BY BEN HABIB.
Every January, school leavers get down to the pointy end of choosing what they want to do with their lives. A lot of people—parents and relatives, friends, school career counsellors, the media—are likely to give you some truly horrible advice. While usually well-meaning, the people around you will have all kinds of self-interested reasons for giving you their two cents worth. Ultimately however, it’s you that has to make the choice and you that has to live with it.
With that in mind, I’d like to share some of my life experiences as a student, as a university lecturer and everything that I was in between, in the hope that my journey might make someone else’s choice just a little bit easier.
Getting there the long way
I grew up in the regional town of Mount Gambier in the southeast of South Australia. While bright, I was not an outstanding student at high school. My chief pursuits as a teenager were basketball and that age-old teenage obsession: trying to be cool and fit in. At five years of age I desperately wanted to convert my fascination with dinosaurs into a career in palaeontology but by the age of seventeen, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do after high school apart from play in the NBA.
In year 12 I took all the maths and science subject plus English, because they were the subjects on offer for kids who hadn’t already been identified as destined for the trades. Interestingly, I received by far my best grade in English, although sadly, in hindsight, this didn’t factor into my university preferences.
Boys studying maths and science generally go into engineering or science degrees, I was told by career counsellors at school. I went along with that advice and the following year I found myself enrolled in a Bachelor of Science degree. I didn’t make this choice for myself and I would pay the price.
Like so many school leavers in regional areas, my primary motivation to attend university was to escape the suffocating intellectual and social conservatism of my home town. Once my escape was secured, that motivation no longer held any power and I devoted my first year at university to pure, unadulterated self-indulgence.
I managed to scrape through first year on the second attempt, but not long after that a string of bad exam results made it plain to me that the game was up, so I dropped out. I spent the next eight months working as casual labour hire in various jobs in vineyards, factories and warehouses, discovering the exact worth of my high school certificate in the labour market.
Then I discovered international relations. It came to me through my girlfriend of the time, who was studying the discipline at university. I was enthralled by the material my girlfriend brought home and quickly came to realise that this was the field I wanted to study.
From the moment I began my second university degree, a Bachelor of Arts majoring in international relations, I knew I was on the right path. Passionate about the field and highly motivated, I emerged three years later with a degree and a grade point average that resembled a cricket score.
At the end of my undergraduate degree I was faced with a similar choice to the one I confronted as a seventeen year old: what to do next? I spent time teaching English in China and was eventually employed as a low-level data entry and client service officer at the Department of Immigration and Citizenship.
Working in the public service was a soul-crushing experience, but it taught me about organisational dynamics and personal professionalism, and gave me the motivation to choose a different path. That path led me to my PhD studies and eventually to where I am today as a lecturer in international relations at Latrobe University.
Follow your heart
I have learned many hard lessons through my career journey, which I would like to share. My number one pearl of wisdom is to follow your heart and choose a field that you really love.
This is no feel-good new age mantra; in my personal experience and from my observations as a lecturer, those students who are passionate about what they are doing are most likely to succeed because they are motivated to put in the effort. As the old saying goes, D’s get degrees but A’s get jobs.
If you choose something you love, you will sacrifice and put in the hard work necessary for success. If you don’t choose something you’re passionate about, you are setting yourself up for mediocrity. Ultimately, the only person who can make this judgement is you, because only you know the true nature of your heart’s desires.
Like me at age seventeen, not everyone knows what they are passionate about. The solution here is to keep trying new things until you find something that resonates with you. You don’t have to get it right the first time.
Be honest with yourself
To make good career choices throughout your life you need to be brutally honest about what you are and aren’t good at. This varies with the individual and only you can make this call.
Some people set themselves up for failure by pursuing career paths that they are not intellectually and/or emotionally prepared for. At the same time, being overly critical of yourself is equally unhelpful. Some people sell themselves short by not challenging themselves or utilising their talents to the highest degree.
The late-teens and early-twenties are an exciting time of self-discovery, as young people go through a period of intense intellectual, social and emotional growth in the transition to adulthood. Learning to take responsibility for yourself is an important part of this experience.
With that in mind, choosing a career path that is safe and familiar can often be an unwise choice because it robs you of the challenges that foster your personal growth.
Take the gap year
If you’re relieved to finally get out of high school and want to let your hair down and experience the world, then take a gap year and go do it. Because the chances are if don’t scratch that itch, you’ll take your gap year while enrolled in further study, if you get my drift, and waste the great life opportunity that tertiary study provides.
Get a job. Travel overseas. Do some volunteer work. Join the army reserve. Do whatever tickles your fancy. The exposure to a world outside of study will give you a new set of life experiences that will make you more mature and recharge your batteries for the new study journey ahead.
Marketing hype is not real information
Like all businesses in a competitive marketplace, educational institutions use slick marketing campaigns to lure prospective clients (students). For the most part, it’s all bullshit. The PR slogans and advertising sound bites are usually unrelated to the actual student experience.
You can’t make an empowered decision without reliable information. If you want to know more about a course or university that you’re interested in, talk to some students who actually study there and get some candid first-hand feedback. If you can spare a moment, sit in on some lectures or spend some time hanging out on the campus during the teaching semester to get a feel for the place.
Higher education is not like high school
Let me repeat, because this is important: higher education, whether at university or TAFE, is nothing like high school.
Many people have a horrid experience in high school. For some creative minds, the structured authoritarian learning environment of high school fails to nourish their creative spirit. For others, poor teaching bores them to death, while for some, bullying and harassment from other students has made their life a living hell. The prospect of further education can be unattractive for students with these experiences.
Tertiary education is a whole new world. It is not a rigid environment where students are taught what to think and have information crammed through every orifice, but is a place for people to learn to think for themselves.
Here you not only learn the vocational skills for the job market, but get the opportunity to learn the critical, creative, strategic and empathic thinking skills that will enable you to contribute positively to the community, participate constructively as a democratic citizen and live sustainably within the wider environment in which our society exists.
Nothing gives me more satisfaction as a lecturer than to see a student’s eye open for the first time to a whole new perspective on their world and the feeling of empowerment that it gives them.
There’s more to life than money
It’s easy to be seduced by a career pathway that promises great riches, but don’t be fooled, large salaries always come with a catch.
Think hard about what you want from your life, not just from your job. Do some research on important issues like the number of hours employees have to work in the professions you are considering. After all, being rich is meaningless if you’re at work all the time and have no time to spend with friends and family to enjoy the fruits of your labour.
Harking back to my point above about passion, financial incentives alone are not a good enough motivation to succeed. The salaries and prestige associated with being a doctor or a lawyer sound great in theory, but think hard about the long, challenging period of study and training one has to complete to earn a position in these fields.
The lure of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not enough. If you don’t truly love what you’re doing, you won’t go the distance.
There’s a lot of unwarranted pressure on you to make the right choice which you frankly don’t need to endure, so take that monkey off your back.
The career path you choose now, as a school leaver, is not make or break. It will not lock you in for life. If you find yourself travelling down the wrong path, you can always change course later on. Often, the experience of trying and failing can arm you with the wisdom and courage to follow your heart and pursue a career path in a field you are passionate about.
Yes, it’s a big choice but its only one of thousands that you’ll make in your adult life and if this one goes south, you will always have the opportunity to make amends later on. So relax and enjoy the ride along this exhilarating period of your life!
Dr. Benjamin Habib is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at La Trobe University, Albury-Wodonga. Ben’s research project projects include North Korea’s motivations for nuclear proliferation, East Asian security, international politics of climate change, and undergraduate teaching pedagogy. He also teaches in Australian politics and the international relations of the Middle East. Ben undertook his PhD candidature at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, and has worked previously for the Department of Immigration and Citizenship. He has spent time teaching English in Dandong, China, and has also studied at Keimyung University in Daegu, South Korea. Ben is involved with local community groups Wodonga and Albury Toward Climate Health (WATCH) and Transition Albury-Wodonga.
Ben welcomes constructive feedback. Please comment below, or contact Ben at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.
Lovely post, Ben. What you have written is all too true and fantastic advice, particularly cutting the stress. Like you (the far majority of us, I believe), my path was not linear. And at age 50, I can honestly say I’ve found my niche. 🙂 It certainly has been an enjoyable ride and looking back on it I can see that each and every day of my career had an important contribution to where I am now.
Great advice Ben. Hope lots of students read it.
PERFECT description of my first attempt at university study!