Advice for students heading to university

By Grant Jacobs 29/11/2009 10

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).

10 Responses to “Advice for students heading to university”

  • Yes, we do like students asking questions. The funny thing is, that if we assumed you knew all the stuff before you came to lectures, then what would be the actual point of anybody enrolling?

    I think however, there remains a basic dilemma in tertiary education. That is, do you specialise in something that (currently) looks very employable or do you take a more general education? I think when times are good, specialisation is often the better strategy, but when times are volatile, being more of a generalist can make you adaptable. So it’s easier to move with the changing environment. Having several skills is important and a good ‘career’ insurance policy.

  • Sorry I’ve taken so long to get back to you… been distracted.

    I once sat in on a Master’s course for neuroscience and the students sat their passively expecting it all to be delivered to them. I spent a lot of my time on that course encouraging the students to ask questions (by example, as it were). Of the two lecturers, one seemed to resent me doing that (ouch!), the other welcomed it. OK, they’re still kids, but it was pretty sad to my mind to see them at that level needing encouragement to simply speak up.

    I would have thought the generalist/specialist choice has a little to do with what students’ intentions are afterwards. I guess some would say teach for those that intend to go on, and don’t worry about the others. (Not saying that’s right.) I personally think that to some extent if you’re not carrying on in science itself, the precise courses you take doesn’t matter that much (well, it does, but not “that” much), so much that you’re a good & fast self-learner.

    You could argue that in a competitive marketplace it’s the best specialist (not generalist) that wins in the niches, with the general approach being better as a “fall back” or for those not intending to take up a specialist job anyway. That’s more a post-graduate thing, though.

    Just ruminating… (and not very well I think either…)

  • I’m not entirely convinced about specialisation and unstable job markets :) I did my masters thesis on the taxonomy of NZ pseudoscorpions, which is probably one of the most specialised areas around. I finished around the 1990-91 recession and pretty much, that didn’t help. For better of for worse, I was able to leverage some economics and maths UG papers into a doctorate in environmental economics. Having both zoology and economics backgrounds has meant I’ve been able to do different things at different times.

    A couple of additional ruminations also- I think a lot of people who have become very successful have done so for ‘non-academic reasons’. A lot of these people have superb interpersonal skills and make good collaborators and leaders. Being a straight A student isn’t a perfect predictor of success.

    I also tend to the view that languages have become more important. Languages like Mandarin, Spanish or Arabic are pretty useful. I’m the only researcher on tiger black-markets the Chinese are working with (of the original set, invited in 2007), and I don’t think it’s entirely down to my scientific ability. A lot has got to do with the fact I was the only one who could speak Chinese.

  • I think we’ve crossed wires, my fault. My remark about specialisation was about undergrads, e.g. biology or a wider mix not about post-grad courses, which by their nature are specialised. (My article is aimed those starting undergraduate degrees.)

    I guess there is a extra benefit of those that mix disciplines is that they have more than one to call on later. I could push off and do “straight” computer programming if I wanted to (or website construction, I’ve built stand-alone sites with database-hosted data, etc. from ground up). By choice I prefer to be closer to the science.

    There are a decent number of émigrés from other fields in bioinformatics/bio-IT. (I know of astrophysicists who’ve moved over, for example.)

    A couple of additional ruminations also- I think a lot of people who have become very successful have done so for ‘non-academic reasons’. A lot of these people have superb interpersonal skills and make good collaborators and leaders. Being a straight A student isn’t a perfect predictor of success.

    Comes back to the “fit” thing I mentioned, perhaps?

    I’ve often wished I had chosen a field that’d let me travel into remote areas, as I love traveling out-of-the-way places, e.g. tramping in Kyrgyzstan. (Know the general thing you mean about the guns-and-the-guys-attached-to-them thing in your article.) I find I can explore new cities up to a point, then I want to get out. I tell people I’m open to jobs in off-beat location and off-shore just in case…

  • Sure, I take your point about the postgrad. I think the effect is most pronounced there. But even at the undergrad level, students sometimes specialise quite quickly. I had some contemporaries doing biology who stuck to genetics, biochemistry and microbiology- avoiding ecology, botany and zoology options. The goal was to get into a biotech job.

    There are cohorts of business students struggling through accountancy degrees, because it’s seen as a specialisation with safe job options. The fastest growing programme on the Albany campus has been Finance. Before the Global Financial Crisis, they were being snapped up. Now, it’s a bit too narrow and specialised, the job market has shrunk, and it’s the generalists getting jobs again. I guess this is more about not closing off some options prematurely.

    I think universities do like to emphasise the value of a degree, but to some extent, you need a lot of other skills- to develop your own ‘fitness’ so to speak. I do think that good interpersonal skills rarely get mentioned as a significant driver of success.

    Heh, you do sound like you have the temperament at least for working in off-beat places.

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