Regardless of if you’re a fresh-faced graduate or a seasoned professional, postgraduate study can enhance your prospects and take your career in an exciting new direction. But it is also a huge commitment, throwing up significant challenges both on and off campus that you might not have experienced before.
So, is it really worth it or not? To help you figure it out, we’ve listed some of the key benefits and risks of continuing (or returning to) your studies…
Benefits of postgraduate study
There are many benefits of taking on a postgrad degree, either as a means of career advancement or simply out of personal interest. Here are a few:
While a postgraduate qualification is admittedly not a guarantee of employment, it can certainly help your chances; in a fiercely competitive job market, a Masters or a doctorate can really make the difference.
“It definitely makes you stand out more,” says marketing postgrad Beth Nightingale. “Pretty much everyone now has an undergrad degree, but not many have a Masters”.
This applies particularly to vocational, legal and/or financial fields, where for example a job candidate possessing an MBA would be a very attractive prospect for a lot of employers.
Depending on your chosen field, pursuing postgraduate study can open up a whole new career path within itself. Research roles, whether with academic institutions or public or private bodies almost always require a PhD, and by gaining further qualifications, it can open up doors to highly exclusive and intellectually rewarding job opportunities.
Many students find they follow this route unintentionally, such as Edward Gough, an Environmental & Regional Policy postgrad. “Doing a Masters has really piqued and furthered my interest in the policymaking sphere,” he says. “As a result, I’ve been inspired to move on to PhD level”.
While – like employability – this is not automatically a given, official statistics in both the US and the UK have shown that people with postgraduate degrees earn more overall than those with undergraduate degrees.
The pay isn’t directly comparable with non-postgraduates, as the figures just reflect the fact that those with postgrad qualifications are more likely to be able to access higher skilled (and therefore higher paid) jobs. But it’s still a clear and welcome benefit in the long run.
Aside from career benefits and pathways, one of the more overlooked reasons for taking on a postgraduate qualification is simply to learn more about a particular area of interest.
“For me, what studying a Masters really came down to was the pursuit of knowledge for learning’s sake,” says blogger Chantelle Francis. “I’d never felt that my degree had to decide my career, and I still hold that opinion”.
If you discover you are passionate about a particular subject or topic, why not devote yourself to researching and learning more about it? You could even find yourself becoming a subject matter expert as you progress further down the postgrad study route.
A Second Chance
According to history postgrad Louise Baillie, postgraduate study can offer a second chance at study for many people, with as many as 33 per cent of students in the UK admitting they had chosen the wrong undergraduate degree in 2015.
“If you’ve ever imagined yourself as an award-winning journalist, but you got sidetracked by a degree in oceanography, this is where a postgrad comes in handy,” she says. “That fantasy of researching a news story doesn’t have to remain so, regardless of what you’ve done before”.
This is particularly applicable to people who have already developed a career and want to change direction – especially due to the flexible nature of further study, including online, distance and part-time programs.
Whatever you choose to study, you will gain a wide range of transferable skills that every employer values. Postgraduate study requires huge amounts of self-discipline and self-motivation, as well as time management and organisational skills. You will also develop high-level researching skills that can open up a variety of jobs across different industries.
If like many postgrad students, you choose to study abroad, you will also become more culturally aware and self-reliant, as well as possibly pick up some language skills – all things that employers value highly in an increasingly globalised workplace.
Education consultant Dee Roach agrees. “Studying abroad proves to potential employers that you have the ability to stand on your own two feet, that you can fit in when placed in different environments, and that you are resourceful and have initiative”.
Of course, as great as all that is, it’s important to consider the downsides too. And the single biggest stumbling block for most potential students is this:
That’s right – unfortunately, postgraduate study is not cheap. Far from it, in fact. Although each institution charges their own fees (and, in both the US and the UK, they can range from reasonable to downright extortionate), living costs and accommodation have to be taken into account too.
Most universities (and several external bodies) offer some form of scholarship program, although this is obviously not available for everyone. And although some student loans are available, do you really want to be piling even more debt onto your undergraduate loans?
Of course, it’s not impossible. Many students combine part-time work with study, and if you are pragmatic, you can make cutbacks in your budget to accommodate the changes. But if you’ve been in work for a while, a return to living off baked beans might not be the most appealing proposition; make sure you consider the financial ramifications of your studies either way.
Given the fees that you will be paying, the importance of choosing the right course cannot be overstated. Bear in mind that unlike most undergrad courses, postgrad students come from a much wider background and can be at radically different stages in terms of their knowledge and experience; therefore, it can be a balancing act for lecturers that might not please everybody.
Newcomers to the subject might feel that they are way out of their depth, while those who studied it at undergrad level might feel the course is too easy. The last thing you want is to be forking out the equivalent of a house deposit each year to go over things you either already know, or have absolutely no clue about; ensure you research the course properly.
Unsurprisingly, postgraduate study can take a lot of time. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not unrealistic to assume that you could be leaving university at 27 with no work experience. Unless you plan firmly on staying in academia, this can leave you at a severe disadvantage in a competitive job market that values experience as highly as education.
It can also put on hold the other things in life that you might want. “Perhaps it is a case of short-term pain for long-term gain,” says Baillie, “but owning a car, buying a house and getting a salary will all have to be put on hold”.
Many students come to the end of their undergraduate degree, and, faced with the choice of what to do next, plunge straight into continuing their studies. While there is nothing wrong with this, you should still consider the very real prospect of “burning out” – after 3-4 years of intensive study, do you really want to commit to immediately taking on more?
The solution is to take some time away from studying. Whether this means taking a gap year and travelling (if you’re financially able), or starting your career and returning at a later date, time away to recharge your academic batteries is wise. But be careful – after spending your formative years living on a shoestring, you might realise that you enjoy earning money too much to go back to school.
No Guarantee of a Job
As previously mentioned, a Masters or a PhD can look hugely impressive on a résumé. But it won’t guarantee that you’ll walk into a job. Employers value experience, interpersonal skills and other important soft skills just as much as educational background, and you will have to be able to demonstrate these in the same way as any other candidate.
“It’s true that qualifications open up opportunities, but they don’t always create them,” asserts Baillie. “It’s up to you to make the most of your new degree because a postgrad – like any educational course – does not guarantee employment”.
Fear of Missing Out
One of the harder things about postgraduate study – especially where self-motivation is concerned – is convincing yourself you are doing the right thing. This particular conviction is usually at its most scrutinised when all your peers and former undergrad friends are travelling the world, buying houses, having children and getting job promotions – all while you are stuck in an empty library somewhere researching the machinations of tort contracts in early-to-middle medieval England.
Of course, this sense of missing out depends on the individual, but it’s something you may not have considered before choosing to continue your postgrad studies. Make sure you are committed to your course before you start, and clearly set out your goals and targets. This will help to keep you on track when that urge to drop everything and join your friends in Vietnam comes calling.
Study at a postgraduate level is a huge commitment, in terms of finance, time and intellectual capacity. It is a decision that shouldn’t be taken lightly, or as an alternative because you simply can’t decide on a career. But it can also be a rewarding experience that cultivates many highly employable skills and allows you to develop personally and professionally. Provided you are proactive and realistic about the world of work afterwards, a postgrad degree can be a huge asset – just make sure you aware of the pitfalls before starting, and make your decision to study with both the pros and cons in mind.
Are you a postgraduate student? What are your experiences so far? Let us know in the comments below…