Postgraduates often need to take a job to pay the bills, but it’s best to find one that will help with study too. Harriet Swain considers the opportunities that can complement coursework and improve career prospects
It may seem more appealing to continue studying than get a job, but most postgraduates will find themselves at some point doing both. This isn’t just about boosting their incomes: there is also growing recognition that postgraduates need to prepare for life after study, and learning how to prove themselves in paid work is one of the best ways to do it.
Hail Rihan, who is studying for a PhD in biomedical and biological sciences at Plymouth University, worked last year as a resident assistant at a student hall of residence, and next year he will be a warden, with overall responsibility for the hall. Both these jobs come with free accommodation, saving him around £500 a month, and as warden he will earn £70 a week. He gets a further £15 or so a week earning £9 an hour as a demonstrator, supporting university teachers, and also works as an invigilator during exams.
“Working in the university is the best option, first because it’s well paid and secondly because it’s good experience,” Rihan says. “When I finish I want to be an academic, and working at university improves your experience of academic life.”
He says it can be stressful combining paid work with studying, especially for a PhD, but his work for the university is flexible and can help him with time management as it helps him structure his day.
He advises all postgraduates to look for a job – with one proviso: “They should also have other resources to fund their study,” he says. “It’s difficult to rely on [work] to pay all your living costs.”
Charlie Ball, deputy director of research at the Higher Education Careers Services Unit, warns that postgraduate study – particularly a one-year master’s – is far more intensive than an undergraduate degree, and students have to be extremely well organised to combine it with paid work, otherwise they risk falling behind with their studies.
“You are investing a lot of time, money and personal effort into this qualification, and many graduates are going to have a significant working life ahead of them,” Ball says. “Don’t jeopardise that by handing in important assignments late.”
Elizabeth Wilkinson, head of postgraduate career development at the University of Manchester, says it is vital to find work that will fit the peaks and troughs of academic life, and students need to think about how reliable they can be if they need to disappear regularly on field trips or work round the clock on a dissertation.
She says a good student job will be relevant to their academic work but also provide them with evidence that they are able to talk to non-academics – a skill especially useful for students not planning a career in academia. Even for students whose chief ambition is a professorship, being able to demonstrate a knack for public engagement and an ability to enthuse lay people about their subject is increasingly useful, Wilkinson says, “because that’s part of funding bids these days”.
Teaching work is ideal, so long as it is clear how many hours are being paid for and what is expected. Postgraduate teaching work is usually arranged informally within individual schools. But Wilkinson says smart students should also explore opportunities in other university departments – and even other universities. Some can also find other tutoring work locally.
Most universities have other opportunities too, such as working in administration, acting as a student ambassador or mentor, or organising conferences, which can provide a goldmine of contacts.
Study comes first
While the UK Border Agency restricts international students to up to 20 hours a week paid work during term-time, many universities have much tighter restrictions for full-time postgraduates of between 10 and 15 hours per week.
“It’s not a rule I have ever followed,” says Andy Irwin, president of Keele Postgraduate Association, who is studying for a one-year taught MA in political parties and elections. “But it is a rule I would encourage people to follow.”
Before being elected as a paid sabbatical officer in the students’ union, Irwin worked at a service station and a book shop. He says that because no loans are available for postgraduate study, and fees and living costs are rising, having more than one job on top of studying is common. He advises students to start looking for jobs well before term begins.
But Irwin insists that university work must come first. “If you find yourself doing more paid work than university work, you are doing something seriously wrong,” he says, arguing that neglecting university work is a waste of the money earned to spend on it.
And it is worth remembering that postgraduate life doesn’t last forever, he says. “If you have done a lot of things at university, and have decent grades, you will be in a good position to approach your career in future.”
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