Masters of the Universe
Postgraduate study requires an immense amount of commitment and passion, not to mention cash. As Anne Hollowday discovers, making sure it’s the right decision for you is crucial.
Do you want to be the next Alexander Graham Bell, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, or Tim Berners-Lee? Postgraduate study, particularly in engineering and IT, boasts a plethora of opportunities to fulfil those wild fancies and perhaps improve your career prospects at the same time.
Terry Jones, a careers adviser at King’s College, London, says: "Many graduates are drawn to postgraduate study because they want to concentrate on a particular aspect of their undergraduate course they were not able to focus on in sufficient depth." Some universities grant creative freedom to students, allowing them to sculpt their own programme of study to suit their individual needs. This enables graduates to hone their skills in specific areas. A wide range of courses is also supported by prestigious organisations such as the Department for Continuing Education and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), and many potential employers hold such associations in high regard.
In addition, postgraduate courses in engineering and IT offer graduates of other degree subjects the opportunity to convert their studies to the sector. In this case, further study is mandatory to gain the necessary qualifications for the alternative career direction.
However, it is important to note that further study is not necessarily helpful and may not add to your career in the ways you may expect. Remember, you are committing a substantial length of time to a course – anything from one year for a Masters, to three to five years for a PhD, depending on whether you study full or part-time. This could be time lost in the world of work, where professional experience can often count for more than further study. Employers want to see graduates applying practical knowledge to their studied technical skills and this can only be obtained via a job or work placement. Courses like many offered at Oxford University offer numerous exit points where study can be completed at certificate, diploma or Masters level. This flexibility is particularly advantageous, allowing individuals seeking work to exit courses whenever employment is found.
Having said that, the professional world is one driven by budgets, targets and specifications. The academic sphere, in comparison, allows individuals to undertake research projects largely according to their own interests. However, Terry Jones warns that "very few postgraduate courses offer financial support". As such, you must weigh up the cost of further study with the financial gains it may afford your future career. He says: "Bursaries for engineering and IT postgraduate courses are available at most universities." However, the amount you may be granted varies hugely according to the institution.
Postgraduate study is also, most obviously, the ticket to a career in academia. "Postgraduate study," says Terry, "can be the means to launching a very successful research career." If teaching and lecturing is your aim, further study and research are likely to be major features within the rest of your working life. If however, you’ve chosen a course because you’re not sure which career path you would like to take, then think again. Terry discusses the "issue of the eternal student" with genuine interest. He says: "Some students just aren’t ready to talk about careers yet; this can be a problem. Postgraduate study is a different dynamic."
As such, it requires passion and commitment that must be conscientiously applied. Therefore, time taken to decide what your aims are for a career, what you would like and what your skills are, can be invaluable to your future progress. Inevitably, thinking and researching will also enable you to make the most informed decision possible about whether postgraduate study is right for you. Your university careers service can assist you with this process.
Ultimately, further study will add more strings to your bow. It can make you stand out of the crowd, and when competition for jobs is fierce, those few letters on the end of your name may just prove their worth. Yet Jones issues a gentle reminder that further study "can be a costly exercise, which doesn’t necessarily take you much further".