This is a version of a piece currently running at Guardian Careers here:
Guardian Student ran a recent piece looking at students who claimed to be prioritising employability over the best possible grade for their degree. Balancing university life involves negotiating the tension between the academic work required to get the best possible degree and the other demands on your time as a student, be they social, the financial need to work to support yourself – or ensuring you have the right mix of extra-curricular activity and work experience on your CV to make it stand out in a competitive jobs market. Indeed, the rigours of student time management are such that some institutions discourage term time working. So, in a sense, this is part of a long-term debate about how students can maximise their employability and whether it is necessary to get the best degree you can in order to thrive in the jobs market.
But are you better off going for a First, or by spending your time burnishing your credentials and perhaps sacrificing that top grade in order to get a really good, rounded CV? It’s a very good question.
So, let’s look at some data.
I am going to use the most recent graduate Destination (DLHE) data from HESA, the data from 2011/12 which looks at what graduates from that year were doing six months later. This sort of examination plays to the strengths of the DLHE, which covers 80% of all first degree graduates, as we’re just interested, for this analysis, at the first, most difficult, steps onto the employment ladder.
The initial findings are simple. People with Firsts are less likely to be out of work than people with lower grades. The unemployment rate after six months (if you include people who were not working at the time, but had a future job to go to) was 5.5% for Firsts, 8% for 2:1s, 11.9% for 2:2s and 16.1% for Thirds.
That’s a pretty serious difference. But it doesn’t actually follow that Firsts are more likely to get jobs straight away – there’s not much of a difference in the rates of full time employment between Firsts and other grades – indeed, 2:1s have a marginally higher rate of full-time employment – 52.3%. 52% of graduates with Firsts were in full-time jobs after six months, whilst 50.1% of graduates with Thirds got full time jobs. You can see that in the graph below
|Outcome after six months for graduates from 2011/12, by degree class awarded|
In fact, graduates with Firsts were much more likely to take a postgraduate qualification, and, especially, to take a PhD, than graduates with other grades – even 2:1s. 59% of graduates from 2011/12 who went onto a PhD on graduation had a First.
When it comes to the jobs graduates actually got, then there a real difference between outcomes for different grades. 77.3% of employed graduates with a First were in professional level jobs after six months. Meanwhile, 63.4% of those with 2:1s had got a professional level job. But, the majority of graduates with Thirds had also got professional level jobs – 53%. There were no professional level roles taken up by significant numbers of graduates from 2011/12 where more than half of the new entrants had a First. So, a First might help you get one of these jobs, but it usually isn’t an absolute necessity.
Of course, some recruiters only target graduates from certain institutions – are we seeing this effect in play? It so happens that graduates from Russell Group and similar institutions are rather more likely to get a First than graduates from other institutions, but nevertheless, someone with a First from a less prestigious institution was less likely to be out of work than someone with a 2:1 from a Russell Group. So there does seem to be a grade effect going on here.
In short, what does the data tell us about the effects of grade on early careers?
- Most graduates get jobs
- But it is probably going to be easier with better grades
- There are few jobs you absolutely have to have a First and not a 2:1 in
- But it may make a real difference to your chances if you want to take a PhD.
For most prospective career paths, you don’t need a First. But it might make things easier. Only the individual can judge what effort is going to be required to get a First and what they’d have to give up in the rest of their life to do it. Some may conclude it’s the smart move to stick with a 2:1 and top up their CV with experiences likely to attract an employer – but for some, it might be worth that extra push.