It's not easy for students to decide what degree subject to choose these days. Aside from the fact that there are simply so many to choose from, the world is also changing faster than ever before. As the world economy is transformed by everything from new technology to rising populations, it can be hard to predict what the job market of the future will look like.
In fact, many experts predict that the majority of graduate jobs that will be available in 2030 don't actually exist yet. This raises a difficult question: how can you decide which degree subject to pick if you can't be sure what your future job might look like?
The most obvious reaction is to try to 'future-proof' your choice. In other words, to try to ensure that whichever subject you pick, there is a strong chance that associated jobs will still exist. In order to do this, it's crucial to look at trends for the future.
Environmentalism and climate change
One of the most important global trends is the issue of climate change, and how it will shape the world economy in decades to come. As governments and businesses begin to invest more in green technologies and other solutions to the problem, it's reasonable to expect a huge expansion in related jobs.
This means that science and engineering graduates are likely to be in high demand for the foreseeable future. There is even a field of Engineering — Environmental Engineering — dedicated solely to addressing the issues of climate and environmental breakdown.
The environmental challenges of the near future also mean that subjects such as Public Health and Economics could be extremely valuable. Offsetting the negative effects of environmental change on people's health will (hopefully) be seen as a major priority, as will changing our economies to improve sustainability and better tackle climate change.
You can even choose to study a degree in Environmental Science. This covers a broad range of disciplines, and could encompass everything from Biology to Geography to Social Science. The advantage of this kind of degree is that it will give you a comprehensive understanding of environmental issues, preparing you for many kinds of jobs in the field that might arise in the coming years.
Artificial intelligence and robotics
Of course, there are other trends that can help you decide what to study. The ever-growing role of advanced technology in all aspects of day-to-day life highlights a need for specialised engineers.
For example, it is said that we are on the verge of a revolution in artificial intelligence (AI). Though we can already see AI becoming commonplace in consumer technology, the potential applications of artificial intelligence are nearly limitless. Many universities now offer highly respected degrees in Artificial Intelligence, often specialising in particular industries.
AI is already used in finance and banking, business, defence and security, transport and more, so studying this subject can open up an array of possibilities. And just as we'll need graduates who can develop AI, we'll also need graduates who can study them and find ways to offset any potential dangers of using artificial intelligence.
The same is true of Robotics Engineering, another relatively new area of study that was once extremely uncommon but is now mainstream. Many of the jobs that currently exist are predicted to be done by robots in the near future. This makes Robotics Engineering a pretty safe choice for anyone wanting to future-proof their career!
Video games, social media and the digital world
One of the biggest recent developments in the entertainment industry is the growth of video games, with more than a billion people regularly playing some form of game. Even virtual reality, which has long been a theme in science fiction, is fast becoming a reality. It makes sense, then, that you can now study Video Games and video game development at university, gaining the specialist skills and knowledge needed to work in this exciting field.
Social media is another deeply engrained aspect of our lives, and yet it didn't really exist just 15 years ago. It's hard to predict how social media will change in the future, or if it can adapt to address concerns around privacy and power, but it has definitely changed the world forever.
As such, social media, and digital media more widely, are likely to be good options for graduates looking for exciting, fast-moving work. Degrees in Marketing will likely cover these topics, but there are increasingly more specific degree types for those who want to gain a narrower but more advanced skill set. These include Digital Marketing, Social Media and Digital Culture.
Another aspect of the digital world is the enormous amount of data that now exists, about everything from political organisations and national economies, to details of our everyday lives. It may be controversial, but 'big data' is here to stay, so a degree exploring its various applications could help you launch a fascinating career.
Should I specialise?
One important debate in higher education is whether it is better to choose a degree that gives you valuable specialist skills, or more general, widely applicable skills. Most of the examples above are degrees that will give you specialist knowledge and technical skills, equipping you to work at the cutting edge in complex industries. These degrees typically fall into the STEM subjects.
However, some experts now argue that we should stop thinking about degrees as matching with particular jobs. It's increasingly common for graduates to end up working in a field that doesn't correlate with their degree subject, and this trend seems likely to continue.
In a world where the jobs landscape could change dramatically due to automation and AI, many students may opt to ensure they have as many options open to them in the future as possible. It's possible that fewer and fewer degrees will offer specialisation or training for a particular career, instead focusing on much broader skills and knowledge.
However, getting a degree of some kind is still extremely valuable. For example, within the next few years, it's estimated that 65% of jobs in the USA will require some education beyond high school, and the same is likely to be true of other countries too.
General skills such as problem solving, critical analysis and creative thinking can all be obtained through a degree, even (or especially) if the degree does not focus on technical knowledge. These skills are hard, or perhaps even impossible, for machines to replicate, and so are likely to be ever more necessary for jobs carried out by humans.
Education, education, education
Whichever subject degree you choose, one thing is certain: education is more important than ever. Many academics even suggest that we should rethink the idea of higher education as a set period of a few years, and focused on a single subject.
A more flexible education system would allow students (and workers) to re-skill and brush up on the latest industry knowledge. This is surely essential in a world that changes so rapidly, with what you learnt at university potentially being out of date less than a decade later. It would help workers adapt to a changing economy, and make sure they are still a desirable candidate for jobs.
And finally, there is a moral and social argument for continued access to education. Lifelong learning is something that can be profoundly enriching, and should be seen as an end itself, as well as a means to an end.