Finding graduate work

I was talking recently to a consultant whose job it is to analyse and advise on labour market trends, and what he told me might look worrying to some. The jobs of the future, he said, will go to graduates whose studies prepared them most closely for the work they are hoping to get. So does that mean that unless you want to teach it, you should not study (say) philosophy? Perhaps, he said. But on the other hand, what he suggested really matters is work experience. If you go through your education without any employment-related work, you probably won’t get it when you start to look for it more seriously.

Recent research has in general terms backed that prediction. It found that employers now often prefer to appoint graduates who have work experience, often within the same company. The company conducting the research concluded:

‘Today’s report includes the stark warning to the ‘Class of 2012’ that in a highly competitive graduate job market, new graduates who’ve not had any work experience at all during their time at university have little hope of landing a well-paid job.’

It is also my own experience that universities that facilitate work placements for students, or even require them (as my last university did), are providing their graduates with a considerable advantage in the labour market. It is of course the case that many students work anyway during their time at university. But even those universities that would not have considered work placements to be something they should get involved in might want to think again. It is not that all their programmes should become vocational, but that they should allow the newly acquired academic knowledge of the students to be supported by a better understanding of the world of employment. Attractive thought it may have seemed, insulating students from practical employment-related experience is not a good idea today.

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13 Comments on “Finding graduate work”


  1. As my school didn’t provide practical experience I sought it out as a research assistan. Sometimes starting off as a vol. This was especially of value in statistics and research methods, which I was failing in second year. By mid-third year I was supervising in the field social science research projects and, was able to land a post-grad emplyment opportunity being TA for stats in the school. Despite senior staff not actually ‘wanting’ me there (I am a mover and shaker ~:-) But, no one else could take the class.

    Working as a TA enabled me to take on casual lecture positions when senior staff could find no one else, as well as opportunities in other schools and committees opening up for further professional development. The stats class especially allowed me to modify with curriculum delivery, which worked very well. Too well for some.

    After a year and a half I had enough experience and confidence to set up my own at-home biz and, to apply for other contract jobs, such as a state-wide survey of landowners. Currently, I coordinate a not-for-profit that I founded in 2010 and am using that same work experience and competencies created since then, to design research studies, youth and job seeker programs and apply for funding.

    Overall, I found my work experiences as an undergrad the most beneficial way to make my learning relevant, fun, interactive and applied. Highly recommended for any academic adventure plan.

  2. aiecquest Says:

    I would agree, especially with university fees. First work and or gap year experience for soft skills, in addition to getting an idea of what you want to do. Ideally study part time while working, that is to ensure your study is relevant, and like is possible in Australia, use vocational pathways to university, much cheaper and more practical. One can study anytime e.g. EU Lifelong learning policy, and use work experience for credit e.g. Australian recognition of prior learning and experience RPL via http://www.aqf.edu.au

  3. Polly Says:

    Another idea (which I do realise would involve a complete redesign of both work and education!) would be for 18-year-old school-leavers to go straight into the work-place for approx. 5 years, filling what we might call ‘apprentice’ positions. These would obviously not be well-paid, but they could function very well as training roles if they were well-designed.

    Then at the age of 23 or thereabouts, people would leave those jobs and go to university for a full-time degree, graduating at 26 or 27 with both extensive work-experience and a university degree, and be hired into ‘graduate’ jobs.

    The benefits of this would be that by 23, people would have *much* more idea of what they really wanted to study, and be more committed students (I’m basing this largely on all our experience of mature students). They would also have the advantages of having worked for a few years, and got through the initial stages of understanding what having a job (any job) entails. If this were the norm in the economy, there would always be a fresh crop of school-leavers to replace those going to college – no-one would be working fewer years, they’d just have a different pattern of work/study in their early career.

    Implementing this would require employers to change their patterns and expectations of hiring, but perhaps that would be no bad thing – at present most employers are calling for radical changes in the delivery and structure of education, but don’t seem very interested in their own responsibility to train their workers.

    What I haven’t worked out is how people would fund their education from 23-26, as it probably isn’t reasonable to expect their parents to support them at that age.

    Is this idea completely mad?!


  4. Looking at this from the other end, I find that working now with part-time adult learners, the efficiency of learning is much higher than with full-time undergraduates. Perhaps, it is time to redesign higher education to be more like apprenticeship. Of course in the old days, not only did you not get paid when you were an apprentice, you paid the employer for the honour. This might be considered a little politically incorrect nowadays.

  5. brian t Says:

    My university made an effort to find my Engineering class work experience. They also asked us to clear any work placements we found ourselves with them, since it was for credit i.e. it had to be relevant, and there were issues related to insurance. However, only half the students found places, the rest of us did project work with an external consultant. The problem was that employers were cutting back on everything, including work placements. I question whether it’s fair to discriminate on that basis, when students can’t FIND placements through no fault of their own.

  6. Steve Button Says:

    In the real world an employer will favour applicants who have the right skills set. Applicants with high academic achievement PLUS applicable work experience will have a distinct advantage over those with no real world working experience.
    Those Institutions’ who do not offer their students’ industrial/work placements relevant to their chosen career are doing their income stream (students) a disservice and will be hard pushed to justify their lofty £9000/year tuition fees.

    Perhaps we are coming full circle and the ethos of the old polytechnic/technical University/Colleges is coming to the fore one again.

  7. Aidan Says:

    I think that this has been the case for quite a while. I studied at an English uni in the 1990s when there was a recession. Every summer I went looking for relevant work experience and I took a year out to do a placement at Philips in Eindhoven. Despite the recession I got interviews for nearly every job I applied for. The fact that I didn’t get many offers was probably down to my terrible interview technique which is something all students should also be trained.


  8. Help me out here guys! I’ve two kids that will probably get a string of A’s in the Leaving Cert (as they seem to be quite good at learning things off by heart). I think they have their hearts set on going to university. How can I convince them not to, and to get a job and study part-time over a longer period?

  9. jfryar Says:

    Twenty years ago companies would happily take people with a Leaving Cert. or degree, put them in a group with a mentor, and train those individuals ‘on the job’. They effectively managed to obtain an employee-for-life.

    I can’t help but feel that many companies have effectively decided to out-source this training. Why should they do it, when the publicly-funded universities can do it? Now I don’t have a problem with degree programmes that are more vocational in nature, but I do have a problem with companies who seem intent on using their economic influence to presuade universities to do their training for them.

    The multinationals pay very little coporation tax. They whinge about the quality of our gradates, and how they don’t meet their requirements. So let me ask this: when was the last time we had senior engineers from our multinational semiconductor manufacturers giving final year university modules in production strategies, quality assurance, etc?

    No, they’re quite happy to form ‘research links’ with universities, which effectively allows them to make use of the public’s capital investiment in research equipment, labs, and personnel. They’re quite happy to have stalls at the Young Scientist’s competition for secondary-level students.

    There is no reason why we cannot set up modules in conjunction with private companies. This already happens in journalism and marketing and business studies and economics. It does not, for the most part, happen in engineering, science or computing-based courses. Yes, the companies might give out prizes to the best final year project, but that’s more PR than actually ensuring graduates are prepared to work in their company.

    I think it’s time for the private sector to put its money where its mouth is. Work with lecturers on developing new modules, work with universities on developing skills, pay our undergrads some miniscule wage during the summer to build up that experience. But no … we’ll let the universities sort it out using public cash rather than our cash.


    • Who would expect them to act any differently? Their objective is to minimise costs and maximise profits. That’s the system we have decided to live in. Why would they pay for the training of an employee who could then leave them and go to another company?

      • jfryar Says:

        Well, let me explain using an example from the public sector.

        Many years ago, people wishing to do a postdoc would typically apply to universities and projects knowing full-well that they might not have done a PhD in exactly the area the academics were looking for, but had sufficient experience in related areas to have a reasonable shot at being selected.

        This meant we had postdocs who had to learn new processes, new equipment, new techniques, but who brought experience from other related areas into the mix. Often there would be some fresh new ideas, or different ways of looking and solving a problem, and the result of that system is the academic staff we now have in our universities. Many of these people started their research careers in one area, only to diversify and modify that as they applied their experience into different areas. Hence we now have all manner of institutes set up by these academics with research aims that are completely removed from what they once did.

        A glance across the recruitment pages of universities in recent times shows something quite different. Now we want our postdocs to ‘hit the ground running’. In some cases this has meant academics specifying that candidates have experience in working with certain, specific molecules, specific equipment, even specific software packages. And one looks at the ads and thinks ‘there must be two people in the country who will satisy those requirements, one of whom probably did their PhD with the academic advertising the position’!

        I can’t help but feel that our universities are starting to lose out on people who may have contributed something new, or a different perspective to the research and instead are narrowing the research backgrounds we expect people to have. It means a short-term gain but a potentially longer-term loss and I often wonder if we are future academics will be equally capable of modifying their research directions if we’ve narrowly curtailed their backgrounds.

        And the point then is I think the same applies to the private sector. If you refuse to invest in training, and you only select people with precisely the skillset you want rather than allow other skilled people to get-up-to-speed, then you limit your choices, you select from a narrow group, and you may ultimately lose out on a better employee who contributes something new and fresh in the long run. Universities, for example, cannot possibly educate students in every computer language under the sun. A gifted programmer though should have no problems in learning something new – but if the company refuses to give them that chance, they may get an adequate employee but not the employee who does something fantastic.

  10. Niall Says:

    If there is one thing worse than training employees and having them leave is not training employees and having them stay


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