There are almost 600,000 postgraduate students in the UK, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, but how has the postgraduate job market fared during the pandemic and which sectors are still recruiting?

Prof Mary Vincent, interim vice-president for education at the University of Sheffield, says the economic climate has actually accelerated postgraduate applications. “Students are recognising the value of furthering their education against a challenging economic and employment backdrop,” she says.

“It’s still early in the 2021 applications cycle, but postgraduate numbers are higher than they were at the same time last year, a sign that the trend of remaining in education is set to continue.”

Charlie Ball, head of higher education intelligence for prospects at Jisc, which develops digital technologies for teaching, says that many postgraduate students decided to continue studying this year to try to avoid the current jobs market. “This is a pretty rational choice, as the odds are that graduating in summer 2021 will hopefully be significantly better than last year,” he says.

However, this will result in an exceptionally large postgraduate cohort this summer. “As there is not an obvious labour market niche for many non-vocational master’s courses, their benefit will need to be explained to prospective employers,” Ball says. “Add to that the general difficulty of being a student in the pandemic and things are not easy right now.”

A recent study by the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) showed a 12% drop in the number of jobs, the highest fall in graduate recruitment since 2008/09. The ISE Student Recruitment Survey 2020 report, published in November 2020, indicated that employers anticipated more cuts in 2021.

Victoria McLean, founder and CEO of the careers consultancy City CV, says that the pandemic has also radically changed the way companies recruit, with almost every process moving online. “Basically, you’ve got to be prepared to make a herculean effort to stand out from the competition,” she says. “Companies are making much more use of social media, particularly LinkedIn, to share their postgraduate jobs. So it’s vital to have a professional LinkedIn profile that’s 100% complete as recruiters will use it as part of the screening process.”

Campus recruitment activities, such as careers fairs, interviews and assessment centres, have also moved online. “Some companies are adopting a blended approach, using video calls for initial interviews followed by face-to-face assessments. I expect this trend to continue even after the pandemic,” says McLean.

Anthony Tattersall, vice-president enterprise EMEA at Coursera, a course provider that works with universities and employers, says the current job market looks somewhat bleak. “According to the World Economic Forum’s latest report, hiring rates in the UK have suffered heavily. In the recreation and travel industry they were down by 23%, followed by the finance industry at 13% and consumer goods at 11%,” he says.

The only areas that were recruiting were the healthcare industry and retail, which both returned to growth in August, rising 18% and 1% respectively, according to the Future of Jobs report 2020. There has, however, been a surge of interest and demand in courses related to the burgeoning green revolution.

“We’ve experienced an increase of almost 800% in students enrolling for ‘green’ courses, such as renewable energy and green business strategy, compared with previous years,” Tattersall says.

Georgina Dick, an intern at ProjectSet, a social enterprise that helps students build employability skills, says it has seen increasing demand from employers with vested interest in environmental issues.

“The current hackathon we’re running has brought students and employers together to tackle global issues,” she says.

“Climate change was immediately selected as one of the key themes. The student groups and sponsors, including firms such as BT and Schneider Electric, are working to create innovative solutions to tackle environmental issues.”

There has also been a significant increase in demand for digital skills, especially website design, online branding and SEO, says Dick.

Ultimately, it’s about safe-guarding your career prospects, says Ball. “And postgraduates who want to future-proof their career need to look beyond their academic specialism.”



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