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Should I focus on my career in my first year?

The Gateway asks how you should be spending your time at university

Is university about broadening your mind or preparing for a career

Free from the shackles of mum and dad, being an undergraduate truly is an experience like nothing else. As well as the chance to study in detail topics you’re passionate about, the next few years will present innumerable opportunities to try something different and broaden your horizons, though should that sound a bit much there’ll be plenty of student bars and clubs to get lost in instead.

However, in the face of increased student fees and a difficult economic climate, more and more students are choosing to shun the partying, additional studies and esoteric student societies in favour of focusing solely on their chosen career path. Is this work at all costs approach necessary? Should you be supplementing your studies with vocational learning? Are students not allowed to have fun any more? To find out, we asked a range of people for their thoughts.

Alex Buchanan

Finance professional, writer and author of The Game – How the City Really Works

George Bernard Shaw once famously said "youth is wasted on the young". I always felt, academically speaking, university was wasted on me and many of my friends.

University for me was about breaking out into the world and away from the shackles of childhood. It was about trying new things and meeting new people. I didn't know it at the time, but many of the friends and acquaintances I made there have been fixtures throughout my adult life. Some have even been of enormous help to me professionally. When I left Oxford in 1998, very few of us prioritised what happened next. We were far too caught up in the here and now.

Times have changed somewhat with the advent of tuition fees and the difficulty in securing employment. I sense this every time I visit universities to give talks. I understand the need to take life seriously, but please don't make university all about what happens next. There must be a balance. University isn't the real world and for that reason it must be cherished. You'll never again have so much freedom, so much time on your hands to dream. Life in the real world can be wonderful, but it can also be distinctly underwhelming.

Saam Serajian-Esfahan

Investment banker

While for some career paths practical knowledge is vital, for many graduate roles in banking, finance and consulting, practical career preparation may not be needed. In fact, it's often the case that the less prepared one is, the better, given some employers prefer to teach the necessary skills to fresh minds (free from bad habits!).

Companies, sectors and even teams can vary so dramatically in their processes that it's often more efficient for them to educate their trainees themselves rather than hiring "ready-trained" employees and trying to alter their behaviour. In any case, plenty of graduate schemes and courses (such as the ACA) assume limited prior knowledge and are designed to be accessible.

Recruiters are clearly aware of this so will actively target those students who have maximised their time at university, demonstrating both intellectual acumen and wide-ranging experiences.

Jim Bligh

Head of Labour Market and Pensions Policy at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)

With nearly six million people of workable age claiming an out of work benefit and the number of jobseekers far outstripping the number of jobs available, it’s vital young people view university as crucial preparation for their career.

Young people recognise this demand for higher skills, which is why undergraduate application numbers haven’t fallen off in response to tuition fees as some feared – but it is clear students are now more closely linking course choices to future career options, with applications holding up strongest for degrees that pay greater dividends, such as physical sciences.

Of course, for employers it’s more than just about qualifications – business increasingly demands well-rounded people with the broad range of skills needed to thrive in the workplace. University is a great chance for young people to pick up these skills, for example through summer placements.

Craig O’Callaghan

Assistant Editor, The Gateway

Suggesting students are incapable of working towards a career while also finding time for other experiences is ridiculous. When it comes to cake, I’ve always been very pro-having it and pro-eating it too so it’s probably no surprise I feel it’s possible for students to set themselves up for a good career while simultaneously joining bonkers student societies and partying too much.

University is a strange place with seemingly endless possibilities designed to entertain any fleeting fancy you might have ever had. Want to hang out with other Harry Potter fans? Go caving? Learn how to take a decent photograph? Good news, there’s a society for you. If that’s not enough the two boring nightclubs in your home town are now usurped by dozens of trendy bars and clubs which you’ll only realise are actually naff once you’re about to graduate.

By all means, work hard and focus on getting a good graduate job but don’t let it cost you a social life or the chance to indulge in some “extracurricular” activities. Otherwise you’ll enter the working world as the most boring university graduate ever.

Jenna Payne

2013 Graduate

For most people, the best thing about university is the people you meet. The collective experience of freshers week will give you stories that last well beyond the hangovers, and after a few weeks you will feel like you’ve known your flatmates for a lifetime. In first year, my fear of missing out trumped my fear of deadlines and exams every time, and the lack of retribution for missing lectures means it’s hard not to prioritise your social life.

Undoubtedly, as you move into second and third year the realities of the real world start to feel uncomfortably close and the serious side of university can no longer be ignored. This does not necessarily mean saying goodbye to your social life; getting involved with a society committee, having a part-time job and even group coursework can introduce you to new people while increasing your employability.

Be organised and you’ll find you still have time for the occasional day spent in your onesie watching repeats of Come Dine With Me with your housemates – maybe not the most exciting social experience but a fundamental part of student life!   

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