Letter: No reason to stress over your undergraduate degree

Finals week brings with it the taste of blood in the air: hundreds of students pushing themselves to insane physical and mental limits to try to improve or maintain their averages, and stay in their program. Popular remedies include ingesting coffee and energy drinks, and spending entire days at a time pouring over every bit of information from the whole semester. This is an insane amount of effort and stress put into something that in the long run is as inconsequential to you, the individual reader, as your favourite subject was in high school.

The reason most people put so much effort into their studies at the undergrad level is to either buff up their hiring prospects or get into a master’s program. Setting aside the widening gap in standards between education and employment, many graduate studies only require an above-medium average (B to A grade range) in undergraduate studies for admittance. So long as your actual degree comes from a reasonably relevant faculty, most graduate programs don’t care what your major was. Most students assume that a tougher major that more directly transitions into their preferred master’s program is the best, but most admissions offices (be they undergraduate, master’s, or any level of education) are not going to care about difficulty—only results.

This is all assuming that a master’s degree is worth the blood, sweat, and tears, which it usually isn’t. Unless on track for a medical doctorate or other specific qualification, hiring prospects and salaries don’t increase exponentially from undergrad to master’s the way they do from high school to university.

The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that an undergraduate degree nets a graduate a 65 per cent higher salary than a regular high-school graduate earns. A master’s student only gains an eight per cent increase in salary from an undergrad, and that’s after years of rising student debt. (Statistics Canada’s studies on the subject are at least six years out of date.)

Then there’s the prospect of actually getting employed, which is far more dependent on experience than on education. Most jobs out there that require university education also expect several years’ worth of experience under the belt first. Co-op is an attempt to meet this demand for experienced labour, but an increasing number of these jobs require more than the one year of experience co-op provides, and so circles back to the same problem.

This disparity between expectations of employment and education are why so many graduates are underemployed. Just over half of employed graduates can expect to be in a field related to their degree, but less than a third are in a job or career relevant to their major. Grades may be necessary for graduate studies admissions, but unless you cite your average GPA on your résumé, it’s not going to matter much in the real world. 

We’re not in university for careers or the money though. If we were, we’d all be at a technical college training for blue-collar jobs that net a higher salary and with a higher demand than even many engineering graduates these days. Studying is about getting the sheet of paper that is your degree and enjoying the subject it’s for. Killing yourself studying and stressing over grades is not going to make however long until graduation any more bearable. Even if your early-life grades and degree aren’t as glamorous as you’d prefer, you’re probably going to re-train or re-specialize later in life. The short-but-intense stress of finals is not how your career is going to go, so don’t assume that it’s the only way, because it won’t gain you anything.

– Photo illustration by Angela Tilley