The importance of degrees

By Danielle Wright

Danielle Wright discovers that it’s not so much what degree you do as just doing a degree that counts

In an uncertain world, how do you advise your children about the best university course for them when you no longer feel certain that traditional jobs will be around in 10 years time?

Even the classic options of law and accounting are steadily being replaced by online software programmes.

The good news is that the degree major you choose doesn't need to dictate what pathway you or your child's career will take, especially in more general majors.

"We take the quality of our teaching very seriously and feel we have a duty of care to our students to plan for a future world of work that will look different to today," says Professor Richard Shaw of Massey University.

"Many jobs will have disappeared in 10 years time and people will be doing work that doesn't yet exist."

In light of the changing world, Shaw shares his advice for modern university undergraduates:

Develop cognitive, rather than technical skills

"In today's world, it's the intellectual skills that are now at least as important as technical skills -- that goes as much in the private sector as the public sector," says Shaw.

"Besides, most people have more than one job in their working lives. I have scientist friends who work as teachers and an ex-teacher mate who works on strategy at Fonterra. You need to be adaptable these days."

A degree provides transferable skills

"To prepare for the future, Massey's Bachelor of Arts department will be focusing on teaching people transferable skills," says Shaw.

"Skills such as critical thinking, reasoning and argument, thinking for yourself, being curious and not taking things for granted, cross-cultural nous, the capacity to ask a good question, the ability to cope with uncertainty, being able to walk round a gnarly issue and make sense of it from different directions."

A British Council survey showed that more than 50 per cent of 1700 leaders in both private and public organisations across 30 countries had degrees in the social sciences and humanities, testament to the transferrable skills acquired in the more general degree programmes.

Employers want staff who can learn, unlearn and relearn.

A degree is a stepping stone into a competitive workforce

Scan the recruitment websites and you'll quickly see that a degree is now a prerequisite for most career paths in office-based jobs.

It's also something that provides contacts that can help with employment from within your industry, classmates and lecturers.

Even the more arts-based degrees are a way into a huge variety of professions.

"Where do people go from a BA? BA graduates often get a bad rap, whichever university they attend.

"But in New Zealand we still make the mistake of thinking that to be of value a degree has to sound like a job," says Shaw.

"That might have been the case 30 years ago, but the effects that digitisation, automation and globalisation are having on the nature of work are such that that old thinking has to go. Quickly."

Regardless of major, your degree will help you to earn more

In 2013, the Ministry of Education release the Beyond Tertiary Study report. It found that five years after graduation, the median earnings for all people in New Zealand with undergraduate degrees was 53 per cent above the national median earnings for all ages and qualifications.

"So, clearly it pays to have a degree," says Shaw.

"As to the median earnings by field of study, five years after graduating people with degrees in health are earning the most, those in creative arts the least.

"Everyone else is sort of clustered around the $50,000 mark and the differences between, say, science and society and culture (which is BA territory) are not as large as many might assume."

It's your experience, as well as your degree, that will land you a dream job

Take advantage of undergraduate opportunities on offer. For example, Massey's Centre for Defence and Strategic Studies offers undergraduate internships in defence organisations and its Institute of Development Studies students can be connected with research projects with development agencies in Africa.

"The evidence is clear: 'work' is increasingly what happens in the context of relationships between people, and the best positioned will be those who can navigate their way through complex relationships," says Shaw.

"Making sense and communicating that sense to others is one of the critical elements of the new world of work."

Choose the degree based on what interests you the most

Shaw says that intrinsic motivation, rather than extrinsic pressure of expectation, is better for the mind and body and he says not to worry if you change your mind on degree major down the track.

"As a society we have an absurd expectation that people at the age of 17 or 18 should know what they're going to do with the rest of their lives -- notwithstanding that most of the people holding them to that expectation have done nothing of the sort themselves."

He talks of former engineering student Nick Allen, who turned to a BA in English because he always loved language and literature.

Allan is now about to do a PhD and is in Nepal raising funds for MS sufferers.

Likewise, Jashil Reddy is doing work experience in her BA with a finance company.

The firm hired her over many business graduates because of her strong communication skills.

"Doing something that someone else wants you to do because it'll get you a job, because of the reflected glory of having a doctor in the family, etc, can be the worst basis on which to choose a degree," says Shaw.

"My standard position is always: do the thing that fascinates you."

- NZ Herald

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