Durham doesn’t push employment expectations on students

By Shauna Lewis

The notion that Durham places too much ‘pressure’ on students regarding post-university employment is slightly misplaced.

As a university, for many of us it is the last stop in the education system before working life, and so the need to be competent in career-related fields becomes increasingly vital. The pressure, therefore, comes, not only from the university, but also from our peers and the ‘real world’ itself.

To some extent, Durham University does place pressure on its students. When I first started, the Freshers’ Fair accosted me with Bright Network and TARGETjobs amongst others, emails from whom I am still ignoring in my inbox. These are opportunities, however, placed next to sports teams, political societies, and Durham Student Theatre.

The pressure to take advantage of non-career related opportunities, especially sports ones, was greater than anything else. “Get involved,” I was repeatedly told – that was the most important thing. The skills you gain at these societies were said to be transferrable to future careers, but even more frequently we are told that they are “a great way to make friends” and to meet like-minded people, all the while doing something we enjoy.

Opportunities from employers are more than matched by those from student societies

Mostly it hasn’t been pressure from the University that has made me worry about work experience, internships or employment, but from my peers. People have worked hard to get into this University, and with that usually comes a strong work ethic and a desire to be successful. This isn’t necessarily a negative characteristic, but it creates a stressful environment in which it can often be difficult to feel adequate. Subsequently, you feel as if you have to work harder to find these opportunities in order to keep in line with everybody else, and so the cycle continues.

When asked, one engineering student said that it was “other motivated, confident people who put the pressure on”, and that she did not feel pressure from the University to find opportunities; instead she felt “left to my own devices to choose”. Although Durham has resources available, it seems more like active encouragement than any kind of pressure.

It is my fellow students who have made me worry about work experience

I think this problem can be harder for humanities students. We are frequently told our degrees aren’t as useful or worthwhile as those in the STEM field, whose degrees typically lead to a specific line of work. Although STEM opportunities are competitive, there are advertised chances (such as a year in industry) which can help STEM students to progress earlier. As a humanities student I am often told that I have “a broad range of skills applicable to many fields”; but these fields are just as competitive as STEM careers, and opportunities such as a year in industry are not explicitly offered to us. We have to find these opportunities ourselves, and this naturally places more pressure on us.

Humanities students experience more pressure than their STEM counterparts

Furthermore, it is more common than ever for students to attend university. In 2017, it was found that one in three students go on to higher education. This means an increase in the competition for jobs requiring a degree. More people than ever have the same skills that you have, and it is up to you to make sure yourself appear more qualified than the rest for this internship or that grad job; this means taking as many career-related opportunities as possible.

This can often feel a lot like doing the Duke of Edinburgh Award: you’re told it will make you stand out on your UCAS application, but is this really the case when everybody else is doing the same thing? The pressure comes from outside the university, with the need to be better than all the rest.

At Durham, I haven’t felt the pressure. Yes, I’ve been told to get involved, and, yes, I’ve been told how many great opportunities there are here, but nothing has been shoved in my face. If anything, it’s the environment of motivated people and the pressures of expectation that make me stressed about the prospect of post-university employment. I think, however, that this can be healthy – isn’t university supposed to prepare us for working life? With that comes the pressure, to perform well, to advance. Even if the university is not pushing that on us, we will naturally do so to ourselves.

Photograph: perzon seo via Flickr and Creative Commons.

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