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 KossenHANNO_KOSSEN-sm


Age: 23


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.

Cover image: Sean MacEntee (Flickr-CC)

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