Credit: GG Photographer Jenny Dimitrialdi

It matters, to a degree

By Sofia Della Sala

I mean, how many of you are actually going to use that history/ literature/theatre degree?

A doctor studies medicine, a lawyer studies law, and an engineer studies engineering. The circle of life. How beautiful. So that must also mean actors study acting. Oh, except for Tom Cruise. And Meg Ryan. And Johnny Depp. But you need to study politics to be a politician, of course. Unless you’re Angela Merkel or Tony Blair. And to be an influencer, you need to study…?

Degrees, for many, are a sort of rite of passage; the next logical step in life towards adulthood. And for many jobs nowadays, degrees are a prerequisite. But is it a degree that gets you the job or the degree? Of course, some jobs require certain degrees: you can’t become a vet without having studied the field first, but that doesn’t mean that all vet med students end up actually being vets. Is that considered a failure? Is there any value in completing a degree that you will eventually never use? 

I would argue there is – but more importantly, I think there’s a misconception in what “using” your degree actually means. OK, so you don’t treat dogs who have accidentally ingested too much chocolate, but you might have to speak in public, or write reports, or analyse data. You might end up in a position that requires you to interact with people daily or requires you to move to a new city every six months. That’s using your degree. You may not be using your subject, but a degree is so much more than that – if you allow it to be. 

Simply going to university doesn’t automatically equip you with all of these transferable skills that the Careers Service loves to highlight in their emails. If that were the case, then we wouldn’t have hordes of university-educated anti-vaxxers, since we would all be able to “critically analyse” information, and all graduates would be competent “problem solvers” which, if you look at our highly educated government, we are clearly not. 

At the end of the day, a degree gives back what you put into it. You have to actively seek out ways to actually acquire skills; they don’t just materialise alongside your diploma. Some people are lucky enough that they have a home life whereby these concepts are practised regularly, and so are already steps ahead. Others rely on books or listening to debates. However, you can’t learn to effectively communicate by watching three YouTube videos or going to a two-week workshop. Competence takes time to develop and improve, not dissimilar to enjoying wine: people aren’t born loving wine (everyone starts with low-grade vodka mixed with squash to mask the taste), you develop a likeness for it over time, with the ability to like stronger, drier wines the more your taste refines.

The peculiar thing about these so-called “transferable skills” is that they are only transferable in the context in which you learn them. A university should teach you transferable skills but also how to transfer them; sadly, a university degree itself is lacking this fundamental cornerstone. A university degree ultimately teaches you a subject in a lot of detail and depth – although sometimes it doesn’t even do that completely. I’m in my fifth year of a Chemistry degree and still, no one has taught me how to critically appraise a Chemistry paper, let alone any other complex document.

But if you go beyond just wanting to pass your exams (be that through joining a society, playing a sport, or even just meeting new people), the knowledge you acquire is valuable and practical. Whilst I truly believe that, I haven’t said it’s easy when competing for jobs that are outside your “field”. Sadly, no matter how shiny and polished you make out your skills to be, there could be someone else who has a Cillit Bang sheen whilst you’re sitting there as Tesco’s own brand, even though you know the ingredients are the same. It’s damn hard. It’s hard even within your degree field, so to veer off the beaten track is daunting to say the least. 

However, a study conducted by the Higher Education Funding Council for England found that only a third of students entered a job related to their degree field – the majority of students pursue careers outside their studied discipline. So perhaps the path isn’t too unbeaten after all, it’s merely newly paved tarmac as opposed to the traditional cobbled streets. Which makes sense: I find cobbles hard to walk on anyway. 

I study Chemistry and I love science. But last year, whilst undergoing my work placement year, I realised that working in the lab full-time isn’t for me. This was after years of just focusing on science and undergoing lab placements, and so since then I’ve been in a continual state of “what now?”. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or even like doing, for that matter. I like listening to podcasts by the Guardian and the New York Times, so maybe I could take a bash at journalism (even though this is the third draft of this piece and I’ve had to close my laptop in frustration many times). Although, when I suggest this to friends and family, many are bewildered. Most nod and smile and tell me that “science communication is a great alternative” and when I correct them and say that I’m not necessarily thinking of just science and tech opportunities, their eyes twitch and their smiles quiver. There’s still the notion that your degree is your subject, and you’re naive to think otherwise. It is this mentality that renders a degree “useless”. People set in their cobbled ways, thinking that you can only do what is written in Latin on your degree certificate. 

But regardless of what a degree leaves you with, there’s an inherent value in learning. Most people choose a degree based on their interests rather than the job prospects (even though, of course, they go hand in hand, since you want to enjoy your job and area of interest ≈ career of interest). Learning is invaluable, and the fact that it is so strongly linked to the prospect of making money rather than the worth of knowledge is a fundamental problem in our capitalist society. 

Who knows if I will “use” my degree in the traditional sense, but I sure am going to let myself learn some skills which I will hopefully be able to transfer so that I can skip off into the sunset on that newly paved tarmac – without the fear of tripping on any cobbles. 


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