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What graduate employment figures really tell you

While it may seem like a long way off, spare a thought for what recent graduates from a university course you’re applying to, have gone on to do (and earn) as an indicator of your own prospects...

After all, given the cost of going to university and the work you’ll put in, you’ll want some sort of guarantee that once it’s all over, your degree will help you get on the first rung of the career ladder

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That’s why the Destination of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey might be useful reading when choosing where to study and searching for courses. The DLHE survey is carried out each year across universities to find out what graduates do after leaving university – this includes the type of job they’re doing (including if it’s related to the degree they achieved) and what they’re earning (and if they’re not in work, what they’re doing instead).

The good news for you? These stats are on our university profiles and course profiles, right here on Which? University, to save you trawling the internet to find this crucial information. Simply search for a course or university to see what their graduates went on to do.

But beware, things aren’t always as black and white as they appear on the surface. As with all statistics, you'll need a bit of context to get the full story. Here are a few things you need to know to help you make sense of all those numbers...

It’s only a short-term snapshot

The DLHE data looks at graduates just six months after they graduated. 

Now six months isn’t a very long time. Not all graduates will be thinking about finding that first job straight after finishing their course; many will want to take a break after three hectic years (or more) of lectures, dissertations, placements etc. For example, you may decide to go travelling, which may require working a temp job to save up for. 

In 2016, the unemployment rate among graduates completing their first degree was 5.3%. Don’t get too hung up on that figure; it doesn’t mean that 5% of graduates will never get a job. Remember that you’re still young, even if you’re not a fresher anymore...

‘Not in work’ doesn’t (always) mean ‘unemployed’

Yes, if you’re unemployed, you fall into that section. But you also do if you’re travelling – common amongst graduates, as we mentioned above – or if you’re continuing your studies (ie postgraduate study) or entering training of some sort.

This also includes taking time out to look after children (common in subjects where there are a lot of mature students such as fine art), or if you’re in prison…

Ok, that last one isn’t very positive, but hopefully you get the idea that there’s more to this than what you first see (and fortunately, there aren’t many people in that final group…).

Regions and industries can vary

Don’t be put off a course just because these figures show high unemployment right now. Depending when you read this, you may not be graduating for a few years yet; and things might be very different by the time you do. Fields can have upswings and downturns in employment for a number of reasons, some of which might be completely out of your control.

For example, the 2008 recession hit employment rates within the construction industry hard; up to that point, the industry had low unemployment rates. Thankfully this has since recovered, which goes to show that things are always changing... 

The same goes for courses in different parts of the country, especially if they’re very different (eg finance versus teaching) which makes it difficult to compare them – something to consider if you study at a specialist institution or one that is focused around one particular subject (eg an arts-based university). 

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Generally speaking, the job market varies depending on where you are in the country. For instance, things in the North East are very different to the South East, specifically London where so many companies – even entire industries – are based, and where so many people live. 

Also, if one has slightly better job figures than another, it might not really be telling you which is better for graduate prospects. Instead it might be telling you that graduates like to stay near to where they studied, a decision you'll need to make come the last year of your course – finding a software developer job in the small village where your parents live will be considerably more difficult than in the tech hub of London.

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What’s a ‘graduate job’ anyway?

It’s actually tricky to work out what a ‘graduate job’ is exactly, because people disagree about what the phrase really means, and because the job market moves so quickly these days – how many jobs do you think there were in smartphone apps fifteen years ago?

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Similarly, the nature of some fields might demand a bit more hard graft before you see the results ie a job that’s directly related to what you studied. The performing arts is a notoriously competitive industry with significantly more individuals looking for spots than there are spots themselves – it’s quite common for those starting out to work a (part-time) non-graduate job (eg retail), while auditioning and getting further experience before their ‘big break’. 

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By comparison, there will be other fields or jobs where demand is high across the country, such as teaching or nursing.

A lot of research goes into trying to keep up with the jobs market to work out what is and what isn’t a ‘graduate job’. What we can’t promise is that they’re all very well paid, interesting or offer good promotion possibilities… But try not to get too distracted by that for now.

Oh, and just because graduates don’t have them after six months doesn’t mean they never will. 


Don’t expect big bucks straight away

The average salary among all graduates (six months after) leaving university in 2016 was £21,176 – this didn’t change much from the year before, but has risen from £20,039 in 2012.

You’ll often see in the media quoted starting salaries for graduates of £25,000 or more. This depends on subject/field and region. Not everyone ends up (or wants) to be a management consultant or in finance for a big London firm. If you do, a decent starting salary in that region would be a pretty fair expectation. But as we know, most grads aren’t in those jobs. So be realistic about what you’re likely to start on by looking specifically at your field

After that, you can look at how this might vary for where in the country you plan to settle – it may influence your decision to stay in your uni city, return home or move somewhere new altogether. Most graduates find their degree doesn’t make them rich quick, but will help them earn a comfortable living (which itself will depend on where you live – the cost of living in London is much higher than other big cities in the UK, which is why wages will often be higher here).

This decision may come down to the opportunities on the table for you. If you’re a graphic designer, you may well be able to earn a good living working in-house for a company in a small town; but the more exciting work  involving big brands, traveling abroad and higher salaries  might lie in a flashy, fast-paced agency in London. 

Which? University provides guest spots to external contributors. This is from the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU), an independent research charity specialising in higher education and graduate employment. 

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