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Holding On For Dear Life

It’s your first year of University; you refuse to be separated from that pencil case that so diligently saw you through your A-levels. You’re fairly confident about the time it takes to walk from halls to your Thursday morning 9am lecture and your very blood could be used to clean the windows of the Trent building given the alcohol concentration. In short, student life has become highly addictive. Given the frivolities and freedom of the lifestyle, should we be surprised that by the time we graduate, many will seek to extend their University of Nottingham experience beyond reasonable bounds? Is such a trend a glittering endorsement for our institution, or does the University Park ‘bubble’ ill-equip us for life in a commercial environment? These are just some of the questions I’ll attempt to answer whilst investigating whether we really are holding on to our university experience for dear life.

According to our University’s latest statistics, a staggering 30% of undergraduate students will undertake further study as opposed to the 50% who enter full-time employment six months after graduation. Of the 30% continuing their education, 45% will remain at the University of Nottingham, at just over 5000 students per year. Taking into account the student body as a whole it appears that nearly 15% of us are staying at Nottingham in some postgraduate capacity. On first glance, it’s easy to see the appeal of remaining in Nottingham; after three or four years, it’s reasonable to assume that for many, it has become your second ‘spiritual’ home and, come our final year, the majority of us have multiple social circles that we can tap into by default. A major issue that constantly arose during my research for this piece was that of decisions on postgraduate study during the undergraduate years, often during the heady heights of the final year post-exam period when most of us (in addition to being perpetually pissed) are open to pretty much anything.

One female third-year PhD student (who I will refer to as Jessica) from the Faculty of Engineering was particularly vocal about her recruitment experience, the reality of being ‘on the job’ and the disillusionment she suffered from assuming it would be similar to her undergraduate experience.

“I was in the middle of my final year project when my supervisor hinted heavily that I should apply for a PhD, thinking it would enable me to soon be a rising star in academia; however, after a few weeks on the job I realised that my social life had all but disappeared and I was effectively working 9 to 5 for a salary verging on the minimum wage. Compared to my undergraduate years, I felt as if I was on autopilot.”

Most of us come to Nottingham to study for a few of our prime years and develop socially at the same time. The university ‘bubble’ is well documented, and it often insulates its denizens from ‘reality’. The risk of staying on, as 15% of us are currently doing, is that this insulated period won’t end and university will become a long-term ‘reality’. The focus on an ultimate commercial career-goal is lost amidst a seemingly never-ending path of ‘autopilot’ academia. As for Jessica, she felt her social life deteriorated as a result of the recruitment process during her third year:

“I honestly felt that staying here would be extending my social life by another 4 years, but as a result of the workload and the desertion after my undergraduate friends left, I became very insular- a lot like some of the other students taking PhDs in my department.’

It appears unrealistic decisions are likely to be made on the grounds of our current undergraduate experience then, and the consequences – especially given that quitting a PhD is often very problematic in itself – can be soul-destroying. Some other statistics that shed light on the situation are those of past students converting to full-time staff members. According to the latest figures from the Centre for Career Development, approximately 2% of undergraduate students became full-time staff six months after graduation – a figure which initially seems meagre but equates to approximately 800 individuals per year. Could this be representative of the growing tendency to cling on to the Nottingham experience?

Without wishing to be anecdotal, I know several people who have remained at Nottingham with a real desire for a groundbreaking research-based career and a passion to remain at Nottingham for this purpose. Others, who previously had wild commercial career aspirations, have quite clearly only remained here in research roles as a last ditch attempt at a career.

When I asked three research students whether they would reconsider postgraduate studies if given the option again, two interviewees were adamant that they would have taken up commercial roles instead. Interestingly, the male student who enjoys his research-based role outside the Faculty of Science put his contentment down to having undergraduate friends in similar roles. Again, students applying for these positions must ask themselves whether they are applying on the basis of a genuine interest in the research material, or on the pretence that it will be an extension of their undergraduate life. If your reason is the latter then reconsideration is a must.

Remaining at Nottingham is often an option for those students on a social ‘quest’. For those who aren’t AU fair with the term BNOC, the acronym denotes a ‘Big Name on Campus’. Given the insular nature of campus, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that you could become easily recognisable within the student community, and these individuals capitalise fully on the opportunity. It’s a self-perpetuating dream of relative stardom in what is ultimately a small town; they are the town council, if you will. I’d venture that the glorification (not least in Impact) of these individuals is nurturing aspiration to join this farcical club, and some go to extraordinary lengths to get there. It can take several forms, including taking sabbatical positions at the Union, continually restarting courses in order to artificially extend your time at Nottingham and in some cases, living for the foreseeable future in student accommodation whilst holding down a largely mediocre job. One distinctive case where a student started three separate degrees over a period of five years, in order to pursue an extravagant social life, resulted in the SLC refusing any additional financing and highly persistent calls from private debt collectors – amounting to many thousands of pounds. This is admittedly an extreme example, however, in a recent disclosure by the Student Loans Company it was revealed that the top ten UK student debts amounted to £600,000, a set of figures unachievable without a string of restarted, failed or subsequent degrees- suggesting that the problem may be more endemic than we first thought.

Given the facts, should we be encouraging furthering careers based at Nottingham, or should we be focusing more on equipping individuals for traditional careers associated with a red-brick institution?
Having spoken to Jessica, our third-year PhD student and others, I’m convinced that many undergraduates aren’t making a considered decision when applying for postgraduate research positions and are clouded by the Nottingham undergraduate experience. Similarly, the social climate seems to be making remaining in Nottingham (in some cases without a degree) completely acceptable; it’s not up to me to judge the effect that this is having on our reputation as a top destination for graduate employers, but what is indisputable is that we need to strike a balance between reality and the campus.

James Sanderson

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