A Careers Crisis – Is University Really Worth All That Time

“In a survey of our most recent year’s graduates, 4 have gone into work in the chemical industry, 10 are in the financial industry, 5 are teaching in schools, 2 work the checkouts in M&S and 1 in Asda. Oh, and 10 didn’t reply.”

The university’s careers presentation was bleak. Before my very eyes, the sanguine employment promises made to me way back in the halcyon days of sixth form by the Chemistry department’s recruitment team were starting to tarnish. As I trudged languidly out of the careers centre, the penny finally dropped: merely attaining my degree is no longer enough to secure a good job. Apparently, I have to be an all-singing, all-dancing walking model of perfection, too.

It doesn’t help that I’m not entirely sure if a career in the chemical industry is where my heart lies. Truth be told, after struggling through a tutorial analysing EPR spectra of inorganic molecules, I would rather stick my hand in a bunsen than consider a lifetime of benzene and bonds. Whilst I find the course itself very interesting, and appreciate that chemistry’s applications are fundamental to most, if not all, aspects of life, living in a lab coat is not my utmost ambition.

Furthermore, it’s hard to think of a household name in the field of modern chemistry. Careers articles more often than not focus on Margaret Thatcher’s contribution as a young chemist to the invention of Mr Whippy ice cream. Without any ‘role models’, I find it difficult to motivate myself into researching particular career paths.  In a wider social context, we need to have more recent high-profile chemists promoting the significance of their work. Admittedly, this is easier said than done, yet would doubtlessly emphasise the relevance of chemistry in the today’s workplace and, in due course, inspire a generation of potential chemists.

Rather shamefully, a significant portion of my own motivation to study chemistry in the first place was the lucrative salaries of jobs where I could utilise my degree. Become a patent attorney, I was told, and you could earn up to £80,000 a year. Get friendly with pharmaceuticals and you’ll be laughing all the way to the bank. Only now, with my rose-tinted glasses removed, do I understand that these pay packets are reserved for the very senior and experienced. Depressingly, a graduate lab technician can expect to earn £14,000 per annum. Add to that the fierce competition from graduates of equally high calibre from across the globe, and I begin to doubt whether university is, put bluntly, worth the time and effort.

Indeed, all too frequently I consider how different my life would be had I chosen not to study, and instead entered straight into the world of work. One of my close friends has found herself a trainee managership at a Sainsbury’s store (at 19, I feel this is no mean feat). When I see my working friends brazenly show off their latest iPhone or jetting off to foreign climes, I cannot help but feel a sharp pang of jealousy towards their earning money. The best I can do is remind myself that education is paramount and, ultimately, will secure me with a rewarding and comfortable lifestyle. Is this a fair assumption? With statistics like those given at the careers presentation, I can’t help but feel just a little doubtful.

Despite this fog of pessimism, I still hold a light for chemistry. As much as the lectures perplex me, I find nothing more satisfying than being able to apply theoretical knowledge to explain results of experiments in the lab. At heart, that fundamental passion for the subject hasn’t faded.  Secondly, I am secretly smug in the knowledge that my degree is still held in high regard.  Tell Joe Blogs that you study chemistry and you receive a reaction of bewilderment and, moreover, admiration. I believe -and hope – this holds true with employers. Thankfully, science is a constantly advancing and expanding discipline, and hence the job market is still fertile despite the recession. There are many opportunities for science graduates to make a difference to people’s everyday lives, whether it be through research on renewable energy sources or developing a non-transferable lipstick.

At the end of the day, as long as I am doing a job I enjoy then I don’t mind which category I will fall into for my year’s careers service survey. Perhaps I won’t have to resort to my back-up plan of opening up a bakery after all.

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