Careers for Graduates

See also: Personal Development

Search ‘graduate careers’ or ‘careers for graduates’, and you will be presented with a long list of websites allowing you to search for jobs. However, what exactly do we mean by a ‘graduate career’, and is it the same as a job that requires a degree?

Some roles certainly require the specialist knowledge that can only be gained by studying a subject for three or more years: many engineering jobs, for example, or a training post in medicine or nursing. However, in other cases, the reasons for specifying that only graduates can apply are less clear, especially when there are no specific subject requirements.

This page discusses the career options for graduates, particularly new graduates, and what you might do when you leave university with a degree. It will help you understand the difference between jobs and careers that require a degree, and those that are simply open to graduates.

Graduate Careers: Some Definitions

The UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) drew on a definition from the University of Warwick to define graduate jobs as:

“…those occupations identified that “normally require knowledge and skills developed on a three-year university degree to enable them to perform the associated tasks competently” .”

The ONS then used this definition to separate jobs into ‘graduate’ and ‘non-graduate’ jobs. It has also suggested that at any time, around half of graduates are working in jobs defined as ‘non-graduate jobs’.

However, which jobs are considered suitable for graduates and non-graduates might surprise some people—not least those doing the jobs or responsible for them (see box).

Graduate job—or not?

Using the definition from the University of Warwick, the UK’s Office of National Statistics (ONS) has defined 37% of all jobs as ‘graduate jobs’.

However, there are some anomalies when you look at the list of specific jobs defined by ONS as ‘graduate’ and ‘non-graduate’. For example, paramedic work is defined as a ‘non-graduate job’. However, the Health and Care Professions Council insists that anyone working as a paramedic in the UK must have a degree from a recognised higher education institution—which certainly sounds like a graduate job.

Additionally, sometimes experience may substitute for a degree: those with experience but no degree may be recruited into posts that are nominally considered ‘graduate roles’.

Ultimately, therefore, there is no hard and fast rule about what we mean by a ‘graduate job’.

For the purposes of this page, it seems reasonable to take as a starting point that ‘graduate jobs’ are permanent jobs for people leaving university with a degree. Unpicking this definition, it means that these roles are specifically targeted at graduates who wish to work in a particular career or profession in the long-term.

They are likely to require at least some skills that have been gained from the additional three or more years of study.  There may also be some formal training or personal development involved, especially if the role is part of a ‘graduate scheme’ (see box), but this is not guaranteed. Some graduate jobs simply require a degree, and then expect the successful candidate to start work and contribute to the organisation, without further formal training. These jobs use the requirement for a degree as a way to ensure that they recruit people with the skills that you gain at university, such as being able to work independently, carry out research, and work with other people.

What is a graduate scheme?

“A time-limited training programme, usually lasting one to three years. It’s the employer’s template for producing an appropriately qualified professional.”

“A structured training programme run by an employer to develop the next generation of talent for their organisation.”

Graduate schemes tend to be more competitive than graduate jobs. However, the rewards are often greater too, with higher pay, better training and development, and better job prospects. However, the downside is that if you ‘fail’ your training programme, you will lose your job. Some schemes also do not guarantee a job at the end.

Graduate jobs may therefore require less commitment from the candidate than a formal graduate scheme. The responsibilities will vary depending on the organisation and the candidate’s experience, skills and knowledge.

Graduate job vs. internship: what’s the difference?

We have talked about graduate jobs and graduate schemes—but where do internships fit in?

Internships are defined as time-limited opportunities to work within a company and gain work experience. They usually last between one and six months. They are generally open to both graduates and students, and some may be open to anyone.

They are generally seen as a way to gain valuable work experience within a relevant sector. They may also be a way for the organisation to assess candidates for jobs—a six-month live interview, if you like.

Are internships paid? Some are, some aren’t.

In the UK, internships are now generally paid—even if only at minimum wage, because the government considers that anyone working should be paid. It is also widely recognised that few people can afford to work for several months without pay.

Classifying Graduate Jobs

Some authorities suggest that there are four different types of graduate jobs: traditional, modern, new and niche:

  • Traditional graduate jobs are those in long-established professions such as law, architecture, and medicine. It is more or less impossible to get a job as a professional in these fields without a degree. You cannot, for example, expect to work as a receptionist in a healthcare clinic, even for many years, and then apply for a job as a doctor or nurse. You would need to undergo training and obtain a professional qualification before that was possible.

  • Modern graduate jobs developed in new fields in the 1960s, following the expansion of higher education. They are in fields like management, journalism and IT. Here, a degree is helpful, but not absolutely required, and experience may be a suitable substitute.

  • New graduate jobs have developed over the last 10 to 20 years at most. They may not absolutely require a degree, but a degree is often a shortcut to more success. Fields like this include sales, marketing and management—although some of these will also have modern graduate jobs as well.

  • Niche graduate jobs are found in fields where most people are not graduates, but a few employees in each organisation will be graduates. Examples include sports management and retail management.

There is inevitably some overlap between fields and definitions here. However, it may be a helpful way of considering graduate jobs.

A Good Graduate Job

If it is hard enough to define a graduate job, how can we separate out the good from the bad? Actually, that is probably rather more straightforward.

A graduate job is one that requires you to have a degree. However, when you are looking for a good graduate job, there are several aspects to consider.

You may want to ask about these at interview if you cannot find the information elsewhere. They include:

  1. A competitive salary

    Salaries vary with location, type of job, and field.

    However, graduate jobs generally pay a premium over non-graduate jobs (a survey in 2020 suggested around 23% more). They also generally pay a salary, rather than a per-hour rate.

    If you don’t know what counts as ‘competitive’, it may be worth asking a few recent graduates of your acquaintance who are working in similar fields. This will ensure that you don’t undervalue yourself, especially if you are asked about your salary expectations.

  2. Opportunities to develop and progress

    Some companies want to recruit graduates because they perceive them as ‘better’ than school leavers, for whatever reason, or because it gives them a way to limit the number of people applying. These are not really ‘graduate’ roles.

    A good graduate job should give you clear opportunities to develop your skills, either through training and qualifications, or by learning on the job from more senior people. It should also show you a reasonably clear career path within the organisation or the field.

    For example, if there is nobody in the hierarchy between you and the senior managers, and they are all in their 40s or 50s, you know that there is no space to progress for 20 years or more. You would have to leave the organisation to do so. What, then, does the organisation have in mind for you to do in the meantime?

    It is also worth thinking about whether the role will give you a chance to move around and experience other areas within the organisation. Is the organisation open to you moving from, say, sales into marketing? This is often easier in large organisations.

  3. Opportunities to use your knowledge

    One very obvious way to identify whether a job genuinely requires a degree is to ask about the opportunities to use the knowledge that you gained at university.

    This will not necessarily apply to every role, especially if no specific degree subjects were required. However, the answer may surprise you. For example, pharmaceutical companies may prefer to recruit life science graduates into non-technical roles like sales, because they will be better able to understand the products that they are selling, and communicate more effectively with their clients in healthcare. Some organisations will also be clearer about how the skills you acquire at university are relevant to the role.

  4. Other perks and benefits

    It is worth considering what other perks and benefits matter to you—and looking for a role that will supply them.

    For example, do you want more paid annual leave? Alternatively, you might want a role that does not expect weekend working—or you might be happy to work at weekends provided you get paid more. You may want to work for a company or organisation that employs lots of graduates, so you have a ready-made support network—or you may prefer to be a trailblazer so that you stand out more. All these aspects are worth considering.

Identifying the Right Graduate Job

The real question for any graduate, of course, is not so much ‘What is a graduate job?’, but ‘How do I find the right graduate job for me and then get it?’.

This is not a straightforward process, and you should expect it to take a while. Some people have a very clear idea of what they want to do in life—but many others do not. If you have to try several careers or professions before you find your niche, so be it. Our pages on Careers in Specific Sectors may provide some pointers.

It is also important to remember that you change over time. What is right for you at 21 years old may not be right for you 10, 20 or 30 years later. We can all expect to spend a good 40 to 50 years working now, if not more. Flexibility is essential. Indeed, perhaps the most important attribute is an acceptance that careers are now ‘squiggly’ rather than following an obvious ‘ladder’—and for more about this concept, and the skills required to navigate squiggly careers, you may want to look at our page on Career Management Skills.