The Purpose of University
Updated: Aug 23, 2021
If you’re reading this blog, my guess would be that you're either currently at university, or have graduated sometime in the past. If you do fall under any of those categories, you might find yourself resonating with a lot of what this blog is going to cover.
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Take a moment to rewind and think about when you were fresh out of high school, and gearing up for college. Did you ask yourself the following questions?
Why am I going to university? What’s the underlying purpose driving this decision?
Do I really want to spend the next 3-4 years of my life learning about this subject I claim to be interested in? Do I really wanna pursue this subject field as a career?
Am I going to university to please my parents? Or to give a satisfactory answer to that one annoying neighbour, aunt or uncle who just won’t stop asking about my future plans because deep down, they want to compare me to their kid.
If it's none of those, do I want to go to university simply get a job? Do I need that stamp of approval which comes in the form of a degree that says okay, only NOW am I eligible for a job. NOW, I’m entitled….to a job.
Our society has collectively developed this norm of going to university right after high school. While there are some people who choose to get some time off, travel, rethink and then decide; the vast majority of individuals seem to be following the norm.
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But do we really have to go to university? Do we need to choose one subject area and pursue it to be successful? More importantly, are we guaranteed a job right after we finish? Is it even right for us to think that we deserve a job right after we finish? Well, depends on who you ask.
According to recent data by the Federal Government of Australia, 71% of graduates secure a job straight out of university, while 15% remain unemployed for up to 4 years after graduating. (Robinson, 2017)
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Another report by the US Department of Education revealed that 33% of bachelor’s degree students in 2011-12 changed their degree at least once by 2014. One in ten students, changed majors twice; and STEM fields, i.e. (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students were more likely to switch majors vs. non-stem field students. (Lederman, 2017)
As for satisfaction, the Australian Financial Review conducted a survey of around 1100 students to rate their university experience. Nearly, 50% of respondents stated that they did not believe the course they were studying was worth the money it cost; and 37% of international students felt that they had not learnt enough to be job ready. (Bolton, 2019)
As Gen Zs, we resonate more with each other than we sometimes do with our families. We know what it’s like to be a student in 2020, amidst social media, the occasional pandemic, socio-political issues, etc. So for all my fellow Gen Zs out there, if you feel that the future is hazy, your career path is uncertain, I’ve got news for you... You’re not alone.
Our guest today is someone who has been through the grind of university and has had thoughts of uncertainty regarding her career pop up every now and then. After doing some traveling and completing a handful of internships, she decided to create value out of that future uncertainty by starting her own podcast channel, where she invites industry professionals to share some insight about being in the workplace. I’d like to welcome Laura van Rens.
Originally from Canberra, Laura initially pursued a Bachelor of Environments (B-ENVS) degree at The University of Melbourne, with a plan to do architecture. Over the years, her plan changed from the B-ENVS degree, to a Bachelor of Arts (B-ARTS) with a major in psychology.
"I remember thinking to myself, that I don't really know what it is I want to do with my career, and that I'm probably not alone in that regard either. I found it hard to get up close and personal with industry experts to know what they're doing, and so I wanted to create an open platform that allowed people to explore industries and understand what corporate professionals or 'normal people' do. I wanted to interview such people to not only help me find out what I want to pursue, but to also help others explore what they can potentially do with their degree."
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Perception vs. Reality
One of the things I've noticed during my time at university is that as we begin our final 1-2 years, the career counselling unit at the university encourages us to attend career fairs to build networks and inquire about work options. A lot of the times we think about these elusive jobs and what it would be like to work for say, one of the Big Four consulting firms, or a huge tech company. This can sometimes make it daunting to go about the application process, if the student perceives the opportunities to be somewhat unattainable.
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It's likely that a difference exists between what an industry professional employed at these jobs says, and what we hear and see when attending career fairs. Job aspects such as long work hours, challenging nature of tasks and the ability to have a healthy work-life balance are often overlooked by career fair representatives; who emphasise on the scope for growth, diversity and culture. As we move closer towards graduation, it becomes more and more important to assess these opportunities holistically, knowing that these could potentially dictate our long-term career. It took some time for me to accept that you don't have to have your shit figured out from day one, or from the moment you graduate.
"The people I mostly aim to interview are those who have had relatively unconventional paths. One of my guests for example, attempted three university courses and didn't graduate with a single one, but ended up opening a nightclub with a friend. Sharing these stories helps alleviate some of the stress associated with having to know what to do after university."
Nothing is fixed except for death and taxes
One of the reasons why I thought of this episode was to explore what people expect out of university when they decide to join. What I've seen is that it's sort of become a societal norm to finish high school and go to university right after. I don't see a lot people taking some time to think about how they feel while studying a particular subject. The lecturer for a course I did once said that 'nothing is fixed except for death and taxes', seems appropriate to use that now! My guess would be that any university students reading this blog right now who've considered changing their degree or major would agree, that it's not a fixed path.
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"I recall one morning I had gone to campus and found out that my class had been cancelled, so I and the rest of the exchange students went up to a nearby cafe before we started studying.
That's when a friend of mine told me about this course she was applying for that had marketing, advertising and communications.
I thought it would be a great opportunity to collide the critical thinking knowledge I gained from B-ARTS with my general interest in psychology and human behaviour.
I browsed through the Uni-Melbourne website and came across the course I'm doing now. The deadline was in a week and so I applied, got in and was fortunate enough to receive the commonwealth supported place. Haven't looked back since.
I guess the takeaway from this would be that you don't necessarily need to have this pre-existing passion for something. It can be a result of a coincidental conversation with someone that pops up a subject of interest."
I remember in year 11 and 12 when I was doing the IBDP curriculum, I was particularly attached to two subjects- Economics and Business Management; so I wanted to pursue these at university. I came to ANU and realised how there's so much more that goes on with these two subjects. Coincidentally, at the same time I was introduced to a few marketing courses such as advertising and market research. These were subject areas that resonated with me as a person, since I'm quite an extroverted individual and enjoy being able to market and sell products/services.
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"It's something we all struggle with. We have to learn to be comfortable with the fact that it's okay to change our mind. The only way to do this is to expose ourselves to new experiences and if needed, go in a different direction. I feel that's the point of life, to keep trying new things, tick what works, cross off what doesn't and keep moving forward."
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It's likely that many of us feel obligated to go to university right after high school. For students who don't like studying too much, who're more inclined towards sports, or art or music; they might wanna take some time off to decide what their career path is.
The notion of graduating from university and getting a degree seems to be some sort of a stamp of approval, the stepping stone that an individual needs to secure a job. But can you differentiate two people's skillset based on whether or not they have a degree? Is that the deciding factor?
Presence with Purpose
If someone goes to university to simply obtain a degree, rather than attempt to genuinely learn about the subject they claim to be interested in, how would that turn out? Would that help the individual actually apply what's learned in the real world? If not, then doesn't that defeat the purpose of university?
In India for example, a lot of students are told during their final years of high school about how they should start preparing college applications, without even asking them whether or not they want to go to college. University isn't meant for everyone, not everyone may enjoy it; and if you can't make the most out of it and take advantage of all the opportunities university offers you, why are you even going? Is it for that degree? If it is, you might wanna ask yourself whether you really need a degree to get a job.
University is not like vocational education where you're taught how to become....say xyz. It's a common misconception with higher education that you're gonna learn concrete skills and that once you enter the corporate world, you'll be doing jobs that require application of those skills.
In school, we're often taught those concrete skills like for eg. this is how to solve this equation, or this is the best answer for the problem. More often than not, I think that university teaches you how to critically analyse a problem, as well as how to possibly go about solving it. So whilst you might look back to your degree and think of it as a waste of time because you don't remember anything you learnt....you're missing the point. You're not necessarily supposed to remember that reading you did in second year, or the core principles of x theory. This is what I experienced with B-ARTS so I can't speak for other degrees; but the ability to think is not a skill that's covert, rather something you're applying on a daily basis.
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That's where you might be able to see the distinction between someone who has a degree and someone who doesn't. A lot of industries these days expect you to have a bachelor's degree; so if you want to get into those fields you might have to do a degree, given that you have access to the resources available for it.
"One of the internships I completed over the summer was related to Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) and when I had a chat with the supervisor, he spoke about the importance of building connections and the idea of link-building. It suddenly made me realise that this was the exact same principle I learned from a concept while doing a second year criminology course. The thing I struggled to understand back then seems much more clear now because of its application, even though it had been 4-5 years since!. It demonstrates that you might not know what you've learned, but you're applying it all the time."
Looking beyond the books
As someone who has always valued practical application over theoretical knowledge, I strongly believe that the ability to comprehend datasets and translate that into meaningful information that would help devise strategies, carries significant importance in terms of being successful and working in a team.
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From personal experience I feel that coming to university was one of the best decisions of my life. Keeping the education aside, it's also about the soft skills that not many people speak about. While this depends on the degree you're doing, as a marketing and management student I was required to do teamwork-based projects, market research reports, advertising activities and presentations. Soon I realised that these tasks are what a typical marketing agency, or a management consultancy firm would have me do as well, to be thinking on my feet. You might be good with numbers but are you able to translate that into meaningful recommendations for the company's benefit?
We get fixated on the course content and don't think about the further application of what's being taught. Like why am I being taught this, why am I spending my time, money and effort into this assignment. How can I optimally use this service of university. If you're able to make the most out of it, I think you're in a good place to tackle the corporate world.
That being said, we still credit those who don't go to university and still manage to build a career for themselves. University might help you get that extra step up but there's heaps of people who've succeeded in following their passion with incredible tenacity and determination. With the question of whether or not a degree is worth it, sometimes it just depends on the industry.
Often we as individuals get anxious about the future and what career prospects we have. Last year I found myself worrying about what happens when I graduate, even though I had two years of university left. An element of self-doubt stepped in and that's when I asked myself whether or not I'm doing the right thing. My friends and family told me to calm down and take a step back. So I did some research and tried to ease the process. I worked on my resume, spoke to people and learned that a good career doesn't necessarily have to start with a big firm. Having that optimism that things will turn out in your favour, can help prevent any likelihood that you'll beat yourself up and affect your mental health. If you're ready, you might not be as afraid.
"There are areas we can control, and areas out of our control. You've gotta let the latter take their course, and try your best to handle the areas that are within your control."
"It's like having an end-goal, and looking at the things you do in between as help to reach that end goal. I do worry that I'm not going to be able to get a job. I think the best way to get through that is to believe in yourself."
There've been times where I've looked at things with a negative lens, seeing certain experiences as a waste of time. If you change the outlook to be more positive and open-minded, it's gonna change the way you ultimately view the experience, and the outcomes of the a result as well.
A message for our 18-year old selves....
Whether we like it or not, life likes to throw curveballs at us. Facing those kind of curveballs is what would help us prepare for similar, maybe even worse situations ahead in our lives. With this pandemic for example, my heart goes out to all the people who lost their jobs and who can't support their families. I firmly believe that as a society, we're all going to emerge stronger out of this pandemic and hopefully, make the most out of our seemingly 'normal' lives.
Being open-minded is also key. A couple years back I went to Hong Kong for exchange and as it was my first time, I was skeptical about the whole process. In the end, I was glad I followed through because I made friends from all over the world, and got exposure to that culture.
"I think the best piece of advice would be to learn how to be comfortable trying new things, things that scare you. Intangible things like attending a networking night, or being comfortable with leading a team in a group assignment. If you're someone who usually takes the back seat and lets others lead, try being comfortable with what scares you. Those are the times where you end up learning something meaningful.
Simply go with the flow. That's the only advice I would probably give to any high school graduates out there. You can still plan and create a structure around it, but as long as you're on your toes, you'll be able to withstand the hit from those curveballs better than if you were standing still."
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University is a space to grow. It's all about being mindful about the change that's come about the way you look, feel and speak, as well as everything you've learned over the past few years. It's not limited to getting in, doing the assignments, writing the exams and getting out.
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We offer our sincere gratitude to today's guest- Laura van Rens, founder of The 20-Something Grad. Check out:
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