What matters, matters – understanding what drives the postgraduate study decision

Posted: 23 Apr 2019 - 11:30
PG study
It doesn’t take a PhD to know why medical students go to university. But fully understanding the motivation of a philosophy postgraduate is a little different. The same goes for economics, classics, physics, and hundreds of other subjects. Many disciplines of further study are more ambiguous, driven by everything from career climbing to personal pleasure.

Personal or professional

We spoke to hundreds of postgraduate applicants to understand what influences their decision-making process. We already know it’s a much more emotive experience than that of the undergraduate application, but there’s more to it still.

The most popular reason for choosing further study wasn’t to provide more career options (58%), but to further the student’s knowledge of a subject (59%). Whilst it’s only marginally more, the next most popular choice was also related to personal growth, wanting to specialise in a particular area (50%). The fourth, future earning potential, was lower still with 44%, and career requirements in fifth got 41%

However, when followed up to find out what the single main reason for further study was, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction. Career-focused answers accounted for 42% of answers, whilst the more personal responses attracted less, with 37%.

This polarity suggests that while the primary driver for further study is professional, the intellectual stimulation of academia is a huge influence, particularly for those applying to research-led degrees. For marketers, this means they have to consider the multiple motivations of each individual, not just by groups or cohorts.

Great expectations

We also asked students to agree or disagree with some common perceptions of postgraduate study, giving us an insight into the more contentious points.

More than 80% of students told us they believe their postgraduate qualification will ‘open up more opportunities’ in the future, compared to an undergraduate degree alone. Around the same number also said the qualification itself isn’t the only attraction, but the surrounding experience is a big pull. Generally, we found that students are very motivated to embark on a postgraduate journey, even if only 58% believe it’s good value for money.

However, for those already studying, almost half (48%) said that it took time to deliberate between further education and employment. Almost a third went further and admitted they had regrets in opting for postgraduate study, whilst a fifth told us they needed persuading to follow that route in the first place.

Every consumer group has its own dissatisfied cohort, but our final question to this group may go some way to explaining that third of students living with regrets. The acquisition of new skills is one of the chief attractions of postgraduate study, and when we asked students which ones they’re gaining from their course, the most common choices were critical thinking and problem-solving. Both important and valuable, of course, but more interestingly were the choices that received the least votes: teamwork, leadership, and interpersonal skills. While the value of these two groups of talents is highly subjective, the consensus that teamwork, leadership, and interpersonal skills are not behaviours learned from postgraduate study may be frustrating and disappointing for those with more career-focused aspirations. Might there be a mismatch of expectations in what postgraduate students expect to develop from their courses?

Understanding the main difference between postgraduate students (their academic vs. their personal motivation) is the most important component for any postgraduate marketing strategy. And it’s not as simple as bucketing career-focused students into vocational courses, and academically focused students into research degrees.

UCAS research 2019: Mapping out postgraduate decision-making

Related news