The merits of studying Geography at University

Geography has long been the the butt of jokes in the academic world. Often termed as “advanced colouring in” by so-called genii the subject has historically come under intense criticism. Indeed at my school there was a popular phrase started by the Historians “Make Geography History”- a reference to making geography both disappear and be more like History.

Geography was an essential subject of study in colonial Britain. Kings, adventurers, businessmen and nobility were required to understand the subject. To build maps to chart the rural areas of Africa, to chart how rainfall would affect seasonal crop growth, to assess how quarterly shipping patterns would be affected by climatic conditions. However, since these important times the study of geography at degree level has been somewhat tarnished.

I cannot claim to enjoy all of geography, and nor do I intend to. There were moments in lectures at University where my mind was far more interested on what was happening in the Mail Online, however the skills learnt throughout my course will be essential for life.

There are 3 main skills borne from my Geography degree that are not only transferable into real life skills, but in my opinion essential to a successful career:

1) Information Processing

For every essay set during my degree the essay instructions were accompanied by a reading list of at least 30 titles. If one were to read every journal and book fully they would just about complete an essay a year. The primary skill in Geography is assessing the important detail and the overall story line from the unnecessary detail. By having such an enormous body of work thrown your way, Geography at degree level forces you to pick an argument, find supporting facts and to build an essay accordingly. Because of this, the skill I will always have is to filter the important from the not so important to make a judgement as quickly and effectively as possible. That is not to say that I would blindly choose an argument and stick to it, but rather I can take an overall stance – for example in a business setting hypothesising that fewer staff members increases productivity- and rapidly research and assess whether this hypothesis fits the status quo of research. Throughout my early career the ability to disseminate wide bodies of research and literature have been essential to excelling in my profession.

2) Detailed understanding

At school the worst thing about Geography was having to spend endless nights remembering how many mm of rain fell in Bangladesh, how many homes were destroyed, 10,000 leaves were needed to be regrown, £3.1m of damage to a rural island etc etc. However, at degree the importance of microscopic analysis becomes apparent. The best way to explain it is that because a geographer needs to understand not only the most minute details but also the wider picture, one can quickly assess the overall works at play, such as a shift in the market, or a change in climate and then assess the most fundamental damages or risks associated with this. It always seemed important to no one that I knew how many homes were destroyed, yet at degree level you learn that the big picture is how climate change affects the insurance industry, which in turn affects the economy and the politics of a nation. Therefore, the number of homes and livelihoods damaged affects the number of claims, which in turn affects the lobbying of government for greater protection which in turn benefits the local ecosystem from future climate damage and safeguards the economy in the future. The ability to shift between the micro and the macro in any setting is essential to getting the best possible outcome for yourself or your employer.

3) Human processes

Whilst it has rarely been stated that geography and psychology crossover in academic discipline, at the root of geography are wide theoretical processes. Ideas of ‘agency’ (The freedom through which one can make their own decisions) of “community” as a construct, of the relationship between people and place (where people live, how they interact and how each place affects individuals differently e.g. the contrast between the airport and the jungle). Because these concepts were constantly repeated to us at degree level, in my own life I judge how certain situations affected me differently. I take the tube every morning and instead of being annoyed at the rush hour (I am still annoyed by it) I look at how the system is structured. I look at how the signs are visible at every point, how passengers are moved along like a conveyor belt, how it is normal to stand on the right of the escalator versus walking on the left. Because I understand societal systems that are otherwise taken for granted, I am able to spot strengths and weaknesses in a number of situations previously thought to be out of my control. Noticing patterns, and human interactions is essential to doing well at geography undergraduate, as well as in life.

Geography is more than facts, figures and climate change. It is disseminating information and providing the strongest argument. It is learning a little bit of everything to gain a clearer picture of the world. And most importantly, it is the one subject where you can go out until 4am and the experiences of your night will in some way be useful for the essay you have to hand in by 9am.


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