University isn’t the be all and end all

Last night, at the pub, a colleague of mine told me that he had withdrawn from his doctoral studies. I think he was quite surprised by my response, which was ‘are you happy?’ followed by ‘congratulations!’ I have lived through the pain and heartache of making the very tough decision to stop – I supported a very close friend through the process a few years ago. And, it is a process. It’s utterly heartbreaking to think about the time you have invested in your education and realising, deep down, that you are in the wrong place.

This may seem to bear little correlation to the idea (most recently espoused by Labour leader Ed Miliband on Today) that university is integral to success in life.  After all, the number of people who get through their undergraduate degree, move onto a Master’s program and finally into doctoral work are few and far between (as I must constantly remind myself). It does, but I shall come back to it shortly. The idea that one needs a Bachelor’s degree does two things (in my mind) that are harmful. First, and perhaps most overlooked, is that degrees work, in a way, like currency. The more there are out there, the less they are worth. If today the ‘base level’ needed for success is a Bachelor’s degree then more and more students will move onto (hugely expensive, resulting in increased educational debt) Master’s programs in order to distinguish themselves in the job market. Eventually this will mean that the base level becomes Master’s degrees. The advent of more professional doctorates will mean that people will move to this level of study to stand out. The cycle continues… I’m not quite sure what role the more traditional research doctorate will play in this, they are clearly not suited to the majority of industries.

The second, and more important, consequence of the Bachelor’s-or-die mentality is the wholesale mistreatment of training needs in many areas. The university model of learning doesn’t suit the training requirements of many professions, particularly those that used to be taught in a Technical School environment. Being in a profession where a research doctorate is a prerequisite to gainful employment, I don’t want to say too much about this, because it’s not an area I understand that much. What I will do is to parrot a good friend who claims he learned nothing practical in his four year Engineering degree (from which he graduated with first class honours). Only, he didn’t realise this until he started working and needed to learn everything. From the start. There is perhaps a reason that (reportedly, in Australia at least) a person with a Bachelor’s of Engineering will be on a significantly higher salary ten years after graduating that someone with an EngD (or PhD in Engineering) after the same amount of time.

What does this have to do with withdrawn doctoral students? A first year undergraduate considering withdrawing from their studies goes through the same guilt as the 9-year-university-veteran does. I know because not only have I had friends ‘drop out’ of undergraduate studies, but I have also had student’s go through the process. It’s not right to put that much pressure on an 18 year old, most of whom actually don’t know what they want to be when they grow up. I didn’t start university until I was 21, I went to art school for a few years and figured myself out. I’m almost 30 and have never doubted what I do, but the same can’t be said for a lot of my fellow undergraduates. Had they been allowed to fail they might have inadvertently been allowed to succed in something they truly love, rather than being pushed I.to a career that they aren’t passionate about because they ‘had to go to uni to make anything of themselves.’

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