Should I go to university?

It’s that time of year. Students have applied to university and they are getting their acceptance and rejection letters back and deadlines for responses are approaching. They are asking “Where do I go? Do I really want to go?” Maybe. But if you’re most people, the truth is university is probably not for you.

There’s a lot to think about in high school: What do I want to do with my life? What jobs do I like? What am I interested in? There’s also lots of adults trying to get you to make decisions based on the answers to those questions.

Most of us, though, don’t know those answers at 17-18 years old when we’re graduating high school. So people often err on the side of education and go to a major university. 30 thousand dollars later, they can’t answer that question any better than before. Or perhaps they can, but they took the wrong steps to get there and now they’re stuck. Or some life stuff happened and they can’t do what they wanted to. Nothing pains me more than when classes are filled with people who don’t care why they are there or how much money they are spending. This is a complete waste. It’s wastes their time and their parents’ and university’s resources.

I don’t understand the pressure to go to university. Parents and teachers seem to labour under some delusion that you will not get a job unless you go to university. That is just not true. Also, if you go to university not knowing why you’re there or what you want to accomplish, you can waste years of your young life and tens of thousands of dollars figuring it out.

I’ll give you an anecdote: I went to university after high school. I had no idea what I wanted to do, just that I had to go to university because I was graduated and if I wasn’t a deadbeat than I had to enroll. I went to Mount Allison for 4 years and majored in physics because I was good at it in high school and was (still am) interested in astronomy. I wanted to be an astronomer.

Major problem with that plan: I had no frigging clue what was actually involved in becoming an astronomer. I had no idea what university physics was like (epic bad — I didn’t fail, but my non-astronomy courses weren’t good), I had no idea what I had to plan for long-term, I had no idea what the job market was like, and I had no idea how to achieve any of those goals (i.e., what supports were in place, etc) or where to find information for support.

Major problem with the plan of the average person going to university: They don’t know those things either.

I ended up changing majors to psychology, but by then the damage to my GPA was done and I couldn’t get into the honours program. So I went to Dalhousie University and studied neuroscience for 2 years because my choice was to do one more ear at MTA to get an honours or get 2 years more experience at a bigger university and more redemption of my GPA plus an honours and a whole other degree. I chose the latter. My plan then was to apply to graduate school and continue my research.

But there was something else I wasn’t prepared for: politics. If my allergies hadn’t kicked in and forced me to change from animal to human research, I would still have been crippled by my innate disability of being unable to sell myself. I can’t kiss ass. I just can’t. I also have a real problem making inane things about myself sound dynamic and worthy of research funds and a supervisor. I was extremely unprepared for the political nature of psychology/neuroscience (or any? I dunno what other programs are like) graduate school. And I think a lot of people aren’t prepared for that, especially if they can’t find good mentors to help them through these hurdles.

Part of the problem for me I think is that I do not come from a background of academics. I had to plow this road on my own. And I think a lot of people are in that position. University didn’t become “the thing to do” until about the last 20 years or so. Now it seems that almost everyone goes to university whether they should or not. If you do the math, that means that most people’s parents haven’t gone the academic route. They may have gone to university, but they may not have jobs that relate to their degree. Also they may have dropped out or never gone at all. This puts these people at a disadvantage when it comes to graduate school politics.

So back on track: Should I go to universty?

What’s the rush? If you don’t know what you want to do by graduation, save yourself some trouble and take a year off. Use that year to explore different careers. Get a temporary job and volunteer at other places and ask for job shadows. This kind of thing doesn’t occur to some people: “I can do that?!” Sure. Why not? Some places may not let you, but it’s worth a shot to ask: “I’m considering working in X. I’d like to explore it further to see if I like it enough to study in school and make a career out of it.” For example, if you want to work in health care or be a veterinarian, become a student or community volunteer at a local hospital or clinic. Many programs require volunteer services anyway or use it as a way to distinguish between two equally-qualified candidates. If you explain to your parents the reasons for putting university off and negotiate goals for that time off, they may freak out less or be more understanding than what they are probably assuming (that you’re going to use the time to mooch).

There are also alternatives to university. Some people aren’t interested in the academic side of things or aren’t interested in the kinds of jobs that require university degrees. These people should seriously consider college. College is cheaper, shorter, and typically available locally (depending on the area). The jobs people get from college tend to be less academically-inclined and/or require fewer responsibilities. That is not to say they are less important, of course. If you’re looking for a job that has benefits, good hours, etc. college can provide that. The distinction is mainly like this example: to be a dentist, you go to university; to be a dental hygienist, you can go to college. Or this example: I’m an [profession deleted] (soon, next month) — university. An [profession deleted] assistant can go to college. Same kind of practice area, same kind of job, just less responsibility and less time/money spent. For some people, that may be the better option, depending on goals and life obligations. I wish I had known about these options before I spent 8 of the last 10 years in school…

That being said, I want to point out that you get what you pay for. I don’t mean dollars, I mean effort. Those commercials “get a degree and do almost nothing!” will get you just that — almost nothing. Would you hire you if your candidates were 1) a graduate from a recognized college vs. 2) you and your 5 week 2000$ internet “course”? It may be biased and unfair, but if you’re competing for people at a certain job level, you better have average or better-than-average cred for that level. Otherwise, you may be jobless or have to accept something other than where you wanted to be. The idea is to explore the different job levels and find out what is necessary to get what you want. What is necessary is not always a university degree.

You may not even need a university degree or college diploma at all. You may need skills. This is where volunteer work and hand-on experience during high school or a year off can really give you a leg up. If you’re into construction or another trade skill, you may want to explore that instead of college or university. Skip the debt and go right into work. This is sometimes easier said than done, but the option is there for consideration.

There are things we weren’t told in high school. We weren’t given options. We were pressured. Choose a career. Go to university. You need an education or you’ll be nothing. Computers are the future, do that. Etc.

The truth is, there are many options for education. There are many kinds of jobs. There are many levels of employment, each as valid and necessary as the next (i.e., don’t buy the stigma that “college level jobs” are of lesser importance than university level). There are many ways of choosing and gaining experience before deciding concretely one way or another. There are financial opportunities available depending on your choice (and also some that are no longer available past a certain age, so beware of that).

So once and for all: should you go to university? Maybe. Think about it. Go if that’s you’re thing and wait if you’re not sure. Either way prepare for something you want beforehand so you aren’t wasting time and money. Email a graduate student or professor at a local university in the field you’re interested in and ask them what they did. Visit the local college for a day and sit in on some classes. Explore. And most importantly, don’t forget about the options.