Both during and after university, you’re made to feel you should just know what you want to do with your life.
Often, graduates are forced to restrict themselves to a particular industry when looking for jobs, though doing so may mean making a premature decision you come to regret.
Chris Clarke, a recent graduate from Queen’s University Belfast, experienced exactly that. He completed his undergraduate degree in Ancient History and English in 2013 and, two years later, took on his first full-time job in a completely unrelated role – Web Development.
If you’d asked Chris what he wanted to do as he handed in his last essay at university, he would’ve told you he just didn’t know.
When pressed for an answer, he tells me he would’ve chosen “Teaching, Journalism, the Civil Service… or Tesco.”
For a while, Chris’ default response to “what do you want to do?” was teaching. He says he became so used to people asking “what are you going to do with an English degree? Teach?” that he went with it. He wasn’t really aware of all the options open to him.
Throughout university, Chris coached primary school football sessions, which led him to decide to spend three months working at Camp America when he finished his degree. But it wasn’t long before he knew it wasn’t what he wanted to do as a career. “I enjoyed coaching football, it was good fun, but when I was thinking about what it would be like to be a teacher I was thinking ‘I can’t do that, I couldn’t’.”
He continues, “that’s when I realised, OK, I’ve done a course and there’s no real, defined route for me.”
Come graduation, “there was no real plan”.
Fortuitously, while he was away at Camp America in the months after his degree ended, Chris got an email from his mum about a Postgraduate Software Development conversion course he could do at Queen’s University Belfast. It was a one-year Master’s, open to people with no previous IT qualifications if they could pass an aptitude test. Though a career in Tech may seem out of nowhere following his BA degree, it was something Chris had long been passionate about as a hobby.
After taking ICT at GCSE, Chris became interested in programming, but says “I decided not to continue it on to A-Level, because I was doing better in English and History. So, I sort of buried it.”
Once he’d made that decision, though he continued to pursue programming in his spare time, Chris tells me he assumed – and was told by those around him – that Web Development was off limits to him. Without a formal qualification at A-Level and subsequently undergraduate level, it didn’t seem like something he could do. “It never occurred to me. I just thought Tech employers would only look at you if you have a degree’”. The idea of a conversion course inspired him and ultimately led him to do something he loves.
Chris tells me he’s always been driven by the motto: “If you do something you enjoy, you’ll never work a day in your life.” The difficulty he faced until recently was that he just didn't know what job he would enjoy doing.
On reflection, Chris says the stress of starting a career came from being told he had to pick an industry – from being made to feel he had limited options open to him that didn’t excite him. “You get shoehorned so quickly into such a narrow mind-set of jobs, industries... that there’s no moment when you sit back and realise: ‘this is what I actually want to do’.”
He acknowledges that students and graduates "don't want to turn around and say 'I don't know what I want to do', because, I guess people have a fear of admitting they don't know something... they feel like they have to have an answer."
But if there’s any advice Chris would give to final years or recent graduates it would be to “take some time” to find out what’s important to you. If you "get real life experience" and take the time "to learn more about yourself and figure out what makes you tick" - you'll figure out the job that's right for you from there.
In November 2015, having completed his conversion course, Chris took on the role he has now as a Web Developer. He loves it: “Now, whenever I come to work I don’t mind it – it doesn’t feel like going to work. At the weekends I don’t feel the dread of Mondays and stuff that most people talk about… because I get to go and do something I enjoy every day and learn new things.”
Chris is proof that it's OK to leave university without a plan.
You can find a job you'll really love in the most unexpected and unlikely ways. Equally, there are plenty of grads each year leaving uni with an exact idea of what they want to do - and a few months or years of work experience later, they change their minds. And that is 100% fine too. So, don't ever feel pressured to 'have it all figured out' - if Chris had been forced to commit to a career choice at the end of uni, he wouldn't be doing what he's doing now.