Why it’s Okay Not to Have Direction (Going into University)
Two case studies on the theme of 'Directions' by Elli Miller.
If you haven’t heard Baz Luhrmann’s iconic spoken word song
“Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen)” I’d recommend you take the time to
listen to it. It’s full of general life advice I believe everyone should hear
at least once on a yearly basis. The song itself takes the lyrics from an essay
by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich who made a hypothetical address to a
graduating high school class. There Schmich makes one point that I want to
address in today’s article:
“Don’t feel guilty if you don’t know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don’t.”
Now, March the 4th marks the beginning of the academic new year for universities around Australia. Many Freshers, Jaffies, and First Years coming into uni will know straight away what they want from their degree. They have direction; whether that direction is well founded or whether its source is naïve, they have it. And that’s okay.
But then there’s another significant proportion of incoming students who aren’t really too sure what they want to do with themselves. They may have some general ideas. A gist of where their interests lie. They feel like a Bachelor of Commerce is a safe bet for them, or that maybe a Bachelor of Arts can let them explore what the world has in store. Or maybe they feel like pursuing Science for research, Law for justice, Medicine, Nursing, and Health Sciences for the care of others. Or they may have no idea whatsoever.
To the incoming class of ’19 let me be the first here to tell you that it is okay not to know. I’m going to be sharing two stories from two friends of mine who were in the same place as you. They weren’t sure what they wanted to do with themselves at university or as a career. They both have stories which I believe you’d all value from.
A note before we swing into things
Originally I interviewed six people, but because of constraints for this edition I will only be able to tell two stories. I believe that while it is beneficial to hear about the stories I will be sharing with you, this piece will be for the most part incomplete without hearing the other testimonials. However, it is likely that we will be sharing everyone else’s stories in later editions of Et Cetera so keep your eyes peeled.
Paris in Year 12 had no idea what she wanted to be. She knew liked Science and English and she knew that she wanted to do something Science related in university but that was about it. But in terms of a career she had no idea. So in Year 12 Paris chose subjects which interested her; Biology, Chemistry, Legal studies, and she also took up two Maths units because “Maths is supposed to good to get you into things.”
When it came to researching courses she knew she was interested in the health field, and somewhere in the back of her mind she thought about maybe doing Medicine. But Paris didn’t think she wanted to go into something so specific straight away, and at the time she also didn’t think she’d be good enough, so she brushed it off to the side. Paris, like most people who I’ve interviewed wanted to keep her options open. She was more interested in doing a Science or a Biomedical Science degree, as well as pursuing Law and Environmental Science subjects.
Nearing the end of Year 12 Paris had to make a choice when it came to her preferences. She played it safe, she wanted to choose her courses which in the end would give her the broadest options possible.
“I wanted to try a few things, which is why a double degree appealed to me. I was tossing up between Science and Law, and Biomed and Law. I liked that I could try two different fields and I could give both a go.”
Paris ended up preferencing Science Law over Biomed Law because Biomedical Science would have been too restrictive in what she could study. She was still interested in environmental science and taking up Biomed would box her in too much.
Paris was offered her first preference of doing a double degree of Science and Law.
But at the start of her course, Paris felt that Law wasn’t really what she wanted. After she received her first Law assignment back, she was discouraged by how she went. She started to doubt herself and thoughts of whether Law is something she really wanted to do emerged.
“There was some uneasiness in my chest that I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do, and [Law] wasn’t really for me. I tried to stick it out, and I continued with it. But by second year that feeling continued and I decided that it wasn’t for me. I was sitting in lectures and I was so disengaged. This isn’t what I want to be doing.”
Thoughts returned to her of how she wanted to get into Medicine, or at the very least thoughts that she should have tried. But Paris liked the Science part of her course. For second year, she chose environmental subjects and pharmacology because they could be used to complement her studies in Law and keep many career choices open.
But in second year, Paris found that her pharmacology subjects were the only subjects she liked, and as it happened, she ended up hating the environmental subjects. But when it came to pharmacology she actually liked going to lectures, she liked making notes. Hell, she even enjoyed going to labs on a Friday afternoon, even though they were on a Friday afternoon. One time she got 50% on an assignment, but she didn’t feel dejected like she did when she got a bad mark in Law. She took it in her stride and was still motivated to do well.
I asked Paris what drove her to try and get into Medicine. The turning point for her came when she talked to friends who also wanted to get into Med. She had a chat to an aunt of a friend, a doctor, who described how doable everything was.
“It didn’t seem like it was going to be out of my reach. I probably was and I did have a chance of getting in.”
Going to her Science course advisor, who was very helpful and encouraging, she told Paris that her scores were definitely good enough to get into Med.
“And it caught me off guard, and I started to believe in myself. And that uneasy feeling in my chest was going away, and I could feel motivated about my future career. Which was not the case when I was doing Law.”
In her third year, Paris undertook more Biomedical orientated classes in preparation to try and get into Medicine. During her first semester, she got the best marks ever in her university career.
“I was feeling super motivated to go to uni every day, and that was the first affirmation I got in my undergrad. I didn’t feel that uneasiness at all, I felt fulfilled inside. I felt like I was doing what was right for me, and I was in the right place.
“I felt really motivated and I felt that’s what people described when they said to follow your heart. I definitely felt like I was doing the right thing.”
I asked Paris what advice she would give to incoming uni students and she said the following:
“Don’t feel bad if you don’t know what you want to do. Once you’re at uni, and you start feeling what it’s like to study something it becomes really clear what’s right and what isn’t. Because it’s hard to know what it’s like to study something till you’re actually there. You may have an idea, ‘Ah yeah, law’ but when you’re actually studying it, it could be really different. Don’t worry if you’re a bit unsure about where you’re going because if you stick at it, the right things will come to you and become clear to you.”
Once the interview had finished and we were reflecting on everything, Paris remarked heartedly that;
“I was a lost little soul at one point, but I’m also a very indecisive person. But I am more happy now then I was in second year undergrad.”
Paris is currently in her second year of Postgraduate Medicine.
In Year 12 Nir had a few ideas of what he wanted to be but nothing cohesive like other people, he did have some interest in Physiotherapy, and was considering taking up Genetics or Engineering though.
When choosing his preferences Nir took pretty much everything into account. He consulted his parents and researched extensively into where he wanted to take his career. He looked up the average salaries, potential career prospects and came to the conclusion that Engineering was probably his best bet. Nir liked the problem solving and the diversification he could take with that degree. Otherwise he saw genetics and physiotherapy, his other passions being more as hobbies. Given all the information he had to work with, he’d figured that Engineering would have been the best decision… at the time… for him.
“People are never 100% sure what they want to do, but based on the knowledge you have at the time, your choice is most likely the right decision, even if it may not be, but that’s the information you have to work with at the time.”
In Year 12 Nir says he was good at Math and Physics and Chemistry “relative to my cohort.” But going into uni, Nir felt that everyone around was just as good or better.
He tells me that at some point “There was a feeling of ‘shit, am I even supposed to be here.’ Am I doing the right thing? In first year I wasn’t sold that yes, this is the right decision. I believed in the reasons I picked out to do Engineering, but it definitely was harder than I thought it’d be.”
I asked Nir whether, in his fifth year of studying a Double degree of Engineering and Commerce, if he feels that he is doing the right thing.
“I feel like Engineering opened a lot of doors for me. So I feel like if I’m not going to do Engineering in the end, the skills and the networks I’ve made have opened so many doors for me, I can still end up working in something related.”
Nir emphasises that the skills he’s learnt on the way has been just as if not more valuable than the paper degree he’ll end up with at the end of the day.
When asked what advice he would give incoming first years he said that:
“Make sure you’re passionate about the overall aspect about what you’re going to do. If you don’t like the degree, but you like the career aspect then follow that drive. One way or another use the passion that’s involved. When you’re passionate about something you’ll put real effort into it, you’re going to go home and continue doing what you like doing, in uni, and your career.”
So what have we learned?
For one thing, Paris and Nir were very different at the end of high school, but they were also very similar. We have two teens who had some general gist of what they wanted to do in high school, but only really figured out what they wanted to do with time.
Paris found that out through trying courses out and seeing what was right and wrong for her.
It is okay not to know. It can be scary not to know what you want to do with yourself, and scary for your family and friends around you. But it’s going to be okay. As long as you get the experience and follow your intuition, you’ll be fine. Maybe your intuition is wrong, maybe you feel that you made the wrong choice, but that’s learning and that’s life. How can you be expected to know what you want to do with yourself at the age of 18 for a working life set to last 40 years?
Nir found that out by doing the research, thinking about where his interests lay, and deciding based on all the evidence and circumstance where his direction lay.
I think what we can learn from Paris, and Nir is that time and experience will show the way. You’ll figure out what you want because this is the time when you’re learning the most about yourself. And no matter what you’re doing you’ll be learning about yourself and where your interests lie.
Tl;dr – It’s okay not to have direction going into university.
If you would like to read about everyone’s stories and ergo the entire transcript of this piece, feel free to contact Elli by Twitter @ElliMiller17 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org.