‘What do you want to do after you graduate?’
For those of us studying non-vocational degrees, this is the one question that makes us feel uneasy. What do we want to do? We were told at school to pick a subject that we enjoyed and everything would slowly fall into place. But, 3 years later, the impulsive panic starts to dwell in the pit of our stomach as we realise that time’s up! We didn’t have the ‘eureka moment’ during our undergraduate years and suddenly here we are, a year away from graduation, with no career plans in sight. And what is worse is that everyone around us seems to know what they want to do.
Non-vocational degrees, as opposed to vocational, are university qualifications that are neither career nor trade specific (e.g. History, English, Philosophy etc…)
Yet, with Sir John Stuttard, the former Lord Mayor of the City of London, stating that graduates who have taken the non-vocational route often end up working in coffee shops and bars, and with one article in The Guardian even claiming that vocational qualifications are the better alternative for school leavers, many of us are made to feel that our non-vocational routes of study are simply useless and a waste of money. This, paired with the emergence of official lists from universities such as Cambridge that group degrees into ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ categories leads individuals to question the ranking of their qualification against these academic hierarchies.
At times it can seem as though these claims are true. Nearing the end of your three or four years in undergraduate study can be daunting when others who have a set career path are undertaking internships, spring weeks, and work experience which all lead to secure graduate jobs. The early certainty that they have in their aspiring jobs means that they are better equipped to gain the necessary experience needed at the appropriate time than their peers who have not yet decided what path they wish to go down. Come graduation, they are the ones that seem to have made the most of their degree.
However, despite these concerns, there is a great utility and strength to non-vocational degree qualifications.
Firstly, new jobs are continuously arriving on the market, so much so, that it is often argued that many of us will end up in a job that is not even invented yet. Therefore, how can one study a vocational degree for something that is not currently available?
Secondly, higher education is more than just vocational training; it is about obtaining life skills. What is important is that you learn necessary communication, analytical, and research skills that are evident in many non-vocational degrees which you can then tailor to prospective jobs. You can spend 3-4 years studying a vocational degree, yet have limited interview skills or interpersonal qualities that are necessary in most workplaces today. It is these soft skills that make you employable.
Thirdly, it leaves your options open. The worst thing is to secure yourself down to a particular career path at the age of 17 when applying for universities through UCAS, and then realising 3 years into your 6-7 year long medicine degree that this was not the right choice for you. Non-vocational degrees allow you to slowly specialise your studies to tailor your interests as they develop.
And finally, even if you don’t know what you want to do at the end of your degree that is completely okay. It is possible to: do a masters; take a year out; or even apply for a small job whilst you figure out what you really enjoy. There is no pressure or fixed time frame under which you need to decide.
So, to all the students doing non-vocational degrees: have we all made a mistake? Should we have spent our money more wisely to invest in a specific career? The answer is no.