A Guide for a Confused Graduate: 5 Tips for Life After Uni.
This piece written by SCOOP UK’s President, Davide, aims to provide a starting point of reflection for those starting to think about ‘life after education’ and what the world of work may hold for them. This is not a bitesized piece nor does it claim to be a factual one. It is wholeheartedly an opinion piece, and reflective in its nature.
Getting a job after uni is difficult. There’s not much guidance and a LOT of expectation that your job needs to ‘justify’ your education. Let me start by laying all my cards out on the table. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted my life after university to be. I have been through the whole process of applying for graduate programmes. In fact, for 6 months of my second year of university, I was obsessed with getting past the application process for different finance firms. When I realised that I did not want to be an accountant or a consultant, I felt a bit lost.
Conversations I had about future careers often left me feeling more anxious than confident. It felt like my identity would be inextricably wrapped up in whatever career I choose. Choose anything financial and I must be immoral and money-driven. Choose politics and I had to be some British political guru. Choose an NGO, and I might be less intelligent or driven than those going to play with the ‘grown-ups’ in the private sector.
I had the fortune of taking time out after uni for myself whilst working part-time as a tutor. For four months, I had time to reflect, slow down, and apply only to opportunities I found that really spoke to who I am. Since November, I have worked for Beam, the 2021 Tech for Good: Technology Social Enterprise of the Year, where I am a caseworker who supports homeless people or people at risk of homelessness into stable work. It is a job that speaks to all my strengths and in which I am really happy. I am not writing this to flaunt, but rather to say I never knew I had this option. I did not have any real support when looking at careers. And thinking of life after uni and jobs stressed me out, A LOT.
Yet, taking a step back and speaking to a lot of my friends who are still at university, I understand now just how little meaningful reflection exists on the subtle existential angst which follows the end of a lifetime of education. This angst has never been more present. In fact, the Careers after Covid report published (13 May) by the organisation ‘Launch Your Career’ revealed that 70% of secondary school students do not know or are unsure about what they want to do for a career when they leave school. Three quarters of students (78%) admitted they are worried about making the right choice of career.
I read a quote by Dr. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and one of the most famous psychologists ever to have lived, that referenced this modern-day feeling of disorientation nicely, noting…
‘..(In life nowadays) no instinct tells you what you have to do, and no traditions tells you what you ought to do; sometimes you do not even know what you wish to do. Instead, you either wish to do what other people do (conformism) or you do what other people wish you to do (totalitarianism).’
Viktor E. Frank, A Man’s Search for Meaning, 1946, p.141
Though written nearly 80 years ago, this quote for me feels more applicable than ever. We live in a world of ever more choice, a world where we are repeatedly told that we can be whoever we want to be. There have never been more routes into the world of work. Yet, this makes it even harder to discern what the right first step may be. And, finding the space and time to think about the future can often feel impossible. Between meeting academic deadlines or balancing all your other commitments, it seems best to leave the future as exactly that, the future.
Yet, by not making space to think, we risk living a life that feels pre-selected for us by our biases and external expectations, a life that fails to be excited by the freedom to explore what a career might hold. So, here are 5 thoughts to keep in mind when thinking about life after uni or any form of education for that matter.
1. Take a breather from the ‘unspoken rat race’
How do most students start thinking about careers?
This was me. Oh shit, people have started applying for work after uni. Let me start too. My dad said consulting sounds cool, let me do consulting. Type in ‘Top 10 Consulting Firms to apply to’ in Google. Add to the to-do list. Bang, worry over.
And I know I am not the only one. Most of us add applications to our weekly to-do lists and start acting on them as we would on any other university work. Our week becomes ‘write that essay and send off those two applications’, and we get the buzz of progress when we get it done without really reflecting on what that progress is.
Moreover, the job market is built to favour those at university who make a career choice as soon as possible. School Leavers Programme, First Year Insight Days, Second Year Summer Internships, Vacation Schemes, Graduate Programmes, the list goes on and on. It feels like waiting and reflecting on what you want will mean you ‘lose out’. Rather, those who have it all figured out seem like they are always two steps ahead.
So, first piece of advice, is stop. Take a moment, even just for the next ten minutes, to put a pause to that race.
2. Focusing on the here and now
‘The only place where we can exercise our freedom of choice is in the present.’
Edith Eğer, The Choice, 2017, p.173.
In a sense, you have to start by accepting that there is no ‘figuring everything out’. The average person will have 12 jobs during a span of 32 years. A third of people completely change fields since their first job after college. Accepting the fact that you don’t have control of the next 10 or 20 years is the first step to accepting ownership of the present. The here and now. The next 2 to 3 years. There is no point putting all your eggs in one basket or trying to convince yourself that whatever job you do now can be justified by the fact that it will make you happy at 30 or 40. Let’s start with the fact that it is impossible to know what your career at that point will look like then. Your career will most likely be a result of a series of insignificant decisions compounded on top of one another. So, your best bet is to focus on what will fulfil you right now. Keep doing that with the viewpoint of always feeling fulfilled in what you do in the present.
3. Recognising the anxiety that exists in too much choice.
Focusing on the present leads us nicely onto the idea of choice. Nowadays, we are surrounded by endless possibilities.
What does the human brain do when faced with this much choice? It starts to limit options as a coping mechanism. And it leans heavily on our biases. We are especially prone to this when selecting a career. We close opportunities off in order to feel stable again. I cannot be a journalist, I’m not really that good at writing under pressure or politics sounds interesting but I have no idea where to start. Just like that, we start closing potential pathways. The same mental processing is the reason why most people go shopping just to end up with a shirt or dress that is a slight variation of something they already own. When faced with uncertainty, we seek familiarity and certainty.
4. Accepting the internal and external pressures of life.
Accepting that choice can be overwhelming and that we react a certain way when faced with too much choice, the next factor that surrounds our decision-making is pressure.
Dr. Edith Eger, a world-renowned psychologist specialising in correcting self-defeating behaviour and trauma, states that self-defeating behaviours and the decisions that result from them stem from the need for one of the A’s: approval, affection, and attention.
As deeply social animals, we are immersed in a need for three A’s from the minute we are born. Our father, mother, partner, cousin, best friend etc. all want us to be a certain person. The expectations they level at us are always there, sometimes implicitly, sometimes overtly. We can ignore that pressure, but subconsciously it influences a lot of what we do. What clothes we wear, what music we listen to, what sustainable beliefs we have and in the case of this blog, what sort of career we want to have. When faced with choosing a career alongside the other thousand decisions we have to make in life, we seek out ‘idols or role-models’ to follow.
‘Oh I will do [insert] because my cousin does [insert] and she loves it’
‘Oh my father did [insert] after uni and said it opens a lot of doors for him’
‘Oh that fast talker in the year above me got into [insert] and said it was amazing, and I always admired that girl, let me do that’
The risk of such an approach is that ultimately that decision is a choice not driven by an internal reflection of who we are, but rather an external assessment of who we should be. And there’s only so much time before it will conflict against the person we actually are deep down. It explains why some of the best and brightest drop out of grad schemes after only one or two years completely disillusioned with the career they thought they had chosen. And this by no means goes to assume that everyone who chooses this sort of career is not fulfilled. I’m sure many in fact are. But often in conversations about these jobs and why people are motivated to apply, you hear a combination of expectations, future aspirations and external pressures.
5. Buy into dreams, not brands
Before we turn to speak about how one can face external pressures, a tangential point is that external pressures are not just from THAT family relative or friend, external pressures for us, the ‘Gen Z’ generation, are all around us. Companies (hereby, renamed as BRANDS) such as Amazon, Apple, McKinsey, BCG, Bain, Blackrock, Sidley Austin, Clifford Chance, the list goes on and on, spend millions each year making such that their messaging is at the forefront of graduate minds the minute they think of a career.
Evidence of this is in the fact that so often, you hear someone say, ‘That person just got into [insert BRAND] and you subconsciously think ‘Wow, that person must be a genius’. We attribute such value and significance to BRANDS, that we elevate them onto pedestals as landmark careers that we should all aspire to.
In fact, entire recruitment/marketing departments at BRANDS are dedicated to ensuring that their application processes are the paths of least resistance. Institutionalised by years of competitive education to seek out tests with scores and marks to validate effort, we are so accustomed to the graduate application model; easy-to-follow-steps, plenty of resources to help us prepare, and a sense of competition and achievement as we progress through each round.
Compared to spending 6 hours researching our passions, we can send off 10 applications to jobs in BRANDS whose messaging we implicitly respond to. Roles at BRANDS are advertised with reference to language that talks about ‘making an impact’, being a ‘game changer’, being someone who loves ‘solving problems’. Subconsciously, it is hard not to react in an affirmative way to such language. Yes, I do want to learn the skills these jobs promise. Yes, I do feel I would like to embody their ‘values’. Yes, I do want to work for a ‘respected’ firm. Implicitly, we respond to the signposting that to get past all the different stages, you had to be an ‘exceptional’ person.
As a result, nearly everyone ends up applying for positions in BRANDS which in truth, are only suited to the traits of a very small handful of applicants. The idea that over 10,000 people can apply for one position at Goldman Sachs or Bain is more a reflection of the power and prestige these BRANDS have in society rather than a reflection of 10,000 people concluding that investment banking or consulting is actually the best career for their skill sets or values. This is why most people send off 50 applications and come up entirely empty handed. Or, they end up spending 20 hours trying to write 10 lines on a cover letter explaining why they think they would be suited for a certain job at a certain BRAND.
Failure can be more a reflection of the fact that deep down your heart wasn’t really into it.
We often get told failure is just a result of not enough work. That if you get 50 rejections, you should just work 10 times harder next time round to get that ‘all important’ break. But, sometimes, it is important to just go back to the drawing board entirely and think about what made you decide to send off those 50 applications in the first place.
Ask anyone who has found a job that truly jumps out at them, and a cover letter or CV writes itself. There is no need to spend three days trying to rewrite one sentence, so it conveys the fact that ‘you are ambitious, but well-rounded, analytical but insightful, extroverted but data-driven’ and just for it to be rejected in the end at CV screening because it sounds painfully rehearsed.
Summary: Make sure to make space for yourself, even if it feels uncomfortable.
Okay, so there are all these pressures but how can you respond to these pressures without getting swept up with them? Spending time alone.
We are so deeply institutionalised to rarely be given time alone. Starting from primary school, you are surrounded by a cohort of people your age. Perhaps you have the privilege of being able to take a year out post-school. But most people just go straight to uni without a break. 15 years or so of having everything mapped out in front of you. No real choice in education until the age of 16. No real reflection on who you are deep down as an individual. Your self-worth is implied to be solely a product of your academic results and the university you manage to get into, rather than whatever weird and wacky talents you may have. (For example, maybe you’re highly emotionally intelligent, a trait not measured at school but which might mean you will rise quickly within a company compared to somebody who got straight A’s but is difficult to work with.)
A product of this institutionalisation is that we become drawn to the implicit safety that comes with being surrounded by people all doing the same thing. Maths A Level sure is boring but at least I get to spend time with my best mates. Having everything chosen for you is in some sense, liberating. You have your time to mess around, you have clear targets in exams that are always ahead of you, and drama fills up the rest of your week. As humans, we love a clear routine. Similar sleep patterns, predictable tasks to do, and a clear sense of structure. In fact, already at university, we encounter so many more mental health difficulties as a result of extreme tiredness and anxiety that comes with the dread of having to try to balance studying, a social life, hobbies and a job without any formal structure to hold us.
No wonder then, that by the time a graduate programme comes round, there is something deeply appealing about having a two or three year training period where, in a sense, we return to a school-level form of structure. And perhaps in our rush to follow the crowd, to feel ‘held’, to regain predictability, we can forget that the future suddenly is actually ours to choose. We do not need to get a full-time job straight away. Rather, having a time to rest, recover, get a part-time job and think (even just for a few weeks or months) can help us find out so much about ourselves. And this can co-exist even when we need to find a job urgently because of financial pressures, though clearly financial pressures can make finding that space to think harder.
Overall, the reality of life in a society which prioritises productivity is that if we do not make space for ourselves, we can live our whole life on a set path. We can get swept up in the rush of hitting targets and defining our self-worth based on our achievements that we miss the point of being free and having choice. Swerving off the lane feels uncomfortable, yes, it can even feel as if we are remaining stagnant whilst everyone is moving forward, but it gives us the opportunity to discover who we actually are.
I was once like you are now
And I know that it's not easy
To be calm when you've found something going on
But take your time, think a lot,
Think of everything you’ve got,
For you will still be here tomorrow,
But your dreams may not.
Yusuf/Cat Stevens, ‘Father and Son’ (1970)
Why not give yourself time and start by writing down all the possible careers or futures you can imagine for yourself and then give yourself time to breathe and live each of those potential pathways even just for a short while. Research, read, write, reflect, slow down, wind down, accept that no choice is perfect, but recognise also that the choice is firmly within you and your reflective capacity. Be critical of the straightforward path and anyone who seems to have life ‘figured out’.
So, to return to the idea of meaning and finding your own path, that is yours and yours alone to find. There is no point for me to tell you, ‘go for a social impact career, it will be the best choice you ever made’ , because frankly, that may be entirely wrong. Perhaps, it is not the one for you. Perhaps you are an aspiring actor, an articulate lawyer, a fantastic accountant, an awesome salesperson or a caring teacher. But finding the time to just be with yourself, and hear your own voice, now that is something that we should all aspire to. I will leave you with this quote and a strong recommendation to read Frankl’s book if you have not already.
‘Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!’
Viktor Frankl ‘A Man’s Search for Meaning’, p.145.
P.S. Please share this if you found it useful and if you in any way disagreed, please get in touch. It would be great to open up the blog to different voices and opinions about ways to approach ‘life after education’. We will be starting a series of blogs at SCOOP which are centred on this topic as well as publishing resources that we hope will help any sustainably-minded (or non sustainability-minded for that matter) graduate navigate the rocky terrain of life after uni. And get in touch if you want some direction for what books to read in helping you find space.