“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:
- Subjects allied to medicine 278,890 (does not include medicine itself or dentistry)
- Biological sciences 219,450
- Business and Administration studies 215,120
- Creative arts and design 198,060
- Social studies 184,910
- Engineering 107,840
- Law 97,550
- Computer sciences 91,830
- Physical Sciences 85,930
- Education 78,050
- 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:
- Actuarial Science
- Paramedical Science
- Computer Science
- Sports Psychology
- Medicine & Surgery
- 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.