In university the focus is placed squarely on grades. In my course, apart from one 12 week session of compulsory work experience every single requirement is decided by a pass/ fail grade of 50%. This means that to pass a class I only have to understand, in the loose sense of the word (you can put down answers because they are right without understanding them) 50% of the content taught. Conceivably if I chose to approach things in this fashion could become a university graduate without really ever full grasping the classes I am taking.
Recently much has been written on people coming out of university expecting to have a job handed to them on a platter. They reason that they have put in the years of work passing the degree and now they should be rewarded for this. One of the problems is, is the candidate really suitable for the job position, sure they have completed the degree but how much did they really learn? Did they apply themselves or just cruise through the system as I outlined above? Does the subject really interest them or did they just see it as a means to an end, a pay check. This isn’t of course entirely graduates own fault, they have been feed misinformation which has breed misconceptions about the real world. It is in educators, governments and employers interests to push out a steady stream of graduates, of course this doesn’t always align with the students themselves.
Recently I have been thinking about what kind of a different level I would be at if the only experience I had in my field (computer science) come from what I was being taught in university and wasn’t curious and explored things on my own, asked questions and programmed my own things. It’s interesting to note that these activities have never really been encouraged by the university; the course content has always been squarely the focus. I would have no knowledge of start-ups or business, my programming would have been restricted to languages such as C, C++, Java, .NET(on internship) ect, without stepping outside this and exploring real world uses and implementations. Many more advanced algorithms and ideas would have been lost on me because as good as the Operating Systems and Algorithms and Data Structures courses they can only cover so much in a semester.
Spending time on reading, learning, completing my own experimentation, freelancing and a startup has taken away much of the time I could have spent improving my grades and as a result while I think I have become a broad well learned student and very good at my subject area my grades don’t really reflect this at times, including a few fails. To me, this is a trade off that I am very happy to make, on the university side though and to other observers they can resemble someone who is slacking off. Also during my university I have spent a disproportionate amount of time on things, for example our full year software project. This really interested me and to that end I put in a lot of time developing a solid framework and adding extra features about and beyond requirements, to the detriment of some other subjects I was taking.
Similarly now, as I am on the cusp of completing my honours thesis (more on this in a later post) other subjects have fallen by the wayside as I consume myself with a mental model of what I am trying to complete. The thesis is also something in which I don’t think I could have go anywhere near the level it is at or the broad subject that it covers without what I have learnt reading and tinkering outside of formal education. My thesis really interests me, so much so I am contemplating continuing my research after I have completed the requirements of my degree. I’ve had to do a bit of a double take on that, thinking, do people actually do that? I have no intention of completing a post graduate degree but would like to continue what I have started in my spare time.
As for job prospects, I am way more excited about the startup I have cofounded than applying for any job. And should it fail, as many startups invariably do, I will have another great example to add to the portfolio and move onto the next opportunity.
As for universities, I think there needs to be a frank discussion with students about what they really hope to achieve when they begin and some of the realities of the workforce they may be stepping out into. Granted this isn’t the traditional role of the university, they aren’t meant to be a vocational training centre but increasingly this is what people are looking for when they enrol. Get into university, pass the classes, get a degree and get the ideal job. This progression doesn’t exist anymore, if it ever did, the current landscape calls for more people who show a genuine passion for what they do. It also calls for self motivated people who want to make their own way through freelancing or running their own company. If my company grows and it comes to taking on an employee, I know what type of person I’ll be hiring.