At this time of the year, Grade 12 students across Australia are in the final strokes of their assessment. Some will have a clear image of their pathway beyond high school, but the reality is, many have no clue what to expect in the next few years of their life.
There are many choices between now and the end of the year that will greatly impact your young adult life. We want to share some our choices and let you know exactly what they lead towards.
“Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”
This is the first of a two-part blog, and will focus on what to do while you are still in school, including gap years, options beyond school, institution selection, and choosing your degree. The second part, Beyond High School, explores what to do once you’re out in the real world.
The topics discussed generally apply to all sorts of school leavers. Having said that, as I am a university student, there will be a focus on the things I know best.
1. Seriously consider planning a gap year
If you asked a group of students, teachers, and parents, “What do you think of taking a gap year?”, you would get a sense of the stigma and misconception surrounding the topic.
First of all, what exactly is a gap year?
According to Macca Sherifi on gapyear.com, a gap year is a “constructive time out to travel in-between life stages”. It is a year to adjust to the sudden change between high school and adult life.
What you do in a gap year can include taking a break from intense academia, exploring career prospects, backpacking and travelling, developing your hobbies and interests, and volunteering. Often it includes a combination of these, and more!
Many high achievers and those who have great expectations of them imagine gap years as ‘only for lazy people who want to do nothing all year’. You may think a gap year would slam the brakes to your rocketing career plans. However, as Shakespeare advises in Romeo and Juliet, “they stumble that fall fast” – those who rush may stumble and fall.
Most students graduate without knowing exactly what to do after graduation. Even the few that do have their life thoroughly planned only have a glamourized idea of their desired vocation.
In my case, I went straight from high school into an accelerated bachelor’s degree, and then into medicine. This decision was made completely on my own without pressure from family or friends, but at a certain point I lost track of what exactly I was doing.
I ended up taking a gap year, and although my final goal hasn’t changed, I did need a year to slow things down and understand why I was studying medicine.
Whatever the case, rushing into university just because that’s what everyone else does is not the most optimal choice. As you will be constantly studying and under stress, you won’t have the time and opportunity to explore what you really want to do. As a result, many people drop out of their degree, only to stumble directly into another incompatible option. It is in these times we reflect and wish we considered the pros and cons of a gap year
If what I’ve written so far strikes a chord, then allow me to share a bit more advice and how to make sure you get the most benefits of your gap year:
In the above definition of a gap year, the most important word is constructive. If you want to take a gap year to chill and relax at home, you will be bored and wishing you applied to do something before the end of March.
That is, if you haven’t been kicked out of the house by then.
The first thing you should do is extensively "plan my gap year". Think about what jobs you want to try out, how many hours per week you intend to work, the hobbies and interests you plan to develop, and so forth.
For example, I have always loved writing, but was never a natural at it. Studying medicine gave me little opportunity to develop this hobby, especially because everything was assessed through exams. With more time to develop my craft, here I am writing blogs! I’ve already been able to write about how to achieve an A in Maths B.
Once you have your gap year plan, you can show this to your parents and ease their concerns. Let them know the last thing you intend to do is laze away at home doing nothing all year. They can also tell you if your plan is realistic.
To make the next year start smoothly, and to demonstrate that your plan is functional, start preparations for each item on your plan. This can include writing a resume, applying for work early, researching your travel itinerary, and joining your local club for your hobby.
Preparation for the gap year is very important because it can be difficult to find a job in a competitive market, especially without work experience.
Cara Jenkin, 2011 from careerone.com.au writes, “With little or no job prospects, one can lose their sense of confidence, become bored and feel lost, especially when seeing friends head off to university or TAFE.”
This once again reinforces the key word in a gap year – be constructive.
Once you’ve made a final decision, fill out a deferral form from your university or TAFE institution, if you’ve accepted a course. Each university has its own policy on deferrals, and most courses have absolutely no issue with it. You will need to check your institution’s website for more details.
If you’ve taken the above steps and have a clear purpose and plan for your gap year, it will give you much-needed clarity for what you want to do in the next decade of your life. Sometimes, taking a step back to catch a breath and think about everything will give you more energy to power ahead.
2. Choosing what to do after graduation
Let’s say you’ve weighed the pros and cons of a gap year, and it’s just not for you. What are the other things to do after high school graduation?
The vast majority of graduates go straight into university for a bachelor degree. For the average student, this is the standard pathway, the “safest” choice.
There are statistics and reasons that justify this impression. The unemployment rate for workers with a bachelor degree is 2.7%, compared to 6.4% for those who have only completed Year 12 Study.
University education is broad and theoretical, and teaches the core knowledge and cognitive skills involved in whole industries. Therefore, there is more potential for employment in various sectors of the industry, and graduates are not limited to a specific job.
In 2014, 68.1% of university students had found a full-time job, four months after graduation. However, in the general labour force, 96.8% of bachelor degree holders were employed. This means that over the long term, university is the better option.
This theme is consistent when discussing salaries. Although the starting salaries for university and TAFE graduates are similar (in some cases TAFE is higher), bachelor degree graduates have more potential for promotions and salary increases without further study (McKenna, 2015).
University is the obvious choice for high achievers in secondary school who have a solid grasp on academic study. For practical learners or those who don’t want to be locked into years of study, there are other options.
Technical and Further Education (TAFE)
TAFE institutes offer practical courses at certificate or diploma level that are specific for a certain job. Compared to university degrees, they are more specific, shorter, less costly, but count as a lower level of qualification.
TAFE has a better immediate employment rate of 77.6%, six months after graduation, but there is less job security and flexibility in the long term compared with a university graduate. Employers will often expect further study before offering promotions (McKenna, 2015).
Remember how we said university was broad and theoretical? TAFE courses teach very specific skills for a certain profession. This naturally means that you can’t find many other jobs with that qualification, unlike with a bachelor degree.
University and TAFE are designed to be complementary. Someone with a bachelor’s degree may take a TAFE course to gain more specific skills and boost employment chances for that job. Those who have completed TAFE can use that as a bridging pathway to enter university.
This pathway is ideal for practical learners who prefer to cycle between learning specific skills in TAFE, applying them in work, and then going back to study to gradually accumulate their expertise and qualifications. With a certain level of experience in the field, you may decide to go to university to obtain that gold-star qualification.
Vocational Education and Training (VET) and/or Apprenticeships
TAFE and VET are very similar in that they both offer similar levels of qualifications (certificates and diplomas) and are practical in nature. TAFE institutes are government-owned, whereas VET courses are provided by private Registered Training Organisations (RTOs).
In particular, VET is known for the trade apprenticeships they offer.
Most students who are interested in an apprenticeship have already begun training since the start of Year 11. If you take this pathway, you will be doing paid employment as an apprentice for a set number of hours per week while studying core high school subjects.
This means you are doing a lot less academic study, but learning a trade through practical work.
Apprenticeships can take from one to four years to complete depending on the type of apprenticeship, industry, and qualification level. This means some students will complete their training when they finish secondary schooling, but others will need to complete their training after graduation.
Despite what popular opinion teaches us, learning a trade does not equal poor career options. For those not dissuaded by physical labour, you will be pleased to know that 84.1% of trainees were employed after completion in 2014.
While university students must pay thousands to get their degree, apprenticeship trainees actually get paid for their work. They also have higher average starting wages and salaries (Ahwan, L & Burgess, M).
If apprenticeships are so amazing, why is there a stigma against tradies? What’s the catch?
First of all, there is a limit on the sustainability of physical labour. The hard work involved in a trade can be slept off by strong, young adults, but the accumulated toll on the body as you age is an inevitability.
In a later section, I will discuss something called career potential, and this can be somewhat limited for those who earn a living by trade. How do you increase your career worth in your field? It is possible after years of experience for you to be a supervisor of colleagues in your trade. You may even start up your own small business with the appropriate networking skills.
Realistically speaking, however, someone with higher education study has more potential and opportunity to be the manager of a large firm, who would be your superior.
It may be possible for tradies to increase their career potential, but this will definitely mean more training in TAFE or even university.
Unless you are taking a year off or really need some quick cash, going straight into jobs after high school graduation is the least recommended option.
High academic achievers will excel in university, while practical workers who learn through experience will thrive in an apprenticeship. TAFE is a flexible in-between which can also bridge into university. There aren’t many other excuses to go straight into work after graduation.
Remember that the unemployment rate for workers who completed only Year 12 study is 6.4%. Without appropriate qualifications, you will likely only be hired for low-skill, minimal training, and low-wage jobs after high school graduation.
In the long term, those who have completed some form of training will quickly catch up and exceed your income, job security, and sense of achievement. The only exception is if you were accepted into an entry-level job with potential to learn a variety of skills and climb up the promotion ladder.
3. Choosing Your University Degree
A bachelor’s degree is a significant investment in time and money. The minimal duration of a bachelor’s degree is three years, and thousands of dollars for domestic students. It is therefore important to consider various factors in your final decision.
By this time, you will be sick of hearing the phrase “do what you love”. I would prefer to phrase it differently – choose a degree encompassing a sector with which you are compatible.
As we said before, most degrees such as a Bachelor of Business or Engineering cover massive industries. Focus on the major features of each industry.
Whatever the job, if it is in the engineering field, would likely include a lot of maths and physics, working in a firm with a team, and drawing or graphics skills. There is potential for both physical labour and desk work.
Of course you may have a very specific dream job in mind, but with the above mentality, you will find a degree which is most compatible to you in a world that is constantly changing.
Financial and Employment Security
As we grow up, we begin to understand just how expensive life is, not to mention when we begin to start a family, or if something unexpected occurs. With this realization, financial security becomes a major factor in job selection.
This is not to say that you should indiscriminately choose the degree which gets you a job with the highest salary. It is more so a reminder not to squander your potential.
If you have the academic prowess to achieve top marks and be accepted into medicine, it’s completely understandable to reject the offer because it’s incompatible to you. It would be a bad move, however, to then enrol in something with a much smaller market, lower salary and security, and less career potential.
Career potential is how much room for learning, improvement, evolution, and promotion there is in a certain job or industry.
Imagine doing the same repetitive tasks every day of your life for 30 years – you will be bored a long time before that. It is important for your job to constantly challenge you, provide opportunities for growth, and give a sense of accomplishment.
A lot of the major sectors and industries - for example, the business sector, engineering sector, healthcare industry, software industry, and so forth - have a lot of career potential. Specific jobs within these fields are more dead-ended than others.
The healthcare industry has unlimited learning potential through research and further education of a specific field. Software professions collaborate with all the other industries and have virtually no boundaries.
The business sector has a lot of flexibility for you to learn the different roles within a corporation. The highest earnings potential is only limited by the size of the company.
Choosing a degree and majoring in a field with vast career potential will offer more freedom and opportunity for your career pathway.
4. Choosing A University
Choosing a university isn’t quite as simple as going for the highest ranking university in your city. That is only the first step.
The overall university ranking and the subject ranking reflects the university’s reputation. This can give you an edge in competitive markets, especially if you are applying overseas.
Don’t stress too much if your prerequisite scores don’t give you much choice, though, especially if you have an ideal degree. University rankings are insignificant in the grand scheme of employability. Your grades, work experience, and networking will reflect your worth to interviewers.
That doesn’t mean they are completely useless, because university rankings do indicate if the institution has a good learning culture, provides adequate networking opportunities, and has proper teaching curriculum or staff.
Apart from looking up abstract rankings given by various organisations, you should also consider graduate satisfaction and employment rates.
Most importantly, you should see a career counsellor with the information you have researched. They will be able to fill the gaps of knowledge lacking from the internet. Additionally, you must attend open days for your local universities to experience each institution’s unique culture and appraise their facilities.
If an ideal choice is interstate or overseas, don’t rule it out! If you have the calibre to be accepted into a prestigious university, it can make a massive difference to your career potential compared to settling for what’s close and convenient.
Education is an investment in self, and you shouldn’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone to absorb and learn as much as you can at this stage of life.
Going out into the real world is scary, and the first step is to make appropriate preparations for that. Although these decisions will affect the next few years of your life, know that it’s okay to make mistakes.
We are fortunate enough to live in a country where education is supported, and we won’t be deep in debt by graduation. The beauty of the education system is that there are always pathways to transition into the degree and job you love once you have discovered it.
Ahwan, L., & Burgess, M. (2017). Why a trade is better than uni. news.com.au. Retrieved 4 September 2017, from http://www.news.com.au/finance/work/trade-versus-university-a-breakdown-of-employability-costs-and-earning-potential/news-story/364d23ae946a94d9808775675a5498dd
Jenkins, C. (2011). Options for School Leavers. CareerOne. Retrieved 20 August 2017, from http://career-advice.careerone.com.au/job-hunting-strategy/employment-news/options-for-school-leavers/article.aspx
McKenna, R. (2015). University or TAFE?. Training.com.au. Retrieved 22 August 2017, from https://www.training.com.au/ed/university-or-tafe/
Sherifi, M. What is a Gap Year?. gapyear.com. Retrieved 21 August 2017, from https://www.gapyear.com/articles/90431/what-is-a-gap-year
University, TAFE or private college: where should you study?. (2017). Studies in Australia. Retrieved 23 August 2017, from https://www.studiesinaustralia.com/Blog/about-australia/university-tafe-or-private-college-where-should-you-study
What are TAFE and VET?. Canberra Institute of Technology International. Retrieved 24 August 2017, from https://international.cit.edu.au/information/information_for_parents/tafe_and_vet#VET