The top five myths about university, degrees and employment prospects
Don’t believe everything you hear about degrees and employment prospects for young people. Reports in the media don’t always give a full and balanced picture and friends’ and colleagues’ strongly held views may be coloured by their own experiences.
We’ve put together a list of our top five career myths to guide you through the maze.
Myth one: doing an arts degree is a bad choice in terms of getting a job
Truth: Some graduate jobs require a particular subject or range of subjects (eg a numerate degree or a science degree); others are open to graduates from any subject. There aren’t many roles that specifically call for non-vocational arts degrees such as English and history. However, there are still many roles for which arts graduates are eligible. See our list of careers you can and can't do with any subject. There are also conversion courses that graduates can sign up for if they want to change their career direction after their degree.
What’s even more important is that many employers ask for at least a 2.1 (the second best grade you can get for a degree). So if you want to join, say, a big accountancy firm after you graduate – a route that is open to graduates of all subjects but typically requires a 2.1 – you would be far better off with a 2.1 in English than a 2.2 in maths or economics.
Some employers also prefer to recruit from top-ranked universities. If you want to be a lawyer or management consultant, for example, a degree in French from, say, the University of Oxford or Imperial College London is likely to be much more useful than a degree in law from a lower-ranked university.
- We say – if you’ve got the potential to be an academic high-flier in an arts subject, it’s a perfectly good start to a broad range of careers. If you don’t want a career that requires a specific subject, it’s better than choosing a more vocational degree and being mediocre at it.
Myth two: it’s better to choose a sensible subject than one you will really enjoy
Truth: As per myth one, academic success is a big factor in employability. As well as the class of degree you get and how good a university you get into, there’s also the fact that some employers now ask for over a minimum number of UCAS points when you apply for their graduate scheme.
Getting good grades requires motivation, and it’s far easier to stay motivated about something that interests you. This is particularly important at university: in many cases attending lectures is optional, lecturers are unlikely to see it as their job to get slacking students back on track and there are hundreds of fun things to do that don’t involve working. On some degrees students are expected to spend the vast majority of their time studying by themselves – but no one will be checking up on whether they actually do so.
- We say – choose a subject that will motivate you enough to get good grades.
Myth three: a student with a vocational degree is in the best possible position to walk into a job after uni
Truth: A vocational degree can be a good choice, but it’s not always the best route to employment.
There’s sometimes a mismatch in expectations between students and universities as to what a vocational degree will provide. Students can assume that if they turn up and complete their work to a good standard then they will develop the skills that employers look for and have no trouble finding a job. Their lecturers, in contrast, may view the degree as an academic background to an area rather than a practical ‘how to…’ training course. Research course content carefully and find out where previous graduates have gone on to work – you may need to contact the admissions tutor to ask.
Employers typically favour graduates who have put time and effort into gaining experience outside of their degree, for example through work experience or extracurricular activities, and there’s no get-out if your degree is vocational. A media recruiter, for example, is likely to be far more impressed by a history graduate who edited a section of a student magazine and has taken work placements with local newspapers than a journalism graduate who hasn’t.
Be aware also that different industries’ recruitment needs can vary according to the state of the economy. Some are very cyclical – that is, there are lots of jobs when the economy is booming but far fewer in downturns. Construction in particular was badly hit after the credit crunch and has only recently recovered. Outsourcing can take jobs abroad, while recruitment caps can be brought in in public sector roles. An area that’s booming when a student applies for their degree might not be once they finish it.
On paper, graduates with vocational degrees are perfectly able to change direction and apply for jobs that accept any subject. However, in practice some recruiters value some degrees more than others. Law firms, for example, may welcome those with ‘academic’ vocational degrees such as engineering and medicine from top-ranked universities with open arms. However, they are likely to be far more sniffy if you’ve studied, say, photography, fashion design or hospitality management.
- We say – choose a vocational degree because you want to study it, not because you think it will guarantee you a job.
Myth four: Everyone needs technologists, so studying IT must make you employable
Truth: Take a look the unemployment rates for different subjects and you might be surprised. Each year the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey reports what graduates are doing six months after finishing their degrees. The subject with consistently the highest unemployment rate for those with an undergraduate degree is computer science.
That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of jobs available for impressive IT graduates – just that even such a useful-sounding subject won’t guarantee you a job.
- We say – would-be technologists still need to work hard to get good grades and good extracurricular experience to get a job. Any old computer science degree by itself will not do the trick.
Myth five: the average graduate starting salary is around £27,000 to £30,000
Truth: The national press love to report on surveys that suggest high graduate starting salaries – but aren’t so good about giving context to the figures. Regularly quoted reports include The Graduate Market (from High Fliers) and the biannual surveys from the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR) – the former predicts an average graduate starting salary of £30,000 for 2015, while in summer 2014 the AGR reported an average of £27,000.
However, while these surveys are useful, what the press don’t point out is that they are based largely on salaries from the biggest, highest-paying employers, not from all organisations offering graduate jobs. For example, the employers surveyed for the AGR Winter Review 2014 offered a total of 21,682 graduate jobs, while around 300,000 graduates leave university each year, meaning that only around seven per cent of graduates will land one of these jobs.
A more accurate salary picture comes from the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey, which is based on universities contacting all of their graduates to find out what they are doing and how much they are earning if they are in work. This found that graduates who left university in 2013 with an undergraduate degree and were in full-time jobs six months later earned an average of £20,000, with plenty of graduates earning around £15,000.
- We say – a degree is not a get-rich-quick scheme. A typical starting salary for a graduate is £20,000. Anything more is the icing on the cake.