Posted tagged ‘careers’


August 14, 2018

Almost exactly 40 years ago I was sitting my final undergraduate examinations in Trinity College Dublin. In those days the finals were in September, which made it really difficult for some who needed their results rather earlier when making job applications. Anyway, I had, very late in the day, decided to pursue an academic career, and from TCD went on to do a PhD in Cambridge. I then returned to Dublin and became a lecturer in Trinity College. And on from there.

Those of you who read the North-East Scotland media will already know that, with effect from the end of this month, I shall be leaving my position as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University, a post I have held since March 2011. In fact I have spent nearly half my academic career leading two universities consecutively. That’s probably long enough.

However, I shall not be losing interest in the academy, and am already doing work for two books I am intending to write. And this blog will continue. But as I look back, what perhaps strikes me most is that my career never followed a predictable path. I left school in 1972, not intending to go to university at all. After two years in employment, I changed my mind, and went to TCD, intending to be a barrister. As an academic, I expected to be a researcher (and was for a while), but became a university leader instead. There is no such thing as a reliable career plan, and indeed this is more true now than it was then. And for me, there may be one more opportunity to do something completely different. We’ll see.


So, when it come to university courses, are some professions more equal than others?

March 17, 2015

Irish readers of this blog will be well familiar with the complaint – and it’s an entirely justified complaint – that the so-called ‘points system’ that attaches a value to the final school (Leaving Certificate) examination results has created a completely false ‘market’ in university entry to different courses. If you want to do medicine or law you have to achieve very high points. If you wan to study computing, you need far fewer points. So, the apparent judgement is you need to be much cleverer to be a lawyer than to be a computer programmer. Speaking as a lawyer, I can categorically say that this makes no sense.

But the problem is not unique to Ireland. A senior Scottish academic, Professor Alan Gilloran of Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh, has now been reported as saying that ‘that society should reconsider how it views different professions’ and has called for a re-think of established hierarchies in terms of jobs. He has suggested, more specifically, that the high entry requirements for medical studies are not reasonable, because medicine ‘is plumbing, for God’s sake’.

Whether we would agree with this assessment of medicine or not, there is an important point in all of this. We need to ensure that the perceived social status of a particular profession does not – or no longer – govern the academic expectations we have of students. Society’s needs should not be made subject to social aspirations. Right now we need more engineers, biotechnologists, computer programmers, mathematicians; and these are the careers into which we should be enticing the brightest and best of the younger generation.

Who are our role models?

May 22, 2012

I remember attending an informal get-together a few years ago with some local young people near the university of which I was then President, Dublin City University in Ireland. Those who are familiar with DCU know that it is situated close to some very deprived neighbourhoods on the northside of Dublin. The intention was to make the young people feel positive about the potential of a university education. Anyway, the discussion moved to role models; who did these young people look up to? Two answers have stayed in my memory: one suggested Britney Spears, while another voted for ‘anyone who drives a BMW’.

Two things to note here. Britney Spears never went to university, and at the time that this conversation was taking place was just going through a very public personal breakdown. As for the BMW drivers, the young people in the room were probably seeing a few of these, but the chances were that in many cases these were drug dealers. So in the lives of these young women and men, role models diverted their gaze far away from education.

More recently, the New York Times invited young people of 13 or over to suggest their role models. There was a significant response, but the overwhelming majority of those commenting listed parents, friends or relatives as their role models. This looks better, but what you get from it is that people seek to emulate their parents or relatives; and if the family background is one of disadvantage, this limits educational ambition. And actually, if your background is one of privilege, you are probably attracted to safe jobs in the professions, for which there is no longer any urgent social or economic need.

Why does all this matter? If we are to have an impact on education and career patterns, we need to be aware of the impact of role models, both good and bad. If we want to attract people from poorer backgrounds into higher value jobs and lives, there may be all sorts of social and cultural influences pushing the other way. Young people need to hear from those they admire, and who set out for them the benefits of higher education, and the desirability of more entrepreneurial careers. We need to persuade them that to be an engineer (where we have serious skill shortages) is as good a choice as, and maybe a better choice than, being a show business personality.

We need to make our culture converge with our social and educational needs. And we need this to be led by people who know and understand the influences and pressures that young people face.

Careers to avoid?

October 10, 2010

A few weeks ago I wrote about a survey in the United States that had identified certain ‘hot’ careers for which there would be demand over the coming period. Now there is also an American report about jobs for which there is likely to be less demand over the next few years and which might not therefore represent good career choices. The careers in question are:

• Reporters and correspondents
• Insurance underwriters
• Computer programmers (but not software engineers)
• Judges
• Chemical engineers
• Advertising and promotions managers

Of course if this is true in the United States, it may be different on this side of the Atlantic. But the overall problem with career choices is that they are often influenced by current media coverage or news items, and these may not be a good basis for choosing a degree programme. So while journalists may not be so much in demand now (due to the effect of the internet), this may not be true in four years time when today’s university entrants will be graduating.

However, it is also clear that the structure of employment is changing, and obviously this will have an impact on the availability of jobs in certain sectors. Watching these trends, and knowing how to interpret them intelligently, will become a very important activity and skill for careers advisers in schools and colleges. And understanding them will be important for university strategic planning.

Lucrative careers for graduates

September 13, 2010

It has long been my view that students and their families often choose degree programmes for all the wrong reasons. One of these wrong reasons is an assumption about what kind of career is likely to prove lucrative. The problem is that if this is to inform the choice of degree programme, you are making the judgement at the wrong time. Because it was widely thought in Ireland that a career associated with construction was a sure winner, thousands of students chose university programmes on that basis up to about two years ago. Many of those graduating from these in a year or two will find it very hard to get employment. On the other hand, when the bubble burst around 2001 students deserted computing and software engineering, where actually the demand for graduates never reduced very much and we ended up having a serious skills shortage in Ireland. What we know about certain careers today is of almost no value in making a choice of university programme today. In a way that should be obvious, but it doesn’t appear to be so to many prople.

With that health warning, and bearing in mind that this list comes from America, you might be interested in knowing what careers are right now considered to be ‘hot’ in a report coming out of the University of California at San Diego (UCSD). This is the list:

Health information technology
Clinical trials design and management for oncology
Data mining
Embedded engineering
Feature writing for the web
Geriatric healthcare
Mobile media
Occupational health and safety
Spanish/English translation and interpretation
Sustainable business practices and the greening of all jobs
Teaching adult learners
Teaching English as a foreign language
Marine biodiversity and conservation
Health law

The list is interesting because, four or five years ago, these are the professions people should have wanted to equip themselves for as they selected their university degree programmes. But I suspect this would not have been the list used by families with high points students. The kind of things they did mainly choose, at least in Ireland, are not here at all. There is a lesson in there.

Planning a career

August 2, 2010

Before entering higher education most students – or if not the students, then their parents – have an extraordinarily clear idea of what they want to do professionally and what they need from their university or college to achieve this. I have lost track of the number of times that  first year university students have told me of their amazingly fixed expectations of their future professional life. Many of these young people are 17 years old or so, and their sense of certainty frightens me. A few of them are encouraged by their parents to have this sense of purposeful destiny.

But quite apart from the amazing clarity of intention, what also regularly strikes me is how they make their choices. Two things seem to determine this more than anything else: one is their anticipated points score, the other their interpretation of currents news and events. We have already covered the CAO points system previously, but in a nutshell students continue to feel obliged to go for whatever university degree course has a points requirement that most nearly resembles their own points score. If you have 550 points that is enough for Law in Trinity, so why should they consider doing philosophy in Cork, which you can do for much less – it would be ‘wasting their points’ (an extraordinary and destructive concept).

The second source of influence is the news of the day, and their understanding of it. Shortly after 2000 the bubble burst, for example, and a number of ICT companies experienced difficulties, and a few of them shed jobs. Oh no, said some ambitious parents, this means you shouldn’t do computing, or software engineering, or the like; numbers in those programmes duly fell dramatically. But this way of responding to events is uninformed and unintelligent. For a start, at no point was there a significant reduction in Ireland in demand for ICT professionals at the more qualified end of the market. But actually, what happened was that Ireland began to have significant number of unfilled job vacancies in the ICT field, creating some doubts about the country’s ability to provide human capital for new foreign investment. This is turn is likely to have profound effects economically.

The lesson is that today’s news about market activity gives you absolutely no clue as to what economic conditions will be like in four years time, either generally or in the sector. Basing a career decision on such current news is not clever. It is this kind of thinking that pushed thousands of young people into architecture, civil engineering and other careers in the construction sector, just before that sector collapsed.

Teaching: at the heart of higher education?

June 19, 2008

It is almost exactly 30 years ago that I first entered a room to teach students. That was in Cambridge, and I was doing a PhD and earning a little extra income by doing some teaching in my field. I hope the students got something from it, but I sometimes wonder – I was very inexperienced at the time, and like most new teachers very nervous. Two years later I became a lecturer in TCD’s School of Business Studies, and by that time I had become more confident and was very enthusiastic; and there followed a 20-year career teaching some 4,000 students, many of whom I will meet occasionally, some now in very senior positions.

I always enjoyed teaching, and particularly liked participative classes in which I would learn a lot from some very bright students. I didn’t like examining so much, not least because you could not help being aware of the effect on young people’s lives and careers of the results. But when in 2000 I had to give up regular teaching on taking up the post of President of DCU, I did feel significant regret that this part of my life would be missing.

By that time (i.e. the year 2000) I had been a Professor for ten years. It is a rank I was able to get almost entirely on the strength of my research. If teaching played a role in it, I was and am unaware of it. And as many academics know, that’s how the academic promotion system in almost all universities works. That is not always a bad thing, because academic life is about scholarship and research output demonstrates scholarly achievement. However, the traditional key core mission of a university is to teach, and if we want people to perform this vital task well we need to show recognition of excellence in this field – and on the whole we don’t. DCU has adjusted its promotion procedures to encourage staff to provide evidence of teaching excellence, and we have an annual President’s Award for good teaching. But we also know that this is not yet enough.

One of the aims I have set myself as part of the strategic planning process that is about to begin in DCU is to find a framework for rewarding excellent teaching and allowing it to be a significant part of staff career development; and we must be able to apply such a framework without weakening the search for scholarly excellence in research. When we have advanced this discussion somewhat in DCU I shall return to the topic here, but in the meantime would welcome comments from academics, students and former students, and others, about how we should encourage and reward really excellent teaching.