As increasing numbers of European students dart into postgraduate education –master’s and doctorates– E&M sets out to investigate the magnetic pull universities hold today. What makes graduate school so alluring and what benefits do students derive from it? Is graduate school the next economic bubble or is it really worth the money?

The wave of fatalism sparked by the recession since 2008 has unquestionably affected recent graduates and junior professionals who are just making their way into the job market. Pitted against these dark prospects, getting a master’s degree may seem like the only healthy option to delay the painful passage of job hunting and marketing yourself in an increasingly competitive milieu. This sits side by side with the public perception that if you are better qualified and capable of transferring more specialized knowledge, you will get a better job –and sooner.

The big question is: how warranted are these beliefs? Despite the oft-cited argument that job prospects improve accordingly to your qualifications, it is worth considering if master’s degrees live up to students’ expectations, or if in some cases they are wallowing in the hype of graduate school. Is a one-year master’s essentially better than networking and getting job experience (for instance, via internships) during that period?

According to a recent Eurostat study: “in spite of the overall increase in the number of university graduates, a growing proportion appears to be overqualified for the type of employment they find.” Currently, more than one in five European graduates are over-qualified for their jobs – a figure that has increased since 2000.

Currently, more than one in five European graduates are over-qualified for their jobs – a figure that has increased since 2000

Naturally, the economic and educational differences between countries must be taken into account. For example, master’s tuition fees in the UK can be anywhere in the range of £5,000 up to £25,000, with an average cost of around £8,000-10,000. This is hardly comparable to tuition fees in Germany, which are almost virtually zero. Exorbitant fees will be likely to influence students’ motivations, because graduates will want to ensure the value of their investment and their future employability. Two years ago, an article in The Guardian presented a bittersweet picture of graduate education in the UK. While targeting a highly specialised and relevant course, having an informed decision and hand-on experience were positively valued. There was a word of caution concerning recruiters, because they “like master’s courses, but only if graduates can prove their value”. The notion that a master’s degree will get you a job ipso facto can be easily dismantled, and you might well fail if lacking a conscientious and serious commitment to your subject.

Curious to know what students think, E&M had a chat with three students from Germany, Denmark and Spain and asked them to reflect on their graduate experiences. For some, master’s degrees are revealed as a necessary path towards the job market, whilst others have been motivated by the desire to get a better footing in their discipline, or to enter academia. They consider the social and economic pressures to keep studying in an ever more globalised and cutthroat job market, the increasing specialisation of all professions, and the pace of an early work life, with its opportunities, challenges and misfortunes.

HANNO

Hanno Kossen

HANNO_KOSSEN-sm

Germany

Age: 23

Studies:

September 2008 – September 2012 MSci Chemistry (University College London, London)

September 2012 – September 2016 PhD Organic Chemistry (University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh)

How do you perceive higher education to have changed since you began studying in 2008? Do you think people now have a different approach to university study compared to 5 or 10 years ago?

This is somewhat tricky to answer. On the one hand, I am experiencing both moments because I started my undergraduate in 2008 (Chemistry, UCL) and now as a PhD I am teaching students in their first year. But then there is a big difference, since I am currently based in Edinburgh (Scotland) and here education is for free compared to the recent fee rise in England (up to 9,000 pounds/year since 2012), so this surely has implications on the students’ motivations for studying. However, there are some British students that have to pay the same fees as in England (9,000 pounds). In comparison to students starting in 2008 who had to pay around 3,000 pounds, the new fees have made students less willing to embark on a degree they’re not certain about. Deciding what to do is more difficult. This contrast is even more startling with Germany (home-country), where people rarely perceive it as life-time decision and just go for the studies that appeal the most to them. In the UK, what has remained constant in this time is the general outlook – people mostly study because they want to be prepared for a qualified job.

At a postgraduate level, funding has become more sparse. For Chemistry subjects there were big pots of money in 2006 and now this has all been reduced, so PhD’s have harder time finding funding. It’s even more difficult to obtain grants for an MSc. Still, master degrees seem to be the cheaper option compared to BScs and people now tend to do a master’s to postpone the pain of finding a job. It is the general perception that master degrees increase your chances of getting a job. In Germany you can’t work without an MA/MSc, whereas in the UK you can but usually if you are qualified you would also go for an MA.

Have you noted significant differences in people’s motivations to study further education after their bachelor’s in Germany and Britain (or people from other countries you may have met during this time)?

Yes, and this is particularly tied to money issues. I know people in Germany who could get into PhDs for free, which also allowed them to defer important life decisions for a period of three years. German universities give you the chance to increase your profile for free, and people take advantage of this. In England all of this becomes more troublesome due to high tuition fees and financial constraints. In addition to this, in Germany the new Bolonia arrangements have been implemented, but employers still stick to the old system by which it is essential that students also have a master degree. Between Germany and Britain there are at least two important factors that explain people’s different motivations to go into graduate school: the discrepancy in the countries’ history of education, and the big gap in tuition fees and funding.

What were your motivations to undertake an MSci and a PhD? How do you think these may affect your future career choices/prospects?

Already in my first year (BA) I knew I would do an MSci because an integrated four-year course was cheaper than finishing the BSc and then doing an MSc. The PhD then was a necessary and logical path to take, as I wanted to follow either an academic career or work in the pharmaceutical industry, both of which require you to be Doctor. Britain is perhaps more relaxed and you may be able to get into the industry just with an MSc, but then you will be doing less challenging work. It was always clear to me that I had to do a PhD, because I enjoyed research and lab work throughout my Bsc – so there were no reasons against starting a PhD. Partly I may have been drawn to a PhD to remain in a securer environment for longer and postpone what to do next (as a job). I must admit being a bit scared of the job market, of not finding something that would fulfil me and that is linked to both Chemistry and research.

Are there any financial/social pressures to keep studying? Have you experienced any yourself?

Salaries for PhDs in Chemistry are really generous, so once you are funded you start living much better than before. If you don’t manage to secure funding, then obviously you are subjected to financial pressures. Probably for humanities PhD students it is more of an investment, because scientists are actually better off as PhDs. I have experienced some social pressures, for instance my parents were against me not doing a PhD straight away. It was not pressure in a negative way, but I did feel they had certain expectations. Had I decided against a PhD, I would probably have had some problems.

“In the UK the connection between universities and the job market is not bad. German universities don’t provide that support”

In your opinion, do universities present a realistic picture of the job market circumstances?

Yes, I think so, in my field quite a few times professors have pointed out what sort of things the job market wants. We also had people from the UCL Careers Service coming to talk about future prospects and the job market. In the UK the connection between universities and the job market is not bad. German universities don’t provide that support, but perhaps that is what universities are for, to teach you and then you develop those transferable skills yourself. Universities cultivate a critical and conscious attitude, so little of what you learn is directly applicable, it’s students who have to make the transitions. In any case, it is important that the university points in specific directions because it has some responsibility for that. In that sense, UK university career events are a good way to know the world outside.

In what job market do you see yourself in 5 years time?

Definitely in research, either at university or in the pharmaceutical industry.

What jobs have you undertaken? Have you completed any internships?

I haven’t undertaken that many jobs outside university. During my undergraduate I completed an internship in a research group at UCL, for which I received a bursary (more like a scholarship than a salary). Then I am currently demonstrating (teaching) and I receive an hourly pay. I haven’t done any unpaid internships.

What are your views on unpaid internship/ voluntary work?

In certain cases it can be acceptable, as long as the work you do is not substituting the job that someone who would be paid would normally be doing. If you want or need to get experience and the employer can’t afford to pay you it may be unavoidable, and this may be a qualifying time after which they make your permanent if they are happy with your performance. In London, given the cost of living, it is almost unacceptable not to be paid, but as soon as someone accepts it forces other people to play along with the system. I think an unpaid internship for a couple of weeks or a month maximum is acceptable, because in that period of learning you are costing the company/organisation more money than they benefits they could get. And paying you on top of this might be tricky for a lot of people. Whenever you accept to do this kind of unpaid work you have to think of yourself as well as other people.

Is graduate school still worth it?

Statistically it is, because postgraduate degrees increase your chances to get higher pay. But this also depends for whom, for humanities this pay rise is not very significant compared to scientific disciplines. Graduate school is worth it but also for those who are able to handle it, because some people struggle to complete an MA. In this way, a master degree may not get you through into the job market successfully. For some people it may not make much sense.

ANDREA

Andrea Sancho

ANDREA_ACERO_SANCHO-sm

Spain

Age: 22

Studies:

September 2008 – June 2011 BA Occupational Therapy (Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Madrid)

October 2011 – July 2012. Specialist Postgraduate in Psychomotor Therapy (Escuela Internacional de Psicomotricidad y Universidad Pontificia de Comillas, Madrid)

October 2012 – July 2014. MA Neurorehabilitation (Instituto Superior de Estudios Psicológicos, Madrid)

How do you perceive higher education to have changed since you began studying in 2006? Do you think people now have a different approach to university study compared to 5 or 10 years ago?

Since 2008 we have witnessed fundamental changes in Spain, predominantly in the economic field but also through the implementation of the new Bologna Process. On my part, I would say the greatest shift has been economic. When I completed my undergraduate studies (BA Occupational Therapy, Madrid, 2011) the government cuts were not that acute, but some of my friends who are still at university are currently suffering from severe cutbacks. These are directly affecting the quality of their education, for instance many students within scientific disciplines are no longer able to do experimental lab work because the universities are drained of money. On top of this, there is a general feeling of abatement, particularly in the academic community, as their salaries are often being threatened and staff increasingly made redundant, so there are less incentives for them to be good teachers.

The study plans have also experienced a big transformation, since the Bologna Process has finally been instituted across all degrees in Spanish universities. I definitely support this new plan as long as we have enough resources to carry it through.

More generally, students’ approach to higher education is different now than in the pre-recession period. Before it was more of an optional choice, young people would enter university with a genuine interest for their subject of study. Today we could almost consider it an obligation because we know that people who started working when they were very young or went into more professional education have worse prospects than those who have attended university.

Have you noted significant differences in people’s motivations to study further education after their bachelor’s in Spain (or people from other countries you may have met during this time)?

I have met countless colleagues that go into masters because they don’t have a job, and this becomes their daily occupation in some way. Many see how everyone is furthering their education and think that once the crisis is over the competition will be tougher than five years ago, so being better qualified is seen as a necessary step. Also, undertaking graduate courses is often regarded as an equivalent to having a job. Then there is a third group of people who work in their field and realise that they want to be more thorough in some aspect of their discipline, and doing a master’s degree will help. The latter is my case.

What were your motivations to undertake as Spanish graduate course and a master’s degree? How do you think these may affect your future career choices/prospects?

Working with patients is a serious matter, and as a professional it would be irresponsible not knowing what you are doing. This was my main motivation to continue studying and learning, because for me my 3-year degree was insufficient and left many unanswered questions. That’s why I decided to do first a “postgraduate course” (Spanish posgrado) and then a master’s degree, both in different disciplines. Both courses have served me well and have increased my chances of getting a job. Nowadays everyone has a degree so you have to distance yourself by standing out in some way – you can’t stop studying after your undergraduate.

Are there any financial/social pressures to keep studying? Have you experienced any yourself?

As I mentioned earlier, I think today it is compulsory to study a degree to become somebody, and so you have to highlight personal traits, university experience or certificates to distinguish yourself from the rest. In that way I feel there is some social pressure, a need to accumulate qualifications to show that you are good professional. In terms of the economic pressures, in Spain we are going through a difficult phase in which even really qualified people are struggling to get respectable jobs. For this reason everyone keeps on studying, because there is the widespread perception that the more degrees you have, the higher the chances to get a better job.

“A majority of students won’t have worked by the time they’re done with their degrees, they will not know how to access the job market”

In your opinion, does university present a realistic picture of the job market circumstances?

Certainly not. At university you are only taught lessons within the scope of the discipline and that’s it, once you’re done, you have to figure out the way into the job market for yourself. Not to mention that in many degrees it is incredibly difficult to get professional internships that will lead you into the job marketplace. I think universities should lend a hand to students, at least provide some basic knowledge of how the job market works. A majority of students won’t have worked by the time they’re done with their degrees, will not know how to access it, what to do, how to make their CVs or present themselves at an interview. Sadly, Spanish universities are awfully incompetent in this – in my case they did not mention the job market once throughout my three years of studies.

In what job market do you see yourself in 5 years’ time?

In the same one as I am now – working in Madrid with elderly patients. There is a big demand for professionals in this sector, so I think it’s likely I’ll be doing this in five years’ time.

What jobs have you undertaken? Have you completed any internships?

I can’t complain. My career path has always been very positive. First I had hands-on practical experience during my degree (250 hours), and it was all very varied: I worked with elderly people, patients in psychiatric wards, intellectually disabled or patients with brain damage. Once I finished the degree I worked for a year as an occupational therapist in a care-home for elderly people. After that and until now, I have been working in a public day centre, also with elderly people.

What are your views on unpaid internship/ voluntary work?

Back in my university days I volunteered for two years, assisting intellectually disabled people. This was a very enriching experience, but it was also complementary to my degree and it is something that I wouldn’t be able to do now, as I am very busy with my job and master’s degree.

I believe that a lot of institutions and organisations actually do require assistants on a voluntary basis because they don’t have the funds to pay them a salary, however there will always be people who take advantage of this situation to save money, hiring volunteers that will do all the work for free.

Is graduate school still worth it?

For me, personally, these studies have been very important, as I did a three year degree in which I could not specialise. The master has allowed me to specialise, in my case, in neuro-rehabilitation.

JENS

Jens Koed Madsen

JENS_KOED_MADSENsm

Denmark

Age: 27

Studies:

June 2006 – June 2009 BA Rhetoric (University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen)

September 2009 – September 2010 MRes Speech, Language, and Cognition (University College London)

September 2010 – June 2012 MA Rhetoric (University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen)

September 2010-September 2013 PhD Cognitive, Perceptual, and Brain sciences (University College London, London)

How do you perceive higher education to have changed since you began studying in 2006? Do you think people now have a different approach to university study compared to 5 or 10 years ago?

On a personal note, my perspective of study has changed because I have made the transition from being a directed student (undergraduate) to becoming a more independent research student (PhD). To which I must add the newness of moving to another country, getting used to different working habits in Britain as opposed to Denmark (home-country). All of this meant that I was pushed more and had to work harder. Perhaps now I feel a greater pressure towards my profession, and this may be a combination of the shift in the country-focus, or because I moved from a more humanities subject (Rhetoric) to an applied Human Science (Psychology). Given the current financial recession, the usability of postgraduate studies has probably become more acute, yet I woud say it is not as simple as thinking that an MA is going to get you a job, because it is up to the networking and contacts that you have cultivated. Taking a more general outlook, it seems to me that students could more easitly adopt a laissez-faire approach in the boom period, in terms of the subjects they chose to study. Now people are more directed, more serious and focused on their future careers. There is a tendency in British universities towards professionalisation, and though this possibly predates the recession, the crisis has sped up the process. Public and private funds are increasingly targetting the applicability of research, its outreach and public engagement dimensions. This focus on usability makes interesting and important bridges with society, but we cannot forget that an all-to-limited approach may curtail creativity in research and miss a lot of potentially ground-breaking work that obviously profitable from the start. It’s about finding the balance.

Have you noted significant differences in people’s motivations to study further education after their bachelor’s in Denmark and Britain (or people from other countries you may have met during this time)?

I have encountered a mixture of motivations, some people that are studying because they genuinely believe it is fun; yet in other cases students seem more driven by their professional concerns and their success in the job market. In Britain students are under greater pressure, particularly since the rise of tuition fees (now up to a cap of 9,000 pounds),  so people are nudged towards thinking about their future). And you tend to find students from richer backgrounds in degrees that are less applicable. The amount of job fairs organised at London universities helps to steer students in this direction. In Copenhagen, where I started my undergraduate, we did not have this in any comparable scale. In Denmark there is also not the same competition for jobs as in London, so this makes it easier to enter the job market.

What were your motivations to undertake two masters and a PhD? How do you think these may affect your future career choices/prospects?

Already when I started my first master’s (MRes, Speech, Language and Cognition, UCL), I knew I wanted to go into a PhD and that this masters of research pointed in that direction, so it was calculated decision. My second MA in Rhetoric (Copenhagen University) was also a studied choice, as it allowed me to continue receiving a student salary from the Danish government as well as complete my formal training in Rhetoric. As for the PhD, I am hoping to go into research so a PhD is a necessary route for that. For an academic career, my MAs are worth very little (the PhD, post-docs and publications are what counts the most), but definitely they would show in my curriculum should I look for jobs outside academia. In this way, I think masters can be good when you’re job-hunting because they allow you to write very specific and specialised things on your CV, and this makes you stand out as a candidate more than an undergraduate would. Still, I feel that the worth of MAs decreases the more over-qualified you are, because at the end of the day employers may prefer job experience. If you have only done a bachelor and three master degrees, it can look as if you are seeking comfort, avoiding risks. So masters aren’t the only leeway into a job. I sometimes worry that graduate students put more emphasis on masters than on job skills, that they may have too idealistic an impression of what an MA does (sets you apart from other candidates). Job experience can perfectly do that as well. In Britain, students are often young when they start studying, as there is little tradition of gap years, and perhaps they are being sold a package of expectations that may not live up to the real job market circumstances. Universities heighten by constantly competing with one another and in the end almost marketing their degrees as sellable products.

Are there any financial/social pressures to keep studying? Have you experienced any yourself?

Not myself, I have experienced more of a desire than a pressure to study. I think this depends on the social background you come from – if you come from lower economic background you may be under more pressure to study. But I would suggest that at least in Britain, people are quite calculating in term of what masters they choose, yet it is probably the rarer case of students doing a postgradaute course just for the sake of money, because it is difficult to get through an MA if you don’t enjoy.

“Internships are a necessary evil right now given the depressed job market, but it is a form of exploitative behaviour”

In your opinion, does university present a realistic picture of the job market circumstances?

Universities in general succeed in giving a pretty realistic picture, what they do fail in is in the ways in which they present their degrees, and they sometimes promise more than is warranted. This can make become more ruthless and cut-throat, for example with research the “publish or perish” motto is symptomatic of their quantitative focus rather than on the qualitative output. And these rankings can also be rather spuriously made, so that your index as a researcher is better depending on what journal you have published in and how many citations you’ve got.

Withal, universities are indeed getting better at looking beyond their own realm by seeking a collaboration with the job market. This shapes how some master programmes are managed, and in consequence how students direct themselves and their projects (if they are able to establish contacts with employers). But there is a limit to this, as universities aren’t and shouldn’t be a business for profit.

In what job market do you see yourself in 5 years time?

In academia, but I would like to retain contact with the “outside” world. In my field of research, persuasion theory, there is a lot out there to learn from. I would like to collaborate with people doing stuff which can have an empirical input to my formal thesis.

What jobs have you undertaken? Have you completed any internships?

I have worked in academic, student and research committees, which has given me an insight into the administration aspect of universities. Then I have been doing teaching and demonstrating for two years, as part of my PhD position, and have worked as a research assistant. Outside academia, I have been an editor of a popular scientific magazine, addressing politicians, journalists, adversiting professionals… I haven’t completed any internships, as this is not very common in academia (you normally have assistant positions).

What are your views on unpaid internship/ voluntary work? Pros/cons.

It is a necessary evil right now given the depressed job market, but it is a form of exploitative behaviour which everyone is dragged into as long as one person complies. Unpaid internships have become indispensable to break into the job market. This makes it easier for the wealthier, leaving less opportunities for the bottom. In result, it creates more competition among the lower classes.

Is graduate school still worth it?

It depends, it certainly equips you with specialist knowledge and if strategically chosen, you can achieve a greater professionalism. But with professionalisation, we also fall into more stream-lined, goal-directed paths, which does not necessarily have to be good. What I mean is, people now seem to live more for the future than living in the present. MAs are perhaps seen as crucial link to the market, to CV-building, however job experience for a year can be equally relevant. Academia does not guarantee the best or only type of experience. So an MA is a good idea if it fits with your plans and serves to fulfill your inquisitive nature.

Cover photo: Sean MacEnteeCC BY 2.0 (Flickr)

You May Also Like

Intern Mail

Internships are the black hole of our generation -there’s no way to escape from ...

A job with a future

Do you remember what a great time you used to have in school when ...

European Hobbies

Are you feeling a bit bored lately? Europeans know how to enjoy free time. ...