Theory vs Practical – What’s more valuable when starting your career?

As I approach the end of my undergraduate degree I’ve had time to look back at my higher education and think about was it really worth it?

Considering all the different options graduates have can be quite confronting. I was lucky enough to land a graduate role at Inspire HQ and I couldn’t be happier. However, for other graduates it can be much harder to find a graduate role.

Yet I still had one question floating around in my mind while completing my last exams, was university really worth it?

Then I got thinking…

With most universities around Australia finishing for the year, a fresh wave of new graduates will be looking for a job in their preferred profession. With possibly tens of thousands of new graduates going for jobs, how was I going to get chosen over Mary or John from down the street? How had university prepared me to start in the profession I had just been learning about for the last 3 years?

I’m sharing my experiences based on completing a Bachelor of Management. For different degrees such as nursing, arts, engineering or human movement, they may have experienced more of a focus on practical rather than theory.

So where should I start?

Ah theory. In theory (which is mostly what we learnt) I should be able to do everything put in front of me, right? I had just spent multiple years at university, so I should be able to do the tasks given to me in the workplace without having to ask too many questions. In practice though, this was not the case. In my first months as a Graduate HR Consultant I was asked to put together an employment contract. In university we learnt why employment contracts are important, when we need to revise employment contracts and that they detail the conditions of employment. We never learnt how to put a contract together, the differences between salary and award based contracts, full time and part time contracts, or the different types of clauses to add into different types of contracts. Yet being able to put together an employment contract is the bread and butter for a human resource practitioner, so why do we only learn the theory behind contracts and not how to create one? Why would we not have a practical element for assessment that was to create the different types of contracts?

I can see that learning theory allows us to have a foundation; it can also teach us how to solve problems. This allows us to throw ideas against a wall, until one sticks. Theory is necessary to figure out how to adapt what you know into different problems but without any practical elements it doesn’t help us to be ready for the work we will be doing. So why are universities still pushing theory based classes? Is it because that is how they were taught? Times are changing and employers want and need people to hit the ground running. In my opinion, with more of a practical element it would better prepare us to hit the ground running.

Let me share another example. Imagine you had never ridden a bicycle before. We sit down and for hours I teach you about the theory on how to ride a bicycle; how to balance yourself, how to steer using the handlebars, how to stop by using the back creak of the front break. No matter how much theory I teach you, in the end, you still must ride the bicycle. When you first hop on the bike most likely you’ll get on and fall off multiple times before you get it right. This is because there was no practical element involved on how to ride the bicycle, it was all theory based. This is the same with work and university. You can learn all the theory in the world but until you get on that bike and actually practice you won’t be able to ride a bike. I think university and the workforce is the same. We need to make sure we can ride the bike before we leave University, not just leave with all the theory and then practice once we get in to the workforce. Or at least we could have attempted to ride the bike before leaving.

One of the most influential and practical courses that I undertook in university was an internship. This was hands on experience where I was able to learn what it was like to be in HR. This internship was what made me confident in my ability to complete HR activities. If this practical element wasn’t available, I am unsure how confident I would have been coming into my new role and if I would have even completed my business degree.

With all that being said, I do still believe that studying was worth it. With some changes to the curriculum it would allow graduates to be better prepared for the working environment. The school of business has adopted this, now all students need to complete an internship before they finish their degree. This is a step in the right direction, continuing this will allow students to be more work ready once they complete their degree.

If you have completed a degree, what do you think? Was it really worth it?


Caleb is a recent Human Resources Graduate who works with Inspire HQ to help deliver high quality and professional HR & Recruitment services. His friendly, helpful and approachable style tailored with his can-do attitude will help you and your business achieve the best outcomes possible. He holds a Bachelor of Business in Human Resources from Federation University Australia.



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