Deciding which pathway to take after school is one of the most important decisions young people make – with either an apprenticeship or university degree helping set them up for long-term success.
Trying to determine their future and the pathway that is best suited to their knowledge, skills and aspirations can naturally be a daunting time for students, so to help settle some nerves ahead of results week, we recently spoke with Christa Bridges, who shared her decision-making process and experience of her degree apprenticeship – a BSc in Digital and Technology Solutions, specialising in software engineering – while gaining first-hand experience in application development with PebblePad.
Can you tell us about your decision-making process after GCSEs and the post-16 routes you considered?
When doing my GCSEs, I was looking to do a Level 3 apprenticeship in software development. However, being from a more rural area, I struggled to find any apprenticeships in that subject. Despite doing well academically and being good at exams, I didn’t feel that A Levels were the right route for me.
I knew I wanted to go into computer science and learn the skills relevant to what I would be doing in the industry, and I prefer being able to learn practically since I better understand how what I’m learning would be applied. An apprenticeship was the way I wished to do that, but since I was struggling to find any in the area, I opted for my second choice of doing a vocational course at college. I’m really pleased that I went to college as it built up my confidence, helped me develop strong friendships and ultimately gain the skills needed for the industry. All of which helped me gain a degree apprenticeship after college.
Why did you choose to pursue a degree apprenticeship over university?
I pursued a degree apprenticeship over university for similar reasons why I didn’t opt for A Levels – I wanted to understand the relevance of what I was learning by applying the skills from experienced professionals. I also loved the fact that I would be paid to learn as setting myself to be financially independent is important to me.
Additionally, I felt that while a degree itself can be valuable, so is experience. University can absolutely provide valuable experiences, but I love that apprenticeships can provide more industry experience. With a degree apprenticeship you also get to benefit from the opportunities universities have to offer, so it felt that this pathway offered the best of both worlds.
What do you think the main benefits of on-the-job learning are, as opposed to traditional academic settings?
One of the key benefits of on-the-job learning is that you get to make real-life impacts on customers while gaining new skills. In academia, even though assignments and independent study enable you to explore subjects more deeply, you’re often working with mock scenarios, which don’t tend to be used by other people. As an apprentice, I’m always excited to see the work I’ve done on the live product for people to use, and it’s even more exciting when you get to talk to customers and find out how they used and benefited from my work.
When you’re learning on-the-job you are also equipped with the latest skills which are being used in the industry, so it’s exciting to be at the cutting edge of software development and also having the confidence that my skillset is of direct relevance to my work.
What does your course consist of, and what does a typical day look like?
As an apprentice application developer, I tend to start the day by planning what I would like to achieve. I have a Microsoft Planner board where I keep what I would like to achieve today, this week, next week, this month, this quarter of the year, and in the future. This helps me to prioritise what I need to do.
We have a stand-up in the morning, which is a meeting with the rest of the team, during which we go through the tasks the team has as part of our project, providing updates of their status, as well as mentioning any impediments.
During the day, I tend to be coding. This could involve working on a bug fix or new feature, improving existing code or writing automated tests (code that tests code)! However, I may also need to review the code other developers have written, review test plans, help with planning, write documentation or help other developers overcome impediments.
At the end of the day, we tend to have a standdown where we talk about what we did that day. This is beneficial for when someone will be at university or not working the following day.
During the week, I also have the opportunity to work on my continuing professional development which could involve making projects to practise a skill or researching a topic I’m interested in.
The course I’m undertaking is for 4 years, and I’m at university one day a week. On this day, I attend lectures and workshops for my modules. We study a range of areas including programming, embedded systems, computational mathematics, cybersecurity, academic skills and professional practice and project management.
Where do you see yourself in five years and what are your ultimate career goals?
In five years, I still see myself at PebblePad! I love the company culture and it’s a very enjoyable and rewarding place to work. My ultimate career goals are ever-changing since I have a variety of interests in the software engineering industry, but my ultimate career goal currently is to become a senior developer and perhaps lead future apprentices.
What advice would you give to someone weighing up their post-16 choices?
Do as much research and networking as you can. The more you research and find out from people, the more you find out what is out there, which helps make the right decision for you. Look at what resources and contacts your school or college provide to support your discovery of interests and offer a helping hand with the application process.
It’s also completely fine to not know what you want to do. There’s always room and time to experiment and move around between different areas. In my apprenticeship, I’ve had the opportunity to explore other areas so I would recommend looking at what you enjoy and go from there.