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Graduate jobs? Using new classifications to help answer an old question


Graduate Prospects has conducted an analysis of the most recent graduate first destination figures available from The Higher Education Statistics Agency. The analysis used the new classification of graduate job types developed by the Seven Years On research team.

Key findings were:

  • Six months after graduation, 64.8% of working graduates from the class of 2003 were in 'graduate jobs'.
  • Traditional graduate jobs accounted for approximately one in nine (11.7%) working new graduates. Medicine and dentistry graduates were the most likely to be in a traditional graduate job.
  • Modern graduate occupations also accounted for one in nine (11.9%) graduates in employment. Graduates from education-based subjects were the most likely to be employed under this category.
  • One in seven (14.4%) were in the new graduate professions. Graduates from mechanical engineering were the most likely to have entered jobs in this area.
  • Over a quarter (26.8%) were in the rapidly-expanding niche graduate area. Nursing graduates were the most likely to be in a niche graduate profession.

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A constant theme of analyses of the graduate job market is the question of what constitutes a ‘graduate job’. Much of this is motivated by a wish to show whether the acquisition of a degree results in a job that could not otherwise have been obtained without the qualification.

Many attempts have been made to define ‘graduate jobs’. But earlier this year, Peter Elias and Kate Purcell, in Seven Years On, put forward a new system of definitions of categories in an attempt to create a definitive classification of the kind of jobs that graduates go on to do [1]. Called SOC (HE), all Standard Occupational Classifications have been grouped into one of five different jobs categories. The choice of category was based on a number of factors, with the proportion of people in the population at large with degrees in each category being a key factor [2].

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The new job classifications

The five categories of SOC (HE) are:

1. Traditional graduate occupations

These are the established professions for which a degree has historically been required.

Solicitors, research scientists, architects and medical practitioners are all examples. They typically require the post-holder to be an expert in a very specific area.

2. Modern graduate occupations

The expansion of higher education in the 1960s, and the development of new professional fields in areas such as IT, have resulted in the development of a range of newer professions requiring graduate-level qualifications.

Software programmers, journalists, primary school teachers and chief executives are all examples of modern graduate occupations. They require the post-holders to be ‘experts’, but also often to have more strategic or interactive responsibility than a traditional graduate job.

3. New graduate occupations

These are areas of employment that are often rapidly expanding in today’s labour market. The nature of these jobs has changed relatively recently to mean that the most accepted route into them is via a graduate-level qualification.

Marketing, management accountancy, therapists and many forms of engineer are examples of new graduate occupations. They typically require a higher level of strategic responsibility or of ability to interact with others, and less need for them to be an expert in a topic.

4. Niche graduate occupations

This area is expanding. Many occupations do not require graduate-level qualifications, but contain within them specialist niches that do require degrees to enter.

Nursing, retail managers, specialist electrical engineers and graphic designers all fall into this category. Often they require a combination of skills, such as managerial and expert skills, but equally often the need is for an ‘all-rounder’ with a range of abilities.

5. Non-graduate occupations

All jobs that do not fall into the previous four categories are considered ‘non-graduate occupations’. This does not automatically imply that it is not appropriate for a graduate to be doing them, or that a graduate in one of these occupations cannot enjoy a fulfilling job. It means that, in the main, a degree is not required to enter these occupations.

These categories provide a more subtle gradation of job type than the simpler graduate job/non-graduate job distinction which is often made.

Previous attempts to use data from the First Destination Survey (FDS) as published by Graduate Prospects in What Do Graduates Do? to determine whether graduates are going into jobs for which a degree was required have arbitrarily defined a group of categories as ‘non-graduate occupations’ and measured those [3]. The categories usually chosen are: numerical clerks & cashiers; other clerical & secretarial occupations; retail assistants, catering, waiting & bar staff; health & childcare related occupations; armed forces & public protection service occupations; and 'other occupations'.

The introduction of SOC (HE) allows us to compile a list of all Standard Occupational Classifications used in What Do Graduates Do?, match them to SOC (HE), and thereby establish a method of measuring what proportion of graduates go straight into graduate occupations on leaving university.

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2003 graduates in the labour market

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), a government agency, collects annually national first destination information on graduates. In 2004, the information was collected through a questionnaire sent out in January 2004 to all UK and EU-domiciled students who graduated in the previous year. The results of this Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) survey represent a snapshot of the employment status and types of work of graduates on 15th January 2004.

Introduced in 2004, the DLHE questionnaire replaced the FDS. It includes new categories, asks new questions, giving us a greater bank of destination information.

Applying SOC (HE) on the new DLHE data produced for 2003 graduates by HESA, we discover that, six months after graduating, just under two third of graduates (64.8%) entering work had gone straight into a job requiring degree-level qualifications. This is a slightly higher figure than would have been deduced by the simpler methods of adding together the non-graduate job categories outlined above and shows that the number of graduates taking ‘graduate jobs' runs at a healthier level than previously thought.

For all first degrees, the results breakdown is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: All UK-domiciled respondents to the 2003 DLHE working in the UK, by job category.

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Traditional graduate jobs, accounted for approximately one in nine (11.7%) working new graduates, as did the modern graduate occupations (11.9%). One in seven (14.4%) were in the new graduate professions, whilst over a quarter (26.8%) were in the rapidly-expanding niche graduate area.

This implies that we have to rethink traditional definitions of ‘graduate jobs’. The changing nature of the labour market and the skills demanded from business means that the days when universities were designed largely to train doctors, lawyers and academics, are a thing of the past, and new business areas now employ more graduates than do the traditional professions.

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Traditional graduate jobs

Not surprisingly, the top subject areas for entering traditional graduate occupations were the medical subjects. Almost all employed graduates from medicine and dentistry degrees (98.9%) were in a traditional graduate job within six months of graduation. But otherwise, this area was not a great employer of graduates from other disciplines. 42.6% of graduates from building subjects went into this area, overwhelmingly architects, whilst 27.8% of chemists and 27.0% of working graduates from subjects allied to medicine (largely pharmacy and pharmacology) went onto this kind of employment (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Top five subjects for entering traditional graduate occupations in 2003

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Modern graduate occupations

Education-based subjects and civil engineering were the two subjects most likely to result in a modern graduate occupation, with more than half of working graduates from both subjects going on to work in this area (58.9% and 58.4% respectively). This represents the importance of teaching and of some areas of engineering in this field. IT graduates were also more likely than most to enter this area, reflecting the rise of information technology in recent years (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: Top five subjects for entering modern graduate occupations in 2003

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New graduate occupations

This area shows interesting results when analysed. The degrees most likely to result in a new graduate occupation include subjects such as design and drama that are sometimes viewed as being less likely to result in a graduate job than other, more academic subjects. It is perhaps the more vocational nature of these courses that means that graduates are more likely than others to enter this kind of work directly on completion of their course (see Figure 4). Mechanical engineering graduates from 2003 were the most likely to have entered a new graduate occupation, with 39.3% of working graduates from this course entering this type of work within six months of receiving their degree.

Figure 4: Top five subjects for entering new graduate occupations in 2003

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Niche graduate occupations

As evidenced by Figure 1, over a quarter of graduates from 2003 who went into work entered this area.

As nursing is perhaps the classic example of a niche graduate occupation, it is not surprising that this degree is by far the most likely to result in a niche graduate job - 91.1% of nursing graduates from 2003 entered this area. (See Figure 5). With management positions often lying in this class, business and management degrees (37.0%) were the next most likely to result in a niche graduate job. Building (36.0%), environmental science (32.9%) and economics graduates (31.8%) also frequently entered niche graduate professions.

Several other degrees - electrical engineering (31.5%) law (31.1%), chemistry (29.2%) and geography (28.5%) - also gave graduates a high likelihood of entering this area on leaving university.

Figure 5: Top five subjects for entering niche graduate occupations in 2003

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Non-graduate jobs

The most controversial area of this system of classification is the area of non-graduate jobs.

Many of the graduates in this area have entered by choice, in order to work their way up an organisation, or to pay their way whilst they continue to study. Many of these jobs are fulfilling, or comparatively well-paid. A few are in the process of evolving into niche graduate jobs. It is, therefore, simplistic to describe these occupations as not being ‘good’ jobs. It is true, however, that few of the graduates in these positions are doing work for which a degree is required.

If we examine this area by the number of graduates entering non-graduate jobs in 2003, we see that 11.2% of graduates entering non-graduate occupations were from business or management degrees. Furthermore, approximately one in 20 graduates in non-graduate occupations came from each of design (5.5%), IT (5.2%), English (5.2%) and psychology (5.1%) courses.

We therefore see that approximately twice as many business and management graduates who did go into employment went straight into non-graduate jobs than did graduates from any other courses. This measure may reflect relative difficulties in the current job market for graduates from these disciplines.

Seven Years On shows that graduates move steadily out of non-graduate jobs as their careers progress, and that although a graduate might have moved from university into an occupation that does not require their degree, most will eventually move into a graduate job in the course of their careers [1].


1. Seven Years On: Graduate Careers in a Changing Labour Market, Professor Peter Elias (Warwick Institute for Employment Research) and Professor Kate Purcell (Employment Studies Research Unit, University of the West of England), June 2004.

2. SOC(HE): A classification of occupations for studying the graduate labour market, Professor Peter Elias and Professor Kate Purcell, March 2004.

3. What do graduates do?, Graduate Prospects/The Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS)/The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS).

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