Your first step as a graduate is unlikely to be your last (and other early career insights)

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Written by Sarah Warburton – Careers Educator/Advisor

“…You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

Steve Jobs

The above quote comes from a speech Steve Jobs delivered a few years’ ago to an audience of new graduates. The speech got me thinking about when I was nearing the end of my own time at university, when I used to utter the words “I don’t know what I want to do for my career.” It’s taken me to now to see how the above quote applies to my own situation, and how I’ve gone from “not knowing” to a place where all my previous work experiences have led me to this point in my career, to work I enjoy, and which I hope plays to my strengths.

Whilst I may have the benefit of hindsight for my own situation, the students I work with may not yet. Many are still at the “I don’t know what I want to do for a career” stage. When we were at school we knew what was coming next, the years were laid out in front of us. Primary school, secondary school, lessons, coursework, exams and then for many, university. When you get to university, the familiar routine can kick in again. Lectures, seminars, coursework, exams, tutorials, socializing. Repeat. Whilst all this is going on, some students get work experience, they work over the summer, or complete a placement year, but still may come back disheartened as the experience hasn’t cemented in their mind exactly what they want to be doing within their career. Some may not have enjoyed the experience at all, and as a result few may even consider it time wasted.

The end of university can seem daunting for many students. You may only see an expanse of time and space which was once occupied by progressing to 2nd year, placement year or final year. Having worked with students and graduates for the last 15 years, there have only been a handful of times that I have met students who knew definitely what they wanted to do for the rest of their working lives. I can also think of only three people I know who are now following career paths linked to what they have always wanted to do since university. One is a doctor and the other two are engineers. And the doctor is now considering a career change.

If you can relate to any of the above, you are nearing graduation (or even if you are in your first year), and are not sure yet of your next career steps then read on. The following insights may be worth considering and holding on to as you navigate your way into the workplace to start “connecting the dots”. These come to you as a result of my own career experiences, and the vast mix of people I have been in contact with through my own professional life as a careers consultant and as a recruiter:

1) You may not know what you want to do within your career…and that’s ok

For many students about to graduate, your experience of the workplace may understandably be limited. As with many things in life, it isn’t always possible to know what you want until you try it. That same logic can also apply to finding a career that you want to pursue. However if you can, try to gain some experiences whilst at university. A placement or summer internship could give you a head start in “trying” what’s out there, and building workplace skills at the same time. Gaining experience in your spare time can also help do the same.

2) Your first career step is unlikely to be your last

This is also closely linked to the notion that there is no longer a “job for life”. I once read a piece on the internet that suggested people can have up to 7 career changes in their life. I’m not sure how true this is, but career changes or moves today are not uncommon. The workplace is changing. Advancements in technology and the global market are just two factors that influence how companies work and hire people. People work on a contract basis, people work more flexibly, and companies are changing how their employees work together. Job titles exist today which may not have done so five years’ ago. You could find yourself in a future job which doesn’t yet exist. All of this is happening before you even consider that you are changing too. Your priorities and career motivations at 21 may be very different to when you are 35. With experience, you also learn more about yourself, what you like, don’t like, strengths and so on. An increase in self-awareness can mean changes in your career too.

3) Any work experience is good work experience

When working with students I hear many of them say that the experiences they have of the workplace whilst at university are not relevant for when applying for a “grad job.” Many employers want to see evidence of how you have developed yourself. A placement year is only one way that you can achieve this. Part-time work and volunteering count, as they are still giving you the chance to experience the “workplace”, and develop yourself as well. Working with customers, facing difficult situations, event organising, planning, negotiating, and working collaboratively with others towards a common goal are skills that employers value, and these also say a lot about you. So do start appreciating the experiences you are having, what you have learnt, and how this can contribute to your future workplace. Employers will start seeing you as valuable too.

4) If you are not accepted onto a “graduate scheme” it is not the end of the world

I wrote in a previous article about alternatives to graduate schemes, and how there are not enough for every graduate in the UK. As many graduate schemes are offered by larger, and in many cases, well known employers, they are easier to come by. Most companies in the UK are smaller, and the fact that you may never have heard of them, doesn’t mean they cannot offer great job roles for keen and eager graduates. These opportunities require a little more perseverance to find them, but could be well worth considering as part of your career planning strategy.

5) There is no point in comparing yourself to your course mates/flat mates/other university colleagues etc.

One or more of your friends finds a grad job before you do. Your flat mate has an assessment centre coming up and you don’t. It can be very easy to start comparing yourself and wondering what you are doing wrong as the job offers are not coming your way. This can make you feel worse, and more so if you are not even sure what you want to do after university. Try to keep in mind that we are all on different paths. No two careers are the same, there is often no “one route” into a specific career, and in the meantime any experiences you have will be helping to develop and shape you as an individual. If we all followed the same career journey, that really wouldn’t be very interesting for future employers to read or hear about.

6) Don’t expect to find your dream career/job straight away after graduation

This is closely linked with number 2 in the list. Sometimes it can take a while to find what you want to do within your career. Hence why your first career step out of university is unlikely to be your last. If you are learning and developing then you are growing as an individual, and this can help you to carve out your future career path.

7) Proactivity, positivity and patience can really make a difference

Whatever stage you have reached in terms of your job search and career planning, mindset plays a big part. If you’ve applied for a job and you are awaiting the outcome, instead of constantly scrolling through job websites, try to remain proactive by mixing up your approach to career/job searching. Look for guest lectures, events organized through the professional institution associated with your degree subject. This can bring you into contact with a range of professionals within your area of interest. Research smaller companies and make contact to explore their work and opportunities. Getting out there and talking to people can really make a difference. May be you work part-time for a company right now but what you are doing doesn’t really appeal in terms of a career choice. You are bored and frustrated. May be another department carries out work of potential interest? May be there are projects that you could volunteer yourself for? Positive steps like this could help put you out of your comfort zone, expose you to new areas of work, and can help build your achievements, and may be discover a career you may not have been aware of. May be you know someone who works in a career field of interest. Make contact, ask questions, and enquire whether you can visit the company to find out more. Finding meaningful work can take time. Dead ends and rejections are inevitable when it comes to career and job searching, but keep going, perseverance is key.

8) Don’t put too much pressure on yourself…and keep going

It can be very easy for students to pile the pressure on themselves when it comes to their career, and sometimes they think they should know by the end of university what they should be pursuing for a career. If this describes you, then try and remove the pressure from yourself. You may be unlikely to wake up one day and you know all of a sudden what you want to do. For many, building a career usually takes place gradually step by step, and in some cases by trial and error. Through gaining new experiences, knowledge, creating and taking opportunities, and all the while adding to your valuable skills and attributes, this will hopefully lead you to a meaningful career that is right for you. As the coming weeks roll by and you are nearing the end of your time at university, keep these eight points in mind. They will hopefully provide some perspective and a bit of reassurance when you are planning your first career step out of university, and you start connecting the dots.

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