A Guide to the 13 Most Popular Graduate Careers

Image shows skyscrapers partly obscured behind trees.With a bewildering array of careers to choose from, the decision as to which path to take after you graduate is rarely an easy one.

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If you’re starting to think about this yourself, you may be seeking some clarification on what’s involved in the major sectors – or just some inspiration. The annual graduate recruitment report from High Fliers Research outlines trends among the hundred most successful employers, and provides an insight into which sectors are the most common destinations for university leavers. This article introduces you to the most popular career paths listed in this research, explaining what each sector is all about and the possible jobs that may be open to you within each. The careers are presented in order of the actual number of graduates recruited within each sector by December last year.

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1. Accounting and professional services

Image shows a towering skyscraper.
The London offices of Pricewaterhouse Coopers.

This sector refers primarily to the firms hired by companies to provide expert advice and to undertake professional services such as auditing, tax, consulting, advisory, actuary, corporate finance and legal services. The top recruiters in the accounting and professional services sector are the so-called ‘Big Four’ audit firms: Deloitte LLP, KPMG, and Ernst & Young, which all have excellent graduate schemes. Indeed, Deloitte and PriceWaterhouseCoopers are two of the biggest graduate recruiters in the UK. The opportunities for career progression within this sector are excellent – to the point where many stay with the same firm for their entire career – and graduates with brilliant brains for business, finance or law are quickly able to increase their income from already generous starting salaries.

2. Public sector

A career in the public sector could encompass a wide range of different jobs, as it essentially means anything funded by the Government. It could mean career in an actual Government department, such as the Department of Transport, HM Revenue and Customs, or the Food Standards Agency. It could also mean a career in a Government agency, which delivers work on behalf of the Government – an example being JobCentre Plus, which is an agency working with the Department of Work and Pensions. A career in local Government is another option within the public sector, and so is a career in the Armed Forces (which we’ll look at later) and the emergency services, such as the Police. The public sector is one of the biggest areas of growth in the job market, largely thanks to the success of the Teach First scheme, which is another good option for recent graduates considering a career in teaching.

3. Investment banking

Many graduates feel the lure of investment banking because of its reputation as being incredibly lucrative. Those who are happy taking risks will enjoy the thrill of this sector, so it would suit those with an entrepreneurial streak. The sector may have taken a hit with the financial crisis, but with the economy now recovering, it’s still very much a viable and well-paid career option for the ambitious graduate. Starting salaries are around £40,000, but competition is extremely fierce and success in this sector requires a particularly ruthless personality; it’s definitely not for everyone. Major graduate employers include Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.

4. Retail

A career in the retail sector doesn’t mean that you have to be a shop assistant. There are plenty of graduate career options within this sector that involve more responsibility, higher pay and a more interesting day-to-day life. A popular job in the retail sector is buying, which means choosing which products a shop is going to sell, within strict budgets, whilst keeping customers happy. As you can imagine, being a buyer in a large chain of shops is a big responsibility. Other possible job options in this sector are in merchandising (forecasting, allocating budgets and stock to stores, and so on) and managing a store, and employers include all the major chains of shops and supermarkets you use in everyday life.

5. Armed Forces

Image shows RAF pilots in a helicopter with its nose dipped towards a ship.
A Lynx Helicopter points its nose down at its mother ship, HMS Montrose.

You don’t have to see yourself as a fighter pilot or a trained killer to get a job working for the Ministry of Defence. A career working in the Armed Forces doesn’t have to mean an active combat role; for those not that way inclined, there are numerous other roles within the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force, and they’re major graduate recruiters. If you join as an officer, you can expect a good starting salary and excellent scope for promotion. To give you an example of a Forces career you might not have thought of, there’s demand for engineers – and those who join the Royal Navy and complete their training will receive a £27,000 bonus.

6. Engineering and industrial

Many possible career options fall under the umbrella of the engineering and industrial sector, including aerospace (the manufacture of civilian and military aircraft), automotive (cars), food and drink, biotechnology, nuclear, pharmaceutical and many more. Those with scientific degrees will be particularly well served by this sector, given the demand for graduates with such degrees. Major graduate employers in this sector include BAE Systems, Nestlé, Jaguar Land Rover and GlaxoSmithKline.

7. IT/Telecommunications

Image shows the top of the BT Tower.
The BT Tower is a famous London landmark.

IT, or Information Technology, encompasses activities such as computer programming, internet service provision and data hosting, while telecommunications covers things like landline and mobile phone providers and broadband. While many of the graduate jobs are with major employers such as Microsoft and IBM, there are plenty of opportunities for IT jobs within other sectors as well. It’s a popular sector with graduates from many backgrounds, not just those who hold degrees in computing, as the salaries are typically quite high. There’s also scope for self-employment in this sector, with some choosing to become freelance web developers, web designers and so on.

8. Banking and Finance

We’ve already touched on accounting and investment banking, but the banking and finance sector covers everything else. It includes things like insurance, banking and building societies, pensions and financial planning; you might choose to work in any of these areas supporting either businesses or individuals. Examples of graduate employers in this sector are high street banks such as Lloyds Banking Group, as well as insurance providers such as AXA and Aviva.

9. Law

Image shows a statue of Lady Justice.
Have a look at our series of articles for prospective law students.

Law remains a popular profession with graduates, to the extent that some opt to complete law conversion courses at the end of degrees in other subjects to allow them to pursue this career. The two main jobs in the legal profession are solicitor and barrister, but others find work as chartered legal executives, clerks, conveyancers and legal advisors to companies. As a lawyer, you can specialise in an area you find interesting, such as family law, commercial law or criminal law. There are numerous opportunities for employment in the legal profession, but the solicitors’ firms considered at the top of the sector are collectively known as the ‘Magic Circle’ and consist of Clifford Chance, Allen & Overy and Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer. Barristers are based in offices known as Chambers, many of which are located in one of the four Inns of Court. Salaries whilst you’re training to be a solicitor or barrister vary depending on the area of law — commercial law and chancery are exceedingly well paid, whereas criminal, family and immigration law are less lucrative; either way, earnings improve once you start professional practice.

10. Consulting

A career in consulting would see you become an advisor to companies or individuals, and there are a number of capacities in which you might do this. You could be an IT consultant, an environmental consultant or recruitment consultant, for example. But one of the most sought-after careers in consulting is management consultancy, which means helping businesses to overcome problems, grow in size or run more efficiently. Management consultants provide strategic input and advise on solutions, such as restructuring the company to achieve better cost-efficiency. This is the kind of career you could pursue at the aforementioned ‘Big Four’ audit firms, but you could also be more specialised by working for a consulting group that targets a particular industry (the Spire Consulting Group, for instance, is dedicated to the construction industry).

11. Oil and energy

Image shows an oil rig in Argentina.
The oil industry is particularly good if you have the desire to travel.

Oil and other energy companies don’t tend to have a very cosy image with the general public because of their environmental impact, and the industry lacks the glamour associated with sectors such as the law or investment banking. However, the opportunities are plentiful for graduates with certain degrees to work in the oil and energy sector, as it’s a sector that suffers from skills shortages. Scientists, engineers and geologists are particularly in demand, and there are possibilities for overseas travel as well as excellent salaries for suitably qualified graduates. There are also plenty of less specialised roles available in this industry, from human resources to marketing. Some of the most well-known graduate employers in this sector include Shell, BP and British Gas.

12. Consumer goods

The term “consumer goods” refers to the sector that deals with producing the items we use in everyday life – everything from food to toothbrushes to shower gel. Behind these everyday items, among others, are teams of scientists and other experts who carry out the research and development necessary to bring a product to market and ensure that it remains the most attractive consumer proposition. The supply chain feeds into this industry by providing the materials and finished goods, and may be suited to those with an engineering or business degree. Other roles include brand managers, marketing managers and account managers, who all help deal with publicising and distributing consumer goods. For those with scientific degrees, research and development for the consumer goods industry is a good career option, with excellent salaries on offer. An example of a major employer in this sector is Unilever.

13. Media

Image shows the BBC television centre.
The range of careers available at a huge corporation like the BBC is vast.

Of the thirteen sectors studied in the High Fliers research, the one that recruited the least graduates last year was media, a fact that perhaps reflects the industry’s notorious competitiveness. Careers in this industry can encompass a variety of media, such as television, radio, animation, film and advertising, and roles include commissioning editors, broadcasters, writers, journalists and directors. The association of this industry with “showbiz” means that it’s a highly desirable career, but the starting salaries are low and the hours can be unsociable. Examples of major graduate employers in this sector are the BBC, Channel 4 and Warner Brothers.

What are the most popular graduate jobs within these sectors?

We’ve now introduced you to the most popular sectors for graduate recruitment, and we’ve touched on a few of the specific jobs available within each of them. Before we go, we’ve just got time for a brief look at which areas of the companies in these sectors graduates are most likely to end up in. The High Fliers research found that within the sectors we’ve outlined above, the five most popular graduate vacancies were, in order of popularity, in the following areas:

  • IT
  • Finance
  • Human Resources
  • Marketing
  • Engineering

This list takes into account all sectors, thereby identifying vacancies that may appear to belong to a particular sector, but that are actually on offer in an entirely different sector – such as an IT role in a legal firm. From the numbers, it would appear that these areas are the ones that employers most need filling, so if any of these sound as though they may be of interest to you, gaining some work experience in any sector would be advantageous.
It’s worth noting that for these general roles, there’s nothing to stop you moving from one industry sector to another, as the skills required are the same; for example, the abilities you’d acquire in a human resources role in an oil company could easily be put to good use in a human resources job in a media organisation. If you encounter stiff competition as a graduate in a particular sector, an alternative route into it might be to gain a few years’ experience in a similar role in a less competitive sector, ready to approach your desired career from a different angle, with more experience, later on.
We hope you’ve found this a useful introduction to the many different kinds of graduate career possibilities out there. All the industry sectors outlined here will have attractive graduate schemes designed to recruit talented graduates, and, while some may be competitive, you have nothing to lose by applying for any you think would be well suited to you. The chances are that you’re exactly what these top employers are looking for!

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Image credits: banner; PwC; RAF; BT; law; oil rig; BBC.