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UQ PhD student Jessie Harper holding her University Medal

Career advice for high school students

UQ’s Jessie Harper shares the secrets to her success
Published 21 Feb, 2023  ·  6-minute read

When Jessie Harper finished high school in Toowoomba, she didn’t really know what she wanted to do next.

Ten years on, Jessie is now studying her PhD at UQ on the highly sought-after Westpac Future Leaders Scholarship, has received a University Medal, and has represented Australia at several international track and field competitions. But her journey to success was filled with hard work, tough decisions and a little bit of trial and error.

Discover how a girl from a small cattle property near Gatton came to be one of UQ’s highest-achieving students – and how your future could look just as bright.

Life after high school: figuring out what’s next

For some Year 12 students, knowing what to do after graduating high school is a bit of a no-brainer. They have a standout passion or skill and a clear path towards their future career. Many will head to university, knowing what to study to get the right credentials for a future that’s both interesting and fulfilling in their chosen field.

But for others, mapping out next steps, especially looking at careers after high school, isn’t so easy. Jessie was one of these people.

Should I stay or should I go?

With strengths and interests in several areas, Jessie wasn’t 100% sure which avenue to go down after graduating from high school. She didn’t want to rush into deciding something as important as her career without fully considering her options first.

Jessie ended up taking 2 years to explore potential careers after high school, and she says this approach worked really well for her.

Jessie Harper quote

I know some people who just knew what they wanted to do and what they’re passionate about. But for me, I have so many interests, so it took a little longer to narrow it down.

Jessie Harper
PhD Candidate, Bachelor of Agricultural Science (Honours)

Jessie also knew that moving away to attend university would be a big step for her, and so it was important that she was sure it was the right decision.

“It’s daunting for kids out west because it’s a big change going from there to somewhere like St Lucia,” Jessie says.

A process of elimination

Jessie was tossing up between a few different fields of study that matched her interests at the time. She thought her love for animals may lead to study in veterinary science and her dedication and skills as an athlete could easily ignite a rewarding career in physiotherapy. Watching her parents work in agriculture meant that this was also on her radar.

During the 2 years Jessie took off study, she ‘tried out’ working broadly in these areas and ended up settling on her undergraduate degree through what she describes as ‘a process of elimination’.

“I worked on animal and crop production research projects for UQ and the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, and at my old high school, I did coaching for athletics,” Jessie says.

“Those 2 years were a bit of a process of elimination for me. I realised I didn’t want to work in animal science because of that experience, as the animal projects were quite intense, and I really enjoyed the crop side of things. I knew I didn’t want to make my whole life revolve around sport, and I knew that would’ve happened if I studied physio. I wanted to keep that separate.”

Jessie’s newfound interest in crop production and research spurred her decision to undertake a Bachelor of Agricultural Science (Honours) at UQ.

When asked what solidified her choice to study her undergraduate program at UQ, she voiced several reasons.

“The agricultural facilities at Gatton campus are great – not everyone has a campus specifically for agriculture and for me that was really important, as otherwise I would have had to travel really far to find a similar course,” says Jessie.

“UQ is also number 1 in Australia for agriculture, and number 4 in the world*. So, for me, it was an easy choice.”

*NTU rankings

If you feel like you need more time to decide what you want to study after high school, or simply need a break from study, you can take a gap year and defer your university studies for up to a year with UQ. Find out more about deferring your uni offer through QTAC.

Jessie Harper stands in a graduation gown and mortarboard, holding up her university medal

Jessie received a University Medal for achieving outstanding academic results for the duration of her undergraduate program

Starting uni as a regional student

Jessie considers herself extremely lucky to have experienced the best of both worlds when it comes to UQ’s campuses. She studied her undergraduate degree at Gatton and is currently undergoing her PhD across both campuses. As an elite athlete in track and field, Jessie trains in Brisbane under the Head Jumps Coach of Australia. Her days generally start (very) early in the morning to fit in training before study, and for this reason, she moved to Brisbane during her undergrad to make the most of training time.

St Lucia campus: making the most of new opportunities

As someone who grew up in the country, Jessie describes moving to the city as both daunting and exciting. She was able to secure a scholarship to assist with living and studying expenses and found a share house to rent off campus with other students.

Want to know if you’re eligible for a scholarship to help out with relocation and study expenses? Discover UQ’s rural and regional scholarships.

St Lucia is really like its own mini city, and you really don’t get that anywhere else around Queensland, where this whole area is built around the university,” says Jessie.

“It’s very lively and has so many opportunities to join clubs and societies, and you’ll meet so many different and diverse people.”

Students walking together in the Great Court at UQ's St Lucia campus

Gatton campus: a home away from home

While Jessie enjoys the hustle and bustle of St Lucia, she also has a soft spot for UQ’s Gatton campus.

“Gatton campus is more like home for students from rural and regional locations – it’s a more relaxed area based on agriculture,” she says.

Jessie explains that she made great friends during her undergraduate years as her cohort was quite small. Studying agriculture meant that many of her fellow students came from farming backgrounds and shared similar interests and experiences.

Expectations vs reality

When asked if uni turned out to be what she expected, Jessie admits she was surprised by how personalised her study experience has been.

“In high school – especially a regional high school – you get to know your teachers pretty well, and I just didn’t expect that for university as well,” she explains.

“I thought there would be more distance learning. I was really surprised when I went to UQ that it was quite personalised learning – you can ask questions and you get to know your lecturers one-on-one.”

For many teenagers undergoing their final years of high school during the pandemic, access to face-to-face, individualised learning is a major drawcard when it comes to university studies.

Jessie Harper and Elizabeth Hedding stand victoriously in front of a large stadium in their track uniforms

Elizabeth Hedding (MU) and Jessie Harper (UQ) representing Australia at the 2019 Summer Universiade

Advice for Year 12 students

Jessie can’t stress enough that it’s vital to explore all the options and opportunities available to you. You’ll never know what’s possible unless you look.

“It’s important to take your time and explore your options,” she says.

“Find out what you’re passionate about, because you’re more likely to put the effort into your studies and excel if you believe in what you’re doing and that it will make a difference.”

She also encourages high school students to make long-term and short-term goals, and to try not to be afraid of failure, as this can lead to invaluable learning opportunities.

“A lot of it is trial and error, and figuring out what works for you,” she concludes.

The most important thing is to make a start.

Looking for career inspiration? Not sure what to study at uni?

Discover your career options

About Jessie

Jessie is currently studying her PhD at UQ Gatton, analysing how soil biology impacts on sustainability and productivity of high-value vegetable cropping systems. She hopes that her research will assist with the future of food production in Australia and internationally, minimising chemical inputs in farming systems while maintaining productivity in vegetable systems.

After she completes her PhD, Jessie hopes to secure a postdoctoral position internationally, so she can continue contributing to important research and further her learning opportunities.

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