How to choose a degree course…

Working in a university during the highs and lows of the admissions period is giving me pause to ponder how I ever wound up with the honours degree that I did, because it was an odd one. I still remember the befuddled spring afternoon when my best friend from art class and I headed to the library to complete our anxiety inducing UCAS forms. I don’t know how it works now, but then we had to make 6 (six!) choices, with a firm favourite – and I’m pretty sure I was picking my institutions based on how much they may or may not have sounded like something Nine Inch Nails related (don’t even ask).

A-Level Art Student 1994-96

I.D. Photos for my A-Level exams 1994-96

Flipping through the unwieldy UCAS handbook I might as well have been choosing courses by sticking it with a pin. With zero support and adult guidance I was left to my own devices buffeted by the circumstances of my life thus far. But there was method to my madness, I wanted a chance to explore and expand on my interests. And while it’s obvious to me now just how much of an illusion self-determinism is at that age, I find it comforting to think I ended up with the right degree after all.

Despite my urgent desire to be independent and not court parental approval, my decisions on what and where to study were reactionary, spurred by family influences, and an ignorance of possibilities. Negative comparisons to siblings skewed my options; studying art, in southern England, or ‘following a boyfriend’ were all considered bad. While theatre studies and the Midlands benefited from more positive associations.

I felt bereft of positive encouragement. And though I excelled in English literature I doubted myself, afraid that an ‘academic’ subject might ultimately be too dry. All words and no pictures. All the while one person who was genuinely pushing me with enthusiasm and gusto was my art teacher. For someone who hadn’t intended to study Art, I was sure looking a lot like an art student…

But Art wasn’t quite enough and I struggled to incorporate my interest in literature. Back then I’d been interested in performing, I was in a drama group and I’d studied theatre for GCSE. This seemed like a way to embrace working with narrative and storytelling, and still keep it visual. So I looked for a combined degree where I could do both. And that’s how you choose without choosing kids!

how-i-chose-my-degree-creative-arts

I went for mostly northern UK universities, and picked combined or interdisciplinary degree pathways featuring visual and theatre arts. But the final deciding factor was financial. Without the grant and student loan I’d not have been going anywhere. I couldn’t afford to attend open days so I postponed what I could until I was limited to 2 unconditional offers. Luckily my parents helped me make it to one interview-workshop, and that’s the place I took up.

It’s funny how unlimited choices whittled away to virtually none.  The whole experience was less about decision-making than surviving the collision of external influences with infinite opportunities versus limited finances. Looking back I was so clueless, but I made it out alive. And I ended up on a course quite unlike anything my friends were doing.

So what did I study in the end? I have a BA Hons in Contemporary/ Creative Arts, my strands were visual arts and drama, with a core subject of interdisciplinary Live Arts. It was 50% theory and 50% creative practice and probably one of the most bonkers things I’ve ever done. After years of rueing the impracticality of it, I realise I don’t regret it at all.

 *  *  *  *  *

I’ve been thinking a lot about my life choices lately. And in particular my unusual education in the arts. You can follow more about my adventures as a 90’s Arts Student here.

And if you are currently a student – How do you pick a degree subject? this link might help. x

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2 comments

  1. I remember choosing my degree, I’d spectacularly failed most of my A Levels so had to go through clearing. I remember sitting by the phone with the A-Z guide to universities and working through the list alphabetically. I got bored at about F or G, so flipped to the back of the book, Polytechnic of Wales (I am so showing my age but it turned into University Glamorgan pretty much as soon as I arrived, it’s now, I believe called something different again), anyway I rang them up and ended up going there. Not purely based on the alphabet mind you, I had lived in South Wales as a child, so a university in South Wales was attractive and it was appealingly right across the opposite side of the country from where I lived as a teenager. It wasn’t the best university and my degree didn’t offer the chance to specialise, which is something crucial for a scientist, so it did restrict my options when I graduated but hey, I met my husband there and did have a fantastic social life, which is part of the point of going to university and it was a lovely part of the country. Due to my restricted options when I graduated, I ended up going to teacher training which was a big mistake! I lasted two terms as an actual teacher before landing what I really wanted, a science job. I had to work my way up from the literal bottom mind you, as my degree wasn’t worth much but I did well and was in a senior position by the time I left to have kids. My regret now (although I loved that science job), is now when trying to return to the job market I have very few transferable skills, I can’t go back into science, I’m too out of date (and the government closed down where I worked, thanks Cameron), so that just leaves mainly office jobs and I have pretty much zero experience of that. So what you choose to do after uni is important too.

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  2. […] Often we imagine we have more control than we do, and it’s interesting looking back on my education and noticing  how many choices were made for me by circumstances and chance, and to some degree the influence of others around me. I’m also astounded that my focus was always on my weaknesses and not my strengths. (Like how did I fail to see English Literature was far and away my strongest subject?) I hope you’ll join me next time when I take a look at how not to choose your degree course! […]

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