Palgrave Teaching and Learning

by Sally Brown (Series Editor)

Employability: postgraduates

Michelle Morgan, Kingston University

Introduction: Why has postgraduate study become popular in recent years?

Evidence suggests that postgraduate study is increasingly undertaken by individuals for career advancement rather than self-fulfilment (Morgan, 2013). As large numbers of graduates with Bachelor degrees enter the employment market, it is unsurprising that individuals are looking to improve their employment prospects by obtaining a postgraduate qualification to ‘stand out’ from other employment competitors or to change career direction. Postgraduate study can improve an individual’s specialist knowledge or help broaden their skill base. As Wolf (2002) argues, ‘as the bachelor’s degree becomes ubiquitous, its relative advantage in the labour market is diminishing’ (cited by Wakeling, 2005, p. 506).

Although there is a substantial cost attached to higher level study, the potential financial gain that can result from obtaining a postgraduate qualification, such as promotion, is an important driver for the individual (Higher Education Commission, 2012). However, evidence suggests that, although employers feel that a postgraduate qualification does enhance a range of the skills, it is no indicator of leadership potential or work wisdom, which are two of the key skills they are looking for in Master and Doctorate graduates (Connor, 2010).

Our challenges

As educators at postgraduate level, we face two key challenges. Firstly, most nations have government support for the continued expansion of the postgraduate student body to meet the needs of the ‘knowledge economy’ (Higher Education Commission, 2012), but without providing adequate financial support to achieve this goal. In the UK, the cost of many postgraduate courses has remained relatively stable in recent years. However, it is anticipated that universities globally will increase fee levels to cover the funding shortfalls from elsewhere, thus increasing student expectations and their demand for value for money.

Secondly, the expectation that success at postgraduate level leads to positive employability outcomes is now a central facet of many students’ motivation. Postgraduate study today is rarely about delivering courses that people want to study for the love of studying or that are feeders into research or academia. As a result, we not only face increasing pressure to deliver a high-quality student experience at this level of study, but develop and deliver courses that satisfy the employment expectations and requirements of the student and employer.

What can we do?

Firstly, it is critical to manage the expectations of each stakeholder. This involves making sure that each is aware of the value of postgraduate study and what it is designed to deliver.Secondly, it is essential that universities develop activities that can help bridge student, business and institutional perceptions, expectations and experiences. This implies that universities should:
  • clearly define the benefits of postgraduate training courses for students and employers;
  • work with business and industry to ensure that universities deliver the required skills through curriculum and assessment;
  • demonstrate the credibility and currency of course/programme offerings.
  • offer more and better work-based learning opportunities;
  • obtain professional body recognition and accreditation;
  • explicitly define skills in any documents or a transcript that employers receive from the student (e.g. transcripts containing a skill matrix).
Curriculum development and review is a critical activity in updating university course offerings, so academic teams need to consider:
  • bringing in speakers from business and industry;
  • providing networking opportunities that students can use after graduation;
  • keeping course material up-to-date, especially in fast-moving subject areas (e.g. digital media);
  • building in targeted employability advice;
  • providing opportunities to solve real problems (e.g. working with companies on live issues they are facing);
  • providing opportunities for students to become adopters of new technologies and have experience with industry relevant equipment.

Useful resources

If you want to read more on postgraduate issues and the postgraduate student experience, the following sites are free and very informative:

References and wider reading

Connor, H., Forbes, P. and Docherty, D. (2010) Talent Fishing – What businesses want from postgraduates, London: DBIS.

Higher Education Commission (2012) Postgraduate Education – An independent inquiry by the Higher Education Commission, London :HEC.

Machin, S. and Murphy, R. (2010) The Social Composition and Future Earnings of Postgraduates, London: Sutton.

Morgan, M. (2013) Supporting Student Diversity in Higher Education – A practical guide, Abingdon: Routledge.

Park, C. and Kulej, G. (2009) The Higher Education Academy Postgraduate Taught Experience Report (PTES), York: HEA.

Stuart, M., Lido, C., Morgan, M., Solomon, L. and Akroyd, K. (2008) Widening Participation to Postgraduate Study: Decisions, deterrents and creating success, York: Higher Education Academy.

Wakeling, P. (2005) La noblesse d’état Anglaise? Social class and progression to postgraduate study. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 26 (4), pp. 505–22.