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My Research

What do graduates do in UK businesses, and does business size matter? This is the key question that I will be addressing in my PhD research project.


In the context of an expanded higher education system and concern about perceived ‘skill misallocations’ and ‘graduate employability’, the UK government has highlighted small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) as potential graduate employers, absorbing some of the graduate supply and ‘utilising’ their skills. However, empirical studies investigating SME demand for first degree graduates and their skills have reported conflicting findings. It is particularly unclear what is meant by skill utilisation in the workplace. The aim of this research project is to investigate the differences between the jobs that graduates do, which have only recently started requring degrees ('new' or 'niche' graduate jobs) in small (between 10 and 49 employees) and in large businesses (250+ employees). In particular, the project focuses on graduates employed in business and public service associate professional occupations in marketing, advertising, public relations and human resources (SOC 2010 group 35). This PhD research builds on the Futuretrack project and is timely given the current developments in UK higher education.

Main research questions
  • Was there a difference in the use of graduates' skills and knowledge in small and large businesses? If so, what were the main explanatory factors?
  • If the use of skills and knowledge was different in small and large businesses, in what ways did it differ?
  • How did the use of skills and knowledge in small and large businesses relate to the graduates' opportunities for promotion and career development?
Mixed Methods

To analyse the use of skills and knowledge as comprehensively as possible, this study has used mixed-methods. A targeted analysis of national longitudinal survey data of UK graduates currently in their early careers (Futuretrack) has revealed relationships between business size and uses of skills and knowledge. In-depth qualitative interviews with participants selected from Futuretrack, investigate patterns identified in the quantitative analysis in more detail, focusing on personal experiences of graduate work and highlighting the ways in which skills and knowledge can be used.


This project aims to make methodological, theoretical and empirical contributions to knowledge, through advancing integrated mixed-methods studies and the use of diaries in social science research; exploring what influences the extent to which graduates use their skills at work; and generating quantitative and qualitative data on graduates’ experience of work, particularly in small businesses.

This research will benefit the small firm community by highlighting the kinds of skills and knowledge that graduates have, and how these can contribute to business performance.

Finally, this research will be of use to graduates and to current school and university students, as it will investigate what kind of differences exist between similar jobs in small and in large companies and how this might affect graduates' career development prospects.


This PhD is funded by an ESRC CASE Studentship with HECSU as the collaborating partner through the EREBUS Capacity Building Cluster partnership. It is supervised by Professors Kate Purcell (IER) and Kevin Mole (WBS), with Jane Artess (HECSU) as advisor.


Kate Purcell
Institute for Employment Research
K dot Purcell at warwick dot ac dot uk

Kevin Mole
Warwick Business
Kevin dot Mole at wbs dot ac dot uk