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What Shall I Do with My Life?

Advice, Assessment Centres, CV advice, Job hunting, Networking, Postgraduate Study September 16, 2007

What Shall I Do with My Life?


"It’s true that a significant proportion of finalists haven’t made up their minds by their final year. Some, because they haven’t thought about it, others because they have and are still confused. It can be a nerve-wracking time and panic can set in, so it’s important to realise you’re not a freak. Lots of people are in the same boat, and being obsessive can be counter-productive," says Carl Gilleard, chief executive of the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR).

But if you really want to find a job you love you will need to set aside time to think about what you want to do. The good news is that the more time you spend thinking about it the more likely you are to find a job you enjoy, experts say.

According to leadership development organisation Common Purpose, half of workers between 25-35 say they are not fulfilled in their current jobs. The main reason for this discontent, the research found, is that workers are struggling to combine the demands of their job with their wider life ambitions. It’s being called the quarter-life crisis and an increasing number of 20-somethings are waking up in the wrong career two years after graduation. More often than not, it’s down to a simple lack of planning.

"Most people spend more time planning a car purchase or an annual holiday than they do thinking about their career," writes John Lees, author of the bestseller, How to Get a Job You Love. "How do people choose the work they do? For many, work chooses them. Careers are often formed by the first job that happens to come along after graduation. It’s staggering how many people drift from one job to another with no clear idea."

So why do so few people actually try to find out what they really want to do? Well, there are three main reasons, according to The Career Adventurer’s Fieldbook by Stephen Coomber, Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove. "First, most people don’t know what they want to do… they either take the path that is laid before them, or follow the received wisdom of those around them. Second, those who do have an inkling of their true vocation don’t know how to go about making it a reality. The third reason is fear of failure."

No one can make this decision for you, says Carl at the AGR. "You’ll always have the graduate that wants someone else to make the decision for them, but unfortunately that kind of direction isn’t available at your careers service," he says. "It is your life and ultimately you have to come up with a decision."

Don’t let fear of the unknown push you into a state of paralysis or denial, warns Brian Staines, careers adviser at the University of Bristol. "The worst thing you can do is get into a state of inertia where you are so afraid of making the wrong choice you don’t make any choice at all," he says. "This isn’t a one-off life or death decision, it’s a decision that will move you forward. You can always change later but make it a choice based on solid research."

Nick Isbister, co-author of career book Who Do You Think You Are? believes that the ground rules on finding what you want to do have changed but we’ve still to catch up. "The reality is that the emphasis in employment until recent years has been on skills rather than motivation. The implication is that we will tend to enjoy a job that we have the skills to do." But he argues "Our personal motivation is a much more complex matter than just finding a good skills fit."

This means considering some personal questions (see next page). If you get stuck thinking about what you like, start with what you don’t like, suggests Carl Gilleard. "Some of this you will only realise when you are in the job so be realistic – you won’t necessarily find your ideal job immediately," he says.

Research by the government last year suggested that it can take graduates anything up to four years after graduation to find their way into a job with high levels of job satisfaction, good pay and prospects. This is daunting but careers consultant Roger Steare advises: "From a maturity point of view, people don’t really get into an adult frame of mind until their mid- to late-twenties. So it’s actually quite natural to feel unsure. Don’t burn your bridges too early. Look for organisations that give you as broad a range of learning experience as possible to help you find your niche."

Steve Jobs is the chief executive (CEO) of Apple, makers of funky hardware like the iPod. Despite founding the company at 21, and becoming a multi-millionaire by the age of 30, he still managed to get himself sacked and went through a serious career crisis. Never one to stay down long he spent the time doing some soul searching, only to be rehired as CEO of the company. His words to the graduates of 2005 at Californian university Stanford were straight to the point: "You’ve got to find what you love. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. So keep looking. Don’t settle."
How to Combat Career Confusion

Careers author John Lees shows you how to begin to make sense of bewildering career choices.

How do people choose the work they do? For many, work chooses them. Careers are often formed by the first job that happens to come along after graduation.

If you add up the years that go into your final qualifications, it’s staggering how little attention many people give to the question, ‘What kind of work would really suit me?’

Some careers services offer you computerised tests. But where the test generates a list of likely occupations, take care. Your perfect job may not be listed because of the way it is coded. Fields of work are complex and varied – for example, an accountant in the shipping industry will perform a very different job to an accountant working for the National Trust. Job titles are often too broad. Starting with a list of possibles is fine, but make sure you really explore what the jobs are about.


Look at the subjects you have just studied. What would you like to know more about? What skills have you developed while studying? Now look at all the topics that you have chosen to read or think about in your own time.


Don’t undersell your qualification, but sell it in a language that a buyer understands. Few recruiters really understand the alphabet soup of qualifications, so never assume that an employer will be aware of what you have studied. Translate what you have done into language an interviewer can relate to. Talk about the relevance of the subject to the workplace and the skills you have acquired (especially team-working or communication skills).


The way you work will have a strong influence on your likely career. Do you draw your energy from other people or from private reflection? How do you operate in a group – what role do you naturally take up? Which skills do you exercise if you have a free choice? Seek out jobs that provide a good match to the way you are in work.


Many graduates make light of temporary or seasonal jobs, but they provide a huge source of evidence to employers. Your work experience is also a good testing ground for discovering your likely career. Examine every experience of work you have achieved to date. What has motivated you or excited you? What kind of work gives you a buzz?


Conduct an audit: what do you actually know about work? How can you find out more? Who can you talk to? Never accept the one-dimensional view of a career given in textbooks, websites or – even worse – TV. Dramas and documentaries all give you an edited view of a job; you need to know what it ‘s really like.


Don’t miss out on key contacts who can introduce you to real people in real jobs. University staff often have business contacts or can put you in touch with past students. Talk to anyone who can help: parents of your friends, past employers, friends who are already working. Learn how to conduct informational interviews: short, focused discussions that give you the inside story on other people’s careers.


Just because you’re entering the field of work doesn’t mean that you will stop learning. Decide what you would like to learn from the first year in a job. Think broadly – skills, know-how, experience of organisations and work sectors. Decide how you would like your CV to read in two years’ time. Also, take advantage of any opportunities that come along for short-term or even voluntary work placements. At this stage, virtually all work experience is useful as long. But ensure you learn and move on. Short-term assignments are a great way of finding out the pros and cons of a potential career.


Many people take ‘fill-in’ jobs after graduation. The danger is that these can quickly lead you to believe they are a good example of what life is like in the working world. ‘Fill-in’ jobs can quickly become permanent posts unless you keep your goals in mind. In your first few years of work you will quickly discover that there is only one person taking responsibility for your career: you. Learn how to choose well, and how to move on positively if you don’t.


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