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Choosing a degree

James Davis

Careers Commentator

Deciding what career path to follow is one of the most difficult but important decisions you are likely to make in your life. There are no right or wrong answers, but a good understanding of yourself and the world around you will help you make a more fulfilling choice.

Since you’re reading this book, you’re likely to be considering a career in STEM or at least studying a STEM degree. STEM graduates tend to see higher rates of full-time employment upon graduation and higher starting salaries. STEM is, however, a very broad grouping of disciplines, so choosing the right path for you is still a very important decision. We’ll go through several essential components to assembling some solid degree preferences and tricks for making a decision. 

What do you enjoy?

You may already have a very clear idea of what subjects you like and don’t like. Perhaps you’re an all-rounder and enjoy everything. Or maybe you struggle to find enjoyment in school altogether. Either way, it’s very important to think carefully about what you enjoy doing. University degrees aren’t short and careers are even longer, so choosing something you enjoy can be the difference between finding long-term fulfilment or dreading going to work. As they say, find a job you love and you won’t work a day in your life!

If you’ve got a good idea about what degrees you’d be interested in, you can do some simple research to find out more about them. Every university publishes course information for each of their degrees on their site. You can dive right into the nitty-gritty of each subject, which universities call “units”, and read about the kind of work involved. Don’t be daunted by the tricky-sounding stuff you might read in second or third-year units; just focus on the first year, for now, the majors on offer and the overall outcomes of the course. Although you can’t be 100 per cent certain you’ll love it, this is one of the best ways to get an idea of what studying this field entails.

What will the world need in the future?

Rapid advancements in automation and autonomous technology mean the current generation of students have more difficult career decisions to make than generations before them. They need to decide on both a fulfilling career path and also one that is likely to still exist and be valued in the future.

As a young student, it’s important to consider what skills are going to be valued in the future. For example, bookkeeping and truck driving jobs are very popular today but are unlikely to exist in anywhere near the same numbers in the future. Demand for software developers, on the other hand, is only expected to grow.

Generalist versus specialist roles

If you decide to progress with a STEM degree, the jobs available to you when you graduate can generally be divided into two categories: generalist and specialist. Where generalist roles can require skill-sets not exclusive to STEM, such as quantitative reasoning, communication or problem solving, specialist skills require specific technical expertise. A surgeon, for instance, requires the specialist skills afforded by degrees in medicine and surgery. On the other hand, a business analyst uses a set of skills that are often learned on the job but underpinned by statistics, mathematics and scientific problem solving taught in STEM degrees. 

Let’s say you’re really interested in working as a physicist but also see the appeal of working somewhere completely different, like investment banking. You can reasonably assume that a degree in physics can help land a physics job, but due to all the mathematics and statistics involved, it’d probably help you out with investment banking too. This is a unique and very valuable aspect of STEM degrees; they allow you to keep your options open and not have to start progressing down a career path directly out of university. 

Check your assumptions carefully

Hoping you’ll like your degree is fine. Making sure you’ll like it is even better! Having a good understanding of what you’re in for will help you make a more informed decision. Some questions to ask yourself include: 

  • Have I checked the university's website and looked at the course content?

  • Have I checked The Uni Guide for reviews and testimonials of different degrees?

  • Are there other degrees that look closer to what I imagined?

  • Have I talked to anyone who’s done this degree (or is currently doing it) for insights into what it’s really like?

  • Will this degree help me get the career I had in mind?

If you still have no idea what career you want to follow, don’t worry; by picking a STEM degree you’re naturally keeping your options open. Combining it with another degree like commerce or arts can further help you diversify your employability. If by the time you graduate you still don’t have a clue what to pursue, remember that most people change careers several times throughout their working life; you’re only considering your first job, not necessarily the job you’ll have for the rest of your life!