By the time you’re ready to graduate you probably feel you’ve cracked college life. The steep learning curve of the early undergraduate years has levelled off. Higher education has become your normal.
But just as the world might be on the verge of lulling you into a false sense of security, here comes another transition. What’s next?
Finding the answer can feel daunting. After your degree, there are tons of options to consider: Do you jump straight on the career ladder? See the world? Or join the ever-increasing number of people opting for a postgraduate degree?
There are lots of good reasons to look to postgraduate study, and choices aplenty.
Choosing the right postgrad path is a big decision and it pays to think carefully and smartly about your next move, says Prof Sarah Moore, Inaugural chair of the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning. “It’s so important to do your research and to know what you’re heading into,” she says.
“Applicants are much more likely to make a good decision if they’ve done their homework on postgraduate programmes well in advance of making their choices. Get as much information as you can.
“One of the best ways to get a good sense of what a programme is like is to seek out and talk to those who’ve completed or are currently on the programmes you’re considering,” Sarah says. “Current students in particular will have a really good fine-grained understanding of what’s involved and are in the perfect position to tell you what it’s really like. And of course you can also glean a lot of useful pointers from programme directors and teachers. Never be reluctant to ask.”
More tips on making your postgrad decision:
“It’s important to be strategic and look at the jobs market but there’s no point in doing something you’re not interested in. If you don’t love it, it’s going to be much harder to stay the distance,” Sarah stresses.
“You’ll need to be proactive and self-directed. Your ability to engage and succeed comes from your motivation and your interest.”
There are pragmatic considerations too: of course your career and employability matter greatly. It’s reassuring to know that postgraduate employment rates are strong in Ireland and improving.
The University of Limerick has the highest level of graduate employability in the country, and the second highest in Europe. Postgraduates boost their earnings by an average of 29 percent compared to graduates.
The process of choosing a postgraduate course should begin early – but your decision shouldn’t be written in stone too quickly. Take your time when you’re making up your mind.
“You need to be flexible and adaptable when making your choices. Lots of things change towards the end of an undergraduate programme. You discover new things about yourself that you might not have been aware of before. Keep your eyes and your options open and be prepared to change your mind,” Sarah says.
“Final year undergraduate students can be very busy. They may have to juggle part-time employment with their studies and many have to shoulder a range of responsibilities in their lives. Just getting through the final year involves a lot of hard work. You need to build in time to consider your next steps. Otherwise that process can feel hurried. Don’t leave it too late. But equally, don’t make this important decision in a rush.”
The range of choices can seem overwhelming, so pick four or five programmes that you’d really like to do, based on your skills, personal interests and academic achievements to date.
At UL, we encourage students to reflect on all aspects of their performance and engagement to help narrow down their choices, and not just to think about academic achievements.
It’s just as important to draw on placement experiences, time on Co-op (UL’s renowned work experience programme) and volunteer work. These broadening experiences are an important part of higher education, and can be crucial in giving students clarity on where their future study and career paths lie.
Finishing your undergraduate degree can be a time for exploring new disciplinary territory and new professional opportunites. UL’s graduate medical programme, for example, admits students from a wide range of backgrounds. Many postgraduate programmes are an opportunity to stretch yourself in other areas.
“Academic paths don’t always have to be linear,” Sarah says. “Many of the skills and much of the knowledge you’ve learned as an undergrad are transferable across disciplines.”
UL has long prided itself on building bridges between academia and industry – so it’s hardly surprising that it’s the main education centre for technical writers in Ireland.
This is another example of an MA programme that attracts people from a wide range of backgrounds, from tech-savvy English graduates to software engineers with a yearning to write.
Dr Sean Daffy, lecturer in archeology, is studying an MA in Technical Communications and E-learning.
“As I have an interest in podcasts and creative and educational content, my course complemented my skills and I didn’t feel like I was starting from square one again,” he says.
If you still feel overwhelmed by the choices and decisions, universities have career guidance advisors and course directors who are there to help steer you in the right direction.
It’s important to be practical. Basic knowledge about a programme, such as how many hours per week are involved, will really help you to choose a course that is feasible and that fits with your life and your plans.
If a full-time programme of study doesn’t suit, there are many part-time and blended online learning options that can work for you.
“I didn’t want to leave Galway,” says Sean. “My wife has a permanent job, we have two daughters so I am studying online and attending workshops in UL. Blended learning works really well for me.”
The challenges of adjusting to postgraduate life are different to those of the early undergrad experience.
Many programmes are designed so that you experience more autonomy and self-direction as the course progresses. And many include opportunities to play a role in running seminars, mentoring, tutoring and outreach.
These are exciting prospects for budding postgraduate students. With so many choices and so much information available, the sky’s the limit.
At UL, our career experts help potential postgraduate students make their choices every year.
Download our ultimate guide. It will help you with decision-making techniques, resources and contains real advice from UL’s past postgraduates and career experts.