Get the Most Out of University - Study a Subject You Love

07/06/2016 11:40 | Updated 07 June 2016

Choosing a subject to study at degree level is the first big hurdle in the university application process. Being able to make a strong, confident decision at this stage can make the whole application process easier and prevent concerns from growing about whether or not you've made the right decision. Unfortunately, it's rarely an easy decision to make when there are so many different considerations to bear in mind.

As part of my role at Lancaster University working in partnership with Villiers Park Educational Trust on the East Lancashire Scholars Programme, I regularly see students struggling to decide what to study at university. Indeed, whenever I talk to students trying to decide what subject to carry forward to degree level, the conversation often turns to graduate job prospects, the prestige associated with the degree and also what their parents or other loved ones would think of the decision. Rarely does somebody tell me that they want to study a subject purely because they love it. Yet, if I could give my mentees just one piece of advice it would be just that.

One reason to study the subject you love at university is out of respect for your long term future. I can say from my own experience that choosing a subject based on perceived prestige or employability is not always a great idea. My biggest mistake at university was to choose Psychology as a first year module because my original choice of Creative Writing seemed less credible. The result was a third of my first year spent studying a subject I had no interest in while missing out on the opportunity to develop skills in a subject area I was really passionate about.

Or, as a more hypothetical example, imagine you are a current university student studying accounting. You don't really enjoy accounting; you're studying it because you think an accounting degree leads to being an accountant. Is the idea of a future job (that you worry you might not even enjoy) going to be enough to motivate you through a minimum of three years of independent learning, multiple deadlines and end of year exams?

The typical response to this might be that a student needs to choose a certain degree because it has a well-established perception of leading to a good job following graduation. However, top graduate employers are regularly challenging this perception. Those applying to graduate level employment will regularly see '2:1 Degree in any field' as the minimum entry requirement. What this means is that employers are more interested in your overall grade than the subject that you studied. Obviously, there are exceptions. If you want to be a Doctor then you need to study Medicine. But for the vast majority of students the specifics of their degree will have little to do with the future career they choose.

To give you a more concrete example, the Lancaster prospectus currently lists the percentage of students gaining employment or going on to further study within sixth months of graduating in Law as 93%. Pretty high, as you would probably expect. For Media and cultural studies the statistic is 90%. The minimal difference between these figures often conflicts with our perceptions of which degrees are most employable. What it really highlights is that employers are far more interested in the skills and experiences you have as an individual than the degree you studied. Skills such as independent research, teamwork, problem solving and confidence are vital to employers. The specifics of a particular role can often be taught on the job. With this being the case, why wouldn't you choose to study the subject you're most passionate about?

For anyone that might still be worried about whether or not they've made the right decision, I would repeat the words of a no-nonsense family friend who helped me put things into perceptive during sixth form:

'I wouldn't worry. You've got the next 60 years to get it right'.

Useful resources

  • For any students who are perhaps unsure about what to study based on their current A-levels, the Which? University website is a great starting point. Enter you're A-levels and the site suggests degree courses that are often studied by students with the same combination of A-levels. This is also really useful for discovering more about subjects not regularly offered in schools and colleges.
  • Don't be afraid of asking people in your school or college for advice, perhaps a careers advisor or even just your favourite teacher. Their knowledge and personal experiences might prove very useful.
  • For Villiers Park Educational Trust's undergraduate alumni there is an opportunity to work with a Career Mentor as part of their Shaping Your Future Initiative which uses their network of supporting organisations and professional alumni to provide career guidance, develop networks and share opportunities.