I wish I could say that it started with a letter, but it didn’t. It started with an email from UCAS. ‘Christopher R. Moore, accepted to read LLB (Hons) at The University of ____.’ I was 18 years old, and I felt that I’d made it. The UCAS email represented the first step towards what was sure to be a long and widely acclaimed career as an international human rights lawyer. Pretty soon I’d be arguing the case for decency and dignity in front of the UN. I would be tireless in my advocacy for the voiceless. In my mind, I had already planned how I would become QC, though I was on the fence about accepting the knighthood that would no doubt follow. I would, of course, appear on Question Time. And QI.
There was just one problem: I had never studied law in my life. The sum total of my knowledge on the subject came from a slim volume entitled Learning the Law (11th Edition) by the marvellously-named Glanville Williams, which a barrister friend of my parents had dropped it off at the house one afternoon when I was about 16. He had heard about my lofty ambitions, and thought that the book might give me a head start in my studies. Today, it sits on the bottom shelf of my bookcase, its orange cover mellowing to a rich gammony purple. I think I got as far as the distinction between crimes and civil wrongs before my brain permanently rejected the whole lot of it.
In retrospect, this probably should have tipped me off that Law wasn’t the subject for me, but I was too stubborn to pay any attention to my misgivings, and I arrived on campus for my first day of university full of lightly-affected confidence and with anxiety whirring around in my guts. I didn’t even make it past the first assignment. It was my first time away from home, and I was surrounded by people who all seemed to know what they were doing and what was expected of them. The conversations I overheard were peppered with Latin phrases and acronyms and sometimes acronyms of Latin phrases. I was hopelessly lost. After a couple of weeks, I threw myself into the Student Support office and begged to be allowed to study literature instead. I remember sitting under a tree on campus and catching up on the reading for the first module, which was about the origins of folk stories and the ways in which they are reworked and rewritten by each new generation. ‘What a joke,’ I said to myself in disgust, ‘I’ve thrown away my whole career, and for what? Fairytales?’
In two years as an Academic Skills Tutor, I have heard a variation of this story from countless students. Sometimes the pressure comes from different places, but the outcome is always the same. A student enrols on a course, and – to their horror – finds that it just isn’t for them. The student then transfers to a different subject, and finds that they're uneasy there, too. It’s easy to think that this represents a failure – certainly I did – but the truth is that you are not your course of study, and that different subjects do not occupy different planes of existence. Let me explain.
It’s important to recognise that subjects in academia are a lot like genres in music or film. They are rough descriptive categories into which diverse and competing disciplines jostle and rub shoulders. Freudian psychoanalysis, for example, is not confined to psychology reading lists – I read quite a lot of Freud for my literature degrees. The ideas of political theorists such as Rosa Luxembourg and Ayn Rand crop up across a wide range of subjects; you’ll find them in essays about everything from philosophy to business. Marx’s ideas are felt across the academic spectrum, in everything from economics to linguistics. Even if you have a chosen a highly technical and professional subject, learning how to think is of just as much importance as learning what to think. The ability to think critically about complex abstract subjects is one that you will learn whatever your course of study, and one that will help you whatever you decide to focus on.
With this in mind, I recommend you read as widely as you can, and to read across subject lines. A business student with a familiarity with political history and sociology will be well-placed to understand the internal and external forces that shape competitive markets. A graphic design student who reads poetry will learn to appreciate how the shape and weight of syllables can materially change the impact of a sentence. Your tuition fees have bought you access to literally millions of texts on every conceivable subject across our library platforms – what a shame it would be to lock yourself into your reading lists and to miss out on so much!
A degree does not seal you into a specific career path. Rather, it can help open doors – some of which had previously been hidden from you. Perhaps I could have stuck it out and become a half-decent lawyer, but even if I had graduated with an LLB, that would not have been the only option available to me. Our own Academic Skills Team is a glorious odd-sock drawer of academics from a wide range of backgrounds. My own literature degrees sit next to PhDs in education, degrees in War Studies, History, Law, Business, Creative Writing and more. It makes for lively and interesting meetings, and a wealth of different experiences and perspectives. Remember that the best work is always interdisciplinary, and that good ideas can come from anywhere.
Reading and Research