The time has come. The time to answer that question tugging at your mind whenever parent life pauses for breath. Red lights on the drive to school. Tea breaks at parents’ evenings. That day you spent nursing your child back to health after he’d eaten a cup of flour on the bus for a dare…
“What will my child do after they’ve finished school?”
The ideal answer is ‘whatever’s best,’ because that’s what you want for them. But that’s also a hard thing to define. Perhaps there’s a safe future in your footsteps, because if it worked out for Mum or Dad, it’ll probably work for the kids too. Or maybe you’re not too happy with the path you took, and you want things to be different this time. Better this time.
And this time, for better or worse, unique or in echo, they’ve chosen to go to university.
So what degree are we going for?
It could be that high-flying economics degree. Or that safe career of medicine. Or even the business course that you took, back in the day. But there are other choices too. Interesting choices that you know nothing about. And soon, the whole thought process becomes a swirling stew of career prospects, prestige, financial security and a thousand other factors.
Maybe you’ve staggered clear, triumphant in the knowledge of what your child should do. Or maybe, after chasing those thoughts around your head like a weathered old train set, you just don’t know. And the anxiety is starting to get to you a little bit.
Step 0: Realise You Don’t Need to Have All the Answers
As your children grow up, their questions get bigger too. And this is often difficult to admit because you’re the parent. The protector, provider, nurturer. You’re the person who explains why the sky is blue and how pigs work. And it’s so easy and so natural to assume that you’re the person to answer this one too.
But the sad, sometimes liberating truth is that your little one’s questions have begun to outgrow you. They’re dipping their toes in the big, wide world and forming their own opinions and dreams that live in places that you may not have visited before. And it’s nigh on impossible for you to tell them whether to do that photography degree, when you went straight from school into a job. Or to pick a career for them when you’ve got a different story, passion and skillset.
This will be the first big life decision that your child makes and, while you can’t make it for them, your support as a parent is indispensable.
They’re just as worried and anxious as you are about all of this, if not more. And you, with your experience and knowledge of this young person in front you, can provide a safe place to explore the courses they’re considering. Deep down, they probably have some inkling of what they want to do. But what they may lack is the bravery and confidence to say it and chase it.
So, while your child may not need your answers as often anymore, they will need your strength and patience.
Step 1: The Discussion(s)
Alright, depending on your kid, this will fall somewhere between the simplest decision ever and the most painful series of discussions since the last time you tried to pick a family holiday destination…
But it’s important to sit down with your child, plate up some nachos (optional) and have a chat. Because you’re worried, they’re worried and a little talk could make things easier for everyone.
Now, everyone is different. You know your child best, so you get to decide how you want to approach this. But it’s important to recognise that your child may have their own ideas and their own plans for university. They may share them willingly, or you may need to coax them out. Either way, both you and they could benefit from discussing their ideas and both of your thoughts on them.
Perhaps the most important consideration is their enjoyment and interest in the degree. While it’s very tempting to fixate on the long-term benefits of possible careers or salary brackets, it’s important to remember that at least three years of your child’s life will be spent poring over this subject. So, pouring money and years into a course they don’t like may simply result in a burnt-out, disillusioned, unhappy adult.
However, the future beyond the degree is still worth thinking about. Again, your child may have been toying with this for a while and may even have a detailed plan. Of course, it might be a plan that concerns you, and it’s good to voice that because you may be thinking something your child hasn’t considered before. On the other hand, they may have some pretty good answers for your worries, so do keep an open mind.
And if they have no ideas at all?
Then steer the chat towards what they like, what they’re good at and what kind of life they’re hoping for in the future. It’ll be complicated and may require some notetaking because adolescent interests and hopes are notoriously sprawling and erratic… But, between you both, you can combine a few of those ideas into some degree options, and maybe even some career ideas.
The key to all of this is to remember that the answers are buried inside your child, and they may need your help to dig them out and piece them together.
Step B: The Research
Here is where we level the playing field. Not everyone goes to university, so not everyone knows how the madness works. But, once you and your child have got a few ideas for courses, you both can start researching them. Or just let them do it and ask about it later. Some useful questions to consider before diving into Google’s bowels, or your graduate friends’ psyches, might be:
- Which universities offer the course and is your child happy to live in those towns for three years?
- What are the entry requirements and are they realistic for your child?
- How is the course taught and assessed, does your child have any strong feelings on this?
- What do graduates go on to do?
Once you’ve both learned more about the implications and details of the courses, your child can now eliminate some of them for concrete reasons. And they may also want your reassurance that something that makes sense in their head isn’t real-life lunacy.
Phase Gamma: The Experiences
So now your child will hopefully have a couple or maybe even a single degree in mind. The next step is to earn some extra parent points by doing what parents do best: the practical stuff.
You can help them explore the career path they’re semi-set on by lending a hand with some work experience. Use your contacts, colleagues, friends and family – this would make the world of difference for your child because arranging work experience with utter strangers is surprisingly difficult when they haven’t got a foot in the door.
Additionally, you probably have a wallet and a means of transport. Those are the things that mark a true adult, after all. And, since you are a true adult, you could use these things to accompany your child to university open days, to explore the place and pick the brains of current students. They’re a fun day out and prospective students often come away with a good sense of whether they could be happy studying in that atmosphere.
Finally, if your child is approaching certainty about a course and might benefit from some pre-university experience, that wallet could come in handy again. Summer programmes like those run by Immerse Education can give your child a taste of what it’s like to study the course at university. There are lower stakes, their career isn’t riding on their performance yet and they can come back with either a firmer conviction or a wish to study something else.
And if they want to study something else?
Repeat Step 1… Consider taking up yoga…
After all is said and done, you care deeply about your child and their future. For them, choosing a subject to read at university is a stressful decision that comes alongside the anxieties of exams, adolescence and moving away from home for the first time. But, as a parent, you can provide the support and reassurance they need to make this transition to higher education as smooth as possible. (They’ll thank you later when they’re rolling in enough cash to take you to the Bahamas.)