Finishing university can be both an exciting and a daunting prospect. While many new opportunities and adventures begin to appear on the horizon, so too does the unsettling prospect of an immense life change, and the anxieties that go with it.
For me, about to begin the penultimate term of my Bachelor's in English Language and Literature at Oxford University, the end of my degree is fast approaching – and with it, the pressure to decide what to do next!
The traditional route is to find a job. This is the approach taken by most graduates. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), in the U.K., 56 percent of students with undergraduate degrees went on to full-time employment after graduating between 2017 and 2018.
I spoke with Krishi, a final-year law student, about her post-graduation plans. She's always known that she wants to be a lawyer. But, as spots at top law firms are rare and incredibly competitive, she's had to be on the ball since the start of her degree, enrolling in relevant extracurriculars, gaining work experience, and keeping track of big firms' hiring deadlines – on top of gaining the top grades that she'll need.
For Erin, another final-year law student, the trajectory from degree to career is less obvious. "While I'm really interested in human rights law and am applying to several firms specializing in this," she says, "my career goals are less defined by profession. I'm more influenced by a desire to help people and drive change in the world." As a result, Erin is applying for a range of jobs alongside human rights law, including within nonprofits and the Civil Service.
Fortunately, at Oxford, there's lots of help available for those taking their first career steps. The careers service sends regular emails to students regarding upcoming events and opportunities, organizes careers fairs, which are attended by a variety of employers, and even runs a platform advertising internships during vacation times, as well as graduate job opportunities.
Not all students, however, are so fortunate. Alice, who attends a university in the Midlands, told me about the lack of events organized by her university’s career service, which she feels has led to many missing out.
I also spoke with Luke, at a university in the South East, who complained about the lack of sector diversity at his university's careers fair. "I noticed that most of the stalls were run by the big banks, law firms and private schools," he told me. "That's great if that's what you want to do, but so many students want to do something else, and there's nothing for them there."
Postgraduate study is another popular route taken by many university leavers. Research from the Unite Foundation shows that 743,000 students enrolled on postgraduate courses in the U.K. during 2020/2021. This option is attractive to those who want to explore their current subject further, or who want to change their direction of study.
Sara, who's in the final year of an undergraduate humanities degree, really enjoyed researching and writing her dissertation, and has applied to a Master’s program where she'll be able to continue her research. Meanwhile, Louis, a French and philosophy student, has decided to apply for a law conversion degree when he finishes his studies. After attending some careers events, he realized that his true passion was for the law, and decided to change tack slightly to achieve his dream job at a top law firm.
Others are already thinking beyond their Master's degrees, and see a future for themselves in academia. Okasha, a third-year physics student, who is already enrolled on an integrated Master's course, plans on completing a PhD and subsequent post-doctoral experience, with a view to working in academic research.
Continuing to pursue education can allow you to specialize further, gain necessary qualifications for jobs, or make a career out of research. But this route also comes with pitfalls. Many students joke about the "panic Master's" – in other words, enrolling on a Master’s course in order to delay making a decision about their career.
There's also funding to consider. While scholarships, bursaries and sponsorships are available, many students are put off by the thought of taking out additional loans and adding to their already-high debt.
Gap years are also a popular choice. I spoke with Nicholas, who intends to travel for a year. "As I see it," he told me, "this is the best opportunity I have to take time out and see the world before I start a corporate job and taking a sabbatical becomes more difficult – and potentially harmful to my career."
Others discussed taking time out after graduation to recover from "degree burnout," and wanted to take a break to recoup their mental health, before focusing their full attention on getting a job.
But a gap year doesn't always have to be about travel. Harish, who has a place at graduate medical school, worked at a pharmacy after his Master's degree. "I figured it would be helpful to apply to medical school with some experience in the field, to make my application more relevant," he explained.
For others, a gap year can mean a mix of both travel and work. After completing her English degree, Sophie intends to take a "working gap year," teaching English abroad to build experience and knowledge while she figures out exactly what she wants to do career-wise.
There are certainly plenty of options to choose from after graduation. But how do I decide what route I want to take? While postgraduate study sounds interesting, I've decided that the most fulfilling option for me will be to get a job and start building my career.
Although this might sound relatively straightforward, the practicalities of searching for a job as a recent graduate are anything but simple.
My obvious first step was to figure out exactly what I want to do. Many people have a clear idea of their "dream job" and the career trajectory they need to take to get there. I'd always assumed that, by the end of university, I'd be a part of this group, with a clear objective and plan in place. But, during my studies, I realized just how rare it is to have a concrete idea of what you want out of your career at this stage in life. In fact, research shows that 44 percent of students worldwide don't know what they want to do after they graduate.
It's liberating to know that the uncertainty I feel isn't unique. In fact, I decided to make it a source of empowerment. It's OK not to know what my job title will be in 10 years' time. And, in fact, this mindset has allowed me to explore a whole range of career paths and possibilities.
I do at least have a clear idea of the type of work I enjoy – something where I can engage my creativity, use my writing skills, work in a vibrant and social environment, and potentially travel or relocate abroad later.
With these key requirements in mind, I began by listing a variety of sectors and roles that I thought I'd enjoy working in.
Next, I put together a résumé that would stand out, added all my most important experience and certifications, and made sure that everything was well-presented and engaging.
Then, I looked online at jobs that fit my interests, spoke with contacts who already work in the industries I'm interested in, and did some research on specific organizations and job roles. This helped me to gain a pretty good idea of the type of experience I'd need to gain before applying for a full-time role.
The problem is that gaining relevant experience isn't straightforward. Internships are a particular sticking point. Living in a small rural town with limited internship opportunities, I was faced with having to commute to London for several hours daily – a difficult prospect financially, given the very limited pay of internships – while also ensuring that I still had time to study.
With that in mind, I looked for opportunities that I could do during term time that would add relevant experience to my résumé, such as writing for student publications and joining the committees of student societies. I was also able to secure valuable opportunities to work remotely in fields that interest me, gaining corporate experience without being limited by finances and geography.
The next step was applying for jobs. Many employers offer graduate schemes. But these tend to be highly competitive and often require several rounds of examinations and interviews. Your success is also dependent on the grade you achieve at the end of your university course.
One scheme I've applied to is the British Government's Civil Service Fast Stream. It's pretty intense, requiring five rounds of online assessment. Unfortunately, the Stream also has a very low success rate. In fact, only 1.8 percent of applicants were offered places on the scheme in 2021. Although this is a bit daunting, I've found that the best approach to such recruitment processes is to treat them as a "learning curve." Even though you may not get offered a place, you’re still learning about what graduate recruitment tests look like, which can help you improve your ability to complete these kinds of tests and understand what might be expected of you during similar recruitment processes.
Getting a graduate job is another option. Recruitment for these is often based on practical experience rather than exam results. Furthermore, as Charlie Benson, writing for Gradtouch, explains, "Graduate job options are more varied"; and, "There are more of them." However, the major downside of going straight into a graduate job is that pay is often lower and career progression slower than in graduate-scheme roles.
In both cases, securing a job is far from plain sailing for most graduates. Research shows that 96,000 U.K. graduates face unemployment each academic year. In addition, graduate job applications in the U.K. increased by 41 percent in 2022 compared to the previous year.
These figures paint a concerning picture, showing that more and more graduates are competing for jobs. This means it's imperative that you do what you can to set yourself apart from other graduates. It's no longer enough to hold a degree from a good university; you need to have secured internships and work experience, and have evidence of participation in extracurriculars, to make yourself stand out.
In fact, as I looked through job postings on the internet, I couldn't help but notice that an increasing number of jobs that are advertised as "entry level" require several years of industry experience, often within an incredibly specific field. This begs the question: how can a student who's been in full-time education up until this point hope to secure a graduate job when such jobs demand years of experience?
While it's easy to get overwhelmed by such obstacles, it's also important to remember that, with the right drive and determination, everything will likely work out eventually. I remember speaking with students in previous years who were anxious about securing jobs after graduation, and in every case – though it may have taken time and lots of hard work – every one of those students now has a career that they enjoy.
It's also important to note that, while it's great to have a specific career plan in mind, it's equally OK to take some time trying out different jobs while you're young, until you find something that you truly enjoy and can see yourself doing in the long term.
While I wait to hear back from graduate schemes, and begin to apply for graduate jobs, it's a time of mixed feelings. I'm excited to start the next phase of my life, hopefully starting a new job in a new city and meeting new people. But I can't help but look back with some sadness at the thought of leaving the university, the city and the people I've grown to love over the past few years.
While deciding what to do after university can seem stressful and overwhelming, it's also an incredible opportunity to take control of your future, and shape your career and life goals in a way that you find fulfilling, enjoyable and exciting.
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