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Employer Sponsorship for Postgraduate Study

Written by Mark Bennett

For many students, a postgraduate qualification is a route towards improved career prospects and employability. And there’s evidence that employers do recognise the value of the advanced skills and training you’ll earn with a Masters-level degree.

So, will they also help you pay for it? In some cases, the answer could be ‘yes’.

If postgraduate study will help you qualify for a specific field and you can demonstrate potential, a prospective employer might offer to sponsor your training.

Postgraduate study can also be a form of continuing professional development (CPD). If so, a current employer might also help cover the cost of a course that will help you contribute to their business.

This guide explains how employer sponsorship for postgraduate study typically works and which kinds of qualifications are most likely to receive support. We’ve also offered some tips for seeking funding for your course.

What kinds of postgraduate courses do employers sponsor?

The simple answer to this question is that it depends on the employer. But there are some general rules (and they probably won’t surprise you).

An employer will invest in training that benefits their business. That could involve sponsoring promising graduates to earn necessary professional qualifications. Or it could involve supporting employees with continuing professional development.

That means that the kinds of degrees an employer will support can be quite limited. It’s not impossible that an organisation might cover the cost of a Masters in Eighteenth-Century Poetry. But they’re a lot more likely to sponsor a Masters in Twenty-First Century Business, or Law.

So, what are the most likely scenarios for postgraduate employer sponsorship?

Professional qualification and accreditation

In some jobs, a period of postgraduate study and further qualification is a minimum requirement for professional practice.

This is most likely in so-called ‘regulated professions’ such as education, or law. To work in these fields, you’ll usually need to complete further qualifications on top of an undergraduate degree.

Teachers, for example, often study a Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) or similar qualification. Solicitors, meanwhile, usually complete a Legal Practice Course (LPC) or its equivalent.

Other professions such as architecture, accountancy or social work may also require accredited qualifications. These are often earned through postgraduate study.

In most cases students pay for these extra degrees themselves. But, if you can demonstrate significant potential in your intended career path, an employer might invest in your training.

A private company (such as a law firm) will usually do this in order to hire you when you qualify – and benefit from your skills.

Public sector professions (such as education) may also offer graduate training schemes in order to attract high quality candidates.

The best way to find this kind of employer sponsorship is to research your intended profession carefully. Are Government sponsorship schemes available? Are there any suitable businesses and firms with their own sponsorship schemes?

Continuing professional development

It’s common to think of postgraduate study as an extra step between undergraduate study and work. That’s not always the case.

Many postgraduate courses are actually offered as continuing professional development, or ‘CPD’, opportunities. These tend to be shorter Postgraduate Certificate or Diploma qualifications designed for people with existing professional experience – and employment.

There are two main types of postgraduate CPD:

  • Some courses allow you to ‘upskill’ or ‘reskill’ yourself in order to move into more senior positions within your organisation – or shift to a different role.
  • Other courses allow you to keep pace with dynamic professions by learning best-practice or new techniques.

The nature of the modern workforce means that both types of continuing professional development are becoming increasingly common. Many careers are now fast-moving, influenced by new technologies or changes in policy and business practices.

CPD allows employers to ensure their employees’ skills are up-to-date and their businesses are competitive.

As such, CPD is probably the easiest form of postgraduate study to secure employer sponsorship for. Provided, that is, that you can make a strong case for the benefit this training offers them (not just you!).

MBA sponsorship

The MBA (or ‘Master of Business Administration’) is intended for business and management professionals seeking to acquire top-level leadership skills.

And, unlike a standard Business Masters degree, an MBA requires substantial existing experience as well as appropriate undergraduate qualifications.

You might think of an MBA as an extreme form of CPD - and most courses have a price-tag to match. Average fees for an MBA in the UK are over £18,000 (many programmes are much more expensive).

This means that employer sponsorship is actually one of the most realistic ways to ‘fund’ an MBA. You’ll need to be an exceptional candidate to receive this kind of support, with the potential to contribute a great deal to your company (perhaps literally).

But, if you’re ready to complete an MBA, you probably already have these qualities.

Making a case for employer sponsorship

Persuading an employer to fund your Masters (or other postgraduate degree) may not be as hard as you think.

After all, organisations invest in their businesses and other activities all the time. Improving their workforce is a core part of that.

But you’ll need to make the value of this investment clear – and make sure your employer understands this is in investment in you, not simply for you.

Below are some ways to go about that (and some things to bear in mind as you do).

For postgraduate training schemes, focus on what you have to offer

If you’re seeking sponsorship for professional training, the outcome of that training will be fairly obvious. You’ll end up as a qualified teacher, solicitor, accountant or other practitioner. You’ll be ready to work for your future employer.

This is all fine. But so will anyone else with those qualifications. Why should an employer pay for you to earn them, rather than simply hire someone else who already has them?

You’ll need to make a strong case for your potential – and provide evidence:

  • What is the appeal of this profession (and this organisation in particular) to you?
  • What unique skills or experience do you have to offer?
  • What steps have you taken to prepare yourself for this opportunity?
  • What are your future goals (and how do they suit your prospective employer’s)?

Think of this kind of employer funding as being like a job application. Because it more or less is.

For postgraduate CPD, focus on tangible benefits and outcomes

Continuing professional development courses will be designed to provide you with knowledge and skills: knowledge of new practices or policy and skills in using new techniques or methods.

Those are all good outcomes for you. In principle, they’re good outcomes for your employer too. But don’t assume that’s enough. Make a case for the practical benefits of your training to your employer:

  • If you’re encountering obstacles in your role, explain how fresh training will allow you to overcome them.
  • If you feel you have more to offer your organisation, be specific about how a postgraduate course will unlock that potential.
  • If best practice in your profession has changed, explain how and be able to show that further training will catch you up.
  • If ‘reskilling’ to a different role, make sure this is something your employer supports and explain how a course will equip you for the move.

Convincing your employer of the value of CPD may require you to think about postgraduate study a little differently.

Instead of focussing on the qualification you’ll earn (an MSc, PGDip, PGCert, or other) focus on the course content. Show what it is you’re going to learn during a course. More specifically, show what you’re doing to learn to do.

Think about your employer’s objectives

Your objective in pursuing further study is fairly clear: you want to gain additional skills, training and qualifications. This applies whatever you’re seeking a postgraduate degree for.

Your employer’s objectives are likely to involve longer range goals. Think about these. then match your objectives to them:

  • Is your employer looking to gain a lead on competitors? Explain how your new skills could give them an edge.
  • Is your employer looking to break into new markets? Explain how your training will help you contribute to this process.
  • Is your employer looking to offer new products or services? Explain how your course will help you develop, sell or market these.

The above examples are all appropriate to someone seeking employer sponsorship for postgraduate CPD. But they could also apply to support for professional training at Masters-level. In this case you’ll want to explain how your values and goals match theirs and what you can bring to their objectives.

Employer sponsorship: things to bear in mind

Employer sponsorship differs from other forms of Masters funding in some obvious ways.

Other funders or funding sources – such as postgraduate loans or Research Council grants – exist to support students. They fund postgraduate study because funding postgraduate study is what they do.

Unless you happen to work for the Student Loans Company, this probably isn’t the case for your employer.

That means you need to persuade them to do something they wouldn’t necessarily do otherwise. We’ve explained how to go about that, above.

But employer sponsorship also works differently to other forms of postgraduate funding. It’s important to be aware of the following:

Terms, conditions and commitments

An employer probably isn’t going to fund your Masters out of generosity. They’ll expect a return on their investment and this may require some guarantees on your part.

If a company pays for your training you may be contracted to work for them for a set period of time (or otherwise repay the cost of your course).

Strict obligations for CPD courses are less likely, but that doesn’t mean you can take advantage of an employer’s support – or that you should try to.

You’ll be more likely to receive sponsorship if you can demonstrate commitment to an organisation. Similarly, abandoning an employer who’s helped train you won’t do your CV or references any good.

Payment for training in lieu of salary or other benefits is fairly unlikely, but not impossible.

Whatever kind of support you're seeking, make sure you and your employer have a clear understanding of your mutual commitments and expectations.

Alternatives to employer sponsorship

It may be the case that your employer wants to support your postgraduate training or CPD, but can’t justify the budget cost of paying for your course directly and / or entirely.

If that’s the case it may still be worth discussing the matter with your employer. They might be able to offer support in an alternative format. Such as:

  • Offering flexible working hours or a temporary part-time contract could allow you to complete your course without giving up your job (or all of your income).
  • Offering additional holiday could have the same benefit.
  • Identifying alternative qualifications or in-house training may also be an option in some cases.

It’s worth taking a broad view of employer support, particularly if your primary goal is to receive professional development.

Avoiding risks

Finally, it’s important to remember that seeking financial support from an employer is a little different to other kinds of postgraduate funding.

If your application for a postgraduate loan or other grant is unsuccessful, that will be unfortunate, but you may never need to deal with that funder again.

If you ask a current employer for sponsorship, you’ll still be working for them afterwards. It’s important to bear that in mind when framing your request.

Your employer will probably be pleased that you’re willing to challenge yourself and improve your skills through postgraduate training.

Even if they aren’t currently willing (or able) to fund your study they’ll remember that you had the initiative and confidence to make a reasonable request for support. They’ll also appreciate that you had the best interests of their organisation at heart.

On the other hand, an insincere or clearly self-interested request may have the opposite effect.

Employer sponsorship can be an excellent (and all-too-easily-overlooked) source of funding for a Masters degree or postgraduate CPD. But make sure you go about it the right way.

Other postgraduate funding

Employer sponsorship is a great option for some degrees, but it isn't suitable for all qualifications. Thankfully, our guides to postgraduate funding cover a range of alternative options.

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Last updated: 16 June 2020