Undergraduates, are you asking the right questions?

By Wayne Schnarr

In Part 2 of this blog series, I assumed that my Ph.D. was the start of my career, omitting the many questions to be asked and decisions to be made at the undergraduate level. In the late 1960s, a high school diploma could have been the start of a good career. Over the last 50 years, the starting point of a good career has generally required increasing levels of post-secondary training and education, whether it be through apprenticeships, college or university. My initial decision to pursue a university education was probably in 1968 when I started Grade 13 taking three sciences, two maths and English at Cobourg D.C.I. East – a university-focused program.

Why did I go to university?

My father left school at 14, as did his 11 brothers and sisters, and later started a highly successful 30-year career in the Canadian armed forces. Even so, my parents still urged me to go to university. I enjoyed school and I had good grades so I always assumed that I would end up going.

Why did I choose a science program?

I had no specific reason for choosing a science program. The high school aptitude tests said I should be an actuary but I had also considered engineering.

Why did I go to Waterloo?

I got several acceptances to various universities but the major reason was probably because some of my friends were going there.

My first major decision in my career path was not carefully assessed. I simply chose something I was good at and that I enjoyed. In retrospect, these were not bad reasons. I would still recommend that current students ask themselves, ‘Do I enjoy that field?’ and ‘Can I get good marks and complete my studies?’ as part of their decision process. However, a more practical question would be, ‘Where would I like to be in 10 years and will this program help me get there?’

I don’t remember anything special about my first two years of undergrad at the University of Waterloo. The basic tuition was $399 (I had some high school awards to cover that in first year), plus student fees, books and housing. I was required to take 2 arts courses (as if 2 arts courses would help make a well-rounded scientist) and I chose English Literature and Anthropology. The English tutors hated the non-arts students who disliked taking their course, so neither party put in much effort. There were also courses in calculus, physics, biology and chemistry – the latter two were almost repeats of the Grade 13 courses I had taken. The second-year courses were calculus, botany, microbiology and 3 chemistry courses – analytical, inorganic/physical and organic.

I believe that the most important part of those two years was the practical experience in the labs – four chemistry labs (these were more because analytical chemistry was 6 hours a week), three biology and one physics. There was also some fun – I was in charge of getting the liquor license for the chemistry student events at the age of 19 even though the legal drinking age was 21 at that time.

The first two years of any undergraduate degree are generally intended to provide core knowledge and skills prior to some specialization in the last two years. As a result, every undergraduate should be asking two questions as they go through their first two years:

1) Am I getting the core knowledge and skills I need for my career? What factors contributed to your answer, whether yes or no? Two factors are under the student’s control – study habits and social activities. You underperform if you party too much so balance is key.

The university has control over two additional factors. Lectures with hundreds of other students are still a core activity, the effectiveness being impacted by the lecturer’s skills and enthusiasm. In addition to print textbooks, tutorials and labs, students now have e-learning tools. I was on the subway a few years ago and watched a student learning about an organic chemistry reaction mechanism using an interactive program on her computer (but spending most of the time texting on her phone).

If you do not have good, independent study habits, what did you learn in high school? I know there is an emphasis on group learning and team activities but employers don’t hire groups – you are competing against hundreds of individuals, with the ability to work in a group as one skill only.

2) Am I getting good value for my tuition and fees? My tuition of $399 in 1969 has to be considered in the context of the $1.10 and $1.50 per hour wages which I received that summer for pruning Christmas trees and being a grocery stock boy, respectively. Room and board would probably have been double the combined cost of tuition, fees and books, add in transportation and some other expenses and the annual cost would have been about $2,000. That would have been about 10% of the cost of our house in Cobourg, which means my undergrad degree cost 40% of the value of my parent’s house.

The same calculation for a student today would result in an annual cost of close to $20,000, about ten times higher than almost 50 years ago. Apply the same factor of ten to the 1969 wages and the result would be close to the current minimum wage. However, when looking at house prices, the factor is much bigger than 10 due to the big price increases of the last few years.

If the degree costs have increased at about the same rate as wages, is a 2017 graduate at the same point in their career path with the same earning and career potential as I was in 1973 when I completed my B.Sc. degree?

Waterloo had about 10,000 students in 1970 – half were engineers, one quarter were math and kinesiology and the other quarter was arts & sciences. It was a new university (10 years old) totally focused on engineering and math and for personal reasons I opted to transfer to the University of Victoria (UVic; 6,000 students – no engineering or other professional programs) to their Honours Chemistry program.

I got lucky with my transfer to U Vic. Vancouver Island was and still is a fantastic place to live. I was immersed in chemistry for my final 2 years with 10 chemistry courses, one course in biochemistry, a half-course in environmental science and an undergrad research thesis. The latter was as a result of my growing interest in research which was triggered by Paul West . This work resulted in my first publication. Two other professors played significant roles during my time at U Vic. Gerry Poulton triggered my interest in natural products chemistry and Walter Balfour gently prodded me when I was failing his third-year physical chemistry course half-way through the year.

For the summers after 3rd and 4th year, I worked at the Agriculture Canada Research Station in Summerland, B.C. right in Okanagan Valley before there were any wineries. I spent my time here characterizing proteins in legumes that were thought to cause bloat in cattle. This experience led to my second publication.

U Vic Chemistry benefited from smaller classes and, from my perspective, professors who cared about teaching. My summer jobs and NRC Post-Graduate Scholarship also resulted from being a student at U Vic.

Having spent 10 years as a student at university (B.Sc., Ph.D., MBA) and another 20 years looking at research emerging from Canadian universities, my next blog post will cover the following question: are universities properly balancing and excelling at their two core activities – teaching and research?

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