Choosing a University Course

Overview of Choosing a University Course

There are about 230 million university students in the world, with over four million studying outside their home country and choosing a university course is a very important decision for them. For all, the time spent at the university has the potential to alter their outlook on life, approach to knowledge, and, of course, earnings potential. So the choice of what to study, and where, is a big decision. People of all ages study at university, but most new undergraduates are young adults, as are the majority of postgraduates. QS Aims to help all groups make better decisions. In the pages of this book and online, it provides an array of resources, including the main annual QS World University Rankings the World University Rankings by Subject, rankings of universities in a range of global regions, Graduate Employability Rankings, and even a ranking of the top cities in which to be a student.

Choosing a University Course

Before looking for a university, the first question is what you want to study. If you are at high school, you are probably studying a range of subjects that vary surprisingly little across the world: maths, languages, English, and science and arts subjects such as physics or history. Take a look at the 42 disciplines listed in this chapter that is included in the QS World University Rankings by Subject. You’ll soon get the message that the world of learning extends far beyond your current options. For example, most high schools teach geography, but at university, you can study the planet via a huge range of subjects. QS Ranks universities for geology and geophysics, environmental sciences, Earth sciences and other options such as agriculture.

The same applies to subjects ranging from the arts to the leading edge of technology. History is one of the biggest areas of the humanities in all education systems. But how about archaeology, poised neatly at the junction of the arts and the sciences? In the same way, you could opt to study politics or international studies, and if you do, you will find in this chapter the ranking of the best places to study them. But if your real interest is in the issues of the global South, why not go directly for development studies? It is offered by many universities in the developed and developing the world, and you’d be guaranteed membership of a massively diverse student body. And bear in mind, a university can be the best in the world in a particular discipline, but you might not find it in even in the top 100 in the world if you had only consulted the main QS World University Rankings table. So these subject tables are certainly worth a look.

Your possible choices are especially rich in the fast-changing world of engineering. While technology is taught in school, you’ll probably learn more in physics that stands you in good stead for an academic engineering course. We analyze six options: electrical and electronic, mechanical, chemical, civil, mining and computer science, along with materials, a science subject with huge engineering implications. Note too that if you look at these subject rankings table online you’ll be able to form a more detailed impression of which universities are strongest at specific aspects of their academic mission. Two of the four rankings measures relate to citations of research, generally regarded as the indicator of research quality. But we also measure overall academic and employer opinion, and the last of these might be of special interest if your career ambitions are outside academe. Of course, the question of where to study looms almost as large as what to study. Some people simply insist that they need to attend a top university, and they need look no farther in this book than page one of the QS World University Rankings.

But, remember that while universities that do well in the World Rankings have to perform strongly in all six criteria, they vary in their overall mix of excellence. US universities tend to have larger classes (seen in the Rankings as poor faculty to student ratios) than their European competitors. And although US universities are attractive to international students, they are also very big. So the student body may well have a lower percentage of non-US students than you would find in Western Europe. Of course, QS would never recommend that you choose between these riches on the basis of our research alone. To find out whether agriculture and forestry, mining engineering, or statistics is the thing for you, you’ll need to delve deeper. These subjects are almost all represented by a learned society or institution in any major nation, which may well provide careers advice and professional guidance on its web site. Some of these may even offer scholarships or bursaries, or other financial support for students in particular need. You might decide that you can obtain a top-quality education in the right subject at a less eye-watering cost by avoiding big-name institutions in high-cost countries. While development studies, for example, is taught excellently in the UK and the US, the University of Cape Town also ranks within the global top 10 for this subject. Or you might reason that although big-city universities in Europe, the US and elsewhere are good at environmental science, you’d get closer to the subject by studying in a small town or even at a rural campus.

Graduate choices

Such issues take on a different coloring if wish to choose somewhere for postgraduate study. You won’t have a massive range of undergraduate study choices. On the other hand, you really ought to have some idea by now of the next stage in your academic and professional development. There is a growing range of subjects, from journalism to librarianship, for which a master’s degree is the de facto admission ticket. You may well want to diversify your CV by taking this qualification at a different institution from your first degree, or even in a different country. But if you are going abroad for such a course, make sure that the certificate you get will be acceptable to the authorities in your home country, or wherever else you may wish to work. This is vital for professionals such as medics, architects and teachers. You might also look at the length of the course you are considering. Master’s degrees classically take a year but can sometimes take two.

If your experience of academic life so far has convinced you to turn it into a lifetime commitment, the way ahead is clear. You’re going to need a Ph.D., often termed the driver’s license of the scholarly world. There seems to be the less reputational distinction between doctorates from different universities than for bachelor-level qualifications, although, in certain circles, a Ph.D. from Harvard may impress people more than the same piece of paper from some other institution. The real issue is who your supervisor will be and what research team you might be attaching yourself to. A physicist who did his or her Ph.D. with Stephen Hawking has a lifetime advantage over other job applicants. In practice, the reputation and ranking of universities and their departments tend to be derived from research rather than teaching prowess. Important researchers and research groups tend to be in big universities, and a successful research team at a minor institution is likely to be tempted by a big offer from a better-known competitor. Academic life is highly competitive. If you are serious about becoming a professor, attaching yourself to the most visible player on the field is probably going to be a wise move. Clearly, you should to go to university to learn, not just in the hope of swelling your future wage packet. But in making these choices, it’s worth thinking about the nature of competition in the career you plan. In business, an MBA from a top school is a definite plus for your salary. In nursing or teaching, future earnings may vary a lot less; just some of the many things to consider.

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