If you’re thinking about doing further study at the end of your degree, there are a number of considerations. This section contains advice on the questions you should be asking yourself, and suggestions on where to find further information.
With higher numbers of undergraduate degree-holders entering the employment market each year, a postgraduate degree is becoming increasingly valuable. For some careers – such as academia – a PhD is essential. In other cases, a further qualification might considerably improve your chances of gaining employment, or may serve as a route to an alternative career path – for example, teaching.
It's important you consider how your chosen course may affect future career options, and how you'll finance yourself while you study.
Postgraduate degrees are generally divided into two classes:
A taught course – such as a Master of Science (MSc) degree – will usually consist of a number of modules, and will be assessed via a mixture of continuous assessment and exams.
A research-based course – such as a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree – involves carrying out a significant piece of original research, and is usually assessed on the basis of a dissertation or thesis and an oral examination.
Postgraduate diplomas and certificates are usually awarded after the successful completion of a postgraduate taught course. These courses often provide access to specific vocations, for example:
- Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) for teaching
- Graduate Diploma in Law (GPL)
- Common Professional Exam (CPE) for law
There are a number of websites that offer practical advice on choosing the right course, and provide useful general information; Graduate Prospects and postgrad.com enable you to search for available courses. For further information on postgraduate courses leading to Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), see our career decisions page on teaching.
Where to study
Most universities offer postgraduate studies, but to some extent your choice will be limited to those institutions that offer your course of interest. If you're thinking of moving from your current university, investigate the new institution; and – if relevant – find out what its research facilities are like. Ask for a postgraduate prospectus, and make arrangements to visit, too.
Undertaking postgraduate study may be expensive. This means competition for postgraduate funding is sometimes fierce, and for many students, covering the costs of course fees as well as day-to-day living expenses is a challenge. The provider of the course that you’re interested in will be able to give you information about funding opportunities.
The Graduate Prospects website provides a comprehensive set of links to sources of postgraduate funding in the UK.
Your university careers service will also be able to give you advice on funding opportunities, and you may also find it useful to talk to postgraduate students at your institution to find out how they support themselves.
The Student Loans Company doesn't provide loans for postgraduate study. However, if you're interested in studying a vocational course, you may be eligible for a Career Development Loan.
Undertaking a PhD can be challenging, exciting and very rewarding; however, the decision to commit yourself to a minimum of three years' further study requires careful consideration. Finding the right PhD and supervisor is of paramount importance, and it’s vital you ascertain as much information as possible before you start.
What are PhDs?
Doctoral degrees are awarded for the completion of a successful piece of original research that makes a substantial contribution to knowledge in the area of study. They usually take at least three years to complete, and are assessed on the basis of a written thesis and an oral examination. The key purpose of a PhD is to provide training in research skills and techniques.
Why do a PhD?
While studying for a PhD, you'll be given the opportunity to manage a research project of personal interest. And you'll gain experience of communicating your work through a range of different media to a variety of audiences. This may involve presenting posters, delivering talks and preparing papers for publication.
It's likely that you will be given the opportunity to attend national and, possibly, international conferences where you'll be able to discuss your work, and hear about other cutting-edge research in your field. You may work on an interdisciplinary project where you will collaborate with other research groups; this could lead to spending time at other research facilities, in the UK or overseas.
During the course of your PhD, you will have the chance to develop a wide range of employability skills, including:
- Research management
- Team working
- Time management
Developing skills is extremely important to your future career, as prospective employers are looking for evidence of a well-developed range of transferable skills as well as research skills. As a result, many universities now offer a wider range of training to PhD students through graduate centres, which provide support during postgraduate study. These centres offer a wide variety of training courses to help students develop and broaden their research management and professional skills.
In addition to the excellent training in research and transferable skills you’ll receive as a PhD student, it’s also important to consider the personal benefits that a PhD can bring. Many graduates find that gaining a PhD leads to increased confidence, self-belief and a great sense of achievement.
The range of research opportunities is very broad. Your PhD could be focused on one specific area of the chemical sciences – for example, the total organic synthesis of a complex natural product with anti-cancer properties. Alternatively, you may undertake a multidisciplinary research project involving significant collaboration with other research groups – for example, research directed towards the synthesis of new biomaterials, which could involve aspects of physical, inorganic and green chemistry and extensive collaboration with materials scientists, tissue engineers and microbiologists.
The majority of PhDs are undertaken in universities, although there are opportunities for studying at other research institutes, including in industry.
PhDs involving CASE (Co-operative Awards in Science and Engineering) awards are usually applied research projects carried out in partnership between academic institutions and industry.
Students who receive CASE awards are jointly supervised by an academic and an industrial supervisor, and usually spend part of their training period working within the company. This industrial experience, at doctoral level, is extremely beneficial for students who wish to continue their research career in industry.
Finances & funding
After three or four years of demanding undergraduate study – and debts that may be as high as £50,000 – many students rightly ask themselves the question 'is it worth investing at least another three years of my life doing postgraduate study?'
Holding a PhD doesn't guarantee you will walk into your dream job. However, if you take advantage of the opportunities that are available to help PhD students widen their skills – in particular, transferable skills – you'll acquire many attributes that will make you attractive to prospective employers.
There are several sources of funding for PhD students of the chemical sciences including the UK Research Councils, charities – such as the Wellcome Trust – and industry.
Funding is directly allocated to universities and other institutions, so you can’t apply directly to the funding agency yourself. You should approach the university where you wish to undertake a PhD.
Getting your first job
How difficult will it be to find work?
You may have read some negative press about graduates entering the market place, but it's important to note that such information – in the main – relates to large graduate-recruiters across many sectors. Recruitment in high-tech areas such as science, engineering and ICT is on the up, although employers say they are having difficulty recruiting highly skilled technical graduates.
Graduate recruitment by small and medium-sized companies is increasing, and large companies are still recruiting, albeit for fewer positions or on shorter, fixed-term contracts. However, competition is fierce, so while your chemistry degree gives you an advantage in the labour market, on its own it's not enough. Our job seeking page shows you how to get started, and we also have advice on how CVs, applications and interviews.
How can I stand out from other graduates?
Employers are looking for evidence of ‘extracurricular’ activities and employment experience. They will want to know about your individual skills, aptitude and potential as well as your knowledge and qualifications.
A report by the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) identified seven key employability skills sought by graduate employers. Eighty per cent of graduate employers rate these skills as the most important factors they take into account when they recruit graduates; above degree subject and class.
We explain what they are and how you can show employers that you have them:
Self-management: includes accepting responsibility, managing your own time and assessing your own performance, as well as ways to improve. Activities that demonstrate self-management could be: carrying out self- directed projects as part of your degree; balancing other activities alongside studying.
Teamwork: how you relate to colleagues – most employers are going to ask you about this at interview. Good teamwork involves communicating effectively, helping colleagues when they are busy, accepting help and being reliable. Activities that demonstrate teamwork could include: team sports, music or drama activities; sitting on a student committee.
Business and customer awareness: demonstrating that you understand how a business operates, how your role impacts on the business and how you deal with clients and customers. Activities that demonstrate this skill could include: working in or running a small business; managing the budget of a student society or event.
Problem solving: how you identify and approach problems. You may be asked to provide specific examples of how you solved a problem, so make sure you have in mind some examples, and be sure to explain what the problem was, how you dealt with it, why you took the action you did and what the impact was.
Communication and literacy: this includes listening to others, asking for information and getting your message across. Activities that develop and demonstrate communication skills include: written work submitted as part of your degree; voluntary or work roles that have involved face-to-face and / or telephone contact; blogging and using social media.
Numeracy skills: not all jobs will require you to have high levels of numeracy, but it's a marketable skill.
Application of information technology: most graduates are now expected to have basic IT skills, such as using email, the internet, Microsoft Office, and social media.
These are all transferable skills, so you may not have the exact experience they are looking for, but if you can think of ways you have used the skills in other areas then it's going to be easier to persuade companies why they should hire you. Our undergraduate skills record helps you to identify which skills you have gained from your degree, and how to develop them further.
Internships & placements
If you've had the chance to do a placement during your degree, it’s important to show employers what you got out of it. Our guide to industrial placements illustrates how to get one, and how to make the most of it.
If you don’t have much work experience on graduation, consider an internship. Even if it’s not an area directly linked to your degree, it’s a great way to develop your employability skills or break into a competitive sector or company.