there is always the fallback of choosing a broad choice such as arts or science, or even general entry engineering; the time to choose a speciality is a long way off.
But when choosing a postgraduate course, that time is now. How can students navigate their way through it? We spoke to three careers experts about the most frequently asked questions they face and the most common scenarios facing their clients.
Marie McManamon is an independent careers consultant and qualified guidance counsellor with over 30 years of experience in industry and education, and the founder of ClearCut careers and consulting (ClearCut.ie).
Ronan Kennedy is a career coach and trainer who helps people find and live their passion (RonanKennedy.ie)
Paul Mullan is a career and personal marketing professional with experience in career coaching, outplacement and recruitment. He is the founder of Measurability.ie, a career coach, interview coach and CV writer.
Q: Do I need a postgrad at all?
Ronan Kennedy: I question whether it is always needed. Yes, there are some careers, such as becoming a GP, where it is a necessity. But many industries look for people with skills and capabilities, and if you look at areas like business, marketing, development or sales, these are all results-driven, whereas there could be someone with two masters degrees struggling to get work.
One strategy is for people to identify their ideal job in ten years, and then look for people who are doing it now and find out how they go there. LinkedIn is useful for this.
Paul Mullan: If you don't know what you want to do, consider going into the workforce and coming back at a later date. This is a better bet than panicking and investing in something that you will pull out of.
Q: What course should I do?
PM: People should decide on the career they want and then find a course that fits that, not the other way around. Sometimes you will need a qualification, and sometimes you won't. Of course, some people might be happy in their career but just want to learn and study more. Any learning is valuable, but in an ideal situation the time, money and energy spent on a course will bring a return on investment beyond the pleasure of learning. For the most part, people are doing it to stand out in the jobs market.
Q. I have a general degree and don’t know what I want to do now. Can you give me advice about a postgraduate?
PM: There are two strategies here. One is to get into the workforce and find out what you enjoy, then come back for a postgraduate when you know what you want. The second is to try and decide what you want to do, and here you should ask: what is the goal of a postgraduate? Is it just to have a higher level of qualification? Could a broad postgraduate course in a business-related subject be useful? I have seen many CVs over the years and some of the top people in financial services have arts postgraduates. Medical, veterinary or technical roles may require a specialised postgrad, but for most of them, your qualification won't hold you back from a career.
Q. I don’t know if I can attend college full-time. What are my options?
Marie McManamon: If you are interested in independent study and want greater flexibility, extend your research to include online, blended or distance learning providers.
Q. Should my undergraduate and postgrad degrees be from different third-levels?
PM: While your focus should be around what is the best and most reputable course, and what will bring the most kudos in the jobs market, if you live in Glasnevin and DCU is right beside you, why would you go to Galway for a similar postgraduate course? Employers don't care if you have a postgrad and undergrad from the same institutions.
Q. How do I know that my postgrad will lead to a job in the area I want to work in?
RK: Let's imagine that you have your postgrad today. Now, go look for the jobs you would like to apply for. Sometimes you will find that you need a postgraduate qualification, and sometimes you won't. Look at the key skills, personal attributes and relevant experience that the job requires. Are they looking for a body of work, or do they want people who have two degrees?
Q. Is a specialist postgrad really essential for a particular role?
PM: The fact you have any third-level qualification will be a positive. Employers want bright, sharp people, and if you have a postgrad, it shows this. A postgrad in economics is useful for many areas and it shows you can work with numbers and data. With a postgrad in IT you can go into technical roles, project management or other areas.
Q. Should my postgrad have a work placement?
RK: There are many ways to get work experience. If you have to do a postgraduate course, you will find that many have elements of experience built in, including in business courses such as the MBA. But if the postgrad is very theoretical, I do suggest that students make a point of going out and creating experience.
Q. I’m interested in a postgrad, but what about money? Can I afford it?
RK: Some of the higher end postgrads can cost as much as €30,000. That is a salary for someone four years into a career, and it is serious money. If the formal postgrad is an absolute requirement, a person may need loans from family, friends or the bank, supplemented by part-time work. Some companies will support their staff through a postgraduate course, particularly if you can commit to working with them for another four or five years, and can show that you can increase their income, it may make economic sense for them to help you through. Employers are reasonable if you give them a reasonable offer.
MMcM: The website StudentFinance.ie provides user-friendly information on financial support for further and higher education, and offers details of a broad range of bursary or scholarship schemes in operation. Tax relief is available on postgraduate tuition fees for eligible courses, whether full or part-time, and information on this relief is available from the Revenue Commissioners. In terms of cost, information on tuition fees and other charges is generally available on college websites but fees offices will be able to confirm course fees for the 2017 intake. Equally, if you are considering studying abroad, you will need to contact the fees office of your intended provider; they can advise on fees, grants and any specific financial supports applicable to students in your course of study. If studying fulltime, it is important to put together a realistic budget as soon as possible. Various college websites estimate the cost of living for a student in Ireland from €7,000 to €12,000 depending on individual circumstances and where you are living.
Q. I’m still undecided. Where are the jobs?
MMcM: The Expert Group on Future Skills Needs has regular reports and publication which are an excellent source of information for students in terms of sought-after skills by region and sector. See SkillsIreland.ie.
RK: Google keyword planner is a useful tool. It allows you to see, within a few thousand, the quantity and volume of keywords that people are searching for online. And Google Trends allows you to see what people are interested in, so for this it could be useful for seeing the skills employers are interested in such as, for instance, interpersonal communication skills in the workplace.
PANEL: Some common scenarios
Mark Cumisky is a career and skills consultant at University College Dublin. Here, he and Marie McManamon answer some of the most common questions posed by people considering postgraduate courses.
Q. Where do I find post-graduate courses in my chosen course? How do I know if any particular course is suitable for me? Will it help to advance my career? And is there any funding available?
Mark Cumisky: For a list of taught post-graduate courses in Ireland, including Northern Ireland, start with GradIreland (www.gradireland.com). If you are focused on particular institutions or regions, search their individual websites.
Outline the course content of the programmes for variation (i.e. compare core and optional modules, does it include an internship as part of the course?) and note closing dates, which vary considerably.
Attend any information event and ask the programme director about the destinations of the last few years’ classes. If there is no event, then call the course director. Ask questions like: Where are the graduates working now? In what roles? Are these roles relevant to the post-graduate course? Get percentages rather than anecdotes if possible, e.g. 80 per cent of the class is full-time employed in a particular sector, in graduate roles.
Remember that some graduates will decide to pursue an alternative career, some will proceed to PhD research, and some will be unavailable for work for personal reasons, however the majority should be progressing in their career. For new programmes this may not be possible, however there are advantages in being among the first cohort of graduates: check to see the programme’s connections to the relevant profession as a guide.
For smaller programmes percentages can be misleading, e.g. if, from a class of 20, two are unemployed, that is 10 per cent which seems large but really is not. Use your personal network to find someone who is a current student or recent graduate (two years, max.) and ask them about every aspect of the programme, academic and non-academic, to get a sense of the environment.
Check to see if you are eligible for a SUSI grant (www.susi.ie). Some courses have funding attached to them and some institutions have discretionary funding; you need to check with the institutions concerned. For research post-graduate programmes there is often funding available through the Irish Research Council or attached to the research topic, this is more common in the bio-pharma, med-tech, ICT and engineering fields.
Q. I recently graduated with an arts degree (sociology and English) but have decided that I really want to work in business. What’s the best postgraduate course for me to do?
MMcM: There are several options. First, you not might need to complete postgraduate studies at all, because many business-related graduate programmes welcome applications from candidates who don't have a business degree. Further information is available on GradIreland.com and is also regularly posted on college career service pages. Graduate programmes are an ideal starting point for candidates who have decided on a specialist area (such as finance, marketing, HR etc) and some graduate programmes provide participants with cross-functional experience which can help you make up your mind.
Where the roles you are targeting do require a business degree, it is likely that will need to complete a business conversion course. See Qualiax.ie for more information. Many of the course are intensive in nature and are fulltime; some incorporate a work placement.
If you have already decided to study a specific business area at postgraduate level, a conversion course may sometimes be necessary. Contact the college admissions team to see if this is the case. If your chosen area does not require this, which out which qualifications are preferred or required by employers in the sector you are targeting. GradIreland and CareersPortal.ie give good insights. But for a more in-depth understanding, use your personal network or social media to connect with and speak to a hiring manager or recruiter in the sector. On social media, it is better to get an introduction or referral because unsolicited approaches rarely work.
Q. I’m in my mid-30s and have worked in the IT sector for 15 years. I am interested in progressing my career and have been interviewed for a couple of roles recently but have been given feedback that I need to upskill. Two of my colleagues who have been promoted have masters degrees (one an MBA and the other in ICT), but I only have an ordinary degree. What are my options?
MMcM: Many postgrad programmes require applicants to have a 2.1 honours degree or higher, but not always. Some accept applications from individuals with ordinary degrees or other professional qualifications, if they possess significant industry experience. It is worthwhile talking to the postgraduate admissions office and arranging a meeting with the course director who will often have discretion in terms of offering admission if you can demonstrate a high degree of motivation and interest.
Where there is a gap in learning, some colleges offer foundation or pre-entry courses as a precursor to commencing postgrad studies. If this isn’t available, you could consider applying for advanced entry onto the final stage of an evening degree course as a direct follow on to your ordinary degree; you will be updating your skills and can acquire the honours degree needed for entry onto your postgrad course. Again, your first points of contact will be the admissions office and/or course directors.
Q. I completed my degree in law last year but my second choice at CAO stage was psychology. I know now that this is the direction I want to follow, career wise. Where do I go from here?
Full details of all accredited psychology degrees available in Ireland - at both undergraduate and postgraduate level - can be seen on the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI) website (www.psihq.ie). As a graduate, conversion courses are likely to be of most interest and the PSI website also provides a good overview of the various fields of psychology to which you can progress in its career guidance pages.
You might also want to think about studying in the UK where there are conversion courses available on a more flexible and part time basis. The British Psychological Society’s website (www.bps.org.uk) has a full listing of all accredited psychology conversion courses available in the UK as well as career guidance resources for those interested in pursuing a career in psychology.
As another option, you may want to consider doing an undergraduate psychology degree by open or distance learning whilst working. This would allow you to save for your postgraduate studies, which will follow your degree. Keep in mind that some career areas in psychology e.g. clinical psychology, can involve up to 10 years of training including doctoral studies. And some postgraduate options are currently unavailable in Ireland hence if opting for one of these, you will need to study abroad.
In the meantime, to test your interest in psychology as a career, you might want to enrol in one of the many short courses available throughout the country on a part time/evening basis. An added advantage of participating in such a programme is that colleges often consider recent relevant study to be an indicator of suitability and interest, when assessing candidates for places on conversion programmes. Volunteering in any setting aligned to a psychology career (e.g. schools, community groups) can also increase your chances of getting a place on what are often highly competitive conversion programmes with low levels of student intake.