What college course is right for you?

Researching your area of interest is key to making the right decision about third-level

Choosing a college course is a big decision, and there are a lot of different colleges and career options to consider. Photograph: iStockphoto/Getty Images

Choosing a college course is a big decision, and there are a lot of different colleges and career options to consider. Photograph: iStockphoto/Getty Images


How do you go about choosing a college course? It’s a big decision, and there are a lot of different colleges and career options to consider. There are generally two types of students: those who think they know what they want and those who think they don’t know. In reality, most students fall somewhere between the two extremes.

So, how can you decide ? We put forward a short case for a number of different career options

The case for humanities and social science?

You might be told it’s the default option for students who can’t make up their mind, but it’s a worthwhile degree in its own right, too. Subjects like philosophy, English, history, politics and sociology teach you how to research both sides of a story, critically analyse information and communicate your findings. Employers value these skills, and while you mightn’t start off on the highest salary, it will improve over the years. And, with the world currently in such a perilous state, we need people with the ability to think and analyse critically.

Broadly, humanities graduates are prominent in arts and culture, teaching, media, business, NGOs and the civil service. Some arts courses are more vocationally oriented: graduates with language skills are in high demand; psychology students may be on the path to a career in psychology; and economics and maths graduates are primed to work in business or finance. Social science graduates also have good career opportunities in such areas as social work and youth and community work.

Why choose science?

Science is often sold – wrongly – as a rather rigid, dry and fact-based career. This couldn’t be further from the truth: scientists are perhaps the most creative thinkers of all. Imagine, you have an idea or theory, but you don’t really know whether or not you’re right; now, your job is to find a way to the truth.

Science is a very broad church, encompassing the more familiar school subjects of physics, chemistry and biology alongside genetics, nanotechnology (the science of how to manipulate very small objects, on an atomic scale, to create new objects), geology, astronomy, zoology and pharmacology. But which to choose? Most colleges now offer general-entry science courses so students don’t even have to make a specialised choice until second or third year.

Many of the world’s modern trappings – health, technology, environmental care, food, public policy and more – are underpinned by science. We can’t function without scientists but we also need their critical and creative know-how.

Science students learn how to examine evidence, develop theories, and think logically and analytically. Scientists like to be challenged and aren’t afraid their ideas might be changed by new evidence. Real evidence loves questions.

The case for business?

If you don’t want a boring office job, business is a good choice. This might go against what you’ve been told about the business world, but it’s probably the most diverse job of all. You could be out and about meeting clients and seeking investors. You might be an entrepreneur brimming with ideas and leading a team to get a product or service to market. You could be flying across the world as a buyer, or dealing with the cut-and-thrust of sales. You might find yourself as somewhat of a mediator in human relations. You could be dealing with millions of euro in bonds every day. Or, of course, you might just love those figures and get a kick out of dealing with the numbers.

There is no job, no profession, that can function without qualified business people. If you’re working in a vet or dentistry practice, a school, in media, science or research, the civil service, the defence or police forces, agriculture – the list goes on – your job relies on people who understand how to run a business or how to look after the figures.

If you do pursue a business qualification, you’ll have valuable creative and entrepreneurial skills that will serve you well in whatever job you work in. As in any profession, some of the best business heads learn on the job and, often, business people will have a science or arts undergrad and then a postgraduate business qualification.

The case for engineering and technology

How does that work? What if I take it apart and make it again from scratch? Or what if I have an idea and want to create something completely new? Engineers are the creators, the makers, the fixers and doers of society. They are problem-solvers and we need them. They are the brains behind your home and everything in it, from the shell of the house to its heating systems, and the laptop and iPads you use to the design of that sleek study lamp you like. All the time, their work is guided by imagination and ingenuity.

The prospects for engineers can fluctuate with the economy, especially for civil engineers. On the other hand, electronic engineers can expect fairly decent prospects for the foreseeable future. And, generally, salaries are good.

Most colleges now offer a general-entry engineering course, so you can get a flavour of chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical options before choosing to specialise down the line. If, however, you have a fair idea of what you’d like to do, then UCC still offers direct-entry courses.

The case for health sciences

Chances are, if you want to become a doctor, nurse, dentist, pharmacist or physiotherapist, you’ve been leaning this way for quite a while – perhaps since childhood. You may not need much persuading.

But, just in case: health professionals save lives. You’re working with the sick, injured and dying of all ages, and you’re marrying the precision of science and technology with the best impulses of humanity – to care for and help each other. It can be tough: doctors and nurses face long and gruelling hours; pharmacists have to work with a lot of regulation; physiotherapists can see badly injured people who are in a lot of pain; dentists may be one of the few professions where their clients hate them. Still, each profession offers its own rewards.

You won’t find any shortage of health science courses on offer around the various third-levels in Ireland. Nurses and doctors won’t struggle to find work; an unemployed dentist is generally an oxymoron; and employment prospects have improved for physiotherapists.

The case for teaching

If you were to listen to the unions that represent your teachers, you might think that teaching is the most miserable job in the world. And yes, there are pressures: your rowdy classmates, an increasingly demanding Department of Education, poor promotion prospects. But talk to your teachers themselves and you’ll find that most of them love their job. They get into teaching for two reasons: they love their subject and they want to make a difference to the lives of young people.

Ireland is somewhat unusual in that teaching is one of the most respected professions, and the high points for teacher-training courses is a reflection of this. But bear in mind that primary and post-primary teaching are two very different beasts. At primary level, teachers have more freedom to respond to the children’s needs; at post-primary, even the best and most innovative teachers are constrained by the exam. And third-level teaching is completely different again: these jobs are increasingly hard to come by and require a lot of slog and administration.

Primary teaching is an undergraduate degree, but most second-level teachers learn how to teach on a postgraduate course.

Employment opportunities for primary teachers are continuing to improve. At second-level, it’s all about the subject: you’ll be in demand if you can teach languages, maths or home economics, but less so if your subjects are English or history.

The case for agriculture and veterinary medicine

Don’t think that you’ll be milking the cows all day. Agriculture graduates are as likely to be working in the lab as they are to be out in the field. They can be entrepreneurs running their own business, they can be developing new products and ideas or they can be carrying out research at the cutting edge of food science.

Both agriculture and veterinary medicine are rooted in science. Agriculture, in particular, requires deep consideration of complex problems. How do we feed the world without wrecking the environment? How do we build this food business? What is the best solution for this land, whether it’s a farm, forest or home garden? Agriculture requires creative thinking.

Agriculture is also a growth area. Ireland’s agri-food industry will face challenges in the coming years, but it’s still performing strongly and offering good job prospects. UCD is the place to do this course; WIT also offers options.

As for veterinary science students? Unemployment in this industry is very rare.

The case for architecture and construction

During the boom, they thrived. During the recession, they slumped; graduates emigrated in search of work. Now, they are back, and demand for quantity and property surveyors, architects and construction workers is rising.

There’s always a risk that this will change again, but bear in mind these are highly mobile professions and there will always be employment somewhere in the world. The skills you’ll acquire will be valued by a range of private and governmental organisations and there is lots of room to diversify and specialise.

If you’ve always liked the technical subjects at school, this area can lead to an enjoyable and rewarding career.

The case for law

Believe it or not, an undergraduate law degree is a good general qualification that teaches analytic and research skills, as well as the art of logical thinking. You’ll excel in spotting potential problems that nobody else can see and you’ll learn how to solve them.

Law students who want to work in the profession will still need a postgraduate profession, and there is a diversity of specialist areas to choose from, including criminal law, company law and family law. It’s fair to say there is more work for solicitors than barristers. But, even if you don’t end up in the law profession, your skills will be valued elsewhere.

The case for media?

Undergraduate journalism degrees are a waste of time. Do a broad general degree that will arm you with a range of skills for a range of jobs, get a taste of writing and working for college papers, learn how to research, and then consider a postgraduate course. If you can get through college and find a way to be published, and if you’re good enough, you can find work. Just don’t expect that you’ll be out hunting for scoops all day; in the real world, you’re as likely to be writing brochures and websites – many make a very happy and good living out of this.

Jobs in the industry are thinning out and, at the moment, it’s probably the most competitive profession of all. That said, there is a growing number of jobs in the PR and communications industry as well as in the digital sphere and in TV, radio, and film, as well in support roles such as web design and sales.