By Gordon Rugg
If you’re trying not to think about life after university because it all feels too scary and depressing, then you’re in good company. Most students feel that way sooner or later.
This article is about other ways of looking at life after university, particularly if you’re scared and/or depressed and/or have no idea what to do next. It’s a gentle article. Here’s a picture of some kittens to set the mood.
“4 Kittens” by Pieter Lanser from The Netherlands – IMG_9051Uploaded by oxyman. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:4_Kittens.jpg#mediaviewer/File:4_Kittens.jpg
The kittens in the picture are probably feeling just like you, if you’re a final year student thinking about the future, and wondering just how scary it could be. Anyone who has lived with kittens, or worked with students, knows that look very well.
In the case of kittens, that look will be followed by some cautious exploration, which is usually completely endearing, soon followed by joyful rampaging, with the initial fears long forgotten. It’s much the same with students, except that there’s less likelihood of someone having to retrieve them from the top of the highest bookcase or from inside the sofa.
So, if you’re feeling uneasy about the future, hold on to your mental image of those kittens, and think about how much fun they’ll have when they discover how many things in a house can be used as kitten toys.
That should make you feel a bit better, which is a good start. However, it doesn’t answer any of the questions that are probably niggling away at you in the small hours when you can’t sleep. The next sections deal with some common questions.
What if I can’t find a job?
A useful rule of thumb with difficult questions is to flip them round. One way to flip this question round is to rephrase it as: “What if I can’t find my dream job as soon as I leave university?”
When you phrase it this way, it gives you a much more manageable perspective. Nobody in their senses would expect to go straight into their dream job from university. Before you get to your dream job, you need to build up the experience and skills to make you ready for it, which means getting jobs that aren’t perfect, but that are good enough as steps along the way.
So, when you think in terms of getting a job as a starting place, that’s a much more manageable prospect. This leads into the next question…
What if I don’t like my job?
One obvious, and usually sensible, option is to move to another job. There are good ways of doing this, and bad ways of doing it.
The underlying theme in the bad ways of changing jobs is being negative. A classic question at job interviews is: “Why did you leave your last job?” If your reply is a string of complaints about it, then you can give the impression of being a chronic complainer who will be no fun to work with. The standard guidelines for job interviews contain plenty of more positive phrasings.
The underlying theme in the good ways of changing jobs is that you get as many positive things as possible out of each job while you’re in it. This includes learning new skills, and taking time to figure out what you’re getting from the job. From this viewpoint, time spent in a hard, demanding job can actually be a very strong point. It improves your chances of getting a less demanding job, because it gives you credibility; it also improves your self-esteem, because you know that you’ve done something hard and emerged successful at the other end.
Another option with jobs you don’t like is to ask about changing what the job involves. This isn’t always possible, but it’s often worth a try, especially if you’re in a job which has a lot of great points, but some bad points. If you offer to do X, which you quite like and are good at, instead of Y, then your employer might agree, especially if nobody else wants to do X.
What should I do with my life?
Most people find this a big, scary question. Again, flipping it round is a good way of putting it in perspective. Suppose you change it to: “What should I do for every year of the rest of my life?”
Nobody in their senses would expect anyone to know the answer to that question. It’s not a reasonable question, for all sorts of reasons. The biggest issue is that you can’t know what you’d like until you know what the possibilities are; the world is full of fascinating jobs and careers that most people have never heard of.
That might sound like a depressing thought, but again, you can turn it round. Getting a job is like getting a bucketful of water. You only have to get enough for your needs; you can fill your bucket just as well from a pond as from an ocean. You don’t need to discover every job in the world that you would love; you just need to discover one.
As for how you discover it, here’s a three-pronged approach that you might find useful.
First prong: Work forward from where you are now
There’s nothing wrong with trying out different career directions, so you know what they’re actually like. Most employers prefer an applicant who has tried out a few directions before deciding which area they want to work in, because that applicant will be more likely to stay and to enjoy the job.
Once you’re in a job, you can build up your experience and strengths. If you decide that you do want to change direction after all, then you can do it on your own terms, at your own pace. For instance, if you’ve got an entry-level job in graphics design for advertising, and you discover that you most enjoy dealing with the clients, then you can start building up your experience of dealing with clients, and finding out about jobs which involve more dealing with clients. That sort of thing happens all the time; it’s how most careers unfold, step by step.
Second prong: Work backwards from where you want to end up
Working forwards is a sensible strategy. The main risk is that you end up in a career that’s okay, but where you reach the end of your working life without ever achieving any of your dreams.
This is where working backwards is good. You may not know the precise job titles that would fulfil your dreams, but you probably do know what those dreams are. For instance, do you want to live alone on an island, or would you rather live surrounded by friends and family in a cosmopolitan city? Do you want excitement, or calm? Do you want to climb a mountain, or work in Hollywood, or to travel the world?
All those things are possible, and if you work backwards from your list of dreams, then you can include them in your life plan. For instance, if your dream is climbing a mountain, then you just need to find and join a climbing club; once you’ve done that, they’ll help you learn to climb, give you advice about a good mountain for a beginner, and generally help you fill in the steps between where you are now, and looking down from the top of that mountain. You’ll have someone with you all the way on that journey to your dream, once you’ve started.
Third prong: Work upwards, to get an overview
There are a lot of good books, websites etc that include overviews of different types of job and career.
A good example is this one:
The author, Dick Bolles, has been working in this area for years. A big advantage of his work is that it’s evidence-based; he tells you the numbers for how effective different job-hunting strategies are, for how many jobs there are in different sectors, and so on.
Resources like this are useful for two reasons. One is the obvious one: They give you solid information and advice. Another, less obvious, one is that if you skim through them, you soon discover fascinating oddities (some of the careers out there are very odd…) This is a good thing because it gives you positive feelings about investigating new life directions; the investigation shifts from feeling scary into feeling like a fascinating exploration of amazing new wonders.
Life outside university contains a huge number of awesome possibilities. That can feel scary at first, so take things at a pace you can handle. Remember, you don’t need to decide your entire future life course in your last term at university. You can live your life a bit at a time.
One good idea is to schedule in some planning time in your diary each month for thinking about what you’d like to do. That should help steer you away from slipping into a rut, while being on a manageable scale.
As a closing note, here are some jobs that you might not have heard of previously, and that would brighten any CV:
- Kitten stroker in animal rescue shelters (yes, seriously…) The kittens need to get used to human company. You won’t get paid for this job, because there’s so much demand for it, but it’s fun.
- Hand model (yes, seriously…) A lot of adverts, documentaries etc need close-ups of people drawing, or playing the piano, and so forth. You can earn a respectable living from this.
- Hair ninja (yes, also seriously…) Some adverts for hair products involve the model’s hair moving artistically across the frame. Some adverts achieve this effect by green screen technology, where people dressed all in green grab the hair and help it move artistically. It’s not exactly a full-time job, but it takes some beating as an opening line when someone asks you about yourself…
This article has focused on positive ways of thinking about the future. I’ll return to some of the topics above, such as deciding what you want to do with your life, and the craft skills of getting a job, in future articles.
There’s more about university life in my books with Marian Petre:
The Unwritten Rules of PhD Research:
Rugg & Petre, A Gentle Guide to Research Methods:
There are a lot of other articles on this site about academic life and education, including topics that students often have trouble with, such as the differences between academic writing and other types of writing. They’re tagged under “education” and/or “craft skills”. We hope you’ll find them useful; if you’d like to see more on some particular topic, let us know via the comments section, and we’ll see what we can do.
Overviews of the articles on this blog: