By: Amneet Mann, Peak Associate
As a dorky inside joke in engineering, we classify students as being in their first, second, third, fourth, or nth year. Representing an unknown numerical variable, n is meant to cover undergraduate students from year five to, technically, year infinity.
The joke elicits chuckles, but like all jokes, it also contains a kernel of truth about how common it is for students to extend their four-year undergraduate degree. According to the United States National Center for Education Statistics, only about 41% of students graduate within four years. Finding yourself in your nth year of university can feel inevitable, comical, but also sometimes scary.
I’m in my nth year of my undergraduate degree right now, where n equals 5.5. Before I graduate, n will equal six, at least. My plodding through my “endless degree” has become common joke fodder for me, especially as friends I graduated high school with and other family members wrap up this chapter of their lives. And my friends are borderline exasperated every time I experiment with adding a new twist to my post-secondary experience.
So, what have the past 5.5 years of my life tethered to SFU looked like? Well, I started off as a science major; started dabbling in journalism by writing for The Peak; worked as a writing mentor in the library’s Student Learning Commons; completed all the prerequisites to begin a Bachelor of Pharmaceutical Sciences degree; spent six months working with fungi in one of SFU’s biology research labs; considered transferring into the pharmacy program at UBC; decided popping pills for other people wasn’t for me; transferred to engineering; spent a summer doing brain imaging research; added a computing science minor to my degree; spent a year taking fewer classes as I focused on journalism and worked at The Peak; added a resource and environmental management minor to my degree; spent eight months writing firmware at my co-op placement; removed the resource and environmental management minor from my degree to allow myself to chart a smoother integration between engineering and environmentalism, and here we are!
I think it’s safe to say that there was no way I could’ve packed that journey in a four-year box. Leaning into all the opportunities I found intriguing required me to forfeit the idea of a linear post-secondary path and take the risk of a longer degree.
Perhaps more than some other degrees, engineering has a very strict four-year schedule: each term is packed with required courses that are only offered once a year, so it’s very easy to fall behind if you deviate on even a single course. My later start in engineering, and a willingness to deviate from the schedule even more, certainly brought some pros with it.
One of the biggest pros is the change in perspective I was granted. At 18 years old, when I picked my university degree, I looked at my post-secondary education as a “black box”: four inflexible years of my life with a set entry point and a predicted exit point. Problem is, I had no idea where I wanted that exit point to be, or who I wanted to be when I got there.
Having no real plan for the next four years of your life and feeling completely lost about your future is probably the number one indicator that you might be joining the nth year club.
But the good news is that if you are anything like 18-year-old me, with a handful of interests and no idea how they can fit into the world, university is probably the best place for you to be. University is one of the most densely-packed places in terms of nurturing ranges of experience, interests, life trajectories, and pursuits. This increases your chances of meeting and getting to know both like-minded and truly diverse people. And by default, you are constantly exposed to new ideas, opportunities, and ways of living.
5.5 years in, and I have a much better understanding of what an ideal post-graduation life would look for me, the skills I want to learn during my university experience, and the type of work I want to do moving forward.
Another side effect of graduating in more than four years feels both like a pro and a con: you will inevitably be pushed out of your initial cohort. On the negative side of things, this can bring up a lot of insecurity as you feel like you’re already falling behind in life before you’ve even kicked off your early twenties. People you graduated with back in high school and started first year with will be graduating, travelling, pursuing post-graduate degrees, moving countries, and starting families, while you find yourself on the 145 for your thirteenth first day of school. It can sometimes feel like you’re stuck in this part of your life, and the light at the end of the tunnel is still at least a dozen final exams away.
But then, you meet everyone else who was also pushed out of their cohort, or never had one to begin with. You meet other students also taking the scenic route through their degrees, students who transferred programs halfway through, and adult students who’ve resumed their education after a lengthy break. The university population opens up and you start relating more to graduate students and professors, bringing you the opportunity to connect with a completely new set of people.
Now of course, to experience all of this — all of these pros and cons — you need money to finance your self-exploration and pursuit of education. A longer degree is inevitably a more expensive degree: tuition piles up on top of rent and groceries, and you barely have time to juggle a part-time job with your homework.
I am privileged to be able to continue dedicating myself to post-secondary education for the fifth year in a row. That’s not to say that I haven’t spent over a year of my education working full-time, spent the majority of the other years working part-time, and studied to be eligible for scholarships — but I also have my parents’ roof and my mom’s cooking to keep me getting to campus every day that I need to.
The nth year void is something students often feel they should avoid at all costs — whether you’re a diligent first year, committed to getting through this degree as fast as possible, or you’ve already got a couple years under your belt for the wrong degree. But if you’re lucky enough to have some leeway in terms of time and finances, letting your degree extend beyond four years can give you the time and space you need to get the most out of your university experience. Take it from someone who’s finally secure in her role as an nth-year student.