By Lucy Tobin. Postgraduate courses remain in demand, but is one right for you? Our new guide will help you to decide. "It helped me stand out from the crowd and get a job," says Gitte Pedersen of her master's degree in international marketing. The fact that she's talking about the course from her office at advertising giant Ogilvy reinforces her point. "I learned a lot and became more motivated," Pedersen adds, "but the best thing about it was definitely that it helped me go straight into work."
Not all postgraduate courses have such a happy ending, but students are still heaping their dreams on them. The spike in demand for postgraduate education during the recession is still in evidence. Almost 353,500 students enrolled in postgraduate studies in 2009-10, according to the Higher Education Careers Service Unit (Hecsu). Demand for master's degrees was up 7.4%, and the number of PhD students grew 1%. Hecsu has not yet published last year's admissions figures, but says anecdotal evidence suggests even higher student numbers.
With graduate unemployment at a 15-year high, it's little surprise that students want to further their education in the hope of finding employment. There are, however, growing fears in academia that the rise in undergraduate fees and the end of schemes such as the education maintenance allowance will leave domestic students too indebted to afford a postgraduate education in the UK, which could become the preserve of foreign students.
For now, those opting to return to academia are, like Pedersen, fanatically focused on one thing: employability. Recruiters like master's courses, but only if graduates can prove their value. "If post-graduate qualifications are undertaken for the right reason and graduates are able to explain their worth to prospective employers, they can be very worthwhile additions to a CV," says Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters. "But motivation is important. If it's just to delay the job search or as a last resort after failing to secure a job, then it's not worthwhile."
If you're considering a higher degree, Education Guardian's Postgraduate Guide, launched today, will help your research. It lists course fees, staff-student ratios, completion rates and expenditure per student. More than ever this year it's crucial to ensure you're getting the best value for money – not necessarily the cheapest fees, but a place on the course that is most likely to lead to the job you want, at an institution with good industry links, careers advice and student satisfaction levels.
"If you're serious about investing your time and money in a postgraduate course, ensure you're making an informed decision," advises Laura Hooke, careers consultant at City University London. "If you are motivated by the sheer enjoyment of study and a love of the subject, that's great. But if you see further study as a means of getting employment, proceed with caution. A job ... is not guaranteed."
If you do decide to proceed, pick your course with your career objectives in mind – whether that's work in academia or a particular industry sector. "Find as specific a programme as possible," advises James Intriligator, senior lecturer at Bangor University. When his psychology department switched its master's in "consumer psychology" to one in "consumer psychology and business", it saw a marked increase in the number of students securing jobs at the end. "Employers take notice of highly relevant, specialised programmes," says Intriligator. He also highlights the value of courses that include hands-on experience. "Our students do a semester-long project with a local company, which gives them something 'applied' to talk about in interviews," he says.
Would-be postgraduates should also look into the details beyond graduate employment numbers. "Write to your top few courses and ask what kind of careers their graduates tend to pursue," says Intriligator. "Ask how successful they have been, and ask for examples. Many will not answer you, but if you continually get no response, this should tell you something about the university." Past and current students are another useful source of advice, but try to track them down through student forums, Twitter or Facebook rather than just those beaming out of the prospectus: they're more likely to be honest.
Looking back on her own postgraduate experience, Pedersen says the best thing she did was secure work experience before picking her course. "You can select modules that are based around what you want as a career," she says.
This is something Katarina Palin did not do. Palin, 25, completed a PGCE teaching qualification at Sheffield Hallam University last June. She embarked on the course after graduating with a degree in business administration and sociology from Aston University. "After mild career panic, I thought I needed a vocation, and decided – with minimal knowledge of what it really entailed – that teaching would be it," Palin explains. "I found out there were still spaces on Sheffield Hallam's PGCE course and applied without really putting much thought into it."
Palin quickly regretted her decision. "On my first placement, I had a minor breakdown about whether I really wanted to continue, but I convinced myself I should carry on. I was trying so hard just to keep my head above water and was literally counting the days until the end of the course. Deep down, I knew I didn't really want to teach. After graduating, I ended up going back to recruitment agencies. I secured some admin work at a university, where I am now. I'd like to build a career here."
Palin says potential postgraduate students should not start a course in the vague hope it leads to a career. "I feel like I wasted a year. It was a path I chose out of blind panic, the idea that I needed a career – I'd never advise anyone to choose a postgraduate course because of that."
Spending time weighing up the pros and cons of a master's is all the more important when you consider the cost. The average fees for a one-year course for a domestic student rose to £4,000 last year; an MBA costs an average of £12,000. And experts predict that the cost of postgraduate courses will rise when tuition fees triple from 2012, as universities won't want to offer master's qualifications that are cheaper than undergraduate ones.
While bursaries are available for some, many need to take out a career development loan, worth up to £10,000, to fund two years of study. Alternative options include long-distance learning or part-time study, which can be juggled with paid work, or studying abroad: some European universities' fees are far lower than those in the UK.
Whatever postgraduate path you pick, make sure you're committed to the hard work. "At least 70% of what you get out of a master's is directly related to how much you put in," says Intriligator. "Be prepared to make things happen on your own – set up study groups, read widely, and engage. If you don't feel ready to take responsibility for learning on your shoulders, and don't feel interested or excited by the topic, then don't waste your time and money."