Monday, August 24, 2009

Unsolicited careers advice

One of the things that struck me on my recent trip to Taree, was that high school kids up there are much, much less likely to consider going to uni than their counterparts in Sydney and there is a greater focus on getting a trade. There are no doubt a bazillion reasons for this, which I don't have the energy to go into at the moment, but it struck me that either way it's all arse up.

The approach to What To Do After School is based on social expectations and some vague nod to the subjects kids like at school. Oh, and a goodly helping of What The Parents Do, or possibly Not What The Parents Do. None of this is particularly useful - except conceivably Not What The Parents Do.

So this is my advice to teens considering what next.

The very first thing to consider is that what you choose now is highly unlikely to determine the rest of your life, despite what the Powers That Be would have you believe. I know you've been told this before, but seriously, I hardly know anyone who didn't have some change of tack post-school and I know lots who have had several (like me, for instance).

Still, you need to start somewhere. The important questions are:

Do you want a career or a job?
It's OK to want the latter, but you need to remember that the top "job" incomes will be less than the top "career" incomes. Having said that, there are plenty of careers that pay less than many jobs, so taking the job option doesn't necessarily mean earning less. Ask any academic. Don't dismiss the job path, it might give you more time to pursue unpaid passions.

Do you want to go to uni for its own sake?
Does the idea of lectures, bars, irrelevant politics, and no money for a few years sound attractive to you? Are you interested in uni for the undergraduate life and the stuff you can get out of that? Personally, I had a ball as an undergraduate, and that's a good thing, because realistically that's all I got out of my degree (along with a solid demonstration that I can learn - the primary thing that any degree gives you). I believe that it is an experience worth having, but not everyone does. How do you feel about it? If you are in it for the experience, you might want to consider not taking too much time between school and uni, because it will be a different (although still valuable) experience if you are much older than most of your undergrad mates.

What do you like to do, and more importantly, what can you not stand to do?
I am not talking about what subjects you like here, I mean what do you actually like doing? To give you an example, I love astrophysics, that's why I did a degree in it. However, it turns out I don't like doing astrophysics because I have a short attention span, and I like working with people on a constant basis. You need to consider whether you like doing things that require attention to detail, or whether you are more a "big picture" person. Do you prefer to work on your own or with other people? Would you prefer an active, physically demanding role or a sedentary one? Can you handle other people being stressy around you without getting stressed yourself? Do you get a buzz out of helping people or is it a draining experience for you? I'm sure there is a massive list of things to consider, but the point is, when you are considering What Next, make sure you know what it involves day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute. If there is an element that horrifies you beyond belief, it probably isn't for you, even if the subject matter or some other part seems like your dream come true.

So now it's time to start considering roles. This is genuinely hard - it's difficult to find out about things you haven't had some contact with.

If you answered "yes" to the going to uni question, you don't have to think too hard here. Choose something approximately in the direction that you want to go, and if in doubt, start the generic degree (science, arts, engineering, economics) because it's easier to specialise later than to change from one vocational degree to another. If you are considering a vocational degree just for the undergraduate experience you need to think very hard about where you are going. An economics degree will buy you kudos in most areas of business, however a marketing degree is useful pretty much only for marketing. Of course, a marketing degree is more useful in marketing than an economics degree, so if you are really sure of your direction, go for it.

If your feelings about uni are closer to "meh", then you really need to come up with a bunch of possibilities. The most important thing here is that getting a degree straight out of school is not compulsory. Sadly, a lot more roles demand degrees than actually need them, but that doesn't mean you have to get them straight out of school. If you don't have a passion for the degree process, you might be better off going out and doing some jobs vaguely related to what you want to do. Sticky beak at your mates' lives and jobs and see if you like the idea of their roles. Then when you think you know what you want to do, go back to uni full time or part time.

Then there are trades. These provide a great career/job option. You can make it a career, working up through big companies or running your own business, or you can work for someone forever with no responsibility over and above the trade itself. You can also switch between these two options with relative ease. Trades provide fantastic flexibility and are much under-rated by lots of people. They also provide the possibility of big cash, although it probably won't rival a hedge fund trader.

I'm also going to put in a plug for teaching. It can be done in a range of settings to a range of ages with a range of career/job type options. And it's a critical role in our world. It's also something you can opt into later in life and those generic degrees are most handy for that.

Finally, don't forget you have a life that doesn't relate to paid work. You may not yet have any idea whether you want a partner (or two, or three or - no, that's starting to get bogglingly complicated), and/or children, however it's worth remembering to make time to find out. There's no point discovering that 24 is the ideal time in your life to have kids when you're 33. Or indeed, that you wanted to spend a few years living in London before you settled down with a permanent partner, 5 years after you marry. Put some real thought into your unpaid life as well as your paid one. In the end it's likely to be the one you care the most about.

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