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Is further study for me?

Millie Douglas

Sr. Career Consultant at Victoria University of Wellington
Millie Douglas, Senior Career Consultant from Victoria University of Wellington offers a wealth of knowledge on the world of further study.

What made you want to become a career advisor?

It was my own, meandering experience of trying to navigate transitions from college to university and then from university to the world of work, that eventually led me to discovering career counselling as a career.  Lacking any career awareness, guidance or resources, it took me a while to discover what I wanted to do. I studied Art History and English Literature at the University of Leeds in the UK. My study choices were based purely on the fact that I liked Art History and English at school rather than any consideration of career opportunities or the labour market. Leeds was an intentional choice as they have one of the best libraries in the country, but it didn’t occur to me to look at any of the other degree subjects available there. 

My first experiences of work during the three years following graduation were exploratory ones. I had foolishly turned down the offer of a place to do a Master’s in publishing as I didn’t want to re-locate, and instead decided to test out two careers that I knew something about, teaching and social work. My sister was a teacher and my father, a social worker. The first role was unpaid and part-time and I worked in a school providing classroom support to a Maths Teacher. The school was low decile, and I worked with students in years 5,6 and 7, eventually teaching small classes of 10-12 students on my own.  I enjoyed teaching, however, I was more interested in the individual students and their experience of learning and the learning environment. I was concerned that most students struggled with the subject and didn’t connect maths with their day to day lives or how they might earn a living in the future. The second role I had was paid and full-time, working as a Residential Social Worker, with children and young adults who, for a variety of reasons, were in the care of the Social Services. For several, the future was unknown and in-secure and their present lives controlled by people like me. 

How did these experiences connect with becoming a Career Counsellor? I was beginning to analyse what I liked and didn’t like in the context of work and what I might like to do more of and get better at. I was becoming my own career-coach, albeit unskilled.   I was realising that understanding who you are and what you want to accomplish in your life is powerful and motivating. Education, Psychology, and some aspects of government policy were interesting to me but was there a way to connect them and how could I find out? I was rescued from this dilemma by career happenstance. I saw the advert for two Trainee Career Advisors with Leeds City Council. I realised that it was potentially a good fit, applied, went through their selection day and was offered one of the positions. I completed the two-year postgraduate programme which required a year of full-time study (9.00 am to 4.00 pm, five days a week) and two work placements followed by a year of professional supervision as a Trainee Careers Advisor. At that stage, I was able to become a member of The Institute of Careers Guidance.

How did you get to your current position and how long have you occupied it? 

I have been in my current position as a Career Consultant at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand for 20 years. I think that I was offered it because I had a professional qualification and interesting experience. I had worked for over twelve years for the Local Council in the UK and gained an unusually broad experience. I had worked in high schools (years 9-13), tertiary colleges (post 16), and with apprentices, unemployed school leavers, and the long term unemployed. For a short time, I also worked with university graduates and professionals making career transitions. My role also involved working directly with schools to help them integrate careers education into the curriculum and with employers to negotiate work and training opportunities for clients. As a Senior Careers Advisor, I also supervised students on placement from Career Counselling programmes as well as new Trainee Careers Advisors recruited by our service. This broad background has been extremely helpful in my current role.

What does your work involve day-to-day? 

I see enrolled students, undergraduate and postgraduate during personal appointments and help desk sessions. I also connect with hundreds of students each year during in-curriculum seminars and workshops, and career and employability workshops on topics such as CVs, cover letters, LinkedIn, interviews, networking, internships, psychometric testing and job search review.

In individual appointments with a student, my role is often to help them explore their aspirations, grow their occupational knowledge, and begin to create a career plan. It can be a complex balancing act to identify career options that meet interests, talents and aspirations, but that are also informed by awareness of how the economy and labour market impacts on work opportunities. In helping students explore options and make decisions, I must be mindful that as well as being a ‘student’ they may also be juggling the roles of sibling, significant other, parent, employee and volunteer, and these different roles and responsibilities will have an impact on how confidently and quickly choices and decisions can be made. 

Many students’ first engagement with a Career Consultant will be to discuss concerns about their academic progress or motivation, or to discuss subject choices and their relation to future career opportunities.  I can help them review their career thinking and planning and alert them to risks and opportunities. These conversations may also cover extra-curricular activities such as joining clubs, completing employability programmes and work experience.  Joining a club or society helps develop networks and taking on an executive role will add workplace-relevant skills and experience. Many students sign up for the very rewarding leadership, employability, and mentoring programmes, that most universities now offer. Most students will seek part-time or summer employment during their degree and can get help with job applications and interviews. Paid work and volunteering (on and off-campus) will significantly increase employability as will attending campus career expos and recruitment events.  Graduates can continue to make use of all our career services for up to three years after they have graduated. 

Another core part of my role is working with course co-ordinators, schools and faculties to run workshops on careers topics for their students.  

I am also a professional member of the Career Development Association of NZ (CDANZ). It expected that I keep up to date with the national and international research that provides the rigour and integrity behind career practice but also maintain my knowledge of career pathways, the labour market in NZ and overseas and career-related tools and resources.  

Advice for students and graduates

Could you give us just a brief summary of what further study is and the sorts of things it can entail?

A university degree sits at level 7 on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework. If you are considering further study, there are hundreds of different qualifications to choose from. There are many at levels 5 and 6, that are ‘vocational’, intended to produce work-ready individuals and while these may be relevant, the focus here will be ‘further study’ at level 7 or above. Most graduates choose to complete further study on a full-time basis but many qualifications can be done part-time. 

Qualifications at level 7 and above are: 

  • Graduate Diplomas and Certificates at level 7 (one year);
  • Honours Degrees and Postgraduate Diplomas and Certificates at level 8 (one year). These are qualifications in their own right, but are also the first year of a two-year, Master’s Degree;  
  • Research Master’s Degrees at level 9 (two years); 
  • Professional Master’s Degrees at level 9 (3 trimesters);
  • PhDs at level 10 (3 years); the prerequisite is usually a Master’s degree. 

Graduate Diplomas and Certificates (level 7) require using a degree qualification as evidence that you can take on a new subject area at degree level. The intention may be to pursue a new study direction out of interest, or more commonly, to meet the prerequisites for a specific academic or professional pathway. For example, with the agreement of the relevant academic department, a graduate diploma may serve as a bridge to a postgraduate qualification in a new subject. Why would this be useful? 

Consider this scenario. Thalia has graduated with a degree in Marketing and Management with strong grades. After meeting with a Career Consultant and further investigation, she decides that she wants to become a Psychologist. The challenge is to gain the psychology background required to get into a master’s programme in Psychology that meets the requirements of the New Zealand Psychologists’ Board.   Thalia negotiates with the School of Psychology to complete a Graduate Diploma in which she will complete the key psychology papers they require. The Graduate Diploma will serve as a ‘bridge’ to a two-year Master’s degree in Psychology. Thalia would be on her way to becoming a Psychologist.

Honours Degrees, Postgraduate Diplomas and Certificates (level 8) and Research Master’s Degrees (level 8) build on the specific subject knowledge and skills acquired during an undergraduate degree. Entry requirements will always include a ‘relevant’ undergraduate degree. Consider this scenario. Tapu is close to completing an undergraduate degree in Art History and Cultural Anthropology and has decided that she wants to become an Art Historian. Reading more about this highly competitive work sector, she discovers that a minimum of a Master’s degree is required and that most Art Historians also have a PhD. Tapu decides that she is passionate enough about this career to pursue it. She enrols for Research Master’s degree in Art History which will take two years. At the end of part one of the Master’s degree, she has the option of exiting with an Honours Degree. If she completes part two she will have achieved her Master’s.  

Professional Master’s Degrees (level 9) are significantly shorter than academic master’s degrees as the independent academic research component, which is a key feature of a research master’s degree, is largely absent. Programmes may include work simulations, industry-relevant projects and internships. When is a vocational master’s programme a good option? 

Consider this scenario.  Josh completed a degree in Philosophy last year and found a job working in government administration. He has been complemented by his boss on how well he deals with the book-keeping aspects of his role, how quickly he learned to use MS Excel and his clear and succinct report writing.  Josh really enjoys his work and realises that he would like to grow in this area. Talking to senior colleagues he learns that an accounting qualification would be useful and so enrols for a Master’s degree in professional accounting which meets the academic requirements for registration as a Chartered Accountant with the major professional accounting bodies. This degree takes three or four trimesters full-time but Josh opts to begin on a part-time basis so that he can continue to work and his employer has indicated a willingness to pay the study fees.

If you are considering further study, begin making your enquiries in September as closing dates vary and can be earlier than closing dates for undergraduate study. Some programmes may begin mid-year or allow studies to commence mid-year, especially if studies will be part-time. Time-frames mentioned so far have been for full-time study, but universities are increasingly designing programmes to be studied on a part-time basis or to suit people in the workforce.

What are some of the key professional benefits of further study?

For most undergraduate degrees, the intention is to provide a broad foundation of knowledge and skills rather than to produce workplace-ready graduates. To fully tap into the professional benefits of further study, consider carefully what you want to do with your life, particularly your working life. What do you want from work? What are your strengths? What has motivated you when you have been your ‘best self’ and produced your best work? What are the different careers that you have considered and how widely and deeply have you investigated career options and opportunities? Being able to answer the above questions becomes critical in order to select the best option from the plethora of qualifications. 

National and international data tells us that people with a degree will earn more and have a higher standard of living, over the course of their working lives, compared to those who don’t. However, the data also shows that the earning capacity of graduates isn’t evenly distributed across all university disciplines. Graduates from some disciplines will earn more than their peers in other subject areas. In addition, those with a postgraduate qualification generally earn more than those without, and there are a growing number of careers that either require a postgraduate qualification or where one confers a significant advantage in a competitive labour market.

Broadly speaking there are three key professional benefits of further study.

The first is to study a subject in greater depth and become more highly qualified in it. This would, for example, be essential for scientists, university lecturers, historians, and educational psychologists.   The second is to pursue a career that requires a specialised credential. Examples would be work as a planner, health and safety auditor, audiologist or public health advisor. The third is to maintain employability in a fast-changing labour market. Automation, digital platforms, and other innovations are changing work roles and the labour market, at an unprecedented rate. The very nature of work and how we define it is changing and we are already seeing the beginnings of that change and its impacts. The Future of Work is a topic of great concern to governments globally and there is a growing body of literature on the subject. Those who will thrive, in an increasingly challenging labour market will be the ‘self-directed’ and ‘life-long learners’ who can respond quickly to it by re-educating or re-training themselves or even better, anticipating trends and keeping their skills and knowledge current.

Credit: Victoria University of Wellington

Are there any personal benefits to further study?

A key personal benefit of further study is continuing to grow as a learner. Science has shown us that our learning capabilities are not fixed. Also, our attitudes to learning and our learning confidence often change over time. In the transition from school to university, we usually focus on academic performance and capabilities in relation to the school subjects taken at that stage of our lives. Why does this matter? Our high school experience, particularly in years 12 and 13 creates a narrative in our own minds about our capabilities. The narrative may have merit at aged 18 but may change a little or a lot at different points in our lives. Our brains can be stimulated and exercised to expand our capabilities. Cultivating a growth mindset can allow us to create new narratives about what we can learn and what we can do. Further study can be a way to challenge an old narrative and provide evidence of a new one. 

Are there any drawbacks to further study?

Further study can be expensive, so it is worth taking the time to write down your reasons for doing it. Is it purely for pleasure? Is it to advance your career? Is it to change your career?  Next, do the research to make sure that your hopes or expectations will be met. Seek advice from a range of people who you trust, to be honest with you and who are well-informed. Arranging to meet with a Career Consultant is also wise.

Is it possible to do further study with a busy schedule, like while working full-time or running a household? 

Many people successfully balance full-time work or family commitments other a range of work and family commitments alongside studies however it is important to be realistic. Examine course outlines carefully as these provide detailed information about the number of classroom and private study hours required, assignments and deadlines. A discussion with a programme coordinator can allow you to share your situation and concerns. They advise you of potential pain points and challenges that you may need to address. Speaking to a Career Consultant or doing your own career research is also important to make sure that your intended studies align with your goals.

How can I decide between research and coursework programs?

Deciding on your purpose in doing the program is the first step. From this, it may become evident whether doing research or course work or a mix of both, will suit your purpose best. 

If you enjoy research, have achieved strong grades in your first degree, have some ideas about a research topic and a potential academic supervisor, then research-based further study may be the best option. This is likely to be a 2-year academic master’s degree. Year one of the masters usually involves a small research topic typically 25% of the workload. Year 2 can involve more taught papers combined with a larger research component or be wholly research-based. 

If increasing employability is a significant concern, consider aligning the research topic and the research methodology with future employment goals. Identifying and connecting with potential audiences for the research at the research scoping stage can also be beneficial.  

Coursework based or fully ‘taught’ postgraduate programmes usually don’t require directly relevant previous studies and instead use intensive learning strategies to introduce a new subject area and so may involve industry projects or placements. 

Can I get funding help with postgraduate study? E.g.: loans, CSPs, (Commonwealth supported places not available in NZ) scholarships, stipends etc

Most people doing full-time postgraduate study depend on several sources to fund their studies.

Study Link provide student loans for study up to PhD level. Student Allowance is available for Honours level study only.

Low-interest bank loans may also be worth considering in some instances. Some banks offer scholarships and some may be open to negotiating a discounted loan rate.

Universities also offer their own scholarships usually for research-based postgraduate study at Master’s and PhD level.  Some are attached to specific academic departments or schools. Universities list relevant scholarships on their website and also provided links to external scholarships and awards databases such as GivME

The GivME database lists scholarships, awards and funding for academic, professional and personal development in New Zealand and overseas. The individuals and organisations that establish scholarships and awards, can do so for a variety of reasons. While the majority of scholarship and awards are to support academic excellence, there are many that have been established to achieve such objectives as increasing the participation of women in the sciences, supporting individuals from a particular school or regions, improving the participation rates of Māori in education,  supporting international cooperation by funding New Zealander to study overseas, and offering sporting talent opportunities to get world-class experience overseas. 

Part-time paid roles on campus can also help with study costs as well as building good work experience. Postgraduate students and can work as tutors, research assistants and peer writers and in many other roles depending on their skills and experience. Some also work off-campus in government departments and corporate organisations. It can be a good idea to complete a summer internship prior to beginning postgraduate study. This, as well as other kinds of summer work, can often lead to on-going part-time work.

If I had to choose between diving into a graduate job and further study, what would be a good way to decide which one would suit me best?

Speaking with a Career Consultant is a great first step. Using a framework such as SWOT (strengths weaknesses, opportunities and threats) can help in systematically weighing up different options. 

Employers are always impressed by relevant or good quality work experience on a CV, so in general, an opportunity for employment should not be rejected lightly. Caveats to this statement are, that some work areas require a postgraduate qualification and some employers, in sectors where graduates compete for limited opportunities, are likely to favour candidates with higher-level qualifications.  

Deferring an offer of study or employment for a year may be possible and it may be easier to defer a study offer than defer a job offer, although this is not always the case.  

A word to the wise...

  1. When applying for graduate jobs do your research. Employers expect clear and specific information from applicants about why they are interested in the role and in their organisation. Do what a university education has trained you to do: research, analyse, summarise, articulate.  In feedback from employer surveys conducted by university career services employers tell us that in job applications and at interviews, candidates fail to do adequate research into the role and the organisation. Good research will make a candidate at the job application stage, appear focussed, thorough and professional, and at an interview engaged, well prepared and motivated. 
  2. Use social media in your job search. Use the standard job sites but be aware of any sites relevant to your field. LinkedIn has become an important tool as many employers check the LinkedIn profiles of applicants as part of their shortlisting process. Having a LinkedIn profile is useful for general career research such as reading the profiles of people in your field of interest, creating online networks with people and organisations in your sector and when offered an interview, checking the profiles of those doing the interviewing.  
  3. Try to clarify your career goals if they are still vague.  Not everyone completing postgraduate study has determined a career direction, nor does postgraduate study necessarily lead to a specific type of work.  Negotiating the maze of work opportunities, or for some discipline areas, what can appear to be a scarcity of work opportunities, can be challenging. Using graduate destination information and publications available through university career services can provide a useful framework for further career exploration.  Completing occupational interest inventories such as CareerQuest and MyFuture are also useful. These are career questionnaires, that once completed, provide lists of careers that are a potential match. For each career suggested there is a role description, salary information, entry requirements and a labour market outlook report.