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10 Real Things I Learned in University
1. A university is a large company whose primary purpose is to take your money in exchange for a service (your degree).
While some professors might truly care about giving you a good quality education, and universities have a long, grand history of educating the public and advancing society, the administration is primarily concerned with enrollment and revenue. They are interested primarily in professors who are good researchers, not teachers, because they want to increase dollars, not GPAs. Realizing this will make you look differently at your education, for better or worse.
2. You are responsible for your education, not your professors.
You might have heard this enough times to call it cliche, but I’ve heard a lot of students complain about the teaching quality, professors themselves, resources, and end results of their education. While I agree that these are not always ideal, it often sounded like they had expected to sit back and relax (or go out and party) while someone gently guided them them through the courses towards their degree, and then pointed them to a job. In reality, you have to take control and seize every opportunity to get what you want out of this experience. It’s not easy, and you have to put the effort in, because as mentioned above, university professors are typically hired based on their merit as researchers, not teachers, so you can’t expect every one of them to be the inspiring mentors and wisdom-givers you were hoping for.
3. University is not supposed to turn you into a walking encyclopedia.
This might be discouraging, but you will forget the vast majority of what you are taught in school. I can barely remember which courses I took in first year, let alone many details of what I learned in them.
At the end of your degree, you should be capable of:
- really thinking for yourself
- asking meaningful questions
- seeking knowledge
- looking at things from different angles (including being able to challenge, question, and effectively communicate your own personal views)
- making connections between different pieces of knowledge.
While many courses involve a lot of memorizing and spitting out facts, that is not the point. Yes, lectures are boring. Sitting still in a hard chair, listening to someone talk for an hour or three can be tough even if you really like the subject and the speaker. Even if you can teach yourself better by reading the textbook, you should still attend your lectures, painful as they may be. There are many obvious and subtle benefits to being present and actually participating in your education, even if you just sit there and play candy crush on your laptop most of the time. If nothing else, being present in the room will at least allow you to catch important announcements (like review days, test dates, etc), and you'll probably tune in to the lecture from time to time without even meaning to. I often find that I can't focus well in class, but when I go to read the material later it is more familiar to me if I had been present for the lecture.
If you can manage to look past the details and see the bigger picture, everything will start to make more sense and you’ll be well on your way to truly earning your degree.
4. Never reject knowledge because you’ll “never need to use this in real life”.
Every student has probably said this at least once, if not many times.
In my first year biology classes we had to learn about algae, diatoms, protozoa, and other seemingly abstract, irrelevant microscopic things. Most students, myself included, hated and could not relate to these subjects. They did not directly relate to our goals or interests at the time, and there was a lot of “Why do I need to learn this crap? I’m never going to use it!”.
Then in second year, I got a job with one of my professors working on an experiment involving algae, diatoms, and protozoa. Protozoa became one of my favourite subjects and the topic of my honours thesis, and my experience with protozoa even landed me a nice research job after graduation. I realized that you honestly can not predict what you will and will not need in the future, so unless you have psychic abilities, never ever turn down learning a new subject because you think it’s useless. All knowledge is valuable and soaking up as much as you can hold will only make you a deeper, more well-rounded person in the long run.
5. University is NOT a direct path to employment, but you can make it one if you have the right mindset.
Contrary to popular belief, university is not simply an advanced version of college. They are two very different things. College gives you specific skills directed towards a specific career. You should go to college if you already know what kind of job you want. University gives you a range of general skills and an academic foundation within a broad subject (eg. environmental science, engineering, geography) that you can then then refine towards the career you want. It is common for students to attend college after university so that they can learn the "how to" after learning the "what" and "why".
Many students attend university because they aren't sure what direction to take, and are hoping that the experience lights up a career path for them. If you have the right mindset, it will. Not only that, but university can be a gold mine of networking and job opportunities; you just have to put some effort into looking for them, and be open to opportunities when they do arise (sometimes in unexpected ways).
If you’re about to graduate and still have no idea what you want, no job prospects, and no real connections in your field of interest, then you might have have enrolled in the wrong program, or possibly missed the point completely. Have you sat down and asked yourself why nothing has really caught your interest over the entire course of your education?
If you are about to begin or are partway through your university education, then take my advice: always look out for and take any opportunity that can give you career experience, even if it means volunteering, and even if you aren’t sure what kind of career you want yet. You will figure that out by trying out different things, not by sitting around waiting for an epiphany.
6. Don’t be afraid to switch programs! Many people do it and benefit from it.
There is little to gain by sticking out a program that isn’t right for you. You’ll pile on debt while making yourself miserable, and in the end you probably won’t find a job that suits you. If you're having doubts, take them seriously and start looking into other possibilities. You will know when you've landed in the right place. It will feel like you've come home. You'll have motivation like never before, your courses will suddenly become much easier than they used to be, professors might take a liking to you and offer you opportunities that might lead to work experience (they appreciate when you take a genuine interest in their field), and you'll start to see career opportunities lighting up in front of you. This really can happen! You just have to be truly, completely honest with yourself, and open to the possibilities.
7. Treat your professors like you would treat an employer, and they might turn into one (or recommend you to one).
Way too many students enter university from high school and see it as nothing more than an extension of high school. It is not! This is where you should be fully and constantly thinking about your career options.
Your professors are nothing like high school teachers. For one, these are people who have reached the top levels of their particular fields of interest, and while they are not always as friendly and helpful as we might like them to be, you should treat them with the respect you would an employer. If a professor gives you a bad mark on something, it’s not because they are mean, stupid, or hate you. It’s because they didn’t think you deserved a higher mark for one reason or another. Granted some professors are more interested in their research and see teaching as a necessary evil, but in my experience those are the exception to the rule and most professors make a genuine effort to do their jobs well.
If your professors see you as someone who slacks off, shows up late, dresses like a slob and gets angry when someone criticizes their poor performance, they probably wouldn’t want to hire you in their lab, or recommend you to a company they have connections with. Professors tend to have a lot of connections in their field, and if you take nothing else from this article, remember that!
8. Grades are not a measure of your worth as a human being. Actually, they are pretty meaningless, but you should still act like you care about them.
This ties in with treating your education like a job. Sometimes you have to do crappy work in an otherwise great job. Same goes for being a student! If professors see that you work hard as a student, they will probably assume that you would also work hard as an employee. If you slack off as a student but actually have a great work ethic when you’re getting paid, they can’t see that and probably wouldn’t want to take the risk in hiring or recommending you.
You absolutely don’t have to burn yourself out and get 90’s, but if you put in an honest effort and you’re in the right program for you, it shouldn’t be too hard to do relatively well and not go insane or lose all contact with society during the process. If you’re working your butt off and only getting 50’s and 60’s, then it might be a sign that you should be enrolled in something else.
9. Don’t wait until your graduating year to start thinking about jobs.
I know I’ve mentioned careers a lot, but since that’s really the end goal of university I think it’s ok to repeat it. Your mind should be on careers already in first or second year, not starting on graduation day. I saw many students become extremely stressed during the final semester before graduating, because they saw nothing on the horizon. They still didn't know what they want, and had only just begun to seriously consider where they wanted their careers to go. Don't put yourself in this situation.
10. First year doesn't really matter.
Drink and party all you want (within reason) during first year, and get it out of your system.
Try not to be a complete idiot about it, but this is your chance to party and have fun without it really affecting anything. Your first year grades aren’t that important unless you're concerned about your overall GPA and want to graduate with first class standing. Even so, you will more than likely be able to recover your average in the following years. First year classes tend to be the least challenging, so try not to fail, but go easy on yourself and have some fun.
In my experience, second year was ten times as challenging as first year, and by third and fourth year I barely ever partied. I was too busy and didn’t really feel the need. I had my friends already and my schedule was too full to lose a day being tired and hungover. First year is the time to make friends, enjoy your new freedom if it’s your first time away from home, and do lots of fun social things. After that, buckle down and make the most out of your degree.
If you're trying to decide whether you should go to university or not, really ask yourself whether you need it, whether you can afford the debt, and whether you will truly make the experience worthwhile. The video below is a joke, but there is a lot of truth behind it. Be honest with yourself about what you need and what university will actually give you. If you're already in or about to start university, I hope you've gained something from this article that might help you make the most out of your time in school. If you're looking for some productivity tips to help you make life as a student easier, check out my related hub: Top 4 Productivity Tools for Students.