When a degree doesn’t guarantee employment post-graduation, students have to make the most of their undergraduate journey. Words by Hayden Godfrey, Reporting by Catherine Abes
n a freezing March morning, I did my best to cleanly put on a tie, took the subway down to Dundas Station and walked into the room that held my fate. I was invited for an admissions interview for Ryerson’s Radio and Television Arts (RTA) sport media program—my first choice program. I wanted to be a sports journalist and broadcaster, and the program was the logical next step in my career.
The interviewer—an intimidating assistant professor with years of experience in the field—seemed to like me. We chatted for 30 minutes and discussed why I think I’d fit well in their young yet uniquely prestigious program.
Despite a few instances of me fumbling over my words, I thought I did well. I spoke confidently about my skills and strengths, sat upright and walked out feeling like I’d be receiving an offer in no time. I might’ve even sent a LinkedIn-style follow-up email when I got home, just as I’d been instructed to do after job interviews.
But I never received an offer. I was put on the waitlist for two months after my interview and remained there until I was forced to accept another offer days before the final deadline.
Now, I’m in my second year of professional communication at Ryerson. While it has value and, on the best of days, stimulates me intellectually and creatively, it’s not the perfect fit. I feel weird when I’m networking with industry professionals and working on my portfolio, because I know that what I’m spending so much of my time on in school doesn’t match up with what I’m doing outside of the classroom.
I can’t help but think about what could’ve been. What if I had been accepted into RTA? What if, instead of having to work for the connections I’ve earned in the industry, I was handed them on a silver platter as part of mandatory classes?
According to statistics from the Ontario Universities’ Application Centre, about 88 per cent of people who applied to Ryerson for the fall 2016 academic term did not register as students. While admission rates vary across degree types, this means that nearly nine out of 10 students who applied to Ryerson didn’t end up going.
For those students who are lucky enough to have their whole lives planned out, being rejected from their key program can be a significant setback. There’s still a societal notion that post-secondary education is the obvious bridge between high school and employment, so finding that your degree doesn’t align with your career goals can be a harsh reality. However, some students report that a detour in their academic trajectory isn’t detrimental. Rather, it puts things in perspective and allows them to focus on the journey, rather than the destination.S
arah Desabrais says the worst thing you can tell people that you want to do with your life is journalism. “You’d probably get a better response if you told them you want to be a skydiver,” says the 2017 graduate of the Ryerson School of Journalism (RSJ).
Desabrais entered RSJ in 2013, in hopes of reporting on and writing “more optimistic” stories of people doing good work, feeling overwhelmed by the dark tone of the news cycle. But she quickly learned that hard news wasn’t for her. She dreaded the first-year Wednesday “story days” when she would have to write and file a news story within 24 hours.
The introductory news writing course was so anxiety-inducing for Desabrais that she says she had a pact with herself to drop out of the program if she failed any journalism course. “It just wasn’t worth it to go through that second hell,” she says. Although she did pass, this reassured her traditional hard news wasn’t going to be the path for her.
In her third and fourth years, Desabrais still had hopes that she would maybe go into magazine journalism. But by the time she approached the end of her degree and started looking for jobs, she came to the sobering conclusion that she didn’t have enough of the skills that a newsroom would want. She had to work long hours at the Maple Leaf Gardens Loblaws on top of being a student, meaning she didn’t have the chance to get as much extracurricular experience as her peers, like volunteering for campus publications.
“I don’t think I really expected to be employed out of school,” she says. “I knew that media jobs are few and far between…[and] I didn’t have the same resumé.”
At first she did feel a little defeated, but eventually she accepted that the value of her postsecondary education was more about accumulating a specific skillset than quickly finding a job in the same field.
Desabrais still felt it was important to finish the degree, saying that it shows that she can write and pay attention to detail, and she felt that having a well-known program like Ryerson journalism on her resumé would be worth it in the long run. But she still describes the degree as, simply, a piece of paper.
“A degree was proof that I could do what I said I could do,” she says.
According to a November 2019 report from the university planning office, 73 per cent of students who graduated from Ryerson in 2016 were employed in a field closely or somewhat related to their field of study within six months of graduating. This number rose to 78.6 per cent after two years out of school.
The faculty with the best employment rate was engineering and architectural science, with 83.6 per cent of students finding employment in a similar field within 6 months. On the other end of the spectrum, only 44.2 per cent of arts students were employed within six months of graduating. The error rates varied from program to program, but all of them remained under 15 per cent.
These results are consistent with a 2015 study from the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, focusing on post-secondary graduates across different programs and their employment status. The study, based on the 2005 National Graduate Survey, suggested that graduates from humanities are “less likely to be employed full time, more likely to have jobs unrelated to their program and more likely to be overqualified for their jobs.”
One potential explanation for why humanities programs are less likely to produce employment in related fields, the study suggests, is that “they provide generic skills and focus on theoretical knowledge” as opposed to “domain-specific, practical skills that can be applied to particular occupations.” Adversely, programs like science, engineering, business and education programs “provide a close association between the skills taught and the skills needed in specific occupations.”
The study noted, though, that graduates of humanities programs develop greater gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and communication skills compared to other graduates. These skills can be applied more broadly to different, though not necessarily related, occupations.
“A lot of people focus on their end job, but for me, I’m just focused on building skills”
A 2017 study from the University of Guelph on career mobility and post-secondary education found that graduates from a variety of fields, both liberal arts and STEM-oriented, experienced increased abilities in adapting to a new job. The study suggests that the skills imparted by education, no matter what field of study, are transferrable.
Since graduating in 2017, Desabrais has worked for Indigo, DavidsTea, a temp agency, a catering company, an audio recording house on King Street, a law firm in midtown and now, a social media marketing agency in Leslieville.
A combination of her years of retail experience, the skills she picked up in journalism school and simply being a quick learner has allowed her to find opportunities that work for her.
In every position, she’s gained skills and competencies that have helped her get to the next place, wherever that may be. She says she doesn’t regret getting a degree in journalism, even if she didn’t end up working in that field.
“[Journalism is] not what I do now and that’s not what I plan on doing in the future, but it taught me a lot,” she says. “Now, I’m somewhere where my skills from everything that I’ve done prior has me settled.”
The next step for Desabrais is hopefully returning to Ryerson to pursue history—a field she wouldn’t have known she was passionate about, had she not taken history electives during her undergrad. She couldn’t switch programs in her undergrad because financially, it didn’t make sense. But now, she’s going to use the courses she had from her history minor and turn it into another degree. When it’s all said and done, she’d like to be an archivist or a history professor. “I know it probably requires a little more than a bachelor’s [degree], but we’ll get there eventually,” she laughs.
Her advice for students who are unsure of what comes after post-secondary is simple: sometimes, you just have to roll with it.
“Uncertainty happens,” she says. “Look at what you’re good at, what you’re interested in; look at what you like to do. And if you can find yourself a place in that realm, then that’s fantastic. But don’t stress over it. A lot of people leave university not sure what they’re going to do or find something else.”D
ena Marcos is a career education specialist at the Ryerson Career and Co-op Centre who works with the G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education. In her work, she develops career programming and provides one-on-one advising to continuing education students who are thinking of switching careers. Marcos engages students through self-assessment exercises and points students toward the resources that can help validate their career choices.
She says she sees a lot of “apprehension of the unknown” when students come to her for advice. One of the main reasons continuing educating students decide to switch is because they’re no longer content with where they are, or that the career path they chose wasn’t what they expected. But at the same time, these students exhibit “hope for a new opportunity.”
“I’m inspired by [these students’] courage to take a completely different route and put in the work to do so,” she says.
Taking detours in an academic career is something Eric Rajaratnam is very familiar with. In the fall of 2013, Rajaratnam was admitted to Ryerson’s Ted Rogers School of Management (TRSM). It wasn’t necessarily aligned with his interests. In high school, he enjoyed working with his hands, but he says the guidance counsellors at his school didn’t talk about options other than university, so he applied to whatever he could think of.
Rajaratnam eventually returned to school, this time resolving to study something he was interested in. In May 2018, he earned his diploma from Humber College to work as a skilled electrician. But while he enjoyed the program, conversations with his professors and industry professionals left him discouraged by the employment prospects that would await him as an electrician.
Just two semesters in at TRSM, Rajaratnam had to drop out when his mother fell ill and his father was laid off. He then spent the next few years working various odd jobs—including stints at the City of Toronto, Tim Hortons, Mr. Sub and Loblaws.
The issue of finding employment after school isn’t exclusive to Rajaratnam. A 2018 report from Indeed Hiring Lab based on Statistics Canada data and analytics from job site Indeed Canada suggested that it’s more difficult for recent graduates to find a job now than it was in the early 2000s. In 2018, the unemployment rate among young grads was 8.9 per cent, down a bit from two years earlier, but still above the 7.8 per cent held between 2000 and 2008.
However, the report suggested that it’s just a matter of time before graduates see reward from their degrees, finding that unemployment rates among older university graduates between the ages of 25 and 44 is historically low, sitting at 4.2 per cent, compared to the 4.7 per cent average between 2000 and 2008.
Nonetheless, Rajaratnam decided to pivot back to business, doing one semester in finance at Humber, studying vigorously and keeping his sights set on a second chance at TRSM. By the end of the year, he’d pulled high marks in all of his classes, surprising himself at what he was capable of doing.
Rajaratnam’s hard work paid off. In fall 2019, his academic career came full circle as he returned to business management as a mature student. While some people in his situation would maybe be in a rush to finish school quickly, he’s decided to take his time and make the most of his degree.
A 2017 study from the University of Waterloo, published in the journal Studies in the Education of Adults, found that mature students demonstrate greater academic self-efficacy—meaning believing in your ability to succeed—than traditional age students. The study found that mature students reported “significantly higher levels of confidence in judgment ability (e.g. problem solving) and activity persistence (e.g. achievement self-determination),” as well as “significantly lower levels of test anxiety.”
Based on his years of experience in education, he knows what works best for him. He limits his course load to four classes a semester so he has time to do extracurricular activities as well. This semester, he joined DECA and placed second in the province in the human resources category.
“I didn’t want to be just piled up under books all the time, I want to make the best out of Ryerson,” he says. “A lot of people focus on their end job, but for me, I’m just focused on building skills. I feel like the job will come as it comes.”N
either Rajaratnam nor Desabrais is sure of what they’ll be doing in five, 10 or 20 years. While the uncertainty about the future isn’t a position everyone can afford to be in, it’s worth discussing how our paths in university don’t have to be linear. They can veer off course, take a pit stop or take an alternate route. The latter is my approach.
I’m counting on my love for writing and sports to carry me farther than a specific program can. I’m betting on myself instead of putting all my worth into the degree.
I’m forced to work harder than those who are vying for the same jobs as I am. I have to manoeuvre my schedule to take classes unrelated to my major, but related to my desired career. That just means that every triumph—both professional and academic—makes me more proud of what I’ve achieved, because I’m doing it independently. My degree is only a small part of who I am.