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How A Year of Night Shifts Inspired Me to Finally Change Degrees


Written By Ricky Lai (he/him) @rickylaitheokayperson | Contributing Writer

I dropped Engineering two years ago at a different university. Getting into it straight after high school was admittedly a careerist move, as was deciding to stay tapped into it even after several semesters of failing papers. This is the sort of sign that an inner God gives you to jump ship – maybe take a breather; and consider starting anew. It’s not their fault. The program was well-resourced, supportive, and extremely rigorous, and I remember the warm words of a lecturer encouraging me over Zoom to keep pushing if I really wanted to resit another year; so I knew the problem was me, hacking away at equations that I could do but didn’t want to, and ironically unable to piece two and two together. COVID-19, as you’d expect, didn’t help the matter.

But the promise of a secure future looks like something worth clinging to. Amid all the uncertainty in a student’s world: the grinding away at a workload you feel half-passionate (and then eventually quarter-passionate) about, takes a thick skin that I discovered I no longer had once I was forced to stand back watching waves of my fellow co-eds swam out with the tide. Being unable to be as happy for yourself as you are for your graduating friends is the perfect soil for imposter syndrome to germinate, burgeoning in the absence of the self-esteem that it would’ve taken to stand my ground on pursuing the career path that I really wanted – of film, of media studies, of communications – in the first place. I’m here now, in my final year of a new degree that I sincerely look forward to completing, but I made that decision off the back of a significantly more gruelling and exhausting experience: fast-food graveyard shifts for an entire year.

My full-time job at a fast-food restaurant – one that stands on a main road and collects plenty of hungry traffic – was the way for me to pay the bills, while I half-heartedly studied electronic and electrical theory. Daydreaming about some tenuous, vaguely possible circumstance in which I would no longer have to complete the obligated 800 (!) hours of related on-site work experience in order to graduate. I soon offered to change my schedule, then four days a week I was pushing shifts at 9:00pm one night and finishing at 6:00am the next. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. (I was also doing a morning shift on a Monday, which meant Sunday wasn’t much of a day off.) This is the kind of decision you reflect on and raise an eyebrow at, but the reality is that exhaustion seems like small potatoes to any student needing to side-hustle over the better part of a week to get by. ‘It builds character’, or ‘it’s nice to prove to myself that I can do it’, I’d justify to myself on the bus ride there. Already disillusioned about my career path, this seemed like the lesser of two evils.

The night shift involves two halves: cleaning the restaurant for the next morning, and slinging out burgers for an ever-rotating ensemble cast of famished townies. These two large responsibilities spill over each other like splurts of mustard and ketchup, and you’d usually not get enough time to mop the floors and rinse the equipment before the next rush of cars pulls into the drive-thru. It is a routine in which you become one with the automated grill press, learn the work playlist off-by-heart, and earn plenty of vacant time to tune out and ask yourself questions. David Byrne’s voice lights up the liminal space: ‘Well, how did I get here?’ (That’s a joke – nothing as good as Talking Heads ever played.) I’m lucky enough to have never engaged with as many aggressive customers as you might expect for a popular 24/7 food chain, but I did receive a paper bag of chicken bites to the face before being accused of selling a ‘COVID sharebox deal’. Credit where it’s due – that’s pretty creative. 

Miraculously, I also didn’t acquire a taste for coffee until my sleep schedule buckled under this new routine. Dark, bitter, keeping you on edge – these are certainly three ways to describe the graveyard hours. I remember the hectic, relentless nights. I remember needing to pack the warmers full of chicken nuggets in a pre-apocalyptic fashion during the comedown of Six60’s first post-quarantine show. I remember contractors coming in to renovate the building overnight and us having to pause service every time their drilling into the walls and floor got close to deafening. But I also remember, just as clearly, the nights that felt long and lonely; the ones where I tuned out all of the music; the ones spent mostly mulling over what I wanted to do when I punched off the clock and strode out into the dawn of a different day. I kept my spirits high and optimistic until the night spun around again, and so did another espresso.

This arduous time spent under a different kind of unpleasant pressure, which crucially, I could’ve also opted out of at any moment if I wanted, is what actioned an obvious realisation: I don’t need to be doing this to myself. Just like the two aforementioned halves of the job, the stakes of my university life felt at odds between making time to wipe everything clean or staying in service to the expectations of people on the outside. And thus: Goodbye, Engineering. Goodbye, night shifts.

Changing degrees is the sort of realistic shift that typically happens after a year, at most a semester, of exposure to a field that you realise isn’t what you were looking for. (The late ‘fees free’ policy under Labour helped a lot of folks figure this out without the deterrent of accumulating a loan fee too quickly.) I, on the other hand, made it as far as the early third year in a four-year degree. A heel-turn this late in the game seemed unheard of. Unheard of to whom? To me, of course! The irony is that while life is too short, learning takes time, and I actually regret none of the time spent in Engineering nor on night shifts. (Except for that 21st birthday I missed one time. Sorry, homie.) I carry these lessons into my new Communications degree with an unshakeable enthusiasm and gratitude. A character arc built on only perfect choices can’t withhold the stress of a faulty compromise.

There’s a crude joke I remember as a child where three castaways of different hair colours try swimming back to civilisation. The brunette makes it only a quarter of the way, gets tired, and swims back. The redhead makes it only a third of the way, gets tired, and swims back. The punchline, of course, is that the blonde manages to swim halfway, gets tired and swims back. As a kid, of course I laughed, but if you’ll excuse the killjoy in me, I’d also secretly responded to this with, ‘How could she have known that she managed to get halfway?’ The joke then becomes something of a funny Aesop-style fable. It’s hard to gauge your own progress when you’re in the midst of the discomfort, sure. But even more than that, it becomes essential to look back and laugh at your own decisions.


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