Postgraduate study - is it for you?

When it comes down to postgraduate study there are a lot of things you have to consider before deciding if it is the right option for you.

Student in a lecture theatre Of course, it will always be hard to say for sure that further study is the right route for your career, and also when the best time for study will be, but by weighing up all the options you'll come out with a well-balanced idea of how you should take your career and/or education further.

"Postgraduate study is a significant investment in time and money. Before you decide if its right for you, think carefully about what you want from continuing your education, explore the options and research the funding available," says the University of Newcastle upon Tyne's Careers Service.

Why continue to study?

People do postgraduate study for a myriad of reasons and whilst there is no one right reason, some reasons are more positive than others. To make sure you make the right decision for you, research – as always – is key. "The best reasons are the considered ones - to enhance career development, to specialise in or convert to a particular field, to complement existing work needs, because of a strong subject interest etc," says Mandy Burns, careers adviser at the University of Plymouth.

"Many however, do it just because it was suggested to them, others feel that it will help their career prospects – it may, but it does need to be researched carefully," she adds. "Some do it because they do not know what else to do or just want to stay in a particular area and kill some time – not the best of reasons as they may find they have pushed the canoe up the wrong stream!"

Some of the reasons people give for taking on postgraduate study include putting off a career decision, wanting to study a subject they love further, a recommendation from tutors, and improving job prospects.

For those taking further study to put off making career decisions – tsk tsk! When it comes down to it, another year or two of burying your head in the sand will not solve the problem and you probably wont be very successful in your studies as you won't be that motivated by them. Instead you should look into discussing your options with a careers adviser, or taking on some temporary paid work whilst you consider what next step to take.

Although all the other reasons are more positive, they still deserve research time to make sure they really are best for you. Take for example the reason that people chose postgraduate study because they think it is what employers look for. This can indeed be the case, but not always. And for those employers that do look for postgraduates, they may be looking for very specific courses or skills.

A postgraduate qualification may not be enough

"It really depends on what employers want in the first place. Just having a postgraduate qualification may in itself not be enough. For some professional areas, a postgraduate qualification is just essential, for others it shows a certain commitment towards a specific specialist field which might raise the candidates profile against a bachelor's profile," says Burns.

"Some would want very specific types of postgraduate study that would be of benefit to them. Almost certainly these days employers would increasingly be looking for some relevant employment experience and a whole range of evidence to demonstrate skills to complement any academic qualification and applicants to postgraduate courses would do well to remember this," she adds.

"In some cases postgraduate qualifications will be essential to securing a job. Within some areas of employment a postgraduate qualification will give a candidate a distinct advantage. In others, however, the employer will be interested in transferable skills and work experience rather than additional qualifications," notes Lisa McWilliams, careers adviser at Keele University Careers Service.

Will the qualification improve your career prospects?

One thing to look into is what the course will offer you if you are using it to improve your work possibilities. Look around at the courses available - what offers the best course to suit you?

"If you are pursuing postgraduate study to improve your employability, consider yourself from an employers perspective. What skills will they look for? Do you need to gain relevant work experience as well as the further qualification? Is work experience offered as part of the course? Is the qualification recognised and respected?" asks the University of Newcastle upon Tyne's Careers Service.

When it comes down to the best time to take up postgraduate study, this is very much down to you as an individual and your personal circumstances.

"This largely depends on individual circumstances, some students will decide to follow on from their undergraduate degree, because some of the knowledge required will be shared. Others take time out to travel, gain work experience that will help them gain entry into their postgraduate course or to save some money in order to pay for the postgraduate study."

Study on a part-time basis while working

"Other options are to study on a part-time basis while working, the advantage being that there is an income to pay for the cost of the study," says McWilliams.

"By asking the right questions the timing often becomes more informed," Burns adds. "For example, for some people the best time to do an MBA would be after gaining chartered status and gaining the relevant experience before a move into more strategic management; however, for a graduate with a good first class degree employed in R and D, it might be of benefit to both them and their employers to look at a specific PhD programme."

Don't feel a pressure that you need to do further study to succeed in your chosen career field; you don't always need a postgraduate degree to pursue a career in science or engineering. For example, engineers with only one degree can often move up the career ladder quickly, and with hard work can still break their way into upper management.

What now?

Once your research is out of the way, you may have decided that postgraduate study is definitely the way for you. Excellent news and good luck! Now you just need to get prepared for what the studying will involve. At all levels postgraduate study is both rigorous and focused. It is not just an advanced version of your bachelor's degree, you will be pursuing a much greater depth of knowledge that is concentrated on a single field.

In general, if you are excited by studying, exploring new ideas, or have practical goals such as enhancing job satisfaction, earning power and career development, you are likely to find postgraduate study very rewarding, and can provide a powerful introduction to a professional life in engineering. Whatever your final decision on postgraduate we wish you all the luck in the world as you take your first step on the career ladder.

With thanks to:

The Careers Service, The University of Plymouth
Keele University Careers Service
University of Newcastle upon Tyne's Careers Service

Updated March 2017