James Maskell

Why you shouldn't do a postgrad

28 February 2012

In an article entitled “Why you shouldn’t do a postgrad” on the Guardian website Helen Crane debates whether or not an undergraduate should stay in education and study for a postgraduate degree.

This post is particularly interesting for me as I spent the best part of a year planning to return to university. I originally flirted with the idea while in my final semester two years ago but opted to take a break from education (and a well paid job in London). While working, I pretty quickly decided that I missed university and wanted to return for a postgrad degree. It is 12 months since I told everyone that I was going to quit my job, move back to Manchester and study for a postgrad in International Relations. And now I’m in London running a startup.

I’d advise anyone currently considering a postgrad degree to think about the following:

  • How much value will it add for you? It’s unlikely that it would have a huge impact on your employability (unless you’re in a very specific field) - experience outside of academia will count for far more. I’ve been hiring people and honestly don’t care about postgraduate degrees - I just want to see what you can do.
  • Do you really want to do it or are you putting off other decisions? You should want to do a postgrad because you love academia. Not because you want to drag out the student lifestyle. Postgrads require a lot of work for relatively little added value. If you’re in the UK you’ll be well aware of the funding cuts to higher education - it is now even harder to get a career in academia. From the perspective of a potential employer I’m actually put off by people who stay in academia because they don’t know what else to do - I want to see some drive, ambition and not someone who takes the easy option.
  • Will it be as fun and rewarding if all of your friends have moved on to other things? I loved my final year. It was by far the hardest of my three years (I actually had work to do!) and had the steepest learning curve. The work was stressful and rewarding. I could cope with the stress because I was working alongside some great friends that I’d made. We were all experiencing the same ups and downs. We’d bounce ideas off each other, take coffee breaks together and often take it in turns to cook in the evenings. I realised that would be gone if I returned for a postgrad - most friends had moved on and new friendships wouldn’t be the same. I’d enjoy the academic work but would lose a lot of the social side.
  • Is it financially viable? Postgrads are expensive - (many academics will admit that they’re often just cash cows for universities). If you need to borrow money you’ll have to get a commercial loan. Course fees are normally higher and you’ll have to pay these directly to the university. Chances are you’ll have less money than you did as an undergrad (and you thought you were poor then) with a tougher workload. Are you willing to risk finishing your postgrad and entering the job market when completely broke with a lot more debt?
  • What else could you do? Think carefully about your other options. It’s always worth taking time to see what else you could be doing. If you’re prepared to spend all that money on a postgrad could you spend the same amount on something else? Why not go travelling for a year and have a better life experience? Are there other skills you could develop? What could you teach yourself? You don’t have to be enrolled at a university of college to learn.

I asked myself these questions and coupled with some persuasion from others decided to start a business. I’ll probably end up spending the same amount on this as I would on a postgrad (I saved up enough to cover course fees and live for a year) but I’ve learnt far more. I’ve had some great experiences and am growing a great network of contacts. The stress and workload is probably similar to what I’d experience on a postgrad. The difference now is that I’m doing a much better job of setting myself up for the future.

If you’re in the position I was in 12-24 months ago you should ask yourself the questions I listed above. If you’re prepared to spend the money or take on the extra debt for a postgrad think about what else you could be doing. You only live once and time flies. Do you want the same experiences or do you want to shake things up a bit? Don’t be concerned about failure or things not working out. Take the risk and learn lots. Even if things don’t quite work out, I’d much rather look back in 20-30 years time and be thankful for the experience than keeping thinking “what if?”.

(Note: I’ve purposely left out suggesting you should get a full-time job. Only do this if you want to raise some money and plan to do it temporarily. You’ll have plenty of opportunity to work for someone else in years to come. It’s much harder to give everything up and take more risks when you’re older and have more committments. If you’re even slightly tempted do it now and don’t look back.)