By Maeve O’Keeffe
Perhaps you were born with an innate desire to work in a certain job. You popped out of the womb, and just like that, had your calling to become a data analyst, Geography teacher, or civil engineer. OK, maybe you weren’t born with this knowledge, but perhaps it was evident from an early age where you wanted to end up in life. I have friends in Medicine who say that as children, they used to pretend their teddy bears were ill so that they could nurse them back to health. I have other friends in Teaching who used to complete homework exercises for their dolls, so that they could then go and correct the work, give feedback, and impose “school rules” all from their childhood bedroom. For others, the call to a vocation may have come a little later. Maybe you did a week’s work experience with a solicitor or pharmacist back in the transition year, and realised that you could see yourself being really happy in that profession down the line. Without wishing to suggest that the road to college is ever easy, having a clear idea of what you are aiming towards in university certainly irons out one aspect of the daunting challenge that is starting and finishing third level education.
Or perhaps the road to college was not so straightforward for you. The immense choice leaving cert students are confronted by in filling out CAO applications can be overwhelming. At the ripe old age of seventeen or eighteen, we are expected to make a huge decision regarding our future. And for those of us who come to university to study something broad and “keep our options open,” anticipating that we will figure it all out along the way, we are often disillusioned when we reach final year, and still feel overwhelmed by the array of options that present themselves to us, from entering the workforce, to various Masters and postgraduate programmes.
There is often a tendency to think of the decisions like the CAO and postgraduate options as ultimate, and final. It’s reminiscent of Frost’s famous poem, The Road Not Taken. We see endless possibilities stretching out before us, without truly knowing what choice is best, and feel sorry we cannot travel along each and every pathway. When I was in school, I used to wish I could time travel to some indistinct point in my future, and catch a glimpse of how my life would turn out based on the course I selected as my number one on the CAO, so that I could make an informed choice on my application. How would I live if I studied English, as opposed to Dietetics, or Midwifery, or Psychology, or any one of the flights of fancy I toyed around with in my final year of school? How fulfilled would I be, how successful, how happy? I agonised over the decision making, torturing myself by churning out dozens of imagined futures for myself. Of course, the exercise was totally futile. It’s a cliché, but we can never know what the future holds. Though I envied the kids in my class who had a dream pathway set in stone from what seemed like infancy, I have a different perspective now.
You see, the hype surrounding the CAO, college courses, points, and places, is just that – hype. Media outlets like to fixate on the Leaving Certificate each year, because it is close to a universal experience of being educated in Ireland. Leaving Cert points league tables by school, and spreadsheets showing the points increase for each course are nice newspaper fodder. Radio shows can discuss the merits of same sex or co-ed schools, private or public education, or how girls get better grades than their male classmates. Each year the same stories crop up, as inevitable as inane comments about how the weather always improves right as the exams start. That doesn’t mean that the discourse holds much significance in the grand scheme of things.
The reality is that many of us stumble into university courses based on the whims of our immature adolescent selves. It might not feel like it, but the people who have had their entire careers mapped out for them for years are in the minority. We do some googling, take Qualifax quizzes to ascertain our interests, and sit in front of generally well-intentioned, but occasionally disinterested career guidance teachers who ask if we’ve considered going to Maynooth? To think of our adolescent brain, so malleable and moody, bearing the burden of such crucial decisions about careers is a little scary, especially when, at the time, it seems that the decisions we made were set in stone.
What many of us fail to realise prior to starting college is what exactly a university education equips us with. Though many modules will incorporate practical information for a given job, so much of the learning we do is not centred on concrete information. Yes, we acquire a certain level of knowledge and expertise, and hopefully this knowledge will be relevant to the field we ultimately progress into. However, I see the real benefit of university as learning to learn. Critical thinking may seem like no more than the beloved buzzword of our college tutors, but it truly is a skill that is necessary in the current world of work, and becoming more so. In an age of information where knowledge is more accessible and easily disseminated than ever before, it is vital that we can think critically about the sources we are presented with, the broader context in which we find ourselves, and ethical dilemmas of a changing world.
Moving beyond the traditional view of education as the learning of information, to viewing it as a progression through new perspectives towards independent thinking can be so liberating if you’re someone who does not necessarily have a fixed goal in mind for the end of your degree. Jobs are more flexible than ever before, and the most recent statistics reveal that the average person will change careers about 3 to 7 times. The idea of a “job for life” that so many previous generations held in such high esteem is being eclipsed by a more dynamic working environment where the need to upskill and adapt to new technologies and systems is seen as rudimentary and essential. More of us are aspiring for growth and advancement in the workplace. Chances are, many of us will end up working in fields that seem, at least on a surface level, completely unrelated to our undergraduate degree.
Though some may be daunted at the idea of an ever-evolving career pathway and a constant need to improve to keep up, others may find solace in the fact that we are not necessarily restricted by the decisions we made in the career guidance teacher’s office when we were in school. Some of the most successful people in life carve out their careers in areas completely unrelated to their undergraduate degree. Love or loathe Pat Kenny, his successful broadcasting career was preceded by a chemical engineering degree. Lisa Kudrow studied psychobiology before landing her iconic role as Phoebe Buffay in Friends, and Angela Merkel holds an undergraduate degree in physics, as well as a doctorate in quantum chemistry. In fact, recent statistics show that 46% of graduates in Ireland are employed in areas unrelated to their undergraduate degree.
With that in mind, some would argue that it’s not about what you study in college, but more on how you make use of your time in college. Critically engage with the readings, make it your business to encounter new perspectives, and learn by questioning. Think of how young children learn so much simply by asking “Why?” and questioning the things that adults take for granted. Research in work and organisational psychology illustrate trends towards the desirability of soft skills such as creativity, effective communication, adaptability, and stress and time management, as opposed to simply being able to recall the hard skills or knowledge acquired through your studies. New technologies render so much information obsolete in a short period of time, so employers are looking for candidates who can think on their feet, research and communicate new ideas, and problem solve when faced with challenges in an ever-changing work environment, be it virtual or in person.
But what if it’s not enough? The investment of time and money that it takes to go to college cannot be underestimated, but it would be glib to suggest that once you’ve completed your undergraduate, you’re set for wherever life takes you. Though third level education is by no means totally accessible, the reality is that more people have an undergraduate degree than ever before. In our moments of self-doubt, we can find ourselves wondering what makes us stand out to future employers, in a sea of well-educated eager graduates hungry for opportunities. It is crucial that we optimise the limited time we get to spend in the cocoon of diverse and developing perspectives that university offers us.
Embrace the vibrant culture of societies and clubs in UCC and discover what you are passionate about. Many of us get sucked into the limited mentality of viewing participation in college life as some kind of box-ticking exercise. “It’ll be good for the CV,” we say, when considering involvement with campus life. Granted, becoming an OCM in a society or two won’t look too bad on your LinkedIn profile, but with a less cynical mindset, you could view your role in campus life as a vital aspect of self-discovery in establishing what career path you would like to pursue. Maybe you know where you want to end up, and view your involvement in campus life in a similar way to your degree – as a stepping-stone towards reaching your end goal. But your involvement can be more than a means to an end; it can provide insight into what your ultimate goal is. Maybe you got the role of public relations officer in a society you were roped into as a bright-eyed first year, and you discovered that you are really good at communicating information in a visually appealing way. Or perhaps your teammates made you captain of your sports team and you surprised yourself by realising that you’re a natural leader. Maybe you found you were fulfilled by volunteering to help students with Nightline or Peer Support, and want to pursue a career that centres around supporting others. Or maybe, you got involved with student media on a whim, and learned that writing articles like these is what makes you happy…
I’m still daunted at what lies ahead. I still feel dread when people ask me what I want to do when I graduate. However, though you may feel as clueless as you did while seventeen and sat in careers class in secondary school, it is important to remind yourself of all that you are learning, all you have learned so far, and all that you will learn in future. We are all still figuring it out, improvising and trying out different roles like we are playing dress-up, trying to find a costume that suits us so well, it stops feeling like a costume. Remember that it’s not a race. There is no deadline on the journey of figuring out what you’d like to do, and it’s ok if the road to your dream job is unconventional. Because in today’s world, unconventionality is a strength.