Postgrads (Masters and Doctoral) don’t need employment supports – Or do they?
When we think of Masters students, we usually think of people who have completed Bachelor degrees and successfully moved into careers in their field. They are returning to university on their own volition, or with their employer’s sponsorship, to deepen their knowledge base and refine their skills. We tend to believe that after completing their Masters, these individuals will be promoted to a more senior position within their employment setting.
Then there are Doctoral students. We tend to picture high-flyers in their industry. They are returning to university either because they have identified a compelling research question that they would like to pursue.
We see this as launching an academic career, where they will continue to conduct research and pass on their knowledge and skills to those who wish to enter their industry of expertise. The other type of Doctoral students are those who have been promoted in their industry and are now seeking a top executive position.
For people who fit these profiles, employment supports are not an issue. They have career goals. They have strong identities and rationales for study. They have employers to return to, or stay with, throughout their studies.
However, there are many postgraduate students who do not fit these profiles. For example, there are people who are:
Planning to change careers and/or industry
Continuing on to postgraduate study directly from Bachelors or Honours degrees without entering the workforce
Career interrupted, having left the workforce for a significant time (e.g., mothers)
Unclear regarding career and/or study goals
In short, it is safer to assume that postgraduates require employment supports than to believe the converse. In our national Australian research (available at http://PostgraduateStudentExperience.com), postgraduate students and the staff who support them (academic and professional staff) were very clear that they do not feel confident about graduate employment and that they do need employment supports.
Furthermore, they were vocal that universities need to improve support because research participants either felt that they received NO career support or that the supports they received were designed for undergraduates and did not work for (or apply to) postgraduates. Here are a few of the most compelling research results:
366 people were research participants
47 of these were staff who support postgraduate students (including supervisors and educators)
52% were enrolled in Doctoral degrees and 38% in Masters
56% were research-based and 27% were course-based
Overall postgraduates rated student supports 3.5/5 and staff rated student supports 3.3/5
Only 14% who expressed an opinion among interviewed postgraduate students and staff were optimistic that postgraduates will secure related careers upon graduation
51% were pessimistic and the other neutral
61% of those who expressed an opinion believed Australian universities need to improve graduate employability supports
So what kinds of supports do postgraduates feel would be helpful?
(Note – this list applies to postgraduates who are NOT planning academic careers in universities. Intended academics emerged as a specialised case and will be addressed separately in an upcoming blog.)
Of interviewed postgraduate students and staff were optimistic that postgraduates will secure related careers upon graduation.
Of those who expressed an opinion believed Australian universities need to improve graduate employability supports.
1. Career counselling by industry specialists
Research participants said that generic career advice was not helpful. They needed career advisors who deeply understood their chosen industries and career choices within these industries. Participants also wanted career counsellors to have a rich understanding of their postgraduate programs to advise which units, research directions, and internships, will give them the best advantage.
2. Personalised guidance available throughout their degrees
Postgraduate studies are often life-changing. Students frequently commence their studies with particular goals and career ambitions which shift and change as they learn more about their discipline and themselves.
In short, the process of “becoming” means that career options broaden, focus or change entirely. In our research, we had conversations with people who started their postgraduate studies intending to be engineers and graduated to become theologians, and the converse. Postgraduates said that they did not need help writing cover letters or preparing for interviews, however they do require wise listening ears to support through complex life transitions.
3. Rich intellectual environments and experiences
Many postgraduates expressed deep disappointment with their student experiences. They said that they were frequently lectured to or entirely isolated.
They seldom had rich, intellectual conversations, and Socratic discussions. We hosted postgraduate student breakfasts or focus groups in all eight Australian states and territories.
The attending students at each were from multiple universities in the particular location. During these breakfasts, we had rich and reflective discussions with attendees about their student experiences. Students at each of these breakfasts shared that these experiences were a FIRST in multiple ways:
The FIRST time they had met other postgraduate students (sometimes from other universities and sometimes from their OWN).
The FIRST time that had been treated respectfully as professionals (e.g., shouted a catered breakfast).
The FIRST time they were asked about their satisfaction with their student experience and ideas about how to improve it.
The FIRST time they were engaged in collegial discussion and critical thinking.
Many students told us that when they signed up for postgraduate studies, they thought these types of experiences and rich discussions would be a regular occurrence. Instead, many postgraduates felt –
Uninvolved and powerless
The postgraduates directly linked this student experience to employability. If they were going to be employable upon graduating from postgraduate degrees, then they need university experiences which support them to:
Further develop communication and leadership skills
Reinforce their confidence in their ability to contribute
Establish themselves as scholars/thinkers in their discipline and able to create and defend complex issues
In short, if universities are to improve graduate employability then they need to strengthen the student experience to one in which students are invited and supported as citizen scholars.
Arvanitakis and Hornsby (2016) define a Citizen Scholar as – “a student who cares not only about gaining information and generating knowledge but one that is rooted in the reality of their context, problem-oriented and interested in applying their knowledge for the betterment of society.”
More information on Citizen Scholarship can be found in their book Universities, the Citizen Scholar and the Future of Higher Education, Palgrave Macmillan
4. Support to choose, navigate, complete and reflect on extra-curricular activities
There is increasing acknowledgement among employers and universities that one of the golden keys to employability success is the completion of extra-curricular activities and guided reflection on how these activities support transferable skill outcomes and distinctive graduate identities. My research team and I analysed 705 surveys completed by students, graduates, employers, and university staff (academics, senior executives and career development professionals).
Among the employers and university staff, 65 and 60 percent of those respondents, respectively, acknowledged the importance of extra-curricular activity for employability. However, it is clear that we have continued education work to do with students and graduates, in that only 48 and 47 percent of these groups thought that extra-curricular activities matter for employability.
It is important to recognise that the extra-curricular needs and interests of postgraduates differ from those of undergraduates. In our research, recruiting employers said that they were impressed by graduates from undergraduate programs who had, while enrolled in university, participated in sport, joined student societies, and held executive positions in clubs.
These types of extra-curricular activities are not usually relevant for postgraduate students. Neither are they desirable and/or possible. Postgraduates often have heightened responsibilities beyond university, such as having dependents and financial obligations.
However, experience beyond formal curriculum, assessment and/or research can make postgraduates more employable, just as they do for undergraduates.
Examples of desirable postgraduate extra-curricular activities are as follows. Universities can play an important role in making these types of activities available, supporting, acknowledging, and rewarding their completion.
Publishing research and/or project outcomes
Presenting at conferences
Participating in scholarly international exchanges
Completing in disciplinary contests
Joining professional organisations
Authentically contributing to boards and student leadership
5. Suitable work experience
It is a real danger and a common concern of postgraduate students that their degree will over-qualify them for positions and leave them unemployed. It is vital that postgraduates develop their skills (hard and soft) and expand their industry networks while in university. Research confirms the best way to do this is through internships, work experience, and placements.
While many undergraduates are experimenting with careers and can be satisfied with broad-based entry-level work experience positions, these are seldom effective for postgraduates. Postgraduates need work experiences that are going to help them develop marketable (and often specialised) skills and to make connections with staff who might be able to open doors to employment opportunities.
There were two stories that we heard repeatedly (in various versions) at the postgraduate breakfasts about the need to specialise postgraduate employability supports. Many students told us that they were invited along to career fairs on-campus; however, none of the attending employers or advertised jobs were suitable for postgraduate students. Employers’ frame of reference was undergraduate students and they were there to recruit graduates for entry-level vacancies.
At one breakfast, a postgraduate student told us that he was forced to quit a paid part-time senior position for an unpaid entry-level internship due to his university’s policies. What was most worrying was that instead of conveying shock, the other students at the breakfast nodded and reinforced his story by sharing similar experiences. This university’s employability policies, while seemingly well-intentioned, appeared to cater better to undergraduate than postgraduate students.
Postgraduate students DO require university employability supports
Universities, overall, are NOT meeting the employability needs of postgraduate students
Postgraduate employability supports need to be different to those for undergraduate students.