Graduation address: Principal and Vice-Chancellor Sally Mapstone

Friday 7 December 2018

Chancellor, honorary graduate, and particularly graduates -

Your graduation day is a great moment in your life. We are celebrating: you, your achievements, the support that your family and friends have provided, and the fact that your degree is an accomplishment that cannot (except in utterly exceptional circumstances) be taken away from you. You have done it, and everyone here is thrilled for you.

Many of you know what you will be doing next, be it further academic study or a new job. If you don’t yet know what your next step will be, don’t worry. You have your whole life ahead of you; and for mature students, you are making a new start, beginning a new stage. It can be good to take time to decompress from your studies, to reflect on what you want to do.

For those of you starting work, and indeed to those of you applying for jobs, I have a few words of advice. I am going to start by briefly focusing on things to avoid when writing letters and emails in the world of work, since being at work takes you into a new idiomatic area that is different from, say, emailing your tutors while a student. I admit of course that what I am sharing with you here are my own bêtes noires, the kinds of things that prompt irritation towards the correspondent rather than friendly engagement.

So please avoid starting your letters or emails with Dear X or Y, ‘I hope you are well’. This is a redundant formulation, particularly if you are writing to someone you have not met. How do you know if they are well or not? What if they aren’t? Just avoid it. Similarly, do not conclude an email with ‘I hope this helps.’ Whenever I see that formulation in an email I interpret it as meaning, I know this doesn’t help, and isn’t really what you wanted, but this is all you are getting from me, and it’s now your problem.

Similar redundancy is found in ‘Sounds like a plan’. This signals assent but at the same time a kind of signing out from agency which is not what you want to convey. Life, including your working life, is about making as well as taking chances. If there is a plan, it really ought to be yours.

And should there be a plan? Over the course of a lifetime you will hear many people talk about their lives and careers and you will find that one theme that many speakers go for is that what has happened to them in life is really a series of accidents, they had no plan, things just fell into place.

I think this is an unnecessary and inhibiting modesty. My own view is rather different and I offer it to you as a viable alternative. You perhaps do not want to go as far as the memorable Dr Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal the Cannibal) in Thomas Harris’ brilliant thriller from 1988, The Silence of the Lambs, who puts it thus: ‘Nothing happened to me, Officer Starling. I happened.’ But I do think that posture is preferable to ‘Sounds like a plan’.

And by this I mean not, of course, that you should be imitating the practice of Dr Lecter, the serial killer, but that you should have an outline plan of what you want to achieve in life. Actually, you know, it would be very interesting for you to use tomorrow (not today, today is for celebration) to spend half an hour making a note or list of your broad objectives for the next ten years. Because in ten years’ time when you call that note up again you will find it really interesting to review those outline plans, see what you make of them now, now that you have gone on to achieve things, and what you want to do next. Plans of this order do not have to be incredibly detailed, but they do set key objectives. And there is something very empowering in doing that. You are in charge of your own destiny; so decide what you would like it to be, and make that note of it.

As many of our graduates in the audience will know, the University has recently launched its own plans, its Strategy for 2018-2023. Our plan is high level, ambitious, and not like standard university plans. It is distinctive and individualised in the St Andrews way. It starts with a social responsibility statement, and it then sets out our ambitions for the next five years under four themes: World-leading St Andrews, Diverse St Andrews, Global St Andrews, and Entrepreneurial St Andrews. We acknowledge in the Strategy what the University has achieved to date; its status as an institution renowned for the student experience it offers, for its international outlook, for its world-leading research. But the Strategy also recognises that great universities do not stand still. They are flexible, they restyle, they reinvent, and they do so on their terms.

That is not a bad model for life. Planning is not dull. It should be ambitious; it can be empowering. It is what the University of St Andrews expects of you - that you will generate your own plan, which works for you but that speaks to the public good, to the benefit of the wider world, and the many communities, local, national, and global, that you will inhabit. Your strategy is what you make it. So please have a plan, excel, stay in touch, but also have, with your friends and family, and with all of us, a simply glorious graduation day.

Professor Sally Mapstone
Principal and Vice-Chancellor