Career decisions are daunting, but they don’t have to overwhelm you. Lizzie Maidment discusses some approaches to help you find a path and your swagger.
Share this article
Finding your way can take time and work, but a bit of soul searching might help you make a start towards planning your future. Wanda Hayes, National President of the Career Development Association of Australia (CDAA), breaks it down: “Think about what matters most to you; what interests and excites you; what are the things that come so naturally to you that they feel easy; what do you do that makes you feel most you? Think about your circumstances too: what do you need to have a comfortable life? Use all of this information to make your decision.”
Angst about decision-making often comes from a worry that you’ll regret your choices. But Wanda points out that “regardless of your decision in the end, every experience is useful. Any study you do, and any experience you gain will be useful – even if you later decide to change direction. The only way you can make a mistake is by not thinking about it enough to be sure your decision fits with who you are and where you’re at.” Ultimately, she says, “You build and craft your life; it will have many phases and colours. Enjoy them all!”
For the majority of my life, I wanted a career in Veterinary Medicine. I did work experience and spent years working at my local zoo and local veterinary hospital. I literally tried to sink my claws into everything as animal-related as possible!
Fast-forward to this year and I am undertaking a Bachelor of Communications, majoring in Media and I don’t regret it one bit. Why? In Year 11, I changed my mind about wanting to dedicate my life to animals. Vet medicine is not what I wanted anymore. I felt guilty that I’d wasted all that time pursuing a career working with animals.
Looking back, all that experience was so valuable. It taught me about sticking to tasks for an extended period of time, dedicating myself to something I loved and stepping out of my comfort zone. And I made new friends – all things that have shaped much of who I am today.
The guilt and angst you experience when you change your mind is hard, but relatively short term compared with sticking out an unhappy decision for years to come.
Your inner circle – friends, family, advisors – will inevitably have a lot to say about your study and career choices. Of course not everyone around you will agree or understand your decisions. This can be tough.
Rebecca Fraser (CDAA), advises that it’s ultimately your decision what path you take. “Opinions of family and friends are always important but don’t let them push you in to making a decision that you know is not right for you!” In some cases you may need to make compromises. “It can be hard to defy your parents,” says Wanda Hayes. “If they are insistent, that is part of the reality you have to work with.”
Like we said; this can be tough. But Wanda suggests that you can try to feel reassured that whatever you do will be useful in the life you will build. “Trust yourself to use it to your own advantage,” she adds. There may be a sideways move you can make later to shape things your way.
If you are struggling with it all, Rebecca recommends finding a qualified career professional (the CDAA website is a good start) to help both in the decision-making, and to firm up your feelings about the choice you’re making. “By working with someone that is not connected to you emotionally, and has the breadth of understanding in this space, you have a much greater option of being able to understand how you are making the decision; the tools you have used to make the decision and what works best for you.”
Learning how to explain your decisions and respond to comments will help you feel confident about your chosen path.
Grace was spoilt for choice when she left high school. She got into three of her chosen courses and found herself having to decide between PR, Business Marketing or Science. It is a fortunate position to be in, but as Grace explains, the variety of choice “made my decision a lot harder.” When Grace finally chose PR, she worried people wouldn’t take her seriously.
“I wanted to do it, but I was thinking, what if people look down on me because I only did PR when I could’ve done something like business marketing?” Grace says.
Now she loves what she’s studying and knows that if she takes herself seriously, other people will too. While Grace was lucky to have these options, you can adopt her attitude to any decision-making situation: back yourself.
Give yourself permission to take your choice seriously. If you are resolved about your path, back yourself! It doesn’t matter how it ‘sounds’ to others.
Learning your way.
University is a common pathway for high school leavers, with 1.5 million students starting an undergraduate degree in 2015 (Universities Australia).
If you don’t get into your selected course straight out of high school, there may be ways to apply later. “Your school results just determine what you will do first, after finishing school,” says Wanda Hayes. “If you do any other study at all, at a higher level than school, then those results can adjust or even replace the ranking you received in Year 12… start by studying in a different program that is close to your interests and then have another go, using your further study results.”
Going straight into the workforce can provide a jump on that dream job, perhaps working in a junior position, or working in a related field while also earning cash. Rebecca Fraser says that learning can be the focus, no matter where you end up. “University is not the learning environment for everyone, but learning is important. There are pathways into TAFE, traineeships, apprenticeships and work-based learning if you do not feel moving into the university learning environment is right straight away.”
Uni is great, but it isn’t the only story. Learning happens in a variety of ways, and is life-long.
Getting an edge.
Wanda Hayes tells WinWin that seeking out relevant projects can further your career and make a ‘real-life’ decision about your further education. “A degree rarely gets you a job on its own; it’s the combination of your qualification(s), your experience and your personal qualities that makes you employable.”
It might require a bit of a plan. “If you choose a full-time university degree when you leave school, make sure you get some relevant experience before you graduate. That might include seeking projects to get involved in, taking on a part time job, or doing an internship… or all three!”
Start thinking about how you can round out your education with experience and projects. This will help you feel resolved about your chosen path and add to your CV.
Internships are a great way to try out a career or industry. It certainly helped Jo, founder of WinWin. “I started my career in magazines via an unpaid internship. A few weeks into it, a couple of staff left very abruptly. It was a small business and the impact was huge… it was so dramatic, and very eye-opening as my first professional experience!
“There was an obvious opening, and I was offered a paid position the following Monday. Yep, I’d been working very hard and trying to prove myself… but the job offer would not have come if I wasn’t sitting there in that office, ready and available.
“But be wary,” she urges. “It’s important to understand your rights as an intern, and not be taken advantage of. Internships are supposed to be learning experiences, not just free labour!”
Being in the environment, showing your worth and being an extra pair of hands is an excellent start to being hired when an opportunity comes up.
Taking a break.
Taking some time to make a decision can also help, whether this comes after high school or at some point during or after your degree. A year off doesn’t have to involve an exotic trip. It can also be in the form of simply working and living. Learning about being employed and about supporting yourself is learning about the world. This is a great use of your time.
If travelling is an option, studies show gap years – perhaps volunteering overseas with a reputable not-for-profit agency – can be very constructive, helping students gain skills, get better grades and boost motivation for future studies.
Taking some time and NOT making a decision (just yet) can shift your path and help you find clarity.
Getting yourself un-stuck.
For those in the workforce, it can be easy to feel stuck, whether in a full-time role or a casual job. Sometimes this means settling for less than you might like, by staying in a role that’s not quite right. A job that starts out junior, part time, or seemingly very simple doesn’t have to stay that way; each job has within it opportunities that might not be clear at the beginning. This may mean a change of position within the company, talking to a manager about your options, showing initiative and offering to assist in other areas, or asking for time with others in the company to learn more about their roles. If a job seriously feels like a dead-end, start mapping out an exit strategy, using some of the ideas in this article.
Think laterally. What opportunities exist right now? How can you manoeuvre these into the job or opportunity that you really want?
It can be unsettling when plans don’t eventuate. Rachel admits she was hesitant to start her Bachelor of Science degree because it wasn’t her first choice. “I have wanted to do medicine from a young age, so when the time was right, I started to explore different universities,” she says. “I worked super-hard during VCE, but… fell short of the score. I did, however, receive my second preference, a Bachelor of Science. Looking back now, I’m glad, because I have the freedom to do so many subjects from different parts of the university, which wasn’t the case for the Bachelor of BioMedicine.”
Behind the door of Plan B are unexpected paths. Push through!
Whether it is plan A, B, C or D, decision-making always goes hand-in-hand with a little uncertainty. As Rebecca Fraser points out, “the best thing you can do is let go of the idea that you have to know for sure how everything is going to turn out. Just take it one step at a time.
“All you ever have to decide is what to do next. You never have to decide what you are going to do for the rest of your life!”