Career-related satisfaction in university degrees high, but more than one-third of master’s graduates unemployed in early stages of careers

Two-thirds of master’s degree holders feel their education also provides good career skills, while doctoral degree holders consider their degree a sign of expertise.

Each year, Finnish universities ask those who graduated with a master's degree five years ago or with a doctoral degree three years ago about their employment and what they think about their education and the qualifications provided by it. For the University of Helsinki, the results of the latest surveys were published on 11 June 2020. (Link to the Finnish survey. The survey will be published in English later.)

Nearly all master's degree holders who responded to the survey in autumn 2019 were employed, with only 2% of the respondents being unemployed. Their job requirements also corresponded well with their education, and they were able to utilise the knowledge and skills learnt at university, as assessed by more than 80% of respondents. In fact, the majority (83%) were satisfied with their degree in terms of their professional career, an increase of two percentage points from the previous survey.

In the case of doctoral degree holders, the figures were even better. In terms of their professional careers, almost 90% of respondents were satisfied with their doctoral degree. In addition, 86% of doctoral degree holders considered the requirement level of their work well matched with their education.

“Doctoral degree holders also stated that they were able to use the knowledge and skills gained from their studies in their work,” Riikka Sarasjärvi from Research Services sums up.

Unemployment varies greatly between educational fields

In the survey for master’s degree holders, more than one third, or a total of 36% of respondents, had been unemployed in the first years of their career. The share of those with periods of unemployment grew by three percentage points compared to the graduates in the year before.

A little over a quarter of doctoral degree holders, 27%, had been unemployed. The share of doctoral degree holders who had been unemployed at some point after graduation decreased by two percentage points from the previous survey.

“The career tracking survey was conducted last autumn, which excludes the effect on employment of the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 from the findings. Next autumn’s survey will shed light on how the coronavirus crisis has affected the employment of those responding to the upcoming survey,” says Eric Carver from Strategic Services for Teaching.

Unemployment varies greatly between educational fields. For example, only 13% of the respondents to the master’s level survey who graduated from the Faculty of Medicine had been unemployed in the past five years, whereas the corresponding figure for Faculty of Theology graduates was as high as 55%. The job market situation of educational fields is also evident in the responses. Those who have found employment that matches their educational level well are usually the most satisfied with their degree.

According to respondents holding a master’s degree, the most important factors that impact finding work are the ability to describe their personal expertise, other work experience, and contacts and networks.

The most common employer sectors for University of Helsinki master’s graduates were businesses and municipalities, with almost 60% of respondents working in these sectors. The third sector, the state and universities each employed a little over 10% of respondents.

The most common fields for master’s degree holders were education, work with customers or patients, planning, development or administrative duties, and research. The mean monthly salary of respondents was €3,400.

Career skills provided by education are important

Even though master’s degree holders were mainly satisfied with their degree in terms of their professional career, only two-thirds felt that their education had equipped them sufficiently for the job market. According to the respondents, the ability to learn new things, initiative, cooperation and problem-solving skills as well as stress tolerance were the most important skills needed in their work.

“If a respondent feels that their education has provided them with sufficient skills for professional life, they have a more positive view of skills development during studies, including theoretical knowledge, practical knowledge, problem-solving, cooperation skills, analytical and systematic thinking, teaching, instructional and guidance skills, public speaking skills as well as stress tolerance,” says Tuukka Kangas from Institutional Research and Analysis.

Some of the skills above are already recognised as strengths associated with university education, others constitute development targets.

Survey results affect university funding from 2021

From 2021 onwards, career tracking surveys will begin to have an effect on the model for distributing funds to universities. Currently, only the number of employed graduates is measured, but under the new model the quality of employment will be introduced as another indicator. Concrete figures will be obtained from Statistics Finland, while quality will be assessed on the basis of career tracking survey responses by master’s graduates.

The response rate of the career tracking survey for master’s graduates remained unchanged at 42%, with great differences in faculty-specific response rates.

The response rate of the survey for doctoral graduates decreased by two percentage points from the previous survey, with 47% of the doctoral graduates from 2016 responding.

The survey results based on the responses of master’s degree holders who graduated in 2014 and doctoral degree holders who graduated in 2016, were published on 11 June 2020. (Link to the Finnish survey. The survey will be published in English later.)

Further information on career tracking:


Doctoral graduates satisfied with the careers provided by their degree

The University of Helsinki surveyed the level of satisfaction with their degree of those who graduated with a doctoral degree in 2014–2016 through open responses included in the career tracking survey. The University of Helsinki has four doctoral schools, from which approximately 400–500 doctoral degree holders graduate each year. Three years after graduation, they are sent a career tracking survey. The report can be read in its entirety here (in Finnish, English version will be published later).

Extracts from the findings:

  • Doctoral degree holders are primarily satisfied with the professional career provided by their degree. Many of the respondents had gained their current job with the knowledge and skills provided by their doctoral studies.
  • The degree was considered beneficial to careers, provided that the related skills could be utilised or if the doctoral dissertation had another link to their current job.
  • A doctoral degree led to appreciation and impact, and its value was also acknowledged in sectors outside academia, at least according to satisfied respondents.
  • Doctoral education was considered to have provided a range of skills and networks that were beneficial later on.
  • In general, a doctoral degree was considered an indication of in-depth expertise and related skills, such as project management and the ability to work with a long-term approach.
  • It is important for doctoral students to acquire a sufficient amount of transferable skills and to understand what kinds of skills they may need in the future.
  • The role of supervisor(s) is important, but in certain cases their contacts outside academia are limited, making other kinds of support for doctoral students necessary.
  • In the case of difficulties in finding work, a certain level of dissatisfaction with the degree was expressed in terms of careers. Fixed-term employment and working in fixed-term grant-funded roles were a cause of dissatisfaction, with those with families finding the uncertainty particularly stressful.
  • Combining family life with a (research) career was not always considered easy.
  • Tough competition where the rate of publication is often the key merit was considered another challenge associated with academia. Respondents were often satisfied with their degree in terms of their professional career so far, while at the same time worrying about their prospects.
  • Respondents were worried about the significance of the degree in other sectors, and many had experience of being considered ‘overqualified’ or of other prejudices pertaining to a ‘researcher type’.
  • Many were thinking about their ability to transfer to other sectors, with some respondents considering doctoral degrees very university-centric.
  • The label of over-education or a perceived lack of appreciation are discouraging for doctoral degree holders and harmful to society.
  • Most respondents were satisfied with their salary, but there was also variance in the salary level, and personal salaries were assessed in relation to the level of education. Low salaries were felt to indicate a lack of appreciation.
  • Good or inadequate supervision and guidance during doctoral studies had an impact on how respondents assessed their satisfaction with their degree in terms of their career.
  • Support is expected from the University for those fields in particular where career paths can be unclear or where employment prospects are challenging.