Taking charge of your destiny
For those students who chose and are offered quite defined degrees in professions such as medicine, veterinary, law or nursing, their future path may be fairly predictable as they follow a career in their chosen profession.
But for the vast majority of university students, the degree they take does not lead to a prescriptive career. Typically, graduates have many different jobs over the course of their working lives and although their first job may be related to their academic qualification, this only covers the earliest years of their careers.
When talking to students about their CAO choices, I invariably ask them about their interests and aptitudes rather than their points or career expectations. Within the Humanities (the BA and Social Sciences) there are dozens of subjects -- some familiar, some quite unexplored. Equally, within science, we offer over 24 subjects which are considerably more mind-expanding and exciting than their introductory subjects at school.
My advice is consistent -- study what interests you and what you have an aptitude for rather than what you think will land you a job in three or four years.
In 2006, Ronan McGovern from Newbridge, Co Kildare achieved a remarkable 900 points in the Leaving Certificate. Rather than choosing the predictable high point courses such as medicine or veterinary, Ronan followed his own intuition and entered Omnibus Engineering at UCD (which at the time required 495 points).
Four years on Ronan has been awarded one of the prestigious international Fulbright scholarships and is off to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) on a PhD programme in mechanical engineering worth €60,000 per annum.
That Ronan continues to excel academically is not a surprise but, there are other bright students who have his potential. What makes Ronan stand out, is his self-awareness and his willingness to experience the broad spectrum offered by university life.
Ronan chose his degree based on his interests. In choosing Omnibus Engineering he kept his options open for as long as possible, only specialising towards the end of his degree. At UCD, Ronan lived in the Irish-speaking residence in order to keep up his fluency and interest in Irish. He played clarinet in the UCD symphony orchestra and continued to play hurling for his parish. He took up new pastimes and kept up existing interests. Overall, he maximised the time he spent at university, both inside and outside the classroom.
Where Ronan ends up is anyone's guess but what he got from his undergraduate education was encouragement to wrestle with problems, to think laterally, to seek solutions. Alongside these critical academic skills, which are common to every good degree, student like Ronan who engage in co-curricular activities outside the classroom, excel in social skills, team building, communication -- all crucial for success in future life.
So, although the academic programme of any student's degree is central, it's not enough to form the graduate. The role of the university is to grow the person as well as to foster their intellectual independence.
My advice to this year's first years: Whatever you choose to study, find what most interests you and excel at that. Wherever you go to college, take part in student life, actively engaging in societies or sport.
If your course offers you the opportunity to engage with the community, do so with gusto.
If not, consider volunteering. Above all, enter the spirit of university and immerse yourself in campus life.
Currently there is a lot of talk about the Smart Economy. It makes sense for Ireland to pursue jobs that will not move to low-wage economies, to encourage entrepreneurism among young graduates so that they consider starting their own businesses, to think global in terms of the skills, services and products we can create.
But equally, they need those who make policy, those who do the deals, those who communicate the message, and those who imagine the future, and these people may be geographers and linguists, lawyers and accountants, philosophers and physicists.
Ultimately, college is about learning to think and innovation comes from people who can really think.