Are Undergraduate Degrees A Way Of The Past?

I recently read a great post over at The Outlier Model about wanting a job in the science field. I started to reply and quickly realized I was writing a book for a reply so decided to do a post about it instead.

First, head on over and read the above blog post, it’s a fantastic post about the realism behind getting a job in the scientific community (biology mainly but applies to chemistry and physics as well).

I have two university degrees, my first being a BSc in Biology. I really can’t say any education is wasted because it’s not but unfortunately good education isn’t free. If I could turn back time I would never, ever, ever, ever go into a ‘basic’ undergraduate program with a declared major. Nor would I ever recommend a high school student pursue such a route. I did very well in high school, graduating with scholarships and on the principal’s lists (top ranked graduates of the high school in Canada) but at the ripe age of 18 I didn’t know what I wanted in life, I thought I knew but I didn’t. I knew I liked, and was good at, science and of course sciences have more job prospects than arts, or so I was told (I don’t really believe this).

I really don’t think most 17-18yr old high school students really know what they want upon graduation. There is such a pressure to graduate high school and immediately pursue post-secondary education but, especially in today’s economy and the rising cost of tuition, I really don’t think it’s the smartest thing to do. I know a lot of parents fear that if their child takes time off between high school and post-secondary that they might not return to academia or that nothing will become of their child. I have to tell you that some of the most successful people I know were the ones who took a year or two off, traveled, worked and really discovered the person they were- outside of the high school walls. Most people don’t come into themselves until after graduation. Are you the person you were in your senior year? Most likely not.

Choosing your lifelong career path in the hype of hormones and emotional turmoil is not the smartest idea.

Taking time off never even had the chance to enter my mind, I was going to university to study biology and be a science rock star. I knew I wouldn’t pursue biology as a full on career (ie doing a PhD of sorts) but I also didn’t really think I would end up in year 3 of 4 in my undergrad and realize I had essentially wasted 3 years of my academic life pursuing a degree with little to no job prospects. High schools do such a good job at sugar coating university for the ‘smart kids’ that they tend to neglect the important information like, there are NO JOBS. Are high school teachers paid commission from the universities or something?

In my 3rd year I knew something had to change. I was about to graduate with 40k debt and the only job prospects paid slightly better than minimum wage. I went through university with my two best friends. We all graduated with our BSc’s and I was the only one to pursue more education. They both work full time for slightly better than minimum wage, one girl working full time and 2 part time jobs to stay afloat.

I guess the ironic part is that I ended up in substantially more debt to get my career but at the end of the day I know I made the right choice. I went back to university and became a Dental Hygienist. I graduated with my choice of job (although the market is a little saturated now but still work available) and making 3 x what I would have I stopped with my BSc. I love my job and so glad I made the choices I did.

When talking to high school students who I know want to go directly to university I tell them to apply into a program that lands you a job even if it’s not something you think you may want to do because like I said before, you really don’t know what you want at 18. Most programs have similar first year foundation classes regardless of the program so if you don’t like the program after your first year you can chose to then apply into something else but you have the security of knowing you will graduate with a degree that will get you a job should you chose to stay. The undergraduate programs I’m mainly talking about would be engineering, nursing or finance, all of which you can apply into from high school (vs. programs that require at least first year prerequisites to get into).

My sister in law was going to apply to do her basic BSc because she was thinking about pharmacy or nutrition as careers but wasn’t sure. I encouraged her to apply into nursing (something she didn’t think she’d like) and if she didn’t like it, apply to the other 2 programs after her first year  because they both require first year pre-reqs which can be satisfied through nursing (1st year bio, chem, math etc.). That conversation took place 7 years ago, she’s now a successful OR nurse and loves it. She has job security with amazing benefits, I’m so glad for her.

I don’t want to sound like I’m bagging on all undergrad programs, on the flip side I know many successful people who have stayed in their fields and done very well but they are few and far between. It sickens me to see such well educated people not be able to use their skills and education. What use to be an honor and necessity for jobs, basic undergraduate degrees are a way of the past I think.

There are still many great university and college programs out there, but try and get into something with more definition and job prospects. Or take time off, figure yourself out and then pursue your career so you don’t end up with a degree for the sake of having a degree and debt because even if your education is paid for, it’s wasted money if you can’t get a job.

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13 thoughts on “Are Undergraduate Degrees A Way Of The Past?

  1. Thanks for linking up and writing about this topic!

    I have felt strongly for a long time that we do our smartest kids a disservice by encouraging them to go into research science over fields like engineering, business or finance. When I graduated from biology, sure I got a job, but only because I had some hands-on experience. I made barely more than what I owed in student loans – and even that amount was $10,000 + more than the best paid post doc in the lab and 2x as much as the grad students. Slaving away in a lab as a grad student for 2-10 years, making less than an entry level tech, and having very few job prospects once you finally do graduate… not something I would suggest for anyone. Sure there are a few people who can still finish a PhD in 4 years and get a job in academia… but there aren’t many.

    I ended up going back to school as well and doing computer science. It’s worked out great! Even the worst programmer earns more than a research assistant will EVER earn.

    I’m glad that both you and your sister were able to find challenging, smart careers to go into!

  2. Nice post. I think we’ve led ourselves to think that going to college is a must thing that all must do. The thing is though it is not for everyone, and as you say a degree is not (in general) free. I know that we have a lot of skilled labor jobs available right now because we’ve been pushing students away from that and towards college. But, if you do it right, you can make decent money in a skilled labor. I think the college decision requires a bit more thought these days so you know what you’re getting yourself into without a ton of debt to go with it.

  3. Different strokes for different folks. Some people are the studious type and just excel in academics driven careers. Not me. I tried to get a degree in university. I ended up dropping out after my first year because I couldn’t take the pressure >_< So I went to art school instead, something easier. Got an art diploma, found a job, and now I'm making enough to live the life I've always dreamed about as a teenager. Degrees are useful for some things like becoming a teacher in the public sector, which is important for society to have, so there's still a need for it, but the options for alternative education is way more abundant than ten or twenty years ago for sure :D.

    • I agree completely. There are so many trade and art school options out there that are geared for entry to work. My husband also hated university, dropped out after 1 year, went to college instead and now makes fantastic money for a company that he could potentially own one day and he loves his job. Being happy with your job is most important regardless of how you get there.

  4. Love this post! I totally agree. I specifically chose my program (Bachelor of Commerce at Dalhousie University) because I knew it had a co-op component that would give me on the job experience, but mostly I picked it because the unemployment rate after school was 2%. As someone who had to pay for my own university, I really looked at it as an investment. My little sister is doing the same, she took nursing, because there’s lots of places to go with that, and it gives you a defined skill that you can use to get a job, after four years. In contrast, my fiancée has a Bachelor of Arts with a History major, and he now owns his own landscaping company. High schools should definitely put more emphasis on getting degrees that provide job prospects than just “Go do sciences, that’s what all the smart kids do” which is what my high school did.

    • I went to Dal as well (both degrees) so we feel the financial pain even more (great school though). I feel like we need to rack up all these high school teachers for a good talking to!

  5. Excellent post! I have a BSc in Biochem, but am not really using it right now. If I could turn back time, I would have taken a year off to try and figure myself out. I only went straight to university after high school, because that just seem liked the next logical step. I actually started in engineering and then switched over to science, but looking back at it, I’m not even really sure that would have been my ideal choice.
    There was a co-op portion with my program, so after doing several work terms in the lab, I knew that was some place I didn’t want to be. There was a co-op program at my high school, but almost no one took it. It was considered for the “dumb kids”, which I completely disagree with now. Students need to be exposed to jobs. I think more emphasis should be placed on preparing for the real world, career planning and making co-op a mandatory component of the curriculum.

    • Yup, I agree completely! Other than a ‘take your kid to work day’ in grade 9, we have no real job exposure. I know things have changed a little since I graduated but they really do need to do something to encourage exposure to varying careers rather than focus on academia (biology/english etc).

  6. Pingback: Updates: September 23 – 29 | The Outlier Model

  7. Hi! I’m coming a little late to this discussion, but I think that something you didn’t mention is that some students need to accept that ONLY a bachelor’s degree won’t be enough. For example, you can major in psychology but if you stop at a bachelor’s you almost definitely won’t get a good job. But, if you go on to specialize with a master’s or Ph.D. there are a lot of options.

    This isn’t appealing to everyone but it is a path to consider. I majored in history (hello, no jobs!) but it ended up ok because I got a master’s in a more specialized area (teaching).

    • I agree, in most areas although even the value of masters degrees is decreasing. I have friend with a MBA still looking for work a year after graduation….Did you read the article over at The Outlier Model? They go into much more detail about what you’re talking about. I have a few friends with Masters and PhD’s and I know it totally depends on situations. One friend w/MSc in inorganic chemistry couldn’t get work and went back to do his BEd and now teaches high school, another friend w/ MSc in Chem (working towards PhD) works in a lab making like $18.00/hr and finally a girlfriend who has 2 Masters degrees in the arts-she works at a local art gallery, loves her job but gets paid peanuts. I still think MBA and MEd programs are smart as they can apply to so many work areas, very diverse. I’m more talking about Masters in a hard subject (bio, history etc).

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