Updated: Jun 14
When my friend was a toddler he would point at airplanes flying above him and yell out: ‘Tailem! Tailem!’ His parents soon realized that ‘Tailem’ is the word he created to refer to airplanes, so it was to no one’s surprise that he wanted to be a pilot one day.
I, on the other hand, realized my true calling a little later in life. In fact I had already completed my Architecture degree at University before I moved full time into aviation. At first I regretted the years I spent away from aircraft because the majority of students undergoing pilot training with me were younger and could launch their pilot careers years before me. However, towards the end of my training I realized that I had done myself a favor and wouldn’t trade my university experience.
Well it depends on how one views university. If you view it as a place to go only to learn a way of thinking, to study and pass exams so you can leave after a few years with a degree in hand, then there’s not a big reason to attend university before commencing pilot training. But if you think of it as a chance to develop yourself holistically then you might start to see the value. Hopefully my journey through university will explain why tertiary education before aviation training can be beneficial.
Competency based interviews
Before starting University I had dreams of playing field hockey at the Olympics and was already in the national team for my age group. In order to realize my Olympic dreams I was offered a scholarship to University- they had the top team in my province so I would get the best training to further my hockey career. This meant that I had a commitment to my team while being a full time Architecture student.
How did this help me start my pilot career? Easy. Imagine being asked in an interview to describe a situation in which you showed ambition or time management skills? This is a perfect chapter of my life to draw examples from, during which I faced several challenges that indicate my character development.
With the big movement in the industry shifting away from only technical questions in pilot interviews to competency based questions it’s imperative to have examples to prove that you are the right fit for the job. It’s no longer always possible to get positive results in interviews by simply describing yourself with key words such as ‘hard working’, ‘team player’ and ‘leader.’ You need to be able to back it up with real life examples. Airlines have realized the importance of soft skills. If they employ a person that matches the right profile, they will be able to train them and integrate them seamlessly into their work environment.
So, other than through competing on the sport team, how else did university help me develop soft skills? After I suffered from a sport career ending injury I stumbled upon an entirely new part of student life - student councils. I enrolled in my university’s student run non-profit charity organisation and worked my way up to serving on the executive council, being the face of the organization and being selected as an ambassador of my university. By doing this I forced myself to grow quickly. I needed to learn a lot of new skills along the way.
This miniature organization allowed us students to simulate what life is like outside of university. Suddenly I had real responsibilities and teams to manage. I faced situations in which I had to adjust my communication style to be more effective and to deal with conflict within my team.
Did I always make the right decision? No.
But did I learn from it? Yes.
I grew from the experiences and constantly worked on developing myself. In the process I built a pool of situations to discuss in competency based interview questions.
So as you can see, if you're up for the challenge university can be the ideal place to prepare yourself for the aviation environment (if you believe that technical knowledge isn’t the only thing that makes a successful pilot). The best thing about university is that there are so many different activities to explore. If sport isn’t your strong point then play to your strengths. There are a range of cultural and other activities to choose from if you’re willing to look for it.
What about the actual academic side of university? Have I found any benefit in that regard? I suppose so. It really depends on how I choose to look at it...
Besides learning - through trial and error - the best methods in which I absorb information to pass exams, I had to learn how to cope with large volumes of work and deadlines. I don't believe I needed 4 years to learn this, and I could also add that spending so much time studying just made me tired of studying by the time I was faced with the requirement to get back into the books to pass exams for what I actually want to do in the end - to fly.
I am fortunate that my degree was design orientated (architects design buildings and spaces after all) so I learnt some practical design skills that will always benefit me, such as designing this website for example.
Since I studied Architecture, I landed up having a list of famous buildings that I wanted to visit on my travels. It made my layovers as a cabin crew (that was my first job after University) meaningful and interesting.
Another key reason why University helped my career is that having a degree is certainly an accomplishment and did make my CV stand out when I applied for my first pilot job. If an employer receives 50 CVs, for example, for an initial pilot position and all applicants have the same amount of experience (or perhaps when we refer to our first job we should rather say the lack of experience?) of course they will decide to invite the candidates with extra accolades first. This could mean shortlisting candidates with work experience as well as a pilot license, or in my case shortlisting me because I have a University degree as well as the other minimum requirements.
Loss of aviation medical
There is the added benefit of peace of mind knowing that I have some form of insurance in case I lose my medical, seeing as I can theoretically put my degree to use if I ever truly need to. (Whether I would ever dive back into Architecture is a whole question in itself...)
Although all the reasons listed above are important, I have saved my favorite for last. That I cannot stress how beneficial it has been for me to build and maintain friendships outside of aviation. And where could be a better place to meet great people than at University?
I found that having friends in my life that work in different fields, with interests outside of aviation, has helped to ground me through the challenges of often moving for my career and to deal with the difficulties of jet lag and layovers. If I’m back in town we have a great time catching up, but none of these friends will text me at 2 am to ask if I want to hang out because they’re sleeping. It’s a complete contrast to my aviation friends who suffer from jet lag - which is not a bad thing, but I do enjoy having reminders of the type of life people live in more stable-houred jobs.
In summary, I believe that going to university was a valuable stepping stone to prepare me for my pilot career. I made the most of my opportunities so walked away with more than just a degree in hand. Do I think people have to go to university? Of course not. We are all unique and learn things in different ways and at different times of our lives. Just because university worked for me, doesn’t mean it will be the right choice for everyone.
After all, my friend knew that being a pilot was exactly what he wanted to do from when he was a child pointing to all the ‘Tailems’ in the sky. University was not something he found value in straight out of school. Instead he showed me that there are several other ways to grow and develop soft skills such as having a job and pursuing hobbies on the side.
If you are fortunate enough to be faced with the choice of going to university before diving into aviation, I hope you will be able to see all the benefits of this opportunity after reading this and hopefully you are now in a position to make an informed decision.
The views presented in this article are solely the author's based on available information at the time of writing. The purpose of this blog is to inform readers, not to provide professional advice. Readers are advised to research further and consult relevant professionals, such as flight training schools. Readers are cautioned when acting on information provided and assume all risk from such actions.