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What’s Next: 5 Steps to Decide what to do after University

by Rob Cross on March 24th, 2010

The BIG Question

There’s light at the end of the tunnel!!

That’s right, University is finally coming to an end – no more lectures and no more books!!

But after so many years of study and enjoying student life, you’re now faced with that one BIG question:

What am I going to do after University?

Damn! Decision time is here again, and this time the decision seems even more important than before.

So, I’m sure you’re wondering; “How do I tackle such a difficult decision?”

Well, I think that the answer to this is what I call tough, but simple. It’s tough because it feels like a daunting decision. But, I think it’s also simple because many students have faced the same decision before, and, I think there’s a simple approach you can take to help – I call it the 5 Steps.

Before looking at the 5 Steps though, it’s important to realise a couple of things:

First, despite what people say the option (or options) you decide on now are not make, or break. That’s right, just because you make a decision now, it doesn’t mean that this is the path you must follow for the rest of your life!

Secondly, and this is something you’ll rarely be told, the decision you make now is only just a starting point for your journey beyond University. That’s right, this is a journey! And as with any journey you never know what will happen along the way, and also you can still change direction whenever you wish.

So ultimately this decision isn’t that big after all…provided you take your time!

What are the Options?

The most obvious options people consider after University are as follows:

  • You could get a job of some kind – good for starting your career or earning some money until the right opportunity comes up.
  • You could volunteer your time with a charity – good for building experience and your CV.
  • You could sign on for another few years at University and continue studying – good for developing greater expertise in a particular area.
  • You could pack your bags and head off travelling – good for gaining some ‘worldly experience’ especially in other cultures.

Whilst this list isn’t exhaustive, in seeking to make a decision about what next, each of these (and any other choice) is completely legitimate…provided you know why you’re choosing it!

How do you choose?

With all the options available, I’m sure you’re now thinking; “that’s great, but how do I choose which is the best one for me?”

As I said, the answer to that question is what I’d call tough, but simple. It’s tough because there is no single right solution – there are many ways to fulfil what you desire! It’s simple because through the 5 Steps it’s easy to define the path(s) that will work for you.

The 5 Steps to help you decide what you would do after University are:

  1. First define what you want – out of life and your career
  2. List all, and I mean all, of the options you have available to you
  3. Review your options against what you want
  4. Define the path(s) of your journey
  5. Identify what next

In following these 5 Steps it is critical to remember that your life and career is just a journey, and whilst there is no single right path, that journey is a marathon and not a sprint! So don’t feel you have to rush and get it right – if you speak to any successful people, they’ll never be able to tell you exactly how they got there. But, they will tell you that it was a journey full of may coincidences and happy accidents.

How to Use the 5 Steps:

To help you use the 5 Steps, let me tell you about Sue. As an Ancient History student, Sue contacted me three years ago in a panic. She had just started her final year at University and was really struggling to know what to do next. “I just feel like I’m running out of time,” she said, “I don’t want to just end up in any job, but I still have no idea what I should do.”

1. First Define What You Want – Out of Life and your Career

The challenge with thinking too quickly about all the options we have is that we start behaving like we’re trying to find solutions without knowing what the problem is!

“What should I do?” I remember Sue asking.

“Well, that depends on what you want your contribution to be,” I replied.

“Contribution?” asked Sue with a blank look.

“Yeh…contribution. What do you want to be remembered? What do you want people to say you contributed to the world?” I answered.

Each of us has a unique contribution to make to the world, which evolves as we progress through the journey of our lives. And whilst these questions are initially quite tough to answer, by asking them, you can start to get to the heart of whom you are as a person, what is most important to you, and ultimately, where you want to go in your life and career.

For Sue, once she had really considered it, her answer was, “I really want to be remembered as someone who made a difference to those around me, especially through helping people to learn new things.”

Against this answer Sue wasn’t too worried about what types of things they would learn, as long as it helped them to be the best they could be at what ever they chose to do.

Although, it did take some thinking and whilst it wasn’t set in stone for the rest of her life, this simple response gave us a really good foundation to work from.

2. List ‘All’ Your Options

When we sat to identify all the options available to Sue, we sought to look at all the possible alternatives, no matter how bizarre they seemed to be. Some of these options included:

  • Train to become a teacher
  • Stay at University and complete a PhD to become a lecturer
  • Seek a job in the training or learning and development field
  • Volunteer to help teenagers develop skills to get a job
  • Start her own charity to help children learn to read and write
  • Become an adult education trainer to help unemployed people gain the skills to join the work force
  • Travel to another country and teach English language skills
  • Travel around the world working with different charity or not for profit organisations focused on helping people build new skills

And there were many more than this!

To identify ‘all’ her options Sue took her time and she spoke to others to understand what they had done throughout their lives, and also what they had regretted never doing.

By looking at all the options, Sue pretty quickly realised that she could fulfil her contribution in many different ways – there were many solutions to this problem!

3. Review Your Options

We then worked through reviewing Sue’s options against her contribution. However, before doing this we first identified a few of her ‘non-negotiable’ criteria. These were things that would help Sue ensure she felt safe and secure in moving along her journey. Her non-negotiable criteria were:

  • She wanted to be financially secure (i.e. have an income which meant she wasn’t worried about how she would pay whatever her bills may be)
  • She wanted to be part of a team rather than doing things solely on her own
  • She wanted variety in what she did (i.e. not just doing the same thing day in, day out)
  • She wanted to travel and not just stay in one location

Using this criteria and then what she defined as her desired contribution, Sue then reviewed all her options. In doing this, she created a simple tick matrix (see tools at www.grad-expectations.com). This allowed her to review her options, but also see how each option was not mutually exclusive – there was not a single right answer, instead she had a form of buffet to mix and match from!

4. Define Your Path(s)

With her ‘buffet’ of options identified, Sue then sought to create a path. Her path involved laying out her potential options on a time-line to see how she could mix and match them to help her feel good about how she was starting her journey beyond University. Some of the elements of Sue’s path included:

  • Volunteering with a charity who helped young children improve their literacy skills
  • Taking a short course to qualify to teach English as a second language
  • Travelling to South-East Asia (somewhere she really wanted to travel to) to teach university students how to speak English
  • Securing a training and development role with a large organisation where she could travel

Through being able to create paths where she could do multiple things at any one time, Sue felt far more confident that she was never tied down to a single option if it didn’t work out. And as a result, she could vary how much of any option she was doing at any one time. This also helped her realise that if one option didn’t work, she could switch to another quite easily without compromising her contribution or non-negotiable criteria.

5. Identify What Next

With her potential paths laid out, Sue then identified immediate actions she was going to undertake. This mostly involved researching about which charities she might work with, identifying short courses to take, and also researching which companies were offering roles that she was after.

Then, Sue did exactly what her actions identified – she got moving on the path she had defined!

So, where is Sue now?

Well, Sue did volunteer with a charity whilst still at University, but ended up not taking the teaching English short course. Instead, through her charity work she met someone who had contacts in South America, who then helped Sue work in multiple different countries for a year whilst doing community regeneration. When she returned home, with all her experience she easily secured a job with a large organisation where she is now required to travel throughout Europe helping employees build their skills and knowledge in particular areas. She has also worked to build that company’s social responsibility programme and occasionally travels to Asia to work with the not for profit organisations it sponsors…and best of all…she loves it!

A last thought…

Now used by Graduates all over the globe, the 5 Steps helps you not only decide what you should do after Univeristy, but it also links your choices and decisions to a higher definition of who you are and what you want from your life. And, by creating this link, it will assist you to be more honest with yourself in choosing where and how you wish to progress on your journey beyond University.

So my question now for you is:

What are you going to do to start your journey beyond University?

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