University application: are students on the right career path?

How do the courses students choose at university affect their careers after graduation?

Are students choosing their career paths in the right way?

“What am I going to be when I grow up?” I don’t know how many times I asked myself (or was asked) this question when I was a child, but I do recall the answers ranged from National Geographic photographer to Prime Minister (I soon changed my mind) to animator for Disney. I’m sure I’m not the only one to have nursed such colourful childhood ambitions. It struck me, however, that when the subject comes up, children do not get asked “and what do you want to study?” (The exception being if you say you want to be a doctor, in which case you are immediately adjured to work hard at science). 

As far as I can recall, the question of what I ought to study at university only came up when I was actually applying for university. And when it did, I considered my options almost entirely in relation to the subjects I had enjoyed at school. Looking back, I wish I had taken a broader view and thought more deeply about my decision.

Choosing your course is important. Not only because you want to study something that you will find interesting for three or more years, although that is vital, but also because your time as an undergraduate prepares you for the wider world and provides you with skills for your social and professional life. What’s more, there are strategic and practical considerations to take into account: which degrees appeal to recruiting companies, which are the most competitive and how and where are they best taught.

Pondering these things, I decided to find out which courses are most popular in the UK and then consider the implications.

According to the latest data from UCAS, the most popular subject choices for the year starting September 2017 were:

  1. Subjects allied to medicine 278,890 (does not include medicine itself or dentistry)
  2. Biological sciences 219,450
  3. Business and Administration studies 215,120
  4. Creative arts and design 198,060
  5. Social studies 184,910
  6. Engineering 107,840
  7. Law 97,550
  8. Computer sciences 91,830
  9. Physical Sciences 85,930
  10. Education 78,050
  11. History and Philosophical Studies 66,270

Helpfully breaking it down into individual subjects, the Complete University Guide lists the ten most searched for courses on their site as:

  1. Physiotherapy
  2. Law
  3. Make-Up
  4. Psychology
  5. Actuarial Science
  6. Paramedical Science
  7. Computer Science
  8. Sports Psychology
  9. Medicine & Surgery
  10. Marine Biology

It is interesting to note that the most popular courses tend to fall into two categories. The first are courses specifically related to a profession, such as sports psychology, make-up or law. The second are popular subjects at A-level, such as history and the various subjects that come under the heading of social studies.

When I was applying to university, I definitely fell into the latter camp and applied to study my favourite school subject, English; while I loved it and valued my undergraduate experience, there have been times during my somewhat nomadic career where I have felt the lack of a more specific professional qualification or an extra skill to help me stand out when applying for jobs. I was intent on having a romantic and intense learning experience, full of poetry and cocktails, and I really didn’t think too much about my future after graduation. I wanted to be a journalist or theatre critic, but I hadn’t considered the realities of the workplace. For example, over the last ten years, the number of full-time paid journalism (and especially arts critic) jobs has decreased massively due to the plethora of online media sources and bloggers, and the decrease looks set to continue. Broadsheet newspapers are not the secure giants of the industry they once were.

The importance of informed careers guidance in a changing world

This highlights the importance of thinking ahead and keeping abreast of world trends in technology and the workplace. The impact of the 4th industrial revolution on students’ future careers should not be underestimated, and it needs to be considered prior to making university applications. Students are going to need a range of so-called hard and soft skills, and flexibility will be paramount.

This is particularly important for students who do not know what they want to do after university, probably the majority. If that is true, it’s worth their thinking about what kind of skills they want to develop, where their strengths lie. As when job-hunting, a careful self-assessment can be very helpful in guiding students towards an appropriate area of study. All degrees provide students with a variety of skills beyond the simple subject-related content knowledge: analytical skills, public speaking skills, communication, organization, to name a few. Students should take time to think about these skills and whether and how they might be useful down the road.  

University applications: what students need to ask themselves 

If a student is struggling to decide what to study or is applying for one of the most competitive subjects, they might want to think about being diverse. What will make them stand out from the hundreds of other law graduates when the time comes to apply for a job? What subjects offer a range of skills and areas of expertise, such that even if you do not have a specific career in mind, you have the potential to work in a variety of industries? Students might consider applying for a dual degree, studying a language alongside their main course of study or earning some kind of technical qualification. Thus, if a student is entering a competitive profession, they will have an edge. If they do not yet know what they want to do, they will give themselves a broader base from which to start out.

I wish, when I was thinking about university, someone had advised me to think beyond applying for the subject I most enjoyed at school. Even if I had ultimately come to the same decision, I think it would have been helpful to consider my options and factor in things such as professional ambition, competition, the changing workplace, building a distinct personal brand. I also wish I had taken a more serious look at the amazing number of options there are out there – as with careers, there are all kinds of things you one study that barely cross one’s radar in the intense curriculum-focused school environment.

Thinking about factors other than a liking for a subject can help students choose their degree course more wisely. However, I do not want to make it sound as though it has to be a joyless process. It is exciting and liberating – for many students, one of the first truly independent life choices. And always remember – it is possible to switch for students to switch courses if they find they have made a mistake. They can dare to be bold!

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