The right course of action?

People embark upon further study for a variety of reasons: for some it is a chance to learn new skills, for others it is simply a way to keep on studying a subject they love. Whatever your reasons, you will need to think about whether or not a postgraduate course will benefit you in the long run.

Postgraduate courses are an attractive option now that the job market is crowded with first degree holders; there are currently more than 500,000 postgraduates in UK higher education institutions and it is true that postgraduate study can bring great financial benefits.

According to figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, the average salary for students graduating from a full-time Masters degree in 2004 was 22,452, compared with just 17,029 for those with a first degree. For PhDs the figure is 24,851.

But postgraduate study is far from an easy option and, if not thought through properly, can be a costly mistake.

Susie Davis completed a psychology degree at the University of Warwick. After ten months working as a volunteer for a homeless shelter, she moved to London to take up a job with a local housing authority dealing with public enquiries.

It was at this time I started to think about returning to university to study social policy in the hope that I would be able to secure a job in policy development work for either a government organisation or a charity.

Unfortunately for Susie, however, a Masters did not pay off. I thought getting a qualification in Social Policy would improve my chances but after three years of temping Ive finally got a permanent job in a field that is only vaguely related to what I originally wanted to do, says Susie.

I do find it interesting and enjoyable though, and I am now adding new skills to my CV. However, I got this job through my temping work, not from completing a Masters.

Having spent her life savings and taking on the added debt of a Career Development Loan, Susie now thinks her money could have been better invested. My MSc has not helped at all, as I could have got to where I am now without it. I am starting from scratch financially and paying off the CDL was quite a pinch whilst I was a temp.

Choose carefully

If chosen carefully, a postgraduate qualification can offer you long-term benefits which, for most people, are worth the initial cost.

Anna Thompson thinks her postgraduate course was worth every penny. After completing a degree in French at the University of Nottingham, Anna spent two years teaching English in Italy. When she returned, she decided to take up a postgraduate course.

I opted for an MSc in Linguistics with reference to French, as I wasnt sure exactly what to do. As I had spent two years teaching English abroad I chose a course that was related to my teaching and my first degree.

I contacted a few universities direct - I specifically chose universities with good all-round reputations, and then when I got the specific course details from them all, I chose the best one for me.

Luckily for Anna, her choice of course paid off. My course definitely gave me the edge over other candidates, says Anna who now works as a project controller for a translation agency.

More options

Deciding why you want to continue your study is vital. If youre pursuing a particular academic interest, the likelihood is youll already know which course you want to do and why. Otherwise, the career path you are planning to take will certainly have an effect on your choice of course, particularly if youre considering a profession such as law or teaching which requires specific qualifications.

Of course, if you do not have a definite route mapped out, a postgraduate qualification will still enable you to develop skills which are marketable to employers. But as well as thinking about what you can get out of further study, you will need to consider what youll have to put in, and whether youre prepared to offer the necessary commitment.

Dr Rhys Williams, Postgraduate Admissions Officer, University of Wales, Aberystwyth, agrees that postgraduate study can give graduates more options when it comes to choosing a career. He says that whilst it is a good idea to select a course directly linked to the type of work you wish to pursue, a postgraduate course, whatever the discipline, can help you develop your skills.

The additional skills that you acquire during the course of a Masters degree are transferable. Even if it is not a vocational course, a Masters degree shows that you can take on the challenge of an in-depth specialised course that is at a higher level than undergraduate study. You are more likely to learn and interact in smaller groups at postgraduate level, similar to what one will find in the workplace.

Susie agrees that a little research could make all the difference. I wish I'd been advised to research my chosen career field, as well as the course before taking the decision to pursue postgraduate study because I would have rethought my goals entirely.

Despite not securing the career she had hoped to, though, Susie says she does not regret her decision. I enjoyed the course very much and having a Masters on your CV gives you a sense of personal achievement, and one that you can sell to employers.

Rhys agrees that postgraduates take away more than an increased knowledge of a subject. Its not just what subject youve studied but how you managed your studies and the experiences that you gained from your studies that employers will be interested in.

Whatever you do, do it for the right reasons and make sure you get plenty of advice. Talk to careers advisers and other postgraduates this will give you some idea of what you can expect to be faced with. Postgraduate study is too important to undertake half-heartedly.

Find out for yourself

Postgraduate fairs and open days are an excellent way to find out more about what further study involves. Armed with information gathered at these events you will be able to make a more informed decision when it comes to answering the question of whether or not postgraduate study will benefit you.

At fairs you will be able to talk to representatives from different universities and attend a number of talks that will give you more information on the world of postgraduate study, including how to fund it.

Elizabeth Wilkinson, a careers consultant at the University of Manchester Careers Service, says fairs and open days are an opportunity to find out whether or not further study will be a good investment for you. To do this, she says, you must ask the right questions.

Postgraduate study is a big investment, in time, money and effort. If youre investing to improve your career prospects, make sure the investment is likely to pay off. Check out what graduates from postgraduate courses go on to do next - ask course providers for the employment destinations of their postgraduates. Also, find out if a postgraduate qualification will make you more employable, or if you might be better getting work experience.'

Further information

Why do postgraduate study? www.prospects.ac.uk/links/PGStudy

Postgraduate Fairs and Open Days www.prospects.ac.uk/fairs