Course does not (usually) equal career – let’s celebrate

With all of the talk about high value and low value courses and value for money for the student and taxpayer, one key element of the UK graduate labour market gets less policy and media coverage than it should – but is both a strength and a challenge.

In the vast majority of cases, a university degree is not about preparing a student for a specific job, or even necessarily a specific sector, but providing them with the critical thinking capabilities and transferable skills that will equip them to secure employment and go onto to develop a satisfying career.

The ultimate (and admittedly somewhat lofty) aim has to be future-proofing graduates’ employability by developing skill sets, mindsets and encouraging lifelong learning. That prepares students to solve problems that have not yet been identified, and work in jobs that don’t yet exist – or often more mundanely, and less futuristically, jobs that do exist but are not on their radar when they initially enter the graduate market.

A cunning plan

The Department for Education’s Planning for Success research report found that students that had a clear career plan were significantly more likely to secure professional employment. However, it should be noted that many of the students with a clear career plan were in the disciplines that do traditionally lead to linear career outcomes such as medicine, engineering and education:

An often-discussed statistic in careers circles is the percentage of graduate roles open to all disciplines. Graduate LMI expert Charlie Ball, studied the wider graduate job market (c144,000 roles) in 2014 with data from the Prospects system used by the majority of UK careers services at that time, and found that 71% of advertised roles were open to any degree discipline. In recent times, due to the diversity of careers platforms now used by UK university careers services it has become very difficult to replicate this study with the same scale and reliability. However, it has often been stated that this propensity for employers to consider applications from any discipline is a relatively unique feature of the UK graduate labour market.

Shaking hands

In the US market, “Handshake” is a platform utilised by 800+ colleges and provides a useful comparison to test the hypothesis in another significant graduate labour market; they have provided me with comparative data from the last recruitment cycle taken from a sample of c700,000 graduate roles advertised through their platform. Only 45% of roles in Handshake do not list a specific major (degree discipline).

Interestingly, if you look at internships in the system, only 28% are open to students studying all courses. If we include the most recent data from the Institute of Student Employers that suggest 74% of corporate employers are completely degree agnostic, with a proportion of the remaining 26% potentially having at least some roles that might be open to students from any discipline, we could conservatively predict that graduates who enter the UK graduate market have approximately 25% larger proportion of the graduate market open to them than US graduates.

The non-linearity of career paths is critical information that is not broadcast sufficiently to students, academics and policy makers. It should also be viewed positively, because whatever you choose to study there are a huge range of options to you. In my experience, students and graduates tend to pigeonhole themselves far more than employers do.

However, it is quite common for the dominant narrative presented to students to be a linear pathway even in areas where outcomes are hugely diverse – from the graduates featured in the prospectus, to the returning placement student presenting at the open day through to the alumni invited to present about their career as part of the curriculum. As marketing messages go, “you’re likely to end up in a career that is not directly related to the subject area” is not quite as punchy as “graduates from this media studies course have gone onto to work at the BBC, Sky and The Guardian.”

The real world

This clash between marketing rhetoric and the labour market reality is arguably even more acute when you examine the postgraduate market. There, in many disciplines there is a weak correlation between higher levels of study and increased success in the labour market but the blanket marketing message, also trumpeted by the media, tends to be that higher level study leads to improved career outcomes.

This holds true across the wider data set but is somewhat skewed by people already in professional employment studying part-time, often paid for by their employer whom they typically return to into either professional level or management roles. However, in general, this assertion should be treated with a little caution, particularly when you consider the opportunity cost of pursuing further study. In fact, full-time Masters graduates have a higher unemployment rate than their undergraduate counterparts and it is typical in many major employers for Masters graduates to enter at the same point, on the same scheme, as first degree graduates.

At PHD level, the difficult balance must be struck between training students for academia, which all data shows is the alternative career path, and for careers in the wider labour market where their research skills will often need to be applied differently. As far back as 2010 the Royal Society reported that, even in the sciences, only 3.5% of PHDs go onto to secure permanent university research roles.


This all creates a challenging context for universities to operate in and the graduate market is more nuanced than the media like to portray – very little credit is given to the university sector and specifically careers services for the successes achieved in preparing students and graduates to enter this complex non-linear landscape and to navigate the rough seas of their early career. Even a cursory glance at the most recent DLHE will tell you that graduate unemployment was at its lowest rate since 1979, no mean feat given the vast expansion of the HE sector, and that, of those in employment, 73.9% were in a professional level role; a 2.5% increase on the previous year.

Career development provision is well advanced in the UK and the openness of employers to consider graduates from across the full range of academic disciplines is admired by international colleagues:

I love how much further along you all are in the “major/course does not equal career” discussion.’ David Shull, Head of Handshake (UK & Europe)

Unlike countries such as Canada and New Zealand, the number of places available on UK HE courses is not intrinsically linked to the demands of the economy. The UK graduate labour market is predominantly non-linear which is a relatively unique feature which positively supports student choice. And we should be celebrating this, rather than trying to hide it.

2 responses to “Course does not (usually) equal career – let’s celebrate

  1. Really great article – thanks Mike for putting this in one succinct place. What challenges my brain is that this starts from early childhood – ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ – and continues in choice of GCSEs and FE qualifications. The narrative from schools & colleges is entrenched around linear pathways and making the choices to get there. I’ve felt this acutely having teenage children, and one now at university. When I tell people she’s doing English, the usual response is quizzical (including from teacher friends) asking ‘What’s she going to do with that afterwards’? We need to find a way to open up the conversation much, much earlier, though squaring that with not making the landscape so vast and blurry that kids can’t decide anything at all…

  2. Like Adele my daughter is also doing English (language and linguistics) starting this year and I wonder about her career path. Teaching could be one, but she is interested in publishing which is arguably a more competitive arena. Many students are also looking at the income threshold for repayment of student loans. I will support her in her efforts to find career related placements and internships which can help to decide for or against certain careers, allows potential employers to assess you and helps your CV.

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