The ‘Masters job’. Does it exist and how could we examine it?

This is an unabridged version of a section from my recent article in Graduate Market Trends about the Masters labour market in the UK. The first section, on Masters employment, is reproduced in unabridged form here.

There is a lively ongoing debate about the ‘graduate job’ and the question of which jobs require degrees. There is, however, consensus that a jobs market does exist for which first degrees are the main qualification and which is not always accessible for workers without this level of qualification.

It is not so clear that a similar specific market exists for Masters degrees in the UK once we move outside some very vocational niches. This is despite an increase in the popularity of the qualifications (the number of Masters degrees awarded to UK graduates increased from 40,175 in 2004 to 58,275 in 2014) and rhetoric to the effect that the jobs market for first degree graduates has become so contested that a Masters is now necessary to ‘stand out from the crowd’ and get a job after leaving university.

I used simple indicators from DLHE to explore the idea of a ‘Masters level’ job.

I examine roles that fulfil the following criteria: the majority of new entrants from 2013/14 with a Masters stated that their degree was a requirement or conferred an advantage in entering the position, and where more than a particular proportion of new entrants from all levels of HE held a Masters.

78% of new entrants to occupational psychology had a Masters, and 86% of Masters level entrants stated that their degree was a requirement or conferred an advantage to entry. The number of new entrants in the cohort was small – 25, from all levels of study – and so it is not clear how definitively we can suggest that this is a ‘Masters level’ role. No other role had a majority of entrants with a Masters qualification. If we then examine roles where more than 40% of entrants had a Masters and where the role is not defined very broadly, we get the following table.

Role Proportion of new entrants from 2013/14 with Masters Proportion of Masters entrants stating Masters at least an advantage
Occupational psychologists 78% 86%
Archivists and curators 48% 75%
Economists 45% 86%
Health services and public health managers and directors 45% 64%
Psychology assistants 44% 85%
Geologists, mineralogists, etc. 43% 95%
Town planning officers 42% 86%
Environmental health professionals 41% 94%
Conservation professionals 40% 78%

Table One: Professions in which Masters-level entry plays a significant role

This table excludes certain professionals, most notable senior officers in the police and Armed Forces, with a high proportion of Masters-level entrants, but where the Masters was not generally a requirement for entry. This is most likely because of Masters study forming part of ongoing professional development. In chartered surveying and social work, 94% and 91% respectively of Masters level entrants stated that their Masters was at least an advantage, but Masters entry was a small proportion of total entrants. This suggests niches that are not necessarily captured by the current occupational classification system. Both professions are amongst those curently considered in short supply.

The other roles on the list have both a relatively high proportion of Masters level entry and a relatively high perceived requirement for those Masters degrees.

It is not certain that this data demonstrates that a widespread ‘Masters job’ market definitely exists but these roles in occupational psychology, archiving, planning, health, land and environment seem to be likely candidates. If we examine historic data, we can see that all of the roles in Table One also fulfilled our criteria in 2008/9 – indeed several had a higher proportion of entrants from Masters, with economists, archivists and curators and geologists all seeing more than 50% entry via Masters. The only new entrant to the list since the start of the recession is environmental health professionals. Statisticians appear in 2008/9 data but by 2013/14 undergraduate entry had become more significant to the UK labour market. If we go back further, to 2002/3 – albeit using a different occupational classification system – many of the roles would also have fit our conditions. Roles that would have been Masters level at that time that no longer qualify include surveying positions – now dominated by undergraduate entry – and HR management, which is still predominantly postgraduate entry but with an increasing proportion of entry from specialist diplomas.

The evidence suggests that a labour market exists for postgraduate qualifications outside the doctorate, but that undergraduate entry is still possible, and there is some fluidity as qualifications change and adapt to demand. Some niches – in the environmental and earth sciences, in occupational psychology, in planning, in economics and in archive and curation work – may appear to be ‘Masters’ level, and bear exploration to establish how qualifications interact with these labour markets. It is not merely a case of grade inflation making previously undergraduate level roles now only accessible to postgraduate entrants. This does not appear to be happening to a great extent. There also seems to be movement away from postgraduate entry in some professions, and the drivers of this process are not yet understood.

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