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In the southern hemisphere, final-year school students ought to be sorting out what to do next year.

This article is an edited re-post of a guest post I wrote on Alison’s blog before I had my own. Although written with science students in mind, most of it applies to students of all disciplines. Readers, share your own thoughts and suggestions.

1. Aim to learn how to learn–it’s the key qualification you’ll get.

Sounds like trivial, eh? A significant thing that employers like about university-trained people is that they are “self-learners”. A major element of the first year (or two) of university is to get students off dependence on teachers and to do the learning themselves. You’ll find that university-taught people are usually quite unafraid of learning new skills later in life for that reason. And given how the world keeps moving on, that’s not a bad thing.

2. The important thing about a job or training is that it is a “fit”.

I don’t wish to put people off ambitions or dreams, but in the end jobs, and training, are ideally a “fit” to your type of thinking, skills and needs. Don’t get too worried about it at an early stage, as university degrees (and careers for that matter) can wander around and you’ll find a niche, but somewhere down the track you’ll want to think about what your inclinations and real skills are and whether the job or training is actually a fit to yourself, or if what you’ve set out on is something you’d like to be true but you’re not suited to. It’s easy to aspire to things that subsequently prove to be inappropriate. It happens to everyone to varying degrees: the trick is to recognising it.

Don’t get caught up in the notion that “success” in science is research group leader or lecturer. Almost all the scientists you will see while in university are lecturers (who also run research groups), but there are far wider uses of science outside of universities. (See my previous post on this issue for more on this and some comments by others.)

Circumstances also matter: some career options are really only realistic in larger cities, companies and better-funded research institutes than we have in New Zealand. Lovely little country that this is, don’t cling to it if your better (overall) “fit” lies elsewhere.

3. Consider working for a year first.

This may seem silly, but it follows from the second point and will earn you money to keep your loan smaller! I’ve seen many students go to university more-or-less aimlessly because they thought it was the next step without really thinking it through. This was easier when course fees were nominal if you earned a ‘bursary’ or ‘scholarship’ pass in your final year at school, but I imagine this reason for starting university still true to some extent.

Some people may find that they are quite happy just working. No shame in that, although it can be true that degrees help to get the higher-paid jobs in some careers: a so-called glass-ceiling may be present, where those without higher degrees struggle to get past (if at all).

There are two times that are probably the easiest to try a year out working while doing a university course: before you start your undergraduate degree and between an undergraduate degree and a higher degree (I did the latter). Breaking a degree in the middle isn’t a good idea for most people: it’s hard to step back into full-time study.

I suspect one reason some people won’t consider working is because they want to stick with school friends who are going on to university. You should find in practice you have more free time than students, so keeping in touch with them shouldn’t be hard: don’t let that be the main reason for choosing university.

Ideally, get a job related to what you want to study for, so that you get a peek at what it is that you might be training for and if you’d like it. This is easier during the undergraduate-to-postgraduate “gap”,  both because you have some qualifications and because you should have some idea of what you want to do at that level but it’s worth at least trying earlier, too. (Most universities offer “summer studentships”, but unless things have changed without my noticing them, that’s for after your first year or two: do take advantage of them if you intend to go on to research.)

4. “Be their hero”.

Ask questions. In one lecture on my very first day, a lecturer put this beautifully. I remember it still, although I forgotten who the lecturer was, sod it. He pointed out that if you have a question, there will be several people in the class that will want to know the answer but are too afraid to ask. He then looked at us hard and emphatically said “be their hero and ask for them”.

I probably asked way too many questions… (You can never ask too many questions! Well, almost never…)

5. Don’t be afraid to change your mind or take “odd” course combinations.

(Within rational bounds, of course.)

People do change their minds, in the sense that they get a better idea of what is best for them over time. If something is really not working, don’t stick with it for the sake of it. But don’t give up too readily either! Talking to others helps, including to university staff. Don’t shy of asking; see the previous tip! For some, this may involve changing courses or leaving in the middle of a degree. I know some very bright people who have done this because they honestly felt they’d be better doing something else (one was the dux of my high school).

Likewise, don’t be too frightened of “odd” mixtures of courses: some of most useful skilled people are those that bridge two otherwise unrelated areas. It’s hard to predict what will be the new and interesting areas by the time you finish, you might be onto the next wave! During my undergraduate studies some people were (seriously) doing “computer graphics”. Graphics screens then only had 64 (or 128) by 24 (or 32) rectangles that were more usually used to write letters to the screen. I thought it was perfectly daft at the time, but I’d guess those people are now doing graphics for likes of Peter Jackson and Co.

My own undergraduate degree had papers cross-credited between two schools every year (computer science and biology). Each year I had to do a tour of the science deans to authorise my course as contributing to one degree. I was probably a stubborn little undergraduate student with very definite and idealistic ideas of what I wanted to do! That mix at that time was unusual: it now is a well-established field in it’s own right (bioinformatics or computational biology and sub-disciplines within them).