Leading up to September, many thousands (possibly millions) of learners in the UK and around the world will be making decisions around which field of study to pursue in college or university. For learners going through the clearing process in the UK around August, the pressure increases slightly as quick decisions are required around career and institution.
I suppose it’s easy in the heat of decision making to think along the lines of “Well, it’s just a course, it’s not my life.” But is it? The degree or programme you choose ultimately decides your initial employment opportunities. Then once in a job, your employment and daily routine of employment influence your livelihood, wellness and general happiness. Through a couple of quick Google searches it seems generally accepted that around 30% of adult life is spent working. So in many respects that qualification isn’t just a qualification, it becomes a large aspect of your life.
I suppose the other reason I feel passionately about this is because finding the right career can largely be an expression of who you are. An extension of your true self applied daily to your tasks. Getting into the wrong career on the other hand, can be somewhat oppressive. Expression vs oppression. That’s why the choice is so big.
Thinking back on some of my own experiences, and having worked within education providers for a number of years, I thought I’d put a few thoughts down on this to help young people make the right choices.
Specifically, I want to highlight some of the mistakes you can easily make when looking for a career path. There are four very clear potential mistakes.
Basing your decision entirely on passion
It’s important to feel strongly about what you do. Some people are lucky enough to have a real deep rooted passion for their career choice. But passion for a certain path can blind you from some glaring issues.
Like all decisions, choosing a career needs a combination of the rational and the emotive. Underwater basket weaving might be your thing, but the real world demand for this profession should be a guide to your thinking. That, and maybe the lack of underwater weaver millionaires out there.
Passion is a dangerous beast. Not only because it can cloud your judgement, but because it can be very temporary. It can burn out. Be extinguished. Die.
A better rule to follow is probably more along the lines of what you’re actually good at and weighing that up against demand. It’s about finding that sweet spot between three things — what you can do well, whether there’s actual opportunities in it, and whether you can tolerate doing it for years.
Even if you don’t necessarily love a certain vocation, if you’re good at it this builds confidence. In my experience confidence is an important part of long term happiness. And of course, if you’re good at something, rising to the top of that field is a little easier.
Doing it because others are
I suppose I made this mistake in some ways. I went into university studying an accounting degree — with the aspiration of becoming a chartered accountant. This decision becomes more absurd to me as the years pass.
In my high school in Port Elizabeth, South Africa around the early 2000’s there was this weird popularity around chartered accounting. I use the term “weird” because it’s strange to look back now at how many young people felt accounting was what they wanted to do with their lives. No offense to accountants.
Maybe it was because we didn’t know what the hell else we wanted to do, so it became a bit of a default for many. Maybe because the hallowed title of chartered accountant, although far off on the horizon, was a promise of a hefty salary and lifestyle we dreamed of. Consequently the term “chartered accountant” was always a revered one.
I was lucky enough to be able to switch degrees after one semester to something I was far more interested in — marketing. With a clever enough re-shuffle of modules I was still able to finish within three years. Some aren’t so lucky, and the process of changing qualifications can cost an entire year. That’s an entire year of earnings potential, job experience etc.
The bottom line is that following the crowds is never a good idea. Particularly with career choice. This is one time in your life where you really do need to think as an independent individual. Who are you? What’s right for you? What your mates are doing shouldn’t come into the equation at all. In a few years they may not even be your mates anymore.
Friendships that have run their course can be discarded easily. Bad career choices stick with you a little longer.
Getting into a career without a solid understanding of it
I had a friend in my first year of university who started studying law. But he just didn’t seem the type. As the year drew one I could tell he liked it less and less. Eventually he just dropped out of it, and started year two in a completely unrelated field. Talking to him over a few beers one night I realised just how misinformed he was.
His idea of being a lawyer was the glam courtroom stuff you saw on Law & Order, or LA Law or something like that. You know, the hotshot attorney making impassioned, eloquent arguments in front of a jury and packed courtroom.
I couldn’t believe it — how could someone be this naive? Maybe because my own father was an attorney, I knew what it was and what it certainly wasn’t. But even if that weren’t the case, I’d surely know that the legal profession is largely an unglamorous one, filled with paperwork, contracts and documentation.
Due diligence is key here — excuse the appropriate legal term. It’s more important to see the gritty underside of a certain career rather than the glamorous public idea of one. The internet should have all of this if you search well enough. Even better would be using your networks to talk to people in roles. And don’t ask them what they do, ask them what a typical day looks like.
Asking someone what they do is like asking for a highlights reel. Asking what their typical day looks like will get you closer to the good and the bad. The exciting and the mundane
The nature of “work” and its roles within society is changing quicker than ever before. That is such a clichéd statement, I can’t believe I wrote it. It’s always been a bit of a given. But Covid is changing the way we interact with the world, and each other — particularly in the work space. On top of all this, technology continues to surge forward, embracing AI, crypto and all kinds of new technologies — some gimmicky, some no doubt here to stay.
When I studied marketing around 2004/2005, the term “social media” literally didn’t exist. Blackberries, now outdated and uncool mobile phones, were still just fruit, and nothing else. Facebook didn’t exist. Twitter was still just the sound of birds chirping. SEO, Apps and content marketing? What on earth is that?
In the space of 15 years, I’ve seen the concept of marketing become something completely different. The great digitisation of marketing has led to the emergence of a number of new job titles, roles and careers. In other industries job titles have disappeared. What are compilers of the old yellow phone books doing nowadays?
The internet is full of trend reports on careers — what’s becoming obsolete and what will come into higher demand. And as with everything in life, even if you don’t follow the road signs, make sure you take note of them. Who knows, those two skills you’re really good at could be key in a trending or high potential career route.
Even taking all the above into account, you could still make the wrong decision. And that’s ok. It really is. A study from a few years ago in the UK suggested that half the working population in the UK are in roles unrelated to their field of study.
It’s life after all, and nobody should be wedded to a career forever if it’s not working for them. Sometimes you learn most by making wrong decisions. But in your first ten years of work, it really does help if you’re doing something you’re good at.
And if you’re going to spend good money and valuable years going through college or university, it might as well be worth it.