Today’s chemistry graduates could find that those with an extra year of study under their belts are landing the best opportunities. Helen Carmichael reports

Tasnim Munshi, director of undergraduate admissions and an inorganic chemistry lecturer at the University of Bradford, UK, is unequivocal: having a master’s qualification improves employability over a bachelor’s degree. ‘Most graduates now have an MChem. And to compete with European students who do a longer degree, again most have master’s level qualifications,’ he says.

This extra year has increasingly become the norm, rather than serving as icing on the academic cake. Gaining a master’s instead of going straight into work can aid career progression, Munshi believes, and is increasingly expected as a gateway to PhD entry, too. ‘10 or 12 years ago most supervisors would accept a student with a BSc,’ he explains. But in an environment where ‘everyone’ has picked up an MChem or MSc, ‘we would not employ a PhD student without this as an MChem student will usually have done a longer practical based project’.

Data from the UK Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) indicate that participation in master’s level science programmes is increasing, albeit with a slight dip in numbers (and a smaller proportion of overseas students than previously) in the 2011–2012 academic year. Chemistry students follow this trend, and at least half of those studying chemistry at this level are non-UK students.

Many students study for an undergraduate master’s (MChem), but a postgraduate course can be an opportunity to specialise or study a different area. Graduates certain that they would like to progress to a PhD should choose a research-based master’s. But to keep your options open, or if the next career move is onto the job ladder, a taught course may be more appropriate. ‘Do not be too focused, make sure it is practical and hands-on, and that you do an individual project,’ Munshi advises.

A sound investment?

Return on investment – both in terms of time and money – is a key consideration when embarking on a further year of study. Postgraduates – with the exception of those in teacher training and a few eligible courses in Scotland – don’t qualify for student loans. Master’s students doing vocational courses may qualify for career development loans, but these generally have high interest charges, and paying them back cannot be deferred.

The latest data from Universities UK shows that around one fifth (18%) of higher education students in the UK are on taught postgraduate courses. Despite making up a decent chunk of the student population, data on how postgraduates on taught courses fund their studies is patchy, and there is no data to show how science students, in particular, fare. But the hope is that improved job prospects after graduation will make investing in a master’s worthwhile: ‘Research by the London School of Economics suggests that the wage premium for those holding a master’s level qualification is (on average) around 15%,’ according to Universities UK, which is currently carrying out its own research on postgraduate taught (PGT) employability. The study will look in more detail at the value that employers place on PGT qualifications, and is scheduled for publication later in 2013. 

Research studentships are available at many chemistry departments, and the postgraduate studentship web site is a good place to start the search for a funded place. For instance, the University of Southampton offers MSc studentships in synthetic organic chemistry, with the opportunity to take part in collaborative European research with an industrial focus. Nottingham Trent University has scholarships and bursaries available in master’s subjects including biosciences, chemistry and forensic science. And for students interested in molecular organisation, the University of Warwick offers a combined MSc to PhD programme, with some funded spots currently available.

For those about to pursue postgraduate studies in education to enter teaching, don’t forget that the RSC offers scholarships worth £20,000 for the 2013–14 year.