Is a postgraduate degree necessary to get a job?

Victoria Halman investigates how employers view the growing trend for graduates to take a second qualification to help them land a first job

January 21, 2016
Men riding wooden sledge, Garmisch-Partenkirchen, 2012
Source: Corbis

A growing number of graduates are embarking on postgraduate degrees even when such qualifications are not a requirement for work in their chosen industry. Increasingly, people are pursuing a master’s degree not to stand out from the pack but simply to keep up with it. In fact, the expectation of postgraduate study is now such that in November, London Zoo advertised a job vacancy for an unpaid intern with a master’s degree.

According to a Higher Education Careers Service Unit (HECSU) report published in October, What Do Graduates Do?, 46.2 per cent of first-degree graduates from 2013-14 who went on to further study took a taught master’s qualification. Another 18.6 per cent went into teacher training, and 11.9 per cent embarked on a doctorate.

A Universities UK (UUK) report, Patterns and Trends in UK Higher Education 2015, showed that over the 10 years from 2004-05 to 2013-14, the number of postgraduate research students rose by 27.2 per cent and postgraduate taught students by 8.4 per cent.

In a world where one degree does not seem to cut it any more, is it possible to get a job without postgraduate study, or should everyone be preparing for a few more years of student life?

Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of UK universities, recognises the trend of more people entering postgraduate education in their twenties and thirties, but she says that postgraduate study does not necessarily equate to better employment opportunities.

“Research confirms that having a postgraduate degree will enhance earnings over time, but unless a postgraduate qualification is a requirement to enter a particular profession, there is no evidence that employers prefer younger graduates to have a postgraduate qualification at the outset,” she says.

However, some starting out in the job market do sometimes report difficulties getting noticed with just a bachelor’s degree.

Benjamin Steyn, who is studying for a master’s in the economics and policy of energy and the environment at University College London, had applied for several positions in the environmental sector with no success. He says he hopes that his postgraduate degree will give him a specialism that is “advantageous” in the job market and will “demonstrate genuine enthusiasm and passion”.

Of course, the need for a postgraduate degree differs according to the industry. In the media, a master’s degree is not essential, although it is quickly becoming an unspoken requirement. However, in the teaching and science sectors, it is widely accepted that postgraduate certificates of education (PGCEs) and PhDs stand a candidate in better stead for a job.

Luke Denne, a freelance journalist and producer whose previous jobs include deputy news editor at Sky News, does not have a master’s degree. However, he points out that he is the “exception” to the rule. “I don’t think graduates need to do a master’s to get into the industry, but it is certainly becoming the norm,” he says.

He also highlights the benefits, such as making contacts, that a master’s degree can confer. “You don’t necessarily need a master’s to do the job, but unfortunately employers are all too often filling their work experience placements and graduate jobs with students from the top courses, so it can certainly help you get there quicker.”

Credentials v characteristics

Hayley Barlow, head of communications at Channel 4 News, agrees that a master’s can be “an asset”, but she believes that it is not mandatory. “Channel 4 News editors are less prescriptive about applicants without postgraduate journalism degrees. They are more interested in individuals with their own obsessions, specialisms and genuine interests that go beyond the qualifications,” she says.

While she recognises that a master’s degree can help to demonstrate a strong interest in the field, Barlow also voices concerns about postgraduate study.

“The downside to ‘job-ready’ journalism degrees is that they can create an identikit [journalist]. A homogeneous set of skills and qualifications are a good starting point, but are they enough to get you noticed in today’s dog-eat-dog media world?” she adds.

Jo Lloyd, managing director of PR agency Camargue, says she does not think that having a master’s is essential for graduates and, like Barlow, she places the focus on the individual. “When I hire people, I am looking for intelligent, enquiring minds coupled with a good instinct for business. I prize intellectual rigour, whether that involves having achieved an undergraduate degree, a master’s or a postgraduate diploma.”

The importance of a candidate’s personal skills and natural instincts in their chosen profession is also supported by Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters. According to Isherwood, many of the major graduate employers do not treat those with a master’s any differently from those with only a first degree.

“The best candidates have the right combination of knowledge, skills and attributes that the employer is searching for. The best candidate gets the job because they have self-analysed, done their career research and met the employer’s needs. These truisms apply equally to undergraduates and postgraduates,” he says.

Similarly, Sam Clark, Accenture UK and Ireland HR director, highlights the importance of “attitude” and “potential” over the level of degree qualification.

“We are looking for talent with a genuine curiosity about how the world runs and works,” she says. “The majority of our graduate programmes are degree-agnostic, and our successful graduates are strong team players with an open and collaborative mindset.”

However, some employers say that, although there is no requirement for a postgraduate degree, possessing one can play a large part in articulating a graduate’s strengths.

Richard Irwin, head of recruitment at PwC, says that where a student has used master’s studies to “demonstrate their passions or build relationships”, this can ultimately “improve their chances” of securing the job they want. “It’s not having done the master’s [that matters], it’s how they’ve done it and how they’re applying the knowledge they’ve gained,” he adds.

And according to Sam Miskin, talent acquisition manager at Hearst Magazines, a postgraduate degree can demonstrate “lateral thinking, teamwork and many other transferable skills”, although she stresses that what is most important is “work experience, commitment and having the right skills and attitude”.

For many careers, a postgraduate qualification can still be very much a prerequisite. One example is teaching, where although a PGCE is no longer necessary, job candidates with one arguably fare better than those without.

According to Katharine Vincent, programme leader for secondary PGCE at the UCL Institute of Education, a PGCE is still considered the “gold standard” for teacher training. She says that while there are other routes into the profession that do not include a postgraduate qualification, employers value the PGCE because “it combines the academic and practical elements of training to teach”.

Then, of course, there is academia, where if anything there has been more of a push in recent years to ensure that new entrants have a PhD.

However, overall, despite the changing perception from young people that a postgraduate qualification is becoming vital to securing a job in most industries, graduate employers in the main still do not see it as a requirement. If a candidate’s own demeanour and talents fit the bill, then employers seem to value this more than whether they have another degree.

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