10 things I wish I’d known before starting university

10 thimgs I wish I knew before starting uni

My career trajectory can only be described as “meandering”. In 2009, I enrolled in a Bachelor of Engineering and Arts at the University of Queensland, majoring in Mechanical Engineering and German language studies. I had vague plans of working in building services after studying, but instead developed a passion for renewable energy, which somehow led me to my PhD studies (in Chemistry). It was at this point that I realised that my dream job was actually in the field of science communications. So after completing a dual degree, an honours year, three internships and much part-time work, here’s what I wish I’d known before starting university!

1. University subjects may or may not prepare you for a graduate role

Engineering graduates (particularly in the Mechanical field) often remark that they apply very little of what they learn at uni in their graduate roles. It can be disillusioning to realise that the many hours spent studying higher level mathematics and solving engineering problems analytically will probably not translate into the workplace. Before starting university, it’s well worth talking to uni graduates and young professionals in your chosen career to get a feel for how they spend their days: it may be very different from the university course description.


2. Work experience is everything (and may be very difficult to obtain!)

Following on from this, work experience is as instrumental to obtain a graduate role as university grades are (or even more so). Make the most of any industry contacts you make throughout university and be aware that a lack of relevant work experience may limit your employment opportunities.


3. Choose a career based on your motivations…

Everybody has different advice for choosing a career: some say to follow your passions, while others advise you to choose a career that offers the most financial stability or lifestyle flexibility.  The right path for you depends on your individual motivations: is it more important for you to choose a career that satisfies your creative drive or one that allows you to make a difference? Or, is financial security or the ability to work flexible hours a bigger motivator? Do some research about how your chosen career fits with these motivations before starting university.


4. …but keep your talents and interests in mind!

It feels like stating the obvious, but choose a career with your own strengths and limitations in mind. A natural aptitude or interest in your chosen field can only help! If you’re racking your brains about what path to go down, think about your pastimes and hobbies and see what they can be applied to.


5. Be prepared to adapt your lifestyle for your career (or else choose another one!)

It’s not only important to think about what your job will entail, but also where and when it will take place. For example, engineering roles can involve FIFO (fly-in fly-out) components or work in remote regions, while teaching graduates are often required to work in rural communities. Think about if you’re prepared to move interstate, overseas or live remotely before starting university and before you embark on a career path.


6. Computational thinking is more important than your course curriculum may suggest

It will come as no surprise that tech skills are increasingly valued in many fields, and this is only starting to be reflected in school and university curricula. If you are lacking skills in this area (like myself!), I highly recommend researching extra-curricular courses, or even selecting a tertiary degree with a focus on fundamental computer science or data analytics. But don’t despair, there are plenty of jobs that don’t require software engineer-level skills.


7. The job market is ever-changing

When I enrolled in engineering (in the middle of the mining boom), there were more graduate positions than there were graduates to fill them; by the time I was nearing completion, industry reps told me that the job market was the worst they had ever experienced. Research the current job market (in the country you want to work), but be prepared for it to change.


8. Make the most of extra-curricular opportunities

The extra-curricular activities you choose can be instrumental shaping your career pathway, or even in landing a job. Luckily, most universities facilitate a myriad of opportunities at the undergraduate and Honours level. If you’d like to live overseas, going on exchange is an unparalleled experience. Chat to your university lecturers or supervisors to see if they have any summer research opportunities, or apply to some of the formal programs.  If there are subjects you excelled in, consider taking on a tutoring role. Join a student society, or better yet become an executive member. See what volunteering opportunities are available. And read (at least skim-read!) those school or faculty student emails for updates.


9. Value and foster your unique skills

Unique skills make you stand out to employers, on both a professional and personal level.  Some skills that have opened doors for me (or that I’ve noticed my peers benefit a lot from) include language skills (spoken or programming), practical skills (particularly automotive, machining or carpentry) and creative skills (such as photography and design).


10. Don’t stress about getting perfect grades

Everyone who said your grades won’t matter in five years’ time was right! Focus more on learning new skills, building connections with mentors and exploring all of the options that are available to you at uni. And enjoy yourself!

– Larissa Fedunik


Starting university? For tips on how to find your passion, click here. For employability skills and how to find your dream job, click here and here. For insider tips on surviving university, check out uni101.com.au.

Larissa Fedunik-Hofman

Author: Larissa Fedunik-Hofman

Larissa is the editorial assistant for Careers with STEM and a Chemistry PhD student. Larissa’s goal is to promote public engagement with STEM through inspiring stories.