The battle for college: Should you go with your head or your heart?

What factors should you consider when deciding on what career path you wish to take

You no longer have to run away to join the circus. You can simply apply to one of the many circus schools throughout Europe and the US. Or, closer to home, the Lir Academy runs a five-day clown training course "to help you find your inner clown".

Of course, few parents are wild about the idea of their offspring pursuing a career in the world of entertainment. “Choose a sensible career where there’s plenty of jobs!” they will bellow. But, career guidance experts say, becoming a clown may be a good idea if it is truly your life goal – as long as you go in fully informed.

On the other hand, being a clown is highly unlikely to lead to riches, so it’s probably not the best idea if money is your motivating factor. And what if money is your motivating factor? Should you become the head of financial services at a major corporation – even if numbers and business bore you to tears – so you can retire in your 50s?

When it comes down to it, should you go with your head, or your heart?


You’ll struggle to find a career guidance counsellor who recommends ignoring your genuine interests and motivations and choosing the sensible option. Nor will they tell you to ignore all the realities of becoming an astronaut or famous musician, however. So where’s the balance?

The case for the heart:

"At university, we see that the students who do well academically tend to have chosen courses that they're genuinely interested in and find meaningful," says Sorcha Mulcahy, deputy director of the UCD Career Development Centre. "It's hard to do something you don't enjoy on a three- or four-year course. So, from the perspective of doing well academically, there's an argument for following your heart and doing something you're passionate about."

Almost every human society has been built around parents pressuring their children to make life and career choices that are perceived as prestigious and lucrative. Young people have generally chosen from two options: conform or rebel. Is there a third way?

"When a student comes to me and says they're being told to do something, I see it as an opportunity to tease out a conversation," says Neil McCann, a guidance counsellor at St Vincent's secondary school in Glasnevin, Dublin 9.

“The word ‘you’ appears over 40 times on the first page of the CAO handbook, reinforcing that it is the student’s decision alone. It’s the first major adult decision a young person will make. All that any guidance counsellor or parent wants is that they spend time thinking about it, do some research and self-evaluation, see where their strengths lie and make the best decision they can.”

But McCann warns that the “sensible” option isn’t always, in fact, the most sensible option. “The notion of a wonderful, high-flying and well-paid job may be unrealistic. Teenagers generally don’t have much experience of the world of work, and the idea that there’s a perfect job that will be interesting every day is a myth: most jobs can – at least some of the time – be difficult, stressful, challenging and mundane. Being well-paid, flexible and having it all can be inexperience talking. Most adults who have worked know that it is not always fun and games.”

The case for the head:

None of this means abandoning logic and sense, says Mulcahy. “There are different perceptions of what a sensible choice is, but the world of work is changing so fast that what seems like the safe and sensible option now may not be the safe and sensible option in the future.”

Mulcahy advises students to think about the whole picture. “What are your personal circumstances like? What is employment like in the sector that you’re considering and what are the prospects? Making as informed a decision as possible is key. Third-levels don’t just run open days – there are also summer schools where secondary school students can come in and get a taster of a particular course.”

In very competitive industries such as journalism and the music business, undeterred students should go in with their eyes wide open, says Mulcahy. “It’s about being under no illusions as to what the jobs market is like. The world would be a sad place without actors, artists and journalists, but it can be a hard road and people need to be conscious of that. If it’s very important to you to have job security and steady income, then a more precarious job may not be the way forward.”

What you choose now is not fixed for life, she adds. "More than ever before, the idea of a job for life is gone. These days, people do postgraduate courses, or upskill and change their path; indeed, every student needs to understand that education doesn't end with a further- or higher-education qualification, and some element of ongoing education and continuous professional development will be ever-present in their career. Work has become very dynamic, and organisations like PwC now employ graduates from a variety of disciplines, not just business. Anyone with a college degree has shown that they have the key skills employers want, such as critical thinking, problem-solving, working with others, writing and research."

What’s the verdict?

Don’t go with your heart or your head. They’re not different parts of your body pushing you in different directions. Consider the arguments for following your passion, and weigh them carefully against your long-term hopes and expectations, including employability, career progression and financial goals.

“If a student is thinking about a certain sector, I give them the information that I know,” says Mulcahy. “Economies are cyclical, and there will always be cycles where some jobs are more plentiful than others. Robotics and artificial intelligence may replace some jobs, while research conducted by the World Economic Forum suggests that up to 65 per cent of today’s students will work in jobs that don’t currently exist. Predicting the future is difficult, but we can say that the skills you build through studying will see you in good stead. Whatever qualification you get, it won’t be the culmination – it’s just the beginning.”

Where the jobs are

Workforce of the Future: – The Competing Forces Shaping 2030 is a report from PwC which looks at the pace of change in the workforce and how the ways in which we work are currently undergoing a radical transformation. It looks at a world in which technological breakthroughs, demographic shifts, rapid urbanisation, shifts in global economic power, resource scarcity and climate breakdown have changed not just how we work, but how we live.

Learning how to learn and be adaptable is more important than the ability to acquire knowledge, it warns, and this is a life-long endeavour. Whether the corporations rise to become more powerful, or economic and environmental justice predominates, robotics and AI will replace existing jobs but, in turn, new, as-yet-unimagined jobs will be created. Adaptability will be key.

Skills needs for the future

If you're looking for a medium-term view of where the jobs are, the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs has a fairly decent record. Call-centre staff, health professionals, and graduates with ICT and language skills will continue to have excellent employment prospects in the coming years. People with science qualifications are likely to find opportunities in the medical device industry (despite a recent global scandal exposed by The Irish Times and a consortium of international newspapers which found that medical devices may have caused more than 1,000 health episodes in Ireland alone over the past year, the industry is likely to bounce back, albeit with tighter regulations) as well as the many pharmaceutical firms with Irish bases.

The National Skills Bulletin

The report, compiled by further education and training authority Solas, shows the biggest skills gaps are in the food innovation, ICT, pharmaceutical, and biopharma industries. Ireland doesn’t have enough doctors, nurses, radiographers and other medical practitioners to meet the population’s needs.

In 2018, well-flagged shortages of engineers led to a surge in applications for these courses, and that trend looks likely to continue. At the same time, there’s a lack of skilled tradespeople including welders, carpenters and pipelayers, highlighting the growing value of apprenticeships.

In business and finance, financial and management accountants, data scientists and statisticians will do well, along with supply chain and logistics specialists.

In any industry, graduates with a European language, Arabic, Chinese or Japanese will be snapped up; if they also have technical and ICT skills, they’ll be even more valued.

Finally, the ongoing global chef shortage is still biting hard, and it’s likely to lead to a changed industry for anyone who may otherwise have been turned off by stories of very long and anti-social hours while a head chef screams and shouts at you.