This week in amongst all the usual madness that is the current workplace, I was astonished and rather thrilled to receive an email from Emerald Publishing/EFMD announcing the 2020 winners for their Outstanding Doctoral Research Award (ODRA). My doctorate has actually won Outstanding Doctoral Research Award of 2020 in its category of Human Resource Management.
ODRA is a joint doctoral research award co-run by Emerald Group Publishing Ltd and EFMD, and focuses on significance for theory and practice; originality; methodology; and quality of data. It is an international award, so this is a great honour.
The thesis is entitled: ‘The experiences and responses of business graduates to employer selection mechanisms’. It is an in-depth case study that tells the story of the journey graduates have to make to secure work.
The thesis draws on the experiences of Pearson Business School graduates and investigates over 1800 job applications and 200 examples of selection activities such as teamwork exercises and role-plays. One of my main findings was just how tough this journey has become since I first graduated. It was a world I did not recognise.
I would like to thank Emerald/EFMD for supporting this wonderful award and the many people who helped me including all the lecturers and support staff on the DBA programme at the University of Bath, and my examiners who suggested I apply for ODRA. But I would especially like to thank my supervisor Dr Rajani Naidoo, my research assistant Rowena Lennon, my family, and the 47 graduates from Pearson Business School who so generously shared their time and experiences.
Here I am in my fancy Doctor’s hat and you can read about the findings in this blog
Last week universities in the UK saw the results of the very first Graduate Outcomes survey. This is a brand new way of measuring employment outcomes for graduates. It replaces the older DLHE survey (destinations of leavers of higher education), and includes similar questions about the number of graduates from each institution in full-time employment and how many are in highly skilled jobs.
As you can tell from the title of this post I am rather pleased at the results at our institution. I’d like to share these with you, and the reasons why I think they are so strong.
The results of Graduate Outcomes
The results place us in the top 5% of all higher education institutions in the country for the number of graduates in full-time work – that’s in the top 20 out of over 300 institutions. Even more interesting is that 89% of them were in highly skilled employment*.
This builds on our previous two years of official data, both of which also showed a high percentage in highly skilled work (over 80%), significantly above the official benchmark. It’s worth comparing these figures to the Graduate Labour Market Statistics report, which I explored in an earlier post, the most recent of which shows only 57% of graduates in highly skilled work. So that’s three years of data all of which say the same thing: our graduates end up in highly skilled jobs.
So why has this happened? Is this just a lucky coincidence? I’d like to think not. Because the strategic approach we have taken has been evidence based from the outset.
The research evidence on how to improve graduate outcomes
When PCL was first founded, we wanted to make the most of the fact that we were embedded within a FTSE 100 company – the first higher education institution of its kind. We wanted to take the academic and business heritage of our parent company and somehow translate that into benefits for our students.
From the start I was keen that we mix academic study and live interaction with business into the student experience.
But first we had to find out what sort of collaboration with employers was most effective. What did the research show? Most of the time when you start a new project in a big global company, and need lots of investment, you present a lot of “market research” about the size of the market and likely demand. But for me, the most important research was around what was the most effective way of using employer relationships. In other words, what was likely to increase the chances of our graduates getting jobs?
So we took a deep dive into the published research to see what we could find. There are a lot of studies on “employability”. I mean a lot. I have personally read well over a hundred papers on this, as it was all relevant for my doctoral research.
I can report that there are many theories and frameworks, and lots of “best practice” advice. One common approach is to build “employability skills” into the learning outcomes within the degree, making sure tutors teach these across all subjects. Another is to have a central careers service where students can go for advice. Another is to create an “employability programme” that is taught alongside but separate from the academic modules. The effectiveness of these initiatives is typically assessed by surveying students on whether they feel their employability has improved.
Employability is taken very seriously by most universities, and considerable effort is expended in designing programmes. But the problem is that it’s not clear that much of this works. Does any of it lead to better employment rates? Or is it just “employability noise”?
As I dug deeper into the research – wading past the latest employability frameworks and the never-ending skills surveys – I did find manage to unearth some evidence on what actually works. And what I found was a number of studies that showed that internships and work-experience were linked to better employment stats; that direct engagement with employers even in an informal unstructured way helps; and that formally designed employability skills programmes did not seem to be very effective. There is a growing number of journal articles that doubt whether employability can be developed in the university classroom.
Instead, the evidence suggests that students need to go outside the classroom and link directly with employers to develop not only the skills but also the contacts, networks, experience and confidence to really impact their employment chances and graduate outcomes.
Employers as a living learning resource
It was on the basis of this evidence that we developed our particular approach to graduate employment. Of course, the academic side of the university experience is central. Students are studying for a degree after all, and that means intellectual effort and in-depth academic study.
But we also wanted to invite employers to become part of our community and engage with us and our students directly. They are the experts on employment. Not us. They are the decision-makers on graduate jobs. Not us.
We have grown to regard employers as a living learning resource. They bring a different type of expertise into the student experience. From the very start we have engaged employers with the design of all our degrees and in creating a whole range of informal and optional activities students can participate in.
Our creative industries degrees have been designed with a studio-pedagogy that we piloted with Visual FX companies and students before we even validated the degrees. In our business school we guarantee internships for students who participate in our internship scheme – that’s how important we think internships are.
Even during lockdown we have had employer engagement and talent development activities every single week.
The research shows that direct employer engagement is key. We have found most employers – whether global corporates or tiny start ups – are very willing to be involved in some way. Many are genuinely interested in education and generous with their time. And each engagement, however small, is a little bit of gold dust for our students.
Curiously, there’s even evidence that such engagement can also improve academic results.
We started with this approach with a theory: direct employer interaction should give our students a boost. Students still have to proactively engage to make the most of it (not all of them do!), but if they participate it should improve their prospects. It’s our job to create this “landscape of practice” or academic-employer ecosystem in which, if they choose to, they can thrive.
Well it seems it is working.
We are a boutique institution so the numbers are always quite small, and statistics can always change year on year especially as the labour market changes. Nevertheless after three years of excellent results it suggests this is a valid approach. We have even been granted our very first research funding to explore how students and employers exchange knowledge and understanding. Our findings will be shared and go on to become part of the research literature for others.
One of my deep concerns is the increasingly processed lifestyle we can all find ourselves leading. Processed food dominates our supermarkets. Processed relationships based on “likes” and “followers” abound. The bureaucratisation of degrees with their “learning outcomes”, “summative assessment points” and “marking criteria” means we have an increasingly processed higher education.
Sometimes you have to step out of the artificial environment and into the real world and truly engage with what’s there, warts and all. It’s fun, alarming and challenging. And it looks like it is also rewarding.
* HESA uses rounding protocols so percentages may not be 100% accurate. This is a new approach and data is still emerging. See the HESA website for more information on Graduate Outcomes and differences to DLHE.
A little light referencing
Mason shows direct employer engagement and/or work experience help with employment, but that teaching employability skills in the classroom, building it into learning outcomes, and other indirect methods are a waste of time and resource: Geoff Mason, Gareth Williams & Sue Cranmer (2009) Employability skills initiatives in higher education: what effects do they have on graduate labour market outcomes?, Education Economics, 17:1, 1-30
Cranmer reports on the discouraging results of a HEFCE study on the impact of teaching and learning initiatives for employability: Cranmer, S. (2006) ‘Enhancing graduate employability: best intentions and mixed outcomes’, Studies in Higher Education. Routledge, 31(2), pp. 169–184.
Tymon provides evidence that students see work placements as crucial but embedded employability classroom teaching as pointless: Alex Tymon (2013) The student perspective on employability, Studies in Higher Education, 38:6, 841-856
Harvey argues there is no evidence for university teaching of employability having a causal link with employment: Lee Harvey (2001) Defining and Measuring Employability, Quality in Higher Education, 7:2, 97-109
Jackson shows a surprisingly small impact of skills teaching on job market outcomes (and see my blog post on more about this very large study): Jackson, D. Factors influencing job attainment in recent Bachelor graduates: evidence from Australia. High Educ68, 135–153 (2014). She also coined the phrase “landscape of practice” in this context.
Binder finds a positive association of internships and with improved academic results: Binder, J. F. et al. (2015) ‘The academic value of internships: Benefits across disciplines and student backgrounds’, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 41, pp. 73–82.
For some of the key employability frameworks see:
Yorke’s USEM model that combines understanding, skill, efficacy, and meta-cognition: Yorke, M. and Knight, P. T. (2006) Embedding employability into the curriculum, Learning & Employability – Series One. The Higher Education Academy. Available at:
Clarke’s six dimensional framework: Clarke, M. (2017) ‘Rethinking graduate employability: the role of capital, individual attributes and context’, Studies in Higher Education. Routledge, pp. 1–15.
Tomlinson’s five capitals model: Tomlinson, M. (2017), “Forms of graduate capital and their relationship to graduate employability”, Education + Training, Vol. 59 No. 4, pp. 338-352.
Donald’s Career Ecosystem Theory: Donald, W.E., Ashleigh, M.J. and Baruch, Y. (2018), “Students’ perceptions of education and employability: Facilitating career transition from higher education into the labor market”, Career Development International, Vol. 23 No. 5, pp. 513-540.
I’ve just read a charming little book called The Graduate Student as Writer. Shuyi Chua makes a great argument for a simple concept: As a uni student, see yourself as a writer, a presenter and an innovator. And see every university assignment you write as a potential publishing opportunity.
Stop thinking about your assignment as a boring “must do, minimum do” chore and start making it real.
By that I mean sharing some interesting aspect of it with the wider world. Use it to make real connections, and a real contribution. Take it outside the classroom and make it matter.
You’ve got to write it anyway, right? So why not learn from any feedback, make it absolutely the best you can, and see if you can use it to both build your own professional reputation and to benefit others. Perhaps it’s got promise as an article for a newspaper or a specialist magazine, or as a post on LinkedIn. Maybe you could turn it into an innovative proposal to your boss about your workplace, or your Dean about your school. You could use it as the basis of a guest post on a relevant blog. It could become an article published in an academic journal. You could team up with some other good writers in your class or one of the teachers to make that happen. Or maybe you could present it at a conference or event.
Recently I took great pleasure in presenting at PBS’s first academic conference, sharing some of my own research on the university-to-work transition of business graduates. We had presentations from other academics and a keynote from one of our employer partners, but I was also delighted to share the platform with several presentations by brand new graduates. A small number had been selected to present their final dissertation at the conference and each piece was totally original.
Two tackled ethical issues in luxury goods, including the potential for lab grown diamonds to become an environmentally friendly alternative to mined diamonds. Diversity issues were investigated in one paper on military recruitment campaigns, and another on venture capitalism. Both argued that current approaches had a strong gender bias. Several explored issues in the use of AI in healthcare, the property market and sales, and another analysed value chain theory in the context of start ups.
They each used original research, theory and literature reviews. They identified issues, proposed solutions and promoted change. The topics may have started in the classroom, but they were turned outwards to intersect with real issues in society. They were each entirely original and unique.
These examples were all based on final year projects, but I propose that any university assignment would be of much greater value to you used in something real rather than just as a source of grades.
Many companies are really interested in finding out about Generation Z (or is it Gen AA by now?). Frankly, you’re a mystery to them! And they want to understand more about your take on the world, what you can do, and what you care about. I saw an example of this recently at our own institution where are a small number of students were included in “C-suite” round table debates on future global trends in business. This was with the global network business, Winmark, and culminated in a report available to all on the research pages of their website. The students’ perspective and insights really mattered in that discussion.
Chua writes with great enthusiasm from the viewpoint of a post-grad student. But the logic applies just as well to undergrads. I’ve been fascinated to see a growing number of my final year business undergrads get their dissertations published in academic journals. They’ve even gone on to present at conferences all over the world: Russia, Brazil, Paris and even at Harvard (Note to self – what a great T-shirt idea for our students).
So don’t think that because you’re an undergrad that means no one would be interested in what you have to say. It all depends on the quality and originality of your work. And as a student a big plus is that you have amazing resources available to help you – especially your teachers and fellow students.
It doesn’t have to be an academic article. It could be any form of business or professional writing or presentation. I’m not suggesting you just upload your actual assignment as is. You’ll need to think about the format and make changes to suit the audience. But your assignment can be your own original starting point. Capitalise on all that research, learning and thinking and use the opportunity to make something real.
In case you’re wondering: C-suite refers to the highest level executives in an organisation. The Chiefs – Chief Innovation Officer, Chief Legal Officer and so on. A roundtable is a type of discussion forum often used in business. It tends to be a smallish group so everyone can speak. The aim is to have an open and exploratory discussion on a given issue. Very different to a board meeting with its formal agenda. Everyone is equal – a la King Arthur’s round table. It’s a compliment to be asked to participate as it means people are interested in your opinion on a challenging topic.
Could the way you cope with Covid 19 help you become a better job-hunter in 2020 and beyond?
Whether you’re a student, a recent graduate or a job-hunter, this post reflects on ways you could use this difficult year to prepare for future job applications.
I have spent the last few years researching how people get jobs – especially recent graduates early in their careers. What exactly do job applicants have to prove to an employer to get a job offer? What “tests” do employers use to make hiring decisions when choosing between competing candidates?
As part of my research I’ve recently analysed over 1800 job application experiences and one of the strongest themes that stands out is the need to cope with the unexpected. Employers frequently and quite deliberately put job applicants under pressure with unexpected situations to gauge their reaction and get an authentic idea of what they would be like to work with.
The recent Covid 19 crisis has highlighted the defining role that uncertainty and change plays in all aspects of our lives, including our careers. The ability to adapt to change and cope with the unexpected has become a crucial professional skill. Pre-Covid it was already much sought by employers, as my research findings show. Post-Covid it will be even more important.
The secret code to job-hunting success – then and now
When I left university and applied for jobs the process was pretty standard: submit your CV, attend an interview, then a second interview, then a job offer or a rejection. It wasn’t till I undertook this research that I realised just how much the job-hunting world had changed – especially for those embarking on their career.
Back then the secret code to success was simple: dress smart, speak confidently in the interview, and have no typos in your CV or covering letter. Then choose from among your multiple job offers.
Well we’re not in Kansas any more, Toto.
These days graduates have to navigate batteries of online tests and games, semi-automated video interviews with disembodied heads and aggressive countdown clocks, teamwork exercises where you pretend to collaborate while secretly hoping to out-compete your team mates, role plays where you act out unfamiliar corporate scenarios, and presentations where interviewers might suddenly interrupt you with chunks of data that you’re expected to incorporate within minutes. You could also be invited for “coffee” “drinks” “lunch” or even “dinner” – and woe betide anyone who relaxes and thinks these social events are not part of the process.
“Not all tests are announced, and not all are what they seem to be”
Lt Chang to the applicants for Star Fleet Academy, circa 2372, Star Trek, The Next Generation
In many ways the job application process with its multiple testing points has become the final examination for the university experience. But unlike at university “marking criteria” is rarely given, and you may or may not get feedback. You may not even be told you’ve been unsuccessful, but left hanging. Maybe for a year. Maybe forever. Most of the job application “tests” are not explained in advance, certainly not in any detail, and even if some details are given they might be changed on the day.
Now this is not to criticise employers. They have a tough gig. They have thousands of applications from people all with limited work experience and degrees that can look pretty similar. So employers have come up with their own tests. I was surprised at how many different types of selection activities were used, how creative they could be, and how much time and care they took to administer.
So what is the secret code to success for the contemporary graduate job-hunter? From the numerous examples shared by the research participants there is one top thing that stands out:
Thrive on the unexpected.
The old code still applies: dress to suit the company, speak confidently, no typos, be on time, and if you have to attend a “social” event don’t spill food down your shirt. That might be enough to land you some jobs. But lots of job applications throw in other sorts of activities. At a moments notice.
Job-hunting and the unexpected
Some of the research participants reported being told to prepare a specific presentation, but when they got to the interview the employer changed the topic. Others were told there’d be a presentation but then there wasn’t. Others were only told on the day they needed to give a presentation – perhaps after being handed a wodge of data to quickly read, analyse and include.
Role plays were also often used as a creative way of testing applicants – mainly as a surprise improvisation announced on the day.
This participant describes how she was given only a few minutes to read 20 pages of information on the company’s values and staff processes:
“and then they take you into the room for the role-play and … one of their employees just kind of slumps in a chair,… they must be like thirty or forty, but they’re acting like a teenager… so you walk in and there’s this moody teenager and you basically needed to have memorised all their values and understand exactly what they want from their … disciplinary process … and they tell you [that] you need to discipline this colleague.“
Carol, a recent graduate describing her application experience for a formal graduate scheme with a global company.
In this example, the role play went disastrously. Carol was meant to find out about the pretend-employee’s emotional issues and help them, but instead she played it tough and fired him!
She was even rather pleased with herself – until the employer explained she hadn’t understood their company values at all:
“In my feedback they were ‘you were way too harsh, we would never do that to anyone’ and they were ‘in this company we always think about people’“
Carol. She did not get the job.
In another example Evan didn’t even realise he was in the middle of a role play, but thought it was a genuine interview. He described a particularly aggressive interaction with an employer. It was so awful that he had privately decided he did not want to work for this company after all, until the employer later explained he was role playing being a difficult customer just to test Evan’s reaction. Evan was offered the job – and accepted.
There were also examples of the reverse ie role plays that were not really role plays at all but actually the real thing.
Brian explains how he had to call potential clients and get some genuine sign-ons – while being observed by the employer and taking on feedback throughout the exercise:
Brian: He brought me in to the office [for] a test day where they put you on the phones. They’ll bring up a list of [potential candidates] and get you to call them. They give you a [list] of all the information that you need to get from this person and, I mean, pretty much if you don’t get [any sign ons] then you haven’t got the role;
Me: And this [manager] guy is watching you?
Brian: Yeah, I mean… there is one managing director, two directors, and three senior managers. Any one of them would be listening from anywhere in the office and once you’ve finished the call they’ll come up and tell you, you know, what you can do better, what went well, and then see if you apply it to the next call
Brian; a recent graduate applying for a job in a recruitment agency. He got some sign ons – and he got the job.
Why employers use the unexpected
This last example highlights an important point: job selection activities are ultimately about real life. Employers are trying to figure out what you’d be like to work with in a real workplace. They’re not that interested in the grade you got in a neatly laid out, well-organised and thoughtfully curated university experience.
What they really need to know is what you will be like as a team member in an unpredictable modern workplace, dominated by rapid change, pressure, and daily unexpected developments.
The certainty of university
The problem for graduates is that while at university this sense of the unexpected can be diluted. Universities are expected to lay out everything in advance: term dates, assessment dates, and they are absolutely expected to say what the assessment will be, what the criteria will be, and help students achieve that criteria. Pretty much everyone is expected to pass and most get good grade.
Yet the moment graduates walk out the door of the university the world changes: there is no clear path with set activities and distinct milestones, but a jumble of improvisations in the face of constant change.
In physics the second law of thermodynamics tells us that we live in a world of ever increasing entropy. It means that the whole universe is moving relentlessly towards increased chaos and disorder.
As humans we create little worlds of temporary faux order – and the campus based university is one of them. We are indeed in our ivory towers. And we build little ivory villages for our undergraduates to live in.
The certainty illusion
But Covid has shown us what has always been true: certainty is – and always has been – an illusion.
The response to Covid has compelled us to cast aside all our plans and make dramatic changes within an incredibly short time. And more change is inevitable, including:
Job-hunting will change – it will get more competitive and more of the recruitment and selection will be done online.
Businesses will change – employers will urgently need people who can pivot between the virtual and physical worlds, who can be entrepreneurial in the face of the unknown, and who can move rapidly (and cheerfully) in response to change.
The economy will change – slowing down and quite possibly going into recession which always impacts employment rates. It could become very tough for job-hunters for traditional jobs. But in my view there may be a real opportunity for entrepreneurs. We are looking at a different world now and that means innovation and new perspectives are needed. Work out how you can thrive in that environment and you could do very well.
How can you respond constructively to this situation, and prepare for the next stage in your career?
We all have extraordinary circumstances thrust upon us in life, and it’s up to us to do the best with them
Box Brown, multi award winning Cartoonist
The summer of 2020
For students, recent graduates, and anyone who thinks they’ll be job-hunting in the next couple of years, this summer is a chance to prove your ability to adapt and pivot. This creates a narrative for employers in your not too distant job interviews, but more importantly proves to yourself: You can succeed in this environment. You can adapt. You can contribute.
The fact is the economy is taking a battering and all job-hunting will get tougher. So you need to muster every advantage you can.
And I’m not talking here about grades. In the UK the rising movement of university “safety nets” in response to Covid means many students’ grades will be prevented from dropping during this time (pity we can’t apply that to the stock exchange, small businesses, or indeed any other aspect of life… but that’s the ivory village for you). This means that grades may become less meaningful to employers. Indeed, my research results showed a notable lack of interest in grades even pre-Covid.
Instead employers are likely to be far more interested in how you coped with the current situation, and therefore whether you will be able to help them cope in the future.
5 ideas to develop your job-hunting potential this summer
So here are some thoughts about five ways you could muster your strengths, improve your job-hunting prospects, and demonstrate to yourself and others that you can thrive on the unexpected, and help others to thrive as well:
Prove your adaptability – identify the toughest aspects of what you’re personally experiencing in your professional/study life, and jot down some reflections about how you’re adapting. No matter how overwhelmed you might sometimes feel you are adapting every day. It might be some comfort to remember that the tougher the situation and the more you pivot the better an example it will make in future interviews.
Contribute – this is really big. I can’t imagine anything more appealing than a candidate who can give concrete examples of how they helped others in this crisis. This could be through volunteering, but perhaps even more relevantly through how you helped your classmates, colleagues, institution, or tutors, or total strangers via a specific project. Or maybe your local business community, or your own employer. If you have a job of any sort and helped your employer or customers adapt in some way – that would be super brilliant.
Go all entrepreneurial – this is a great time to experiment with building an online business of some kind. Entrepreneurialism at its heart is about understanding people and solving their problems. There’s a lot of scope for that at the moment. And you may well have more time than normal to focus on a business idea. You could also do this in collaboration with others. If it works then you could graduate with a degree and a business. And if it doesn’t work the experience you’d be able to share in future interviews could be invaluable.
Check your online persona – How do you come across online? Use the summer to consider your own digital body language from a professional perspective, and try and get feedback from others you trust professionally. Job applications and interviews are increasingly done online, and this trend will only continue. So how do you come across on camera? Get your whole head into the centre of the shot, get rid of any weird tics you may have like scratching your face or staring at the ceiling, make good eye contact, become attuned to the virtual presence of others so you can join in the discussion while also including other people. Think about dress, colour and backgrounds – these will all say something about you. And make sure you’re able to use any of the different collaboration platforms, however irritating they may be.
Harden up your assets – learn one specific new digital skill this summer. Don’t shy away because it’s hard. Instead, deliberately choose a difficult one. This tactic will only be an advantage if it’s something not everyone can do. Make the effort to learn it in depth, how to use it practically, and work up some examples of your work. Choose something concrete that lots of businesses need and of practical use: eg building an app, Python programming, data science, statistics and data analysis, project management, creating a film, creating computer graphics, learning animation, designing a website, or becoming an Excel super user. There’s loads more.
This is not about qualifications – it’s about making sure you know how to do something that not everyone else can do.
This is a disconcerting time for everyone, and for some it is extremely tough. I make no comment on people’s personal lives other than to applaud and encourage all who are simply managing to cope with their own situation. Coping is all that is needed. Coping is all.
But for university students, graduates and job-hunters it is possible to make something of the current situation. It is a chance to reflect on how you can cope when the chips are down. It is a chance to reach out to help others and be able to seek and accept help when you need it. It is a chance to extend your professional abilities and experiences.
From a career perspective no matter how difficult the circumstances there are always opportunities to learn and develop. In fact, the tougher the situation the steeper the learning curve, and learning itself is one of the great joys of life.
Who knows, this period of crisis and uncertainty may turn out to be the deepest learning experience you have during your university years.
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Do you want to be an innovator and a game changer? Is your role about driving change in your business? Are you an entrepreneur or an intrapreneur with an innovation project to kick off? You can’t do it alone. No matter how great your ideas, innovation is fundamentally a collaborative exercise- involving you, your fellow employees and your customers. But how can you figure out if they are with you?
Before you get started you might need to check one important thing. Is there an elephant in the room? Is it possible that behind the innovation hype your company is not that interested in actually changing? I mean tangible, practical change, not just words, not just committees.
I have my own original Dr Rox test for taking the corporate pulse:
Can you get your office painted blue?
When I first started with my current employer, my role was to build a learning community that would one day become a university. This is a pretty amazing opportunity as it is a chance to build something really different in the university space. This would be modern, embedded in a global company, and with great opportunities to work with both employers and academics across the globe. Degree students studying business from within a global business? That’s cool. I would often say that I had the best job in higher education in the UK.
But then I had to think about where to start. And as I got to know the place it dawned on me this was going to be tough. My company worked with schools and universities all over the world. But it worked with the institutions. It wasn’t used to having its own students, or its own teachers. The publishing division, which was huge and arguably the best in the world, thought textbooks were the centre of the student experience. But I had seen the tonnes of textbooks (literally tonnes – so heavy they had to be moved about on pallets) cleared out of student lockers at the end of term – never read, never even opened, pristine. There’s a lot more to the reality of study than the books.
In other words, the whole culture of my new employer, the ways of working, the systems and processes, the language, the regulation and even the understanding of clients was completely different to what would be needed for my project. And why wouldn’t it be? The whole point was to start something new. This was entrepreneurship inside a big established company – or intrapreneurship as it is now called.
So I decided to start with a little test. Could I get something done that no one else had done and get it through? Not a meeting, or a process, but actually make it happen.
As I looked around the offices with their long white corridors and grey carpet, I thought “Yup, it’s time for the blue room test”. Without requesting anyone’s permission, I asked facilities to repaint my office my favourite shade of blue. Yes I would pay for it out of my budget, and put that through the system. But even so would it actually happen? Or from somewhere would I hear those dreaded words “computer says no”.
I’m glad to say my new employer passed the test. And they’ve gone on to agree to create a new separate legal entity for the university (whaat?), establish it as a non-profit (whaaat?), allow a very long term plan (whaaaat?), create classrooms inside their own central London buildings (whaaaaat?) and provide mentors, internships, and industry days for our students (OK that’s easier – relax).
Most of these things are pretty radical inside a FTSE 100, and it shows that there really is the possibility for change and innovation.
But it all started with the blue room. It became well known – literally the only office in a ten floor building that wasn’t white. When I told people where to find me I’d start to say “the blue room” and they’d say “of yeah, I know it” (An interesting little side lesson in the effectiveness of a readily visible USP if you need to stand out from the crowd).
I remember a senior HR director, a lovely old chap called Brian, saying to me , “How did you get your office painted blue?”
“Oh facilities did it for me.” I said.
Brian was perplexed. “But I mean, how did you get it done?”
“Well I contacted facilities and told them what I wanted and they did it.” I explained.
Brian said, “But I didn’t know you could even get your office painted blue.”
“Well I don’t know if you could get it painted blue,” I answered, “But I sure know if I can’t get an office painted blue there’s no way on earth I’ll ever be able to build a university”.
And I stand by that.
And it wasn’t just any old blue by the way. It was my favourite – Farrow and Ball’s Lulworth Blue. Divine.
So if you’ve got some responsibility for innovation and intrapreneurship try the blue room test. Ok most of us embrace open plan these days, but choose something that no one else has done in your company and doesn’t easily fit the current expectations or ways of working. Something small, but offbeat, that you really like. Can you make it happen?
This post is not about what I found out in doing this research but about how I found it out. It explains how I actually carried out the research and went about collecting data.
If you want to just cut to the chase here it is:
The research set out to explore the reality of modern day job-hunting for recent graduates. What do graduates have to do to get a job?
The research is based on a mixed methods single site case study and provides an in-depth exploration of the transition to work experience of recent business graduates. It uses interviews and surveys to explore the job application process as actually experienced by the participants. Unlike many studies, it looks at both successful and unsuccessful applications, and both graduate schemes roles and general jobs. It specifically explores in detail what skills, knowledge and attributes employers asked the graduates to demonstrate during the recruitment and selection process, and how candidates were asked to demonstrate them.
Data was collected from 47 participants and provides high level quantitative data on over 1000 job applications and in-depth qualitative data on N=101 job applications (N=32 graduate schemes applications, N=64 general job applications, and N=5 self-employed examples), covering N=71 job interviews and a further N=108 varied selection activities at N=75 companies and all described in over 250,000 words transcribed from participant interviews.
This created a big data set covering numerous real life examples of graduate job-hunting as can be seen in this infographic:
Before going into more detail on the research method, I should firstly clarify the research question. What did I want to find out? As I’ve said in another post a key requirement for surviving a doctorate is to find a research topic you’re deeply interested in. It’s got to sustain that interest for many years! For me, what I was really interested in was how graduates get jobs. What do graduates have to actually do? There’s a lot in the news about how employers say they desperately need certain skills. But do employers actually test for those skills when deciding who to employ? And if so what sort of tests do employers set? What is the job-hunting experience like in reality for recent graduates?
This became the following research question:
How did this group of business graduates experience the post-graduation job-hunting transition in terms of the specific activities they underwent in order to secure work?
Then there were two supporting questions:
What were the specific job selection activities and tests set by employers as experienced by these graduates?
What other actions did the graduates undertake in their attempt to secure work?
The focus was therefore on the activities and tests graduates actually had to do when job-hunting. Some were set by employers (eg online tests), and some were undertaken by the graduates themselves (eg networking). I wanted to find out about both.
I was interested in this because there is not much written about the actual experience of graduate job-hunting. There are a lot of surveys from employers listing what they want, but very little that looks into the detail of what graduates have to actually do to persuade employers to hire them.
I wanted to know what graduates had to do in reality. I wanted to peak behind the closed doors of the interview room. The better I understood the actual experience, the better we would be able to design the learning activities to help students become successful graduates.
Having clarified the question, the next step is to figure out how to answer it. The place to start is to look at all the studies and information that already exists. In fact the first few years of my doctorate were mainly spent on reading. This eventually turns into a “literature review” which summarises the studies that already exist and how this research builds on that. The information I wanted to know didn’t exist anywhere that I could find. There is lots of information on graduate employment rates and salaries, but not much on the reality of their overall job-hunting experience.
What is it like these days to have just got your degree and
be trying to find a job? The best way to find out was to identify a group of
recent graduates and ask them. So that’s exactly what I did.
Why business graduates
The group I decided to focus on was business graduates from my own institution. I chose business as firstly it is the most popular subject for students at university, and secondly it is a general subject. A business degree is not specifically needed for any particular profession, but can be very useful for all sorts of different professions. The answer would be very different if I looked at nursing or vet science, for example. I wanted an overall general understanding of the experience, so business was perfect.
As the participants all came from one institution this is known as a single site case study. A classic definition of a case study is “the study of a case within a real life, contemporary setting” (Yin, 2018). The case itself can be many things such as a person, organisation, event or process. It should have clear boundaries, use multiple sources of data, and collect in-depth information.
Two leading books on case studies I used a great deal are:
Here the case is a particular experience; the job-hunting experience of recent business graduates from a particular institution within a particular time frame. The site, the timeframe and the type of graduate provide the boundaries for the case.
Although it is a single site, a central London business school, the research was not about the participants’ higher education experience. It was about their experience after graduation, and therefore covered a large number of job applications, employers and industries. Many “job application sites” were therefore included.
Reasons for choosing a case study methodology
There were three good reasons for choosing a case study for this research project, as a case study is suitable where:
You want an in-depth understanding of a
contemporary phenomenon; here the in-depth details of the job-hunting
experience of recent business graduates.
The setting cannot be controlled, and instead
the experience being studied happens within an uncontrolled real world context (as
opposed to a scientific experiment held in a laboratory). Here graduates take
part in the real world job-hunting experience, and no one can control that
It is the most practical method to gather the information
wanted. Here there are no other records or obvious method to find out the
details of the job-hunting experience of these participants. The most practical
option was to ask them.
A case study that involved in-depth interviews with recent
graduates exploring the detail of their job application experience was a good
practical method for getting the information I wanted.
The research started with a phone survey, asking participants about their overall job-hunting experience. This included questions about how many applications they had made, how many times they experienced a teamwork exercise and so on. This gave me an overall “big picture” of the job-hunting experience. It let me figure out how often the participants experienced different activities, including both successful and unsuccessful applications. A lot of studies tend to focus on the job someone is in – a successful application. I wanted to know more about the whole experience – warts and all.
Much of this data is quantitative ie numbers. It tells you a
lot of interesting things like that on average the participants applied for 40
jobs, and that online tests were the most common selection activity.
But numbers don’t tell you about the experience itself. What did those tests look like? How did the participants feel about them? What were employers looking for? For that, more descriptive qualitative data is needed.
After the phone surveys were complete, I then asked about half of the participants to an in-depth face-to-face interview . These lasted an hour and looked at 3-4 job applications in great depth. I asked them to describe every stage they went through so I could really understand what the experience was like.
This in-depth information was mainly qualitative data. Because it was so detailed it is often called “thick description”. I ended up with about a quarter of a million words from graduates describing their experiences. This information was fascinating, as the graduates were very open about the good and the bad experiences they had. These in-depth interviews described the online tests and teamwork exercises, and let me know things like how graduates prepared for job interviews, what was discussed, and how they felt.
The quantitative data and the qualitative data – the numbers and the experience – work together to provide a rich data set that can really help us understand much more about the job-hunting experience of recent graduates. This mixture of data makes this a mixed methods case study, as it combines qualitative and quantitative data, with an emphasis on the qualitative ie the actual experience.
The data set
This then was the core data collected for the project: N=47
phone surveys and N=23 interviews.
For those used to looking at large quantitative data reports involving thousands of people, this may seem small. But for an in-depth qualitative study this is a reasonable size. Many researchers recommend only 3-15 in-depth interviews, and certainly once you get to 20 this is a very respectable number.
The participants came from one institution, but the focus of the interviews was not the institution but the participants’ experience outside of the institution when they started job-hunting. Therefore many employers and application processes were discussed. The data collected ended up covering a lot of ground – a lot of employers, industries, job applications, and selection activities. This is summarised in the following table:
Total transcripts word count of graduates’ describing
Job applications reported
Job finding experiences looked at in detail
General job applications
Graduate scheme applications
Selection activities (other than interviews and online tests). This included teamwork exercises, written and oral presentations, role plays, data analysis exercises, and asymmetric video exercises
Further qualitative data on important themes such as emotions, networking and the role of digital intelligence in contemporary job-hunting was also collected during the in-depth interviews. Altogether this allows the overall job-hunting experience to be viewed from several different perspectives.
As you can see a seemingly small number of people can be
turned into a large data set of both quantitative and qualitative that helps
answer the research question.
All of this is summarised in the official abstract of the
This thesis is a single site case study of the early-in-career job-hunting experience of 47 recent business graduates from a private London-based business-focused higher education provider during the period 2014-2018. This is a primarily qualitative mixed methods project, and provides an in-depth exploration of the phenomenon of the transition to work by using interviews and surveys to explore the job application and selection process as actually experienced by the participants. It collects information on successful and unsuccessful applications, and on graduate scheme roles and general jobs. It specifically explores what skills, knowledge and attributes employers asked the graduates to demonstrate during the recruitment and selection process, and what other activities the participants underwent in order to secure post-graduation work. It uses the conceptual framework of signalling theory as a lens to understand the transition to work phenomenon, with some references to the closely related concepts of positional conflict theory and human capital theory. It is intended to make a contribution to the literature on graduate job selection and signalling theory, and to explore some of the implications for higher education policy and professional practice in universities.
Dr Roxanne Stockwell, DBA thesis, University of Bath
if you want to know more about the methodology, including the limitations of the study, ethical considerations, issues of validity, reliability and generalisability, and how the data was analysed then please have a look at Chapter 4 on methodology in the final thesis, following the link above.
In this last week I finally made it through the absolutely very last stage of the process and officially became a doctor. And not just any old doctor – a prize winning one to boot.
The ceremony was held at the Assembly Rooms in Bath, with drinks afterwards at the Pump Room. Being a Jane Austen fan this added another sparkle of enjoyment to the day. On my way to collect my robes I was able to admire the chandeliers, indulge in the Georgian atmosphere, and secretly identify exactly where key Austen moments might have occurred.
I have attended many graduation ceremonies as part of the academic staff at my own institution, and am always disappointed in my very dull black gown with blue trim that represents my UCL LLM. Imagine my delight when I discovered the colours for my DBA at Bath: green, red and gold, with a floppy black hat and silver tassel. As vivid as an Australian parrot!
My Dad flew out from Australia especially for the graduation – though escaping the horrific bushfires of a climate-change-denying nation may have added an extra incentive for the visit…(note to self: we should always be grateful for our rain…)
The security check
The day began with observing the last stages of the security check – this took over two hours. Armed policemen moved around in packs, accompanied by a wriggly sniffer dog. They used tiny torches to check the edges around every piece of furniture, especially the lectern. I wondered if it was because it was the Assembly Rooms – could that be a high profile target? An unruly mob of anti-Janeites perhaps? Surely not.
I asked about it and was told it was because the vice chancellor was coming.
“Really?” I said doubtfully. “Is he that disliked?” If so I was privately thinking maybe he shouldn’t come and put everyone else in danger.
One lady offered an explanation, “Well you know there have been strikes, so there is a lot of unrest.”
“But that’s just the trains,” I said.
“No, no. The academics are on strike all over the country”.
OK I know the country is going through a rough patch at the moment. But I don’t believe for a second that we’ve reached a stage where UK academics are going to blow up vice chancellors that annoy them. They might lash out with a critical blog in the Guardian, or refuse to attend a committee meeting, but seriously – a physical threat??
Then a fellow DBA graduate explained – the Chancellor of the University of Bath – Prince Edward – was expected later that day. In fact she was very disappointed he wasn’t going to be at our ceremony, as she confessed she had a penchant for minor royals.
Well that was a relief – both that it was nothing to do with the vice chancellor or striking academics, and that Ed wasn’t going to be at my ceremony. But in the meantime it provided lots of entertainment during the first part of the morning while waiting for everyone to arrive and get robed up.
The ceremony began at 10am, was over by 11am, and was heavily symbolic. My second favourite bit was the entrance of a very tall man in a very large fez cap made of caramel coloured fur, who also carried a couple of maces that had their own special seat (not sure how they got past security).
My favourite bit was the special little extra ceremony for the small number of doctoral graduates like me. Firstly we had to remove our hoods and drape them over our left arms. We then went on to the stage one at a time, and a member of the academic procession took our hoods and draped them over our heads (being dressed by them in the doctoral colours you see). Then we had to bow to another member of the procession who tapped us on the head three times with a mortar board. All this signifies our doctorate has been conferred and that we are now entitled to wear the full outfit and hat. Quirky.
And it turns out I won a prize (jointly) – the Richard and Shirley Mawditt prize for outstanding performance on the DBA.
This award was conferred by the Doctoral Board of Studies who commented:
“Both winners … have produced theses which explore in great depth different aspects of the relationship between business and higher education, which is central to the mission of the programme.
Roxanne Stockwell’s research into the experience of first job application and selection processes of business school graduates draws upon and makes a significant contribution to signalling theory … Both theses are notable in their attention to complexity and the sophistication of their analysis of contemporary issues in higher education, as demonstrated in both written theses and viva examinations.”
What factors are key to getting a full-time job after graduation? You can find lots of advice about getting a job, but what does the data show? One of the biggest studies I have found looks at the evidence for 56,000 recent graduates across all subjects and multiple universities and whether they had a full-time job within six months of graduation. Associate Professor Jackson carried out a detailed statistical analysis to find out exactly what factors were associated with successfully finding a job. This is a worthwhile study not only because it is huge, but also because it looked at actual employment results (and not just whether the participants “felt” employable).
The study drew on official statistics from graduate surveys that asked about their university course experience, their job-hunting methods, and whether or not they had a full-time job within six months. Jackson turned the survey questions into a series of factors and used statistical analysis to figure out what factors were associated with graduate employment.
The factors were things like type of university; whether they studied full-time or part time, online or face to face; whether they were satisfied with the quality of their course; whether their course developed their employability skills; age, gender, race etc.
Most interestingly, Jackson compared what sort of job-hunting techniques graduates used. She used three categories: traditional job-hunting techniques, networking, or using the university careers service.
The most important take away is that there was one factor that eclipsed all others in importance. The single most important factor by far was to proactively look for a job using what Jackson calls “traditional job hunting techniques”. This meant searching for jobs online and in papers, responding to adverts, sending out your CV, and approaching employers and recruiters directly. This increased the chances of being in full-time work by a whopping 183%. That’s almost threefold.
This was far more important than anything else – than the degree subject, the quality of the course, whether employability skills were developed while at university, age, gender, race etc. It was even a lot more important than attending an “elite” university.
The next most important factor was networking. Proactively networking increased the chances of full-time work by 53%. This was Jackson’s second category of job-hunting techniques.
The third factor was attending an elite university, which increased employment chances by 38%. This is something you don’t have much control over, but it is not as important as good job hunting techniques or networking.
Other factors had a positive impact but on a smaller scale. The “quality of the course” was measured by student satisfaction with the teaching and learning. High course quality had a job impact of 19%. Employability skills development while at university was also 19%. Using the university careers service, Jackson’s third category of job-hunting techniques, increased the chances of a full-time job by 14%.
The employability skills impact is curious. In this study, if your university helps you develop your general employability skills, your chances of a full-time job increase by 19%. While a 19% increase is not to be sneezed at, it is surprising this is not much higher.
The skills included in this study were teamwork, communication, analytical skills, problem solving and planning skills. These are the very skills employers say they are looking for, based on numerous surveys ( eg CBI in the UK and GCA in Australia). Yet this study shows proactive job hunting, networking and university status are far more important. This suggests that while employers say the key thing they are looking for are these skills, in practice this might not be exactly true. In Jackson’s words:
“The skills effect was, however, relatively modest and does not reflect the priority industry declares it is attributing to this criterion [when selecting graduates for jobs] …it could reflect the difficulties graduates experience in articulating their skills in recruitment and selection scenarios and challenges employers face in accurately assessing graduate skill capabilities during the selection process.”
Another interesting slant is to compare the impact of what was provided by the university as part of the student experience, with other factors that are outside the university’s control. The things that the university provided are the teaching and learning, the development of general employability skills, and the university’s own careers service. All had a statistically significant and positive impact on the chances of employment. But the fact is they paled into insignificance in comparison to the top two factors, which are beyond the control of the university and really down to the individual student.
And here’s an impertinent suggestion that logically follows. Universities are expected to admit students who have a reasonable chance of success. In the past that has been defined academically, and therefore traditionally students are admitted largely on the basis of school grades. But success is now defined as not only passing your degree but also getting a job afterwards. Therefore maybe instead of admitting students on the basis of school grades, we should be testing them for proactivity and attitude. Can they be bothered doing something off their own bat that goes beyond filling in their university admissions form? If so, they might have three times the chance of getting a job and should be admitted!
Things to watch out for
Whenever you’re looking at a study like this it is important to consider any short comings – or limitations as they are called in academic-speak. Jackson points out many of these herself.
The study could only look at data that was collected in these surveys. And some important things were not collected – such as financial background, parental education, geographical location, and school results. These could also be factors that impact the chances of employment, but they are not measured here.
There is an assumption that a higher level of satisfaction with skills development means that skills were actually better developed. This is not necessarily the case! Jackson points out that people often overestimate their skills. Just because you think your employability skills have been well developed doesn’t mean an employer would agree.
The study only looked at graduates at 6 months after graduation. The results might change if you looked further out. It also only looked at Australian graduates, so the context is different to the UK and other countries. However, Australia and the UK have a lot in common, especially in higher education.
Perhaps most importantly, these statistics show correlation between the factors and full-time employment – but this does not necessarily mean causation. For example, those that were satisfied with skills development at university were 19% more likely to be in full-time employment. But this does not necessarily mean the university skills development caused that increase. It might be the other way around! Those in full-time employment looking back on their university experience might be more satisfied with their skills development because they ended up with a job.
Nevertheless this is an important study as it is one of the few really big studies that looks specifically at what factors are linked to graduate employment.
An optimistic message
What I like most about this study is that I think it has a positive message – one supported by data.
The really good thing is that the the top two factors are by far the most important and are totally within the control of individual graduates. Getting a job doesn’t have to be a question of good or bad luck. You don’t have to be stuck with your history or your “demographic characteristics”. But you do need to make an effort.
Now it might seem obvious that proactively using traditional job search techniques improves your chances of getting a job. But the fact that there is such a big improvement – 183% – also shows that a lot of graduates were not using those techniques because if everyone was using them there’d be no statistical benefit. About 70% of these graduates were in full-time work, and about 30% were still looking. This statistic shows that the 70% who were in full-time work within six months were 183% more likely to use these techniques than the 30% who were still looking for full-time work.
The decision to proactively hunt for a job and use traditional job search techniques – looking for job adverts, applying for advertised jobs, approaching recruiters and employers directly, sending off your CV – is totally within your power and not dependent on anything else. And so is networking, the next most important factor according to this study.
The up shot is that getting a job doesn’t have to be about your past. It is mostly about your present. Develop good job hunting techniques, be proactive, and build a network of employers, classmates and potential colleagues while you are at university and based on this study you can (almost) triple your chances of employment.
Yesterday I finally had my viva for my doctorate. After nine years I finally had the very final exam. I am using the word final a lot, I know, because this does feel like the end of an era.
The doctorate has been all consuming for the last 10 months or so, and almost-all consuming for some years before that. There were a few years early on when I almost forgot about it as life – and death – got in the way. It became a bit of gentle reading for time to time, a little break from the horrors of pain and suffering in my family. But the last few years it has become an obsession, as I now think every doctorate must become to actually get over the finishing line. It is many years since I have had weekend or a holiday when I was either working on my doctorate or feeling guilty about not working on my doctorate.
The thesis itself was submitted in May. At 76,000 words and about the same again in the appendices it is the length of a decent size book. I’m still not really sure how I managed to finish it given my job. In fact when I look back I realise I did almost all the writing between mid December 2018 and early May 2019. That seems impossible now. And there were another 40,000 words or so in individual assignments I had to complete as a prequel. It helped that it was something I was incredibly interested in, and very relevant to my role. Otherwise I’d say there was no hope. But it still had to be squeezed in to all the nooks and crannies of my life.
And now those nooks and crannies are empty. This morning I felt suddenly overwhelmed with a glorious feeling of liberty and freedom! This is why the universe is filled with such strange contradictory experiences. You can only feel the full joy of one state when you have also experienced the opposite.
But back to the doctorate. For those of you wondering about how this works, having submitted my thesis the university then appoints two examiners. One from the University of Bath (the internal examiner, who I had not previously met) and one from another university, called the external examiner. As the candidate I am then summoned to a viva which is a live face to face exam, or rather a forensic grilling on any and all aspects of my thesis. My supervisor was allowed to attend, but literally had to sit in the corner silently, just observing.
The point of a doctorate is to make an original contribution to human knowledge. That means doing your own original research, coming up with new findings, and showing how that fits with existing knowledge and theory. Therefore the examiners – who are experts on the area – can grill you on other work in your subject (you need to be very well read), your research methods, and the logic of your conclusions and arguments.
Mine took over two hours and – armed with only a bottle of water and a copy of my thesis – it was pretty full on. But I have to confess I enjoyed it immensely. The examiners were genuinely very interested in the topic, and I determined rather than being anxious beforehand I would say to myself “This is going to be the only opportunity for me to discuss my thesis in detail with people who will have read the whole thing and are experts in the area.”
Despite that positive self-affirmation, I found no matter how how many selfies I took while waiting in the cafe beforehand I had a slightly maniacal glint of anxiety in my eyes…
Despite that expression I was actually looking forward to it – and it did turn out to be great fun. They asked ALOT of questions, and challenged me on various sections, some of which I agreed with and others of which I pushed back on. But I think we all enjoyed the debate.
They then sent me away while they conferred, and called me and my supervisor back after about half an hour or so with the result. So lovely to get the results almost instantly! I was then told I had passed, though they had a few minor amendments they’d like me to make. I think they will only take me a couple of days, and having re-read it on the weekend it I have a few amends myself.
And only a week later I got their official report:
Both examiners were impressed with the overall quality of the thesis and the candidate’s performance during the viva. She provided ample evidence of critical engagement with the subject matter; the discovery of significant new insights into the graduate recruitment process and a significant contribution to knowledge in relation to signalling theory.
So almost there! I expect it to be made official at the next exam board in September.
By the way, there is no grade for a doctorate. It is simply a pass. I sometimes worry about how our students care too much about actual grades in their undergraduate degree. While it is important to pass – and preferably not just a scrape pass – grades are not important outside the university environment. And here you can see with the highest level of degree you can have – a doctorate – there are no grades at all.
However it is so strange that you do all that work – for me taking almost a decade – for an audience of two! What a funny world academia can be. This is the very reason why I have started this blog, to share what I found out with others. And also because I just found it so interesting and relevant for anyone interested in higher education or in getting a secret glimpse into how people actually get jobs.
For that’s what my research was all about: how do recent graduates actually go about getting a job? What is their experience like? What exercises or tests do they have to do for employers? How do they prove their skills? What extra things do they do to make themselves more attractive to employers? And how do they feel about the whole experience?
Believe it or not there is very little research on this from the recent graduates’ perspective. There is a lot from the employers’ viewpoint, including all the skills they want and don’t always get from new graduates. There are also a lot of books of advice written by career consultants on how to develop “employability skills”. But there is not so much on what modern day job-hunting is actually like, and what graduates actually experience in real life.
I chose this topic for the best of reasons: because I really wanted to know the answer! How can we create relevant experiences and design degrees for students if we don’t know what happens to them the moment they leave university? And the only way to find this out is to have in depth conversations with recent graduates who can describe exactly what it is like. That was my research: in depth interviews with 47 recent graduates where we looked in detail at over 100 job application processes at over 75 companies. The graduates who took part were very generous with their time and remarkably open about the good and the bad of their experiences. I think there is a lot we can all learn from this: future graduates, employers and managers and academics of higher education institutions.
So one of the purposes of this blog will be to share some of these findings and experiences. One thing I will share right now: the graduate job-hunting experience wasn’t what I expected and looked very very different to my own experience of job-hunting when I first left university.
In my last post I shared stats from the latest report on graduates and employment from the Department of Education. This is based on the report Graduate Labour Market Statistics 2018 (GLMS 2018). It’s pretty clear that graduates are much more likely to do well in terms of jobs. On average they are paid more, are more likely to get a job, and are more likely to be in what’s called “highly skilled employment”.
That’s the simple take-away. But if you look at the report more closely the picture is not quite so rosy. Here are some red flags to watch out for. Graduates don’t get it all their own way. Non-grads have some advantages too.
Beware of the average
A big warning note in looking at the average salaries is that phrase “on average”. The thing about “average” is that it has a precise definition. It is the exact middle. That means half the people are above it and half are below it. By definition. So while on average young graduates (21-30 years old) are paid £25,500 a year, half are paid less than that. Of course it’s equally true that half are paid more than that!
The truth is that these statistics hide a multitude of variations. They cover all subjects, jobs, locations, industries, and types of employers. There are big variations between studying economics and working for a bank in Manchester, qualifying as a teacher and working in Derby, or graduating in business management and working for a tech start-up in Shoreditch.
This isn’t a report about individual people. It doesn’t tell the story of a single actual person. It’s just data points that have been collected and then subjected to statistical calculations to create more numbers. It doesn’t say anything about you personally. It doesn’t mean this is what all graduates are paid, and it absolutely doesn’t guarantee that if you are a graduate this is what will happen to you. It simply means that if you are a graduate you are in the group of workers who are more likely – much more likely admittedly – to have better employment prospects.
There is a lot more to getting a job and building a career than simply getting a degree.
Graduate and non-graduate salary trends
We’ve just looked at the statistics for 2018. But what happens when we we look at trends over the past three years? Is the picture changing?
Focussing on the 21-30 years age group, both graduates and non-graduates have seen many years of flat wages in this past decade. From 2010-2015 graduates had an average salary of £24,000 and non-graduates £18,000. There was no change for either group for five years. This means no pay rises at all (on average!). This was caused by the recession.
This began to change in 2016, and the wages for both have started to grow again. However, non-graduate salaries are growing faster. This means the salary gap is closing. As you can see from the diagram, in 2010 graduates were paid £6,000 more, meaning a premium of 33% for graduates. In 2017 the gap reduced to £5,000 and a 25% premium for graduates, and in 2018 the difference was £4,500 meaning a 21% premium.
Right now there is undoubtedly a significant graduate salary premium, but it has also undoubtedly reduced significantly over the past three years.
When I first spotted the change in the premium in 2016 I couldn’t tell if it was an aberration or a trend. But after three years it is beginning to look like a trend. If this continued then in another 5 years or so there could be no salary premium for graduates in the 21 years-30 years age group.
Other financial benefits for the non-graduate
So the first benefit for non-grads is that your salaries have risen faster over the past three years. Plus you have two other important advantages when it comes to money:
You don’t have to repay any university fees, and
You can start full-time work and be earning three years earlier than the typical graduate.
Three years of salary at an average of £18,000 a year is a big plus. Not having a university debt of approximately £54,000 is another plus. If you’re trying to decide about university purely from a financial viewpoint, then this has to taken into account. If you compare two 21 year olds, one who has just graduated and the other who has been working full-time for three years, then at this point in time the non-graduate has the financial advantage.
What does this mean for the graduate premium?
The graduate premium is not just about your financial position at 21 years of age. It is about career prospects as a whole over your life. It includes your future salary prospects. When you look at the GLMS 2018 stats, you find that the the graduate salary premium is much higher in the working population as a whole (graduates are paid over 40% more than non-graduates on average). This suggests that the gap between graduates and non-graduates grows as they get older. And this difference has remained pretty constant over the past three years. Graduates catch up!
It is also important to consider the chances of being employed or unemployed. The stats show that graduates consistently have a much higher chance of being employed, and a lower chance of being unemployed.
But the biggest – and I think the most important – difference between graduates and non-graduates is in highly skilled jobs. Graduates are much more likely to have highly skilled jobs, and this has been the case for many years. In my view this is the cornerstone of the graduate employment story. Highly skilled work leads to higher salaries, even at the very start of your career, better promotion prospects and future salary rises, and better employment rates.
Although employers sometimes complain about graduates lacking skills, these stats show that employers see graduates as highly skilled and are much more likely to choose them for highly skilled jobs. And they will pay more for them.
However, a final word of caution. This is only “on average”! 57% of young graduates have highly skilled jobs. But 43% do not! Nearly 20% of non-graduates have highly skilled work – and without the debt or the loss of three years full time work. You can do very well as a non-graduate.
But if you are going to study a university degree, and your future career and earning capacity is one of your main reasons, then make sure you do everything you can while at uni to increase the chances of getting a highly skilled job when you graduate,
Because based on these stats 43% of you won’t make the cut.
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