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Motivations and concerns of potential postgraduates

June 2019

Prospects research finds that few of those considering postgraduate study are motivated by a higher salary, while two-fifths remain unsure about their future career path

In May 2019 Prospects surveyed its audience, receiving 5,000 responses and capturing the attitudes, pain points and motivations of students who were thinking of taking postgraduate study. While this sample may not reflect the views of the wider student cohort, it nevertheless provides a fascinating snapshot.

There is a lack of clarity about funding options

Postgraduate loans have been in place since 2016, but in 2019 prospective students still seem unsure about how to fund a postgraduate course. Over half (54%) said that information covering this topic was difficult to come across.

It is possible that they lack awareness of the resources available, and don't know where to find these details. Pointing potential students in the right direction and ensuring funding information is easily accessible is crucial so that finance doesn't become an unnecessary barrier to postgraduate study.

A similar issue was raised in Prospects' Early Careers Survey in 2018, with one respondent describing funding as a 'cloak and dagger type subject' where 'everyone seems to be told something different'. Some confusion was anticipated following the introduction of postgraduate loans, but several years later it appears as though more still needs to be done to provide the full picture.

The top concern is the cost of study

Concerns,Percentage of students
The cost,67.2
Juggling other commitments around studying,48.8
Whether I'll enjoy the course,18.6
Writing essays and reports,17.7
Understanding the course content,13.2

With the uncertainty about funding options, it is perhaps unsurprising that the cost of further study was the greatest concern among potential postgraduates. It would be valuable to examine whether they are worried about adding to existing debt, or if paying it back after graduation is the main issue.

Meanwhile, almost half were concerned about juggling commitments. The postgraduate community is diverse, and flexible study is important for those combining work and study. A fifth of respondents said they would prefer online and distance learning, which would benefit those with dependants and commitments outside of academia.

A small segment was also concerned about writing essays and reports. Those who have had a break from university may have lost their confidence with the academic writing style, and be unfamiliar with referencing systems or using anti-plagiarism software, for example. Running writing workshops and support sessions during fresher's week could be an effective way to boost their confidence.

More males than females consider relocation

Relocate for further study,Percentage of students
Not sure,24

Understanding how mobile students are when it comes to their studies can help universities decide whether to prioritise their local student audience when advertising their postgraduate courses. Three-fifths of respondents said they would consider relocating for further study, and males were more likely to consider this (64%) than females (57%).

However, a look at HESA's Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education 2016/17 (DLHE) shows that in reality only 43% attended an HE provider in a different region to where they were domiciled prior to starting their Masters. It appears as though there is a desire to migrate for postgraduate study, but this does not always translate into action.

Location may not be the main incentive for a student to move (50%), as people are more likely to prioritise an institution's reputation (67%) and course content (61%). If a local university with a high reputation offers good quality courses then students domiciled in the area may be more inclined to stay.

A significant minority don't have a career plan

Two-fifths of those who were considering doing a Masters did not know what career they wanted to pursue afterwards, so they could simply be postponing going into employment until they are ready.

This behaviour is often evident during recessions, with people delaying entering the labour market until the economy becomes more stable. It is possible that graduates today are continuing their studies as a response to the economic uncertainty around Brexit.

Salary isn't a key motivator for postgrad study

Motivation,Percentage of students
To improve my career prospects,32.8
To study a subject I enjoy,29.5
As a requirement for a particular career,24.6
To retrain as I'd like to change careers,8
Higher salary,4
Other ,1.2

The majority of students were motivated to continue their studies in order to improve their career prospects and get a job where a postgraduate qualification is a requirement (57.4%).

It's positive that 30% pursue further study because they enjoy a subject, as they'll be less likely to drop out if they are passionate about the course content. Those who were unsure about a career were more likely to pursue study because they enjoy the subject (27%) compared with those who had a set career path in mind (16%).

Only 4% said salary was the main reason for doing a Masters. The government's Graduate labour market statistics: 2018 report shows that working-age postgraduates earn a higher salary than first-degree graduates on average (£6,000 a year), but this increase doesn't appear to be a significant influence.

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