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This week’s problem

Having never been to university, I started studying part-time for a masters this year. I have a senior-level position in a small organisation — about 50 employees — and I hope to be able to move into either a similar role in a larger organisation or become managing director of a similar-sized company. Should I begin applying for these higher-level positions during my studies and highlight what I am learning, or would it be better to wait until completion? Anonymous, 40s

Jonathan’s answer

It is a brave decision to take on a university course alongside a full-time job, and to be doing this for the first time in your forties. By now, the course will be bringing you stimulating intellectual challenges and while that could be an end in itself, you principally see the master’s qualification as instrumental in enabling you to progress to a more senior role.

Specifically, you may be assuming that, on its own, the master’s is going to qualify you for jobs from which you were formerly excluded or perhaps give you an edge in your applications. While for undergraduates a degree can be a necessary entry ticket to apply for many roles, it is not sufficient to secure a role. Knowing this, astute students spend considerable time on internships and project work to acquire the employability skills that recruiters value.

Unlike new graduates, you already have many of those skills; you’ve been in work for up to 20 years, have learnt to operate successfully within a 50-person organisation, and can demonstrate leadership and responsibility. What does the master’s add?

If you have not already, analyse job descriptions for the higher-level positions to which you aspire: what are the essential criteria to do the role? While a formal qualification may be necessary (in which case specify you are studying, any grades already awarded, and the date you expect to graduate), there may be other criteria which you are beginning to meet.

For example, your studies have trained you to manage multiple concurrent projects, meet formal deadlines, and summarise, present and defend complex information. It is rare for anyone to meet all the criteria for a role exactly, especially when you are aspiring to a higher level; take the time now to define the relevant transferable skills and experiences you have from your current role and further studies.

There is no reason not to start applying for a new role now, before you have the formal qualification. It is probably not going to be critical for most jobs, and where it is, you can assert that you will qualify in the next few months. More important are the extra skills you are acquiring from the course itself and employing those new skills and knowledge to make a better application.

Readers’ advice

I started out with the aim of changing the world for the better; my target by the end was to not fail the course, not get fired and not get divorced. I met that target, but had to accept that for those two years I did nothing as well as I would have wished. I would avoid changing job until the studying is over — but it can be done. FinPhil

Job opportunities rarely come along at exactly the time you want, so it may pay to look around now. Remember no decision on a new job needs to be taken until an offer is made. AB

My small sample of cohorts for two postgraduate programmes saw almost all change jobs during or immediately after finishing (me included). Why? Time to think about what you want to do. You learn to manage greater demands on time and you interview better as study forces focus. mid term time to run

Jonathan Black is director of the Careers Service at the University of Oxford. Every fortnight he answers your questions on personal and career development, and working life. Do you have a question for him? Email dear.jonathan@ft.com

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