If you are just finishing your undergraduate degree and are itching to get out into the workforce, further study may be the last thing you feel like contemplating. Or, if you’ve already entered the workforce, you may feel deterred from undertaking postgraduate study because of the sacrifices of time, income and lifestyle involved. But the costs and sacrifices are temporary and can be well worth it. Think of it as an investment in your future that could open up a whole new world of opportunities – and possibly more lucrative ones.
There is a clear association between level of education and employment, as well as salary. With job roles becoming increasingly complex, higher levels of skills and qualifications are needed, especially if job candidates are seeking a competitive edge over those with undergraduate qualifications. As of May 2015, only 5.6 per cent of the Australian population had a postgraduate degree, compared to 17 per cent whose highest qualification was a bachelor’s degree. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of people who completed a postgraduate degree increased by 52.8 per cent.
In 2009, almost one in five new bachelor degree graduates went on to continue some type of full-time study after their undergraduate degree – and this proportion is likely to rise.
Bruce Guthrie, Acting Executive Director of Graduate Careers Australia (GCA), says, ‘As the proportion of the workforce with bachelor degree qualifications continues to grow, candidates are increasingly undertaking postgraduate study to add a vocational emphasis to their initial qualifications or upgrading their qualifications to establish a competitive edge in the labour market.’
In 2010, the median salary for all postgraduates was $70 000, as compared to $49 000 for bachelor degree graduates. This is according to statistics published in Postgraduate Destinations 2010, a report based on the annual Australian Graduate Survey (AGS) of new graduates from Australian higher education institutions.
In some industries, postgraduate qualifications are almost a necessity. For example, a Master of Accounting is required to become a Certified Practising Accountant of Australia (CPA Australia). Postgraduate qualifications are also highly favoured in industries such as engineering, education, health and science, and finance and banking.
Postgraduate qualifications can also provide a valuable way of getting ahead in the arts and media industries. Jordana Rooz, Advertising Coordinator at Cosmopolitan magazine, says, ‘I don’t think my undergraduate did so much in terms of teaching us how the journalistic world works, but my postgraduate studies definitely did. My master’s (in Arts/Journalism) taught me how to write to deadline and how to write my own stories – things like that. I guess I had the best of both worlds in that I learnt the theory as well as the practical.’
Postgraduate qualifications are becomingly increasingly sought-after in the corporate world, especially for senior executive positions.
Stephen Scheeler, Director of Strategy and Innovation for Inchcape Australia, returned to postgraduate study as a mature-age student to complete an MBA at the Australian Graduate School of Management (AGSM). He believes that postgraduate qualifications definitely boost a person’s employment and earnings potential.
‘Increasingly, postgrad qualifications are becoming mandatory for most C-level (corporate title) and Director-level positions in major companies. If you don’t have the qualification, it’s harder to get the job, and therefore harder to earn that higher salary.’
Scheeler is mindful of candidates’ postgrad credentials when recruiting for his own company. ‘We place a lot of emphasis on postgrad qualifications, especially for more senior leadership roles. However, we are also interested in the quality of the degree, not just that somebody has a piece of paper.’
After completing his MBA at the age of 30, Scheeler worked as a strategy management consultant and went on to become Business Development Director for Lion Nathan and then Westfield, before landing his present position at Inchcape. It has been a stellar run for someone who studied history and East Asian studies for his undergraduate degree and then did a variety of jobs, including English language teaching and running a couple of small businesses.
‘I was interested in doing a postgrad degree of some kind but I wanted something that would be practical and useful, not just theoretical. Eventually, I settled on doing an MBA because I thought it would be something which would be both intellectually stimulating and practical at the same time.’
Improving employment and salary prospects is not the only reason to pursue further study. People also undertake postgraduate study to specialise after doing a more generalist undergraduate degree, to gain professional registration, and to increase their depth of knowledge and expertise in their chosen field – so they can go on to do high-level work that is stimulating, challenging, and ultimately more rewarding.
Julia Isbister did a postgraduate medical degree after completing an undergraduate arts degree. ‘I never wanted to do undergraduate medicine. I was too interested in other things as well, like languages and politics, so I decided to do an arts degree. I got to do a bit of everything: chemistry, philosophy, maths, economics, politics and languages – Spanish, Chinese and French. It didn’t really lend itself to a smooth transition into medicine, but then again the people in my course now come from all sorts of fields.’
For Stephen Scheeler, doing an MBA wasn’t just a means to getting a high-paying corporate job – it was about learning and self-improvement. ‘It was very intellectually stimulating and opened my mind to disciplines which I hadn’t formally pursued before – like organisational behaviour, marketing and statistical analysis. I just found that interesting from a purely learning perspective.'
While doing your postgrad studies, you will probably also make some great professional and personal contacts along the way, with like-minded people who are all equally ambitious and passionate about what they do.
Bill Birtles, a news presenter at Triple J, used his postgraduate studies to make valuable industry contacts. ‘I have a media and communications degree from UNSW and I studied a Graduate Diploma in Journalism at UTS. I chose to do postgraduate studies primarily because I knew UTS has strong links to the industry, in particular the ABC. During my postgrad studies I put my head down and worked really hard, and made it very clear to the people at UTS who had a bit of sway that I was very keen to be in broadcasting and get to the ABC.’ And that’s exactly where his postgrad studies took him.
Keep in mind that it's important to maintain a balance between study and practical work experience to maximise your opportunities.
Graham Doyle, Director of Hays Recruitment, warns that those who complete their postgraduate studies assuming they’ll be able to easily walk into better and higher paying jobs can be in for a surprise if they have no practical work experience. ‘You risk becoming too academically qualified without the relevant commercial acumen and experience to make your classroom study pay off in practice.’
Advertising guru Siimon Reynolds concurs. ‘Qualifications aren’t enough, the world’s full of unemployed people with university degrees – that’s not what gets you a job. What gets you a job is standing out and looking good.’
Jordana Rooz also discovered the importance of on-the-job experience at Cosmopolitan, despite the valuable skills she learned while doing her master’s. ‘There’s a lot you have to learn on the job too.’
Even while conducting postgrad studies, you can gain valuable work experience by working part-time while you are studying, applying for an internship or work placement, or even doing unpaid work experience. As Doyle advises, ‘On-the-job training, mentoring and volunteering for additional duties can also be beneficial. Hands-on experience gained from being involved with a specific project or team work can be invaluable.’
Postgraduate qualifications include postgraduate certificates and diplomas, master’s degrees and doctoral degrees.
Postgraduate study is particularly accessible now that many universities offer their courses by distance and online, as well as part-time, so you can study from the convenience of your own home, at your own pace and around your other work and family commitments.
Some employers will support their employees to undertake postgraduate studies by allowing flexibility with working hours and even, in some cases, offering financial aid.
It is also worth investigating postgraduate scholarships from the educational institution where you wish to study.
So whether you do it to advance in your chosen field, jump in at a higher level, change to a completely different career, or just out of sheer interest and passion, postgraduate studies can be a more than worthwhile pursuit. Don’t wait until it’s too late, or spend your life regretting that you never went for it.
As Stephen Scheeler says, ‘I think for most people a postgrad degree is an investment that they will have to make at some point in their careers. My advice would be to not wait too long to pursue one – from my observations, the longer you wait, the harder it becomes to really focus and benefit from it. I would also suggest that people think very hard about the program they choose – definitely try to get into the very best program you can. A poor-quality program won’t reflect well on you and your investment of time and money is better made with a program that is high-quality and of high repute.’