Help! What Do I Do With My Degree?


Dear CareerDoctor

Help! I don?t know what to do with my degree qualification!


Dear Carolyn:

Whether it?s a bachelor?s, master?s, or PhD, and whatever discipline your brand-new degree is in, you have three broad options on graduation:

  • Find a job which directly relates to your degree

  • Find a job which will attach some value to the knowledge and practical skills you?ve acquired but may not apply them directly

  • Go for something ?completely different?

For many people, the stumbling block is working out which option to investigate in detail. So we?ll start with some questions that you can ask yourself, or talk through with an adviser, a friend, and anyone else you think might understand you, which will help you identify your preferences.

Why did you do your degree?

You may well be asking yourself this question! However, don?t confuse any disillusionment with your last x years of studying with a wider cynicism about science as a whole.

If you aren?t sure whether to pursue a career related to your degree then a good pointer is your reaction to the idea that you will no longer be a physicist/chemist/biologist/insert your own subject here. If you feel uncomfortable or defensive about leaving your scientific training behind then it may be that related careers will suit you better. But if you have no strong feelings, or even feel somewhat relieved at the idea of never having to think about quantum mechanics or genes again, then you may want to use your degree as a general qualification. You won?t be alone--most graduate jobs now ask for a degree without specifying a subject.

If you chose your degree as the first step toward a particular career but now aren?t sure about pursuing it, don?t worry. It is unlikely that you have burnt any bridges given the number of jobs which accept any subject. However, it is useful to identify what has made you change your mind, as this will help you to eliminate similar jobs.

Whatever your reasons it is important to understand how you have ended up where you are now and what you had hoped to get out of it. It?s even more important to understand why your attitudes have changed if you are now looking for new career ideas.

What motivates you?

When were you last really excited, energized, and enthusiastic about what you were doing? Now, is there any way you can relate that to a potential career? (Before we go any further though, is it morally sound and legal? The CareerDoctor would not want to suggest that you devote your energies to a career in stalking celebrities or drinking competitions.) If you seem to spend more time involved in organizing events for student societies than writing up experiments, then maybe you should investigate careers such as event management. And if you?re always the first to volunteer for departmental open days and school visits then maybe a career in scientific PR beckons.

What is your dream job?

Forget about your degree now. If you could do anything on Earth, what would it be? No matter what it is, your dream job can say a lot about your attitudes to work and, when analysed, can give you some pointers to a career. Fancy swimming with the dolphins? Perhaps an environmental career, or one based in the field or overseas, is for you. Or do you see yourself as a real-life Inspector Morse? The appeal might be problem solving, the association with crime (from a forensics perspective rather than as a felon!), or helping people.

If your dream job seems more and more appealing each time you think about it, then maybe this is where your heart lies--which means that it is well worth pursuing. (But please don?t tell your mother that the CareerDoctor told you to start your own band!)

What is important to you?

A key factor in job satisfaction is finding an organization which has a culture which is compatible with your own values. If you are strongly in favor of animal rights, then you may find it difficult to work in drug development since you know it ultimately involves testing on animals. Similarly, if you?re concerned about waste, a job developing packaging may not be for you. Alternatively, you may feel you can best act on these issues by working where you can have a direct impact. Equally, you should think about what kind of working environment appeals to you. Hierarchical? Or high energy? Do you want to be a small fish in a big pond or work ?where everybody knows your name?? Do you want all the trappings of success (car/phone/laptop) or intellectual freedom (not that they need be mutually exclusive)? Identify your own priorities so you can assess potential careers against them.

What are your ambitions for the future?

How do you see yourself at that 10- or 15-year university reunion? Talking about your research achievements? Your latest promotion? The great team that you work with? Your family and the fact that you get to see them for more than a few hours a week? Identify your ambitions and look at careers with a longer view. At this stage you are probably hoping for a job with good prospects, a decent salary, and interesting work. Dig deeper than that. What do you want to achieve through--and outside--your work?

What other issues do you need to consider?

Finally, don?t forget other factors such as geographical mobility, family commitments, language skills, and the labour market itself. If you want to work in Scotland in the motor industry your options will be limited and you may have to compromise either on location or sector. Here again you have to be able to identify your priorities and be ready to sacrifice some of what is less important to you in order to broaden your opportunities where they matter most.

So to summarise, you should think about:

  • Why you did this degree in the first place

  • What has made you consider alternatives

  • What motivates and interests you

  • What you would do if you had complete freedom

  • What are your personal values

  • What you hope to get out of a career in the long term

  • What is restricting your choice

Sadly there aren?t many shortcuts in careers, and the most important decisions need a proper investment of time and thought. Think about these areas and you can begin the process of identifying your preferences. The next stage is to find opportunities that match them, but that?s another story!

All the best in your career!

      The Career Doctor

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