About to graduate and still no career plans? Why you shouldn’t worry!

Doesn’t it come around quickly! One minute it’s Welcome Week and you’re all wide-eyed and bushy-tailed looking forward to an exciting new phase in your life – university and all that comes with it – and the next minute you’re about to graduate and hit the so-called ‘real world’. How did that happen?!

No clear career plans yet? No worries!

If you don’t have a nice clear career plan all mapped out, laminated and pinned to your bedroom wall, don’t panic – you’re in very good company. Quite a few of the students I see as a careers consultant only have the haziest of career plans and when I graduated I was pretty much in the same position as you. It was a full 4 1/2 years before I settled into what might be considered ‘a career’. I’m going to tell you my story to show you why you shouldn’t worry and how you can make the most of the position you’re in.

My story – the first 2 years

Directly after graduating from my degree in Russian Studies from the University of Leeds I spent a year teaching English in Japan with the JET Programme – hard but great fun (and well paid!). I then came back and worked in a greengrocers for a few months, while living at my parents’ (which was hard in a different way…), before deciding to apply to do a PhD. I’d long cherished the idea that I might be an academic.

And the next 2 years…

After a year researching post-communist Russian women’s literature in Bath and another year in Moscow interviewing writers, reading, writing and attending book readings and lectures at the Moscow Literary Institute (accompanied by more English teaching and leading a group of English students on a ‘study trip’) I realised this wasn’t the right path for me.  I loved getting out and about meeting the writers but I found some aspects of the research, such as ploughing through endless literature on feminism, less appealing at the time. Giving it up was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made, especially as I had funding, but I knew it was the right one.

The final 6 months

I then temped through a recruitment agency for a while – the absolute low point was data inputting for a hearing aid company on a bleak industrial estate, while one of the best jobs was as an ‘Excel expert’ for AstraZeneca analysing data and producing reports for the product management team on doctors’ use of particular drugs (more interesting than it sounds, honest!). I then worked for 6 months in Blackwells bookshop before getting my first  proper graduate job in a publishing company – a whole 4 1/2 years after graduation (and that’s the abridged version!).

Learning about yourself and what you want

Why did it take me so long? Because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. When I graduated, I had one or two career ideas based on very limited knowledge and experience, I tried them out and in doing so I realised that I liked some aspects but not others. I therefore learned more about myself in the process, which helped direct me towards jobs that were more suited to my skills, interests and values. And that took time – it didn’t happen overnight.

Improving your employability

While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend taking quite that long to find your feet, you definitely do have some lee-way. But it does depend on what you’re doing in that time. The fact is that in spite of not having had a ‘proper graduate job’, I had developed some useful transferable skills along the way which had made me more employable, such as research skills, negotiation (persuading writers to agree to be interviewed), self-discipline, problem-solving (e.g. dealing with the fallout of a cockroach infestation in the Moscow hostel where I was responsible for a group of English students), and just general communication skills (oh yes!!).

So what was the point of this rambling story?! Well 4 key things:

  1. You don’t have to get it right first time. A lot of graduates I see feel they need to make a firm career decision and it needs to be the right one. They fear what will happen if they ‘make a mistake’. How will it look on their CV to give up a job/have a change of direction later? But at the same time they’re not really sure what they want to do. The key message is that it’s OK to try different things and to change your mind, as long as you’re ensuring that what you’re doing in the process is broadly increasing your employability rather than reducing it.
  2. Focus on building an interesting CV and developing the skills graduate employers generally look for. When I applied to the publishing company 4 years after graduating, I found I had lots of evidence on my CV of the skills, experience and qualities required for the post. I’d edited and directed plays as a postgrad and while in Japan, I’d taught English to all age groups in 2 countries, and I’d amassed lots of good office experience (including as top-notch MS Office skills!). So I think (apart from the skills factor) some of the above experiences got me in front of employers just because they were interesting and made my CV stand out.
  3. If you don’t have a clear career focus now, work experience will help! In thinking about what I wanted to do for a career, I only got so far reading books and talking to people and going to careers talks. What really made the difference was going out and trying things – getting proper experience. That way I could really answer some of the key questions to assess my suitability for different careers, i.e.  ‘Do I like this?’ and ‘Am I any good at this?’.
  4. Finally, if you do find yourself doing something a bit menial or not right for you at some point, remember it’s only temporary. Things can and will change, sooner rather than later if you keep your eyes and ears open, get involved in other things and create opportunities, so try to take a long-term view!
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