One of the biggest changes to education in the past 20 years is the vast number of people who now obtain a third-level degree.
According to the most recent data from the Central Statistics Office (CSO), Ireland had a higher rate of third level or tertiary education in 2021 than the European average, with 62 per cent of 25- to 34-year-olds having a tertiary-level qualification that year, compared with the EU average of 41 per cent.
This increase in the number of people furthering their education after secondary school is excellent for job prospects, but even with that qualification on their CV, many graduates still feel overwhelmed by the thought of entering the workforce.
It is a big transition, and one of the final steps towards being a fully-fledged adult. But students should embrace the change and acknowledge all of the steps they have taken to prepare them for the working world.
The degree they’ve earned is so much more than just a piece of paper. Students learn so much more than they even realise during their time in formal education, with their time in university benefiting them in a variety of ways.
Elaine Daly, career consultant at Dublin City University (DCU), said for those in the early stages of their career decision-making journey, the broad nature of many degree programmes can be a huge benefit.
These students can “look at what they enjoyed in their degree and look at other things like their interests, what’s going to suit their personality, their skills and strengths, and all of that, and to see how that relates to the labour market and the job opportunities that are open to them”.
A general business degree, for example, has a variety of modules such as marketing, human resources and finance. While all coming under the umbrella term of business, they all provide different employment opportunities, allowing students to determine which areas best align with their interests and passions.
Jennifer Kwan, also a career consultant at DCU, agrees, stating a degree programme provides “lots of opportunities” to try different things.
“Say they’re doing an art history course or something like that, they can think about how the artists portray their clients, what they are thinking about and how that shows. That could, for instance, give good insight that ‘actually, I really enjoy that thinking process, I would really like a client-facing job, so maybe I should be a consultant so I can work with those people’,” Ms Kwan said.
“Students might have to be quite clever about making those lateral-thinking processes. But there are a lot of things to a degree that show people what they’re interested in. If they’re studying history, there might be a lot of politics and strategy, and that could lead to an operations-type role, with problem solving.”
There are benefits also, through the connections students make while at university. Whether that be through clubs, societies or the education staff, it creates a network of potential contacts that could benefit graduates when entering the job market.
Ms Kwan said: “Lots of professors might have come from industry and might have those industry connections. Networking can be a very scary word to use when you’re a graduate, but actually it’s about building relationships with people and maintaining those relationships as much as you can.”
The benefits of a university degree really come to the fore the most when graduates begin their first job. While impostor syndrome are words often thrown around, it is a very real feeling for young people beginning in a job with much more senior and experienced individuals.
However, the two career consultants said graduates should not allow this feeling to hold them back; their fresh qualification can often be a benefit, and fill in existing gaps in the workplace.
Ms Kwan said there are two good examples of technical skills that students in degree programmes learn now in which older generations would not typically have been given formal training: digital technology and sustainability.
“Even if we think back five years ago, not that many degrees had data analytics as part of the degree or did a tiny bit of thinking from a data perspective, and that has really changed quite quickly. While that graduate might have that impostor syndrome, there are a lot of people in the room, probably doing the recruiting, who have likely never taken a single module on data analytics,” she said.
“Sustainability is another really good one which I think even if a student isn’t taking a sustainability module within a course, there are often opportunities for them to take a sustainability perspective on something. That is being increasingly talked about. If it’s in a lab, if it’s in an office, if it’s in science, what is the sustainability processes around the global impact.”
Ms Kwan said this hard knowledge in these areas are things employers are very interested in currently.
“This generation of students has more research knowledge and education in those areas than a lot of people in the workplace do currently,” she added.
But there is more than just degree-specific skills that students acquire throughout their courses. According to Ms Daly, students also gain soft skills, or transferable skills, which can be applied in every workplace.
“An example of soft skills are the likes of your communication, your team work, your organisation, adaptability, problem solving, creativity, that all comes into it. They’re things people will develop through their degree, even by studying the subjects they’re studying, but also by completing course work,” Ms Daly said.
“Sometimes I find that students don’t recognise they’re developing those skills. You develop teamwork through group projects or presentations, communication skills from presentations or even written communication from completing assignments and stuff. They’re so valuable no matter what area or industry you go into.”
Even the process of meeting deadlines and overcoming challenges, two things that students consistently face throughout their degree, are integral skills when at work.
Deadlines only increase in the workplace, with employees frequently being given tasks by a boss or supervisor that require completion within a certain time frame.
Because of the habit of completing assignments throughout university years, these graduates will understand the importance of deadlines, and will be equipped to manage their time effectively to meet these demands.
Being a self-starter is also a key skill picked up throughout the completion of higher education. When it comes to completing assignments or studying course material, there is nobody hovering over students to ensure they do what they’re supposed to do.
As a result, young people learn to motivate themselves. At the end of the day, if they don’t complete the coursework, the only person it affects is themself. This self-motivation will be fundamental to being a good worker, when there are often knock-on consequences to the incompletion of work.
Ms Daly said these skills are just as important in the workplace as the hard skills or sector-specific knowledge that students think of more quickly.
She said: “If you’re dealing with a client and you don’t have those relationship-building or rapport-building skills or communication skills to explain your work to a client, then you’re not going to be as effective at your job.”