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After the fact: How do graduates feel about their university experience?
University can be a challenging experience – for many it involves moving away from home, facing new financial and social pressures and new academic demands that can feel overwhelming. The increase in students seeking mental health support1 and upward trend in more severe mental health difficulties in students2 is worrying. We know that adolescents experience a drop in wellbeing and life satisfaction3 and data shows, as a group, they are notoriously reluctant to seek help, preferring to speak to peers or find their own solutions4.
But, whilst university can be stressful and overwhelming at the time, does it have a lasting negative impact on wellbeing? Or do the stresses encountered promote strength and encourage ‘anti-fragility’5, as writers such as Nassim Taleb would argue.
We surveyed University alumni to ask this. In an online survey advertised via social media, 72 alumni who had graduated between 1961 and 2021 rated their experiences at University through their graduate eyes. They indicated which negative and positive experiences they had at university, the extent to which negative experiences still impact them today, and whether they felt that their time at University had a lasting negative impact on their wellbeing.
The most commonly-reported negative experiences were ‘feeling stressed’ (60.2%). ‘feeling like I didn’t know what I was doing/how to do something’ (57%), and being ‘worried about meeting the expectation of others (eg. lecturers, supervisors)’ (54%).
The most commonly-reported positive experiences were ‘gaining academic knowledge’ (78%), ‘becoming independent’ (65%), achieving ‘academic success’ (61%) and gaining a ‘better understanding of yourself’ (61%).
Alumni on average reported more positive experiences (an average of 13) than negative (an average of 9).
When asked to rate the extent to which negative experiences impacted them at the time, versus how much they impact them now, ratings of present impact were significantly lower than past impact. The degree of reduction in impact then versus now was significantly associated with time since graduation (those who graduated a longer time ago had a bigger reduction in the perceived negative impact of their university experiences).
When asked whether the challenges faced at university had had a positive impact in the longer term, over 80% agreed that past challenges had helped them manage similar challenges in the present, 70% agreed that university challenges contributed to gaining valuable skills and 81% believed that the experience contributed positively to who they are today (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Bar chart showing the number of respondents that selected each response option to the question: ‘My University experience has had an overall positive influence on who I am today.’
Hearteningly, the majority of respondents (75%) disagreed that “Studying for my undergraduate degree has had a lasting negative impact on my wellbeing” (Figure 2). However, it is important to note that 21% felt that their university studies did have a lasting negative impact on them.
Figure 2: Bar chart showing the number of respondents that selected each response option to the question: ‘Studying for my undergraduate degree has had a lasting negative impact on my wellbeing’
Those who reported that their time at university had had a lasting negative impact on them had fewer positive experiences (an average of 10.6 vs 13.4) and statistically significantly more negative experiences (12.6 vs 7.2) than those who disagreed that their time at university had had a lasting negative impact. Those who reported a lasting negative impact graduated more recently (12.6 years ago) than those who didn’t (18.0 years ago).
When examining the rate of different negative experiences in these two groups of people, the following negative experiences were markedly more common in those who reported a lasting negative impact on their wellbeing compared to those who did not: poor mental health (73% vs 23%), worrying about meeting the expectations of others (93% vs 51%), feeling left out (73% vs 32%), uncertainty about what was required (73% vs 34%) and issues with family (53% vs 15%).
There was no statistically significant difference between sexes in their view of the impact of university on their current wellbeing.
When asked if they would change anything about their university experience, 63% indicated that they would. The most common answer was to worry less about the issues they had had as students, which were often perceived differently in retrospect. A commonly reported worry was a preoccupation with “fitting in”, and many alumni indicated that being more “brave”, “confident” and “assertive” and staying true to themselves is what they would change about their university experience.
When asked what words of advice they would give their younger selves at university, a similar theme arose, encapsulated in the following response:
“Trust your instinct. Don’t worry about feeling different. Smile more. Embrace the moment. Nothing matters as much as you think it does. Being a good person is as important as academic success. Stop saying no to things out of a fear of rejection”.
While it is heartening to see that, in general, university was seen as having a net positive impact on the majority of alumni in this survey, it is important to consider those who reflected more negatively on their university experience and identify strategies to provide further support for individuals who may be struggling more.
It is hoped that further analysis in the future may allow us to identify those who are at risk of struggling earlier in their academic career, allowing tailored support to be offered. We also acknowledge the need to consider race, sexuality and gender identity, and the impact that being part of a marginalised group can have on one’s university experience. Although the present sample was too small to be able to conduct any meaningful analysis on the experiences of these groups, it is hoped that future research may be able to elucidate this.
If you would like a copy of the questionnaire used for this study, please contact Lucy Robinson at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Thorley C (2017) Not By Degrees: Improving student mental health in the UK's Universities, IPPR. http://www.ippr.org/research/publications/not-by-degrees.
- Gunnell, D., Caul, S., Appleby, L., John, A., & Hawton, K. (2020). The incidence of suicide in University students in England and Wales 2000/2001–2016/2017: Record linkage study. Journal of Affective Disorders, 261, 113–120. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2019.09.079
- Goldbeck, L., Schmitz, T. G., Besier, T., Herschbach, P., & Henrich, G. (2007). Life satisfaction decreases during adolescence. Qual Life Res, 16(6), 969–979. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11136-007-9205-5
- Rickwood, D. J., Deane, F. P., & Wilson, C. J. (2007). When and how do young people seek professional help for mental health problems? Medical Journal of Australia, 187(S7). https://doi.org/10.5694/j.1326-5377.2007.tb01334.x
- Taleb, N. N. (2012). Antifragile. Penguin UK.
photograph credit: Chris Bishop
Last modified: Mon, 28 Feb 2022 16:34:02 GMT