Postgraduate studies: More than just another qualification

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The skills needed in the country and the economy should guide prospective postgraduate students in their study and career choices, according to the spokesperson for the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Ishmael Mnisi. He says while most students are preparing for a career in the labour market, education and training should also benefit those who might not find jobs in the formal labour market as they seek alternative ways of earning sustainable livelihoods. 

The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) has also been working closely with the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition to ensure the integration of skills development planning with economic planning. “That means that, as part of developing growth strategies of priority sectors, the short, medium and long-term skills needs are taken into account and inform the types of qualifications offered through our institutions,” Mnisi explains. 

“For example, the automotive Master Plan is implementing an integrated initiative that covers all aspects of the learning value chain, including career development, curriculum development, lecturer upgrading and workplace-based learning,” he emphasises.  

He says through its Labour Market Intelligence Partnership, the DHET has also undertaken research that led to the identification of scarce skills aligned to the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan. “The full list identifies 103 priority occupations, and highlights some of the key areas of acute shortage in the South African labour market,” he says. 

These include Agricultural Production Management, Engineering (including civil, electrical, mechanical, energy, and mechatronics), Business Process Outsourcing, Computer Networking Professionals, Database Managers, Software Development, Cybersecurity Specialists and ICT System Analysts. 

“The DHET has also developed the list of occupations in demand that was released in November 2020 and currently is working with the Department of Home Affairs to finalise [the] critical skills list.”  

He acknowledges that unemployment is at an all-time high and urges anyone considering a postgraduate qualification to take this into consideration and think carefully about their future employability. “These lists should serve as signposts and guidelines when pursuing post-school opportunities.” 

Students should also consider, not waiting for, but creating employment opportunities — for themselves and for others. An entrepreneurial mindset should be fostered as part of every curriculum, enabling and empowering students who graduate to start their own businesses and employ others. 

The Post-School education and training system, which comprises universities, technical and vocational education and training colleges, sectoral education and training authorities and community colleges, as led by the DHET, has also designed a differentiated system of provision across the various institutional types that cater for different  skills needs in the economy as well for individuals and society. 

“While not all of these subsystems are at the required level of maturity in provision as yet, plans are afoot to ensure that they are supported to grow and be strengthened.”

Soft skills to set you apart

Practical competencies are the critical skills needed to complete specific work-related tasks. This is something that every student expects to gain by the time they complete a qualification, especially at postgraduate level. Increasingly, however, experts say these skills are insufficient to thrive in the workplace. Soft skills, or foundational skills, are what sets candidates with the same experience and qualifications apart. 

Karen Gray, training and learning consultant and CEO of Gray Training

Khani Mhlongo runs recruitment and talent acquisition firm Think Career. She says qualifications are important, but the people who stand out from the crowd are those who can apply themselves, think through situations, engage with others and learn to collaborate. 

“Employers seek innovative candidates who think outside the box and co-create new ideas that had never even been considered,” she says. 

Karen Gray, training and learning consultant and CEO of Gray Training, believes that communication skills are the bedrock of all other skills. While not everyone will be required to speak in public or address large groups, most people need to communicate with colleagues or clients, as well as give and receive instructions. That is why these skills are important in any industry. 

She first realised this working as a university lecturer in communication while on a field trip with a group of engineering students. “It opened my eyes — if a civil engineer doesn’t communicate well, report clearly and accurately, or communicate instructions properly, then bridges will collapse and we would have a disaster on our hands!”  

The Future Jobs Report from the World Economic Forum divides the top skills needed into four categories, namely problem-solving, self-management, working with people and technology use and development. Many of the top skills identified are soft skills and tie in directly to their relevance to the fourth industrial revolution and the workplace of the future.

Experts say these skills should not be seen as separate from or “less than” critical skills, and postgraduate programmes should incorporate both types of skills to ensure a holistic learning experience that adequately prepares a student for the world of work and future employability. 

How to market your postgraduate degree to employers

Pursuing a postgraduate degree is an intellectually fulfilling endeavour and a sure route to furthering skills and expertise in a specific field. Despite this, many people find themselves struggling to find employment after studying. Recruitment experts say many job seekers are not marketing themselves and their newly acquired skills effectively. 

Invest in effective self-marketing 

Create a strong, professional presence, both online and in person. Update LinkedIn regularly and tailor your CV for each application. List your most recent studies first, and mention your qualification in your cover letter. A website or online portfolio can help showcase your work achievements and professional development. If you conducted a research project, thesis or academic article, be sure to include the title and a brief summary. 

Include work experience — many postgraduate qualifications include an internship or learnership. Highlight the transferable skills acquired during your studies, work experience and extracurricular activities. 

Start small

When job hunting, do not just look at big-name companies. Smaller companies may offer competitive salaries and higher starting positions, and likely receive less applications. Starting at a smaller company is a good way to gain experience while scouting for other options. 

Remember that an entry level position is just that: a foot in the door. After so many years of studying, you might expect to walk into a job at a corner office, but this is rarely the case, especially for young job seekers without previous experience. 

Network

Attend career fairs and use the opportunity to connect with specific companies and recruiters. Create your own opportunities — even if jobs are not being advertised, approach contacts in your networks or employers you have an interest in working for. Pitch what you have to offer, suggest collaborations or ask for advice that may assist in the hiring process. 

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