It was about this time 16 years ago that I returned to my room at the University of Warwick. I had just returned from the Edinburgh Fringe festival (my first time, the beginning of a love affair with the city) and found, to my pleasant surprise, two letters pushed under my door. One was from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and the other was from the University of Warwick. Both informed me that I had won scholarships for a PhD, and I punched the air with delight before putting on Jay Z’s Big Pimpin’ and rapping along BECAUSE I WAS A BOSS WHO WAS GOING TO MAKE CHEDDAR BY THE STACK WITH A PHD. BOOM!
I’m a firm believer in the futility of regretting decisions (doesn’t mean I don’t!), but the truth is I kind of fell into academia through a succession of scholarships and a failure of aspirational imagination. I was labouring under the (incredibly bizarre) fallacy that the right career would find me regardless of what I was doing at the time. I just need to be doing something for that to happen.
The Oxford academic and founder of 80,000 hours, William McAskill, believes that if we spend an average of 5% of our time at a restaurant deciding what to order, we should spend at least that deciding on the kind of work we do (especially given how much work defines our subjective well-being, rightly or wrongly). Given that we spend 80,000 hours working, that equates to about 4,000 hours, or just over 2 years.
If that figure sounds daunting and impossible, how about 1%? It’s hard to fault MacAskill’s reasoning:
If you could make your career just 1% more impactful, or 1% more enjoyable, it would be worth spending up to 1% of your career figuring out how to do so”.
I believe that the role of higher education has to be dedicated to helping people find careers of value. Based on my conversations with graduating students, most are like I was – nowhere near understanding what a career of value would mean for them. That tells me that our system isn’t doing what it needs to.
We place a great deal of emphasis on trying to make students employable, but getting on to a graduate labour market is meaningless if you don’t find the work fulfilling, you’re likely to drop out, and it’s not making the contribution the world needs (no more management consultants please).
5% of a 3 year degree programme would be about six weeks, or half a degree module. Given the importance of our mission, why not stretch that to 10% or 1 degree module? If we can’t spare that, then we need to have a hard look at ourselves.
To do so, we have to help them understand themselves, raising their aspirations, and developing a skillset necessary to make a positive contribution to the world.