Life after you graduate: what are the best options for you?
There are plenty of options available to students in their final year, from graduate programmes to working abroad or further study
A medical student at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin
When you start college it seems like you have an eternity to make up your mind about what you will do after graduation. While some people might have known since freshers’ week where they were going after college, many don’t begin to consider it until their final year.
There are plenty of options facing final-year students, from graduate programmes to working abroad to further study. Whether you’ve always known what you want to do after finishing your degree or are only recently thinking about it, it’s important to know what all your options are and what will work best for you.
There is a basic choice: work or further study. But even within those you have a number of paths, so it is important to figure out which fits with where you want to go in life.
Career guidance centres, graduate offices and career fairs, either on campus or organised by groups such as Gradireland, are hugely useful. You should use them to talk to relevant people, pick up information and figure out the best route for your preferred career path.
Talking to people who went on to work or study in the area you are interested in is also a good way to try to plan the next step. Universities and colleges usually have former students they can put you in touch with if you are considering further study, while many companies will be happy to put you in contact with people from their graduate programme to tell you about their experience.
Taking that first jobAfter three or four years of study, many students are happy to see the end of assignments, exams and a diet made up of cereal and baked beans. For those, entering the world of work is the logical route and it seems this is a good time to be a graduate looking for a job.
“I’m very optimistic for graduates at the moment,” says Ger Lardner, senior careers adviser with Dublin City University’s Student Support & Development Centre.
Lardner has seen an increase in the number of companies recruiting graduates in the last number of years, with “talent wars” between multinationals across all sectors.
“Companies are looking for the best and brightest students . . . There’s been a huge increase in IT in the last two years, but finance and business are still very strong. There’s an increase in companies looking for languages as well, but in general the companies want very good students in all disciplines. They want a mix of creative and quantitative people, who can bring different talents to the company,” Lardner says.
Along with companies meeting students at graduate fairs, they are also going into colleges to recruit. DCU is already booked up with lunchtime recruitment sessions right into the middle of its second semester. And while it might not be for everybody, there are certainly a lot of benefits for fresh-faced graduates going straight into a job.
“One advantage is that you get to use your skills very quickly without them going to waste,” says Lardner. “If you want to bed down in this country and establish yourself, you’re making your network and your contacts at a very young age, which does benefit you.
“Also some students want to travel and they are plenty of large organisations in particular that want their graduates to travel, it is part of the job. Kingspan for example would say to graduates, ‘Don’t apply if you’re not willing to get on a plane’. Even though they are Cavan-based, they operate in a global environment. So if you want to work and travel you can be smart about it and do both.”
Going straight from your undergraduate course into employment also gives you the chance to figure out your strengths and weaknesses. You will get the chance to identify if there’s a particular part of the sector you might want to specialise in, or find out if it’s even the right type of work for you. That’s something you can often only get with hands-on experience.
For those working there’s also the chance to continue studies with a part-time postgraduate course, which may be funded by your work. Some people may even have their company pay for their further education, along with getting study leave and bonuses for good performance in exams.
Moving abroadThe end of your undergrad is also an optimal time to move country or even continent, doing anything from teaching English, to engineering to interning in law firms. It’s an opportunity to see a new landscape, make new friends and embrace a totally different culture. It’s also a chance for many to embellish their CVs.
Lisa Collender, marketing manager with Usit, which offers one-year graduate visas, says going abroad gives graduates a real insight into the working environment of another culture. This experience really stands to them when they return to Ireland a year later and look for work.
“A lot of it is to do with work ethic. We have, for example, a graduate in America who is doing five different things alongside her placement; for example she’s involved in meetings for start-up companies. There’s an appetite among graduates who go out on a visa to get involved outside of the workplace,” Collender says.
“These people are also constantly networking and when they come back to get into the workplace here, they are almost a few steps further up the ladder. They’ve gone to a different country, most of them go on their own, and so they have stood on their own two feet and have got a job or an internship. They have these contacts and experience on their CV, and it really opens doors for them when they come back to start their career in Ireland.”
Conversion coursesOf course, after three or four years of college, some students may discover they want a complete change from where their undergraduate degree was taking them. There is a growing number of postgraduate conversion courses in colleges around the country. They offer a second chance for graduates to take control of their career path and go in a totally different direction. They usually last one to two years and can, for example, take science graduates into marketing, business and arts graduates into law and engineering students into web design.
“When choosing a conversion course it’s key to ask the reason for doing so,” says Dave Kilmartin, head of the Career Development Centre with Dublin Institute of Technology.
“Is it to change career path? Is it to enter a certain profession? Or is it just out of interest in the academic area? Underpinning this is the question of the individual’s definitions of career motivation, fulfilment and success. The course will ideally bring you closer to realising these core aspects of career decision-making.”
Kilmartin advises anyone considering a conversion course to speak to previous participants on the course: find out what opportunities it opened to them and what the reputation of the course is among employers. He also urges people to consider the financial aspect of a conversion course, which can cost anything from €3,000 to €15,000 and more.
The biggest benefit of a conversion course is that it allows you to enter an area of work that you are passionate about and truly interested in, rather than slogging away for years in an area or profession you care nothing about.
Conversion courses are usually highly valued by employers as they often favour candidates with a broad educational background.
Your degree will give you transferable skills that you can bring with you into your new area, while the course itself will give you the skills necessary for the sector you want to enter.
Kilmartin says a change in career direction can ultimately represent personal strength and determination, and can distinguish you from other graduates when applying for a job.
PostgradsFor those who are not quite ready to turn their backs on academia, the option of a postgraduate course, either taught or research, can also offer opportunities further down the line for graduates.
“Irish education is typically a three-year undergrad, whereas if we look to Europe or North America a standard undergrad is four years,” says Peter McNamara, professor of management at the School of Business at Maynooth University.
“Employment data show your employment options increase rapidly either through a postgrad or a job placement. When I give careers talks, I would always advise students that they consider a three-year degree followed by a postgraduate if they don’t immediately get the employment of their dreams, because it really heavily helps.”
Both a taught postgrad and a research postgrad can be beneficial in enhancing your employability. The main thing is to figure out which type of postgrad will help you to fulfil your career expectations and what structure suits you best, as both have a number of merits employers will appreciate.
A taught master’s usually has a very structured programme, similar to an undergraduate degree, with lectures, group work and regular assignments; students are expected to complete a major thesis or dissertation by the end. They usually equip people with strong teamwork and communication skills, as well as upskilling students and giving them a greater insight into their chosen area. They typically last one year and incorporate a work placement.
“A postgrad placement is the real key,” says McNamara. “It gives students very relevant knowledge that employers use to screen whether to hire them or not. Another route by which employers scope them out is saying, ‘How did you do in your postgraduate? Did you demonstrate an ability to get on your postgrad degree? Did you pick a relevant postgrad degree? How did you perform in that?’”
A research postgrad usually takes longer than a year and is less structured, with students carrying out most of their work independently.
“A research master’s, often leading to a research PhD, is a very different offering,” says McNamara. “It’s for somebody who has a deep interest in their chosen subject and really wants to do some original research and expand their knowledge of a particular issue. So, in the case of a business research student, they would be going out there collecting data, trying to really understand what the business or area they are looking into is about.”
For research students collecting data, it can get them out of the library and making contacts. Networking in this way can prove useful when looking for a job after the postgrad. A research postgrad also allows the student to know more about that area than anyone else in Ireland, or indeed internationally, and so it’s also the route into academia. It can also open a lot of doors to consultancy or being a specialist in a particular area.