‘So, what are you going to do with your life?’
The fateful question posed by parents, friends and tutors alike. As the days and weeks go by, it gets more painful to answer with ‘I don’t know’.
The career question has been around all our lives; throughout our school careers we are asked by our elders what job we want to do, but it is only now, at the end of our degrees, where that fantasy takes on a very real presence. Suddenly people everywhere are applying for grad jobs, attending interviews, working on their CVs.
For the currently undecided, all of this is incredibly stressful. One minute, you’re plodding along, writing the odd tutorial essay with regular “Fever Fridays” to look forward to for the near future. The next, you’re thumbing through the Top 100 Grad Employers catalogue wondering just where your childhood went. The career crisis well and truly bursts the uni bubble, where youth recedes into the past, and up ahead lies an office job, a mortgage, and all the trimmings of middle age. But the realisation that your youth is over is only one aspect of the career crisis. The more dominant issue is a practical one: what exactly do you intend to do?
For me, this question led to a harrowing appointment at the careers service, where I was driven to tears by the suggestion that I really needed some kind of ‘plan’ for my future. Because really, where are you supposed to start? Of course, there are numerous career paths out there that are not initially obvious choices. But, in the midst of a career panic, the obvious options can feel bleak. For a humanities student especially, the choice seems limited to finance and accounting, consultancy (which I still don’t get what it is ), a law-conversion, or journalism.
First of all, these are all options which, on the outside at least, feel far too cut-throat for a fragile English-type like myself, combined which the fact that the only interaction with figures I’ve had since GCSE Maths is with page numbers.
And things are difficult for English graduates. There is no specific job title for English like there is for law or science for example- there’s no such thing as an Englisher (Englishist?). Unfortunately, all English students are only well-trained to write critical essays about books, for which there is little demand in the real-world. And of course, creative industries which may attract an English graduate are increasingly underfunded and undervalued.
So, we must branch out, and find something different to be passionate about. But it is hard to find a new dream, especially when, for years of secondary education, uni felt like the end goal. There was no need to look further than those three years of certainty that lay ahead. Maybe the key is to look at what we enjoy, and find a job in the vicinity of that area of interest. But that doesn’t get you very far when you realise that what you really enjoy is drinking with your friends and going to the beach in summer- neither of which is a valid career path.
The belated gap-year is always an option after graduation, made difficult however by the pandemic. Part-time employment is hard to come by, and travel is uncertain. Besides, it’s only really a gap year if it’s a ‘gap’ between two things. If you go into it with no career plan in mind for afterwards, you’re only really embarking on an extended void, otherwise known as the rest of your life.
One solution to the career crisis is further study- You don’t want your degree to be over? Then it doesn’t have to be! Embarking on an extra year or two because of a crisis, rather than as part of a ‘plan’, is popularly known as the ‘panic masters’. But this itself can be panic-inducing: firstly over the convoluted application process, and then over how much it costs.
Ultimately, there is no cure for the career crisis; it is, perhaps, a life-long process. But part of that process can involve the realisation that it’s OK not to want to work a 60-hour week in an office for the rest of your life. It doesn’t make you lazy, or out of touch with reality. Not everyone is suited to a London career in finance.
A wise tutor once said to me that life is like one of those sushi conveyor belts that never stops: we go from a high-pressured school to a high-pressured uni to a high-pressured job, sometimes without a second thought to what lays either side of that path.
There is nothing wrong with not knowing what you’re going to do, but it does take bravery to step out into the post-uni void with that in mind.
With illustration by Miles Sheldon.