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  • Louisa Plint

What to do with your life...?

At the best of times this is a daunting world to live in, even if you disregard the impending political nightmares that peer over the end of the bed each night, or the ominous talk of climate change, or even the ever increasing price of avocados. Yes, this world is scary most of the time, this is ever more present given the dreaded 'C' word, which has wreaked havoc with our lives for almost two years now. And if you can ignore all of the obvious things to be worried about, it is extremely difficult to get past that ever terrifying voice in your head that makes you wonder not only what you should do with your life, but also whether all the things you are already doing are right at all. As we round off another year and look to the future, it's a common time to start career planning.

In fact, the pandemic gave us a taste of working a different way, from being fully remote or unexpectedly furloughed. It showed what employers were made of and the varying degrees of support for staff throughout the pandemic. It gave some of you time to think about what you want to be doing, or others were so busy and overworked that only now is that time coming.

We've witnessed the start of "The Great Resignation", a "War for Talent" and now the "Stay Interview" - sounds dramatic - and for some employers it is (more on that elsewhere) but this article is focussed on finding your career path, identifying what you 'want to do' and ways to work what that is out. To be clear, this is not meant to give you a panic attack, or an existential crisis. And it isn't as bad as it seems, though that's easier to say than to believe.

So if you're going to have any chance of avoiding the ever present freak out about your career, you have to think about what is actually going to fit with you, pay you, and god-forbid all goes to plan, make you happy.

We want to offer a helping hand with your career change or career planning. A few simple steps that can help you narrow down the many many many options out there so you might just end up being one of those lucky people who gets paid to do something they actually enjoy. Shocking I know!

Here's the first steps to finding your future career match...

Step 1. Self Assessment... no, not the dreaded tax form...

It can be challenging at the best of times to get an objective view of who you are, what you want, and what your skills are. Of course that doesn't have to always be the case, and as long as you don't try to look at every part of you simultaneously, and with some grand existential eye, it doesn't necessarily have to be tough.

There are a few simple questions you can ask yourself to start finding an answer.

  1. What were your favourite subjects at school? Maybe there is something that relates directly to those experiences? Of course, you do need to consider the possibility that the teacher was just really nice, but it could be an excellent starting post.

  2. What subjects were your best? Yes, education can seem shortsighted, and restrictive at times. But there are so many ways your skills from education can lead into a far more adventurous future and what isn't focussed on in school is to do what you're good at. This is important for future careers so take stock now.

  3. Consider how you learn, and how you work. Are you the number-cruncher? Perhaps you love to write? Are you collaging and painting every weekend? And if you have a passion, do you want that to be part of your career, or something for the weekends? (Don't forget to include this passion in your CV too - it can tell a future employer a lot about you).

There are a ton of resources online, and offline, that can help you find the answer. Whether it's standard personality questionnaires, or specific career surveys, there are many options out there to narrow things down. Choose your source wisely and avoid Buzzfeed if you can. The science isn't that great behind those ones...

Step 2. Start a list... and then cross things off.

Once you've worked out what you're good at, the next thing is start to looking at what you might like... and this means lists. I know, I know!

Of course, there are guides galore for lists of careers, but the tedious part is you're going to have to find out what they all involve. Maybe you already have a 'dream career', or more than one even, but if not, check out the careers hub for your university, or one of the many careers advice websites for a bit of insight into all the options. The Careers Service covers an extensive list of careers, what they involve and average salaries for these too.

The other advantage of all the online resources, is that if you find a job you might like, you can then check out the likes of GlassDoor for some really clear information about salary ranges, and reviews from some of the companies out there. Although reviews tend to major on the negative, it's a great way to find out how Could it be more simple?

Step 3. Whittle, whittle and whittle some more...

So the next step is to start narrowing down the options until you have a manageable list. Aim for two-5 options. The shorter the list the better. During this process, you might like to focus on things you don't want to do. It's much easier to work out what you don't like than what you do. And if you're lucky, you'll find yourself with a small selection of really good options!

And if you can keep an idea of what sort of qualifications you might need to do each of the options, you can start thinking realistically about your future without getting depressed when you discover you don't have a Neurotechnology PHD!

Step 4. Strategy is everything...

So you know who you are (besides all the ongoing insecurities we don't want to talk about), you know what you can do, you know what you actually might want to do. Boom. Simple? Well, sort of. If only it was as simple as picking one.

Now you need to have a think about how you're going to get there. Dull for sure but the devil is in the detail. Planning your career moves makes the whole process easier. Remember this: nothing is ever going to go to plan, but have an idea of where you want to get to - and you'll find your way there! And it will minimise distractions from shiny objects too.

So maybe make a spreadsheet, a mindmap, a timeline, a gantt chart... or whatever suits you. Work out if there are things you have to achieve before you can start the first role. And have a look at the timelines for success. There are some roles that are inherently long term, and some that you can create your own timeline for. And there are roles that are particularly difficult to progress in, not because of skills and experience, but rather a clogged career path. As an example, becoming the editor of a large magazine is difficult, not because you can't learn, or start the path, but the roles tend to be filled for a very long time by the same person, and progression depends on their departure. Think Anna Wintour...

And the last thing. Talk to people. There are a ton of people in jobs, I mean, literally billions of them, so go out there and meet with the people doing the thing you think you want to do. You might just find out it's not as fun as it seems.

Just remember... nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it, and there isn't one career choice per person. You have plenty of options, and even if things change, or you discover you were wrong, you can always go back to Step 1 and start your career planning again. It isn't failure, it's just improvement! Look at what transferable skills you bring from your background and experience and forge your career path.

(This post was originally posted in 2019 and updated in December 2021).

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