As we talk to a lot of students who are concerned about making the wrong decision or not getting into their 'dream job' immediately after graduating, we wanted to share some of our own careers stories from inside the Careers team. As you'll hear, few of us took a straight road to get here, and most of us have had at least one previous career path.
Before telling a bit of my own story, I wanted to share one or two general thoughts on the whole question of making multiple career moves. The first point to make is that most of us do. You do meet people who've had the same career path or job for the last forty years but it's rarer than it used to be. And even if you do find your dream career immediately after graduating, rapid changes in technology and a labour market that is constantly evolving mean that your dream job may change or even disappear within a few years. Employers increasingly value people who are flexible and willing to learn new skills and adapt to new roles.
Secondly, I've always thought that the way people are channelled into making decisions at specific points - such as finishing school and university - don't really reflect the fact the working out what you want to do is usually a developmental process that happens over time. Even if we do have a passion for a particular career at a particular time, this may change as the nature of the job changes or as our characters, strengths or personal circumstances change. That's why careers advisers talk a lot about focussing on your 'next step' rather than 'the rest of your life'. It's also why we encourage you to dip your toe in the water through work experience or volunteering while you're at university, as it's often through getting involved and doing things that we discover our strengths and what motivates us.
Even as I think about telling a bit of my own career story I'm conscious that it's really hard to know where to start. People like me sometimes encourage you to think about what you wanted to do when you were five. When I was five (and intermittently for a few years afterwards) I wanted to be a nurse. We'll come back to this later, but I realised after a while that being a nurse doesn't just involve being nice to people, it's also useful to be good at practical things and I'm ... not. I did still really enjoy working for a couple of summers before and after my MA as a cleaner in a hospital. Part of the job was serving the patients' drinks, and I had lots of lovely chats with the old folk in the elderly care ward - I even had a proposal of marriage from one gentleman.
I finished my first degree in Modern Languages and English without any clear sense of what I wanted to do. Rather to my surprise, I did know that I didn't want to be a secondary school teacher, as I had learned while being an English Assistant during my year abroad that working with teenagers isn't my natural strength. Which is code for saying I wouldn't last a week in a classroom. I considered applying to the foreign office as that was another obvious choice with a modern languages degree but didn't fancy the thought of telling my Mum I was being posted to some far-flung corner of the globe. Whilst I hadn't got on particularly well with teenagers, I had enjoyed the process of coming up with ideas for activities, so thinking about teaching adults in some way came on my radar too but I didn't really know how to look into the options. As I was already in Higher Education I thought I might like to be a lecturer but without knowing in detail what lecturers did. But - as people were always telling me I was 'very academic' - I thought I'd some further study and aim to be a lecturer. An opportunity came up to go back to France for a year and be a teaching assistant in a university, so I did that before my MA and really enjoyed it.
Fast forward a couple of years. I started on a PhD programme, walked into my supervisor's office at the end of my first year and told him I was going to give it up and become a librarian. I finished the PhD and am still not a librarian, but I did absolutely know by then that I wasn't suited to academic research; I needed more structure and to work more as part of a team. I finished the PhD again without a clear sense of the right way forward for me, but knowing that I had really enjoyed the teaching and student support that I'd done alongside it. I applied for and got a temporary teaching-only lectureship in my research field over in Ireland. Despite some personal disasters such as having to move out of the flat I was living in due to a leaking pipe, mold springing up everywhere and consequently getting very sick with a chest infection, I absolutely loved the job, particularly writing lectures and supporting students in my role as Coordinator for second year students. I definitely realised that I wasn't missing the research aspects of an academic career and therefore realised even more that a longer term academic career probably wasn't for me. Alongside adventures like delivering a lecture in my wellies during a snow drift and sorting out students who had missed their oral exam, I started to think seriously about where I wanted to go longer term. I knew I enjoyed teaching and supporting students individually, and I started to look into roles that would give me opportunities to do more of those things. I remembered sitting next to someone at lunch during my PhD who told me about a friend of his who had left academia and become a careers adviser. I read careers adviser job descriptions and talked to a careers adviser from my old uni about her job. As I listened to her describe it, I realised it did contain a lot of the elements I was looking for from a job.
A little to my own surprise, I decided to take a risk and apply to train as a careers adviser. My family and friends thought I was wasting my academic training (I wasn't, but that's a blog post for another day!). I did the course, got some experience of working with researchers as part of the work placement component and then applied for the job I have now, supporting PhD students and research staff with their career development and the rest is history.
As I look back on my own career story, here's a few things I think you can learn from it:
- look for themes and patterns. As I thought about all the different jobs I'd considered - from nursing to speech therapy to the foreign office - I realised that they all involved helping people in some form or another. I'd just never fully reflected on the fact that that was what I wanted from my career or thought about who I wanted to help or how (if that's you, this blog post might help). Think about the different jobs you have in find and also where you choose to spend your time and efforts and see if you can spot any common themes in terms of what's important to you.
- chance encounters can be significant. If I hadn't sat next to that person at lunch, would I have ever thought about becoming an HE careers adviser
- you can give fate a helping hand. You can increase the chances of useful chance encounters through building networks and getting involved with things you might be interested in. Take opportunities as they come along - you never know where they might lead
- research is still important. If I'd taken the time to properly find out what being a lecturer involves and talk to some lecturers about their jobs, I would have realised earlier that it probably wasn't right for me. You can use Bath Connection to network with Bath alumni working in sectors or roles that might interest you, and ask them questions like 'what do you do in a typical working day?'