14 February 2020 | Career Advice | Guest Author
Trying to work out what you want to do after graduation is a notoriously difficult task. But, contrary to what some might tell you, it doesn’t have to be a commitment to a lifelong career path. Knowing your options is a good place to start, says Sophie Phillipson, co-founder of graduate and student support site HelloGrads, because grad schemes aren’t the only choice.
CBI/Pearson’s 2019 Education and Skills survey found employers felt young people lacked ‘work-readiness’, with two in five reporting they were dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with wider character, behaviours, and attributes and a third disappointed with the level of relevant work experience young people had.
Many will try to bridge the gap between the ‘real world’ and university with a grad scheme. But demand for grad scheme places is incredibly high. According to Oleeo’s 2019 student recruitment survey, acceptance rates onto graduate schemes for finance, advertising and professional services average at 1%, with public sector and engineering only slightly higher than this (2.5%), and retail showing the largest success rates (7%).
What that means is many people pursue other paths after university. Here are four alternatives:
Work for an SME
If working for a megacorp doesn’t appeal to you, then maybe small companies with big opportunities are more your style.
According to research by FSB, SMEs – small and medium-sized enterprises – make up 99.9% of the business population and three-fifths of all employment in the UK's private sector. These include micro-businesses with fewer than 10 people, fledgling startups, long-established businesses well known in their sectors, and fast-growth companies who’ve won investment and have aspirations of being the next ‘unicorn’.
So, focusing your job search on big and prestigious businesses is a real missed opportunity. Not all SMEs will have formal training programmes but you can get a lot more responsibility early on and be coached by senior members of the business. That means you’ll learn a lot and likely far quicker than you would on a graduate scheme.
Not all roles in smaller businesses are well advertised. You might have to look on their social media feeds or websites or do some cold approaches by phone or email to find out what roles are available.
Go it alone
If you have a desirable skill, freelancing can become a career, or it can help you build experience and money.
Self-employment offers hard-to-match perks like the freedom to make your own decisions, the flexibility to work when and how you want, and the recognition for everything you create or achieve. But it can be a lonely lifestyle, with unreliable income.
There are lots of freelancing sites you can upload your portfolio to and find work through, but it’s advisable to start your own freelancing projects alongside more stable work, and to budget very carefully. Some months will be leaner than others, and you’ll need to invest in things like equipment, business insurance and software subscriptions. You’ll also need to build up funds to cover yourself for time off: there is no paid holiday or sick leave in self-employment.
You’ve finally graduated, packed all your textbooks into boxes in your parents’ garage and set your eyes on the future. So, why not do it all over again?!
According to the latest official figures from the Department for Education, the median postgraduate salary in 2018 was £6,000 higher than that of graduates, and the proportion of postgraduates employed in high-skilled roles in 2018 (76.5%) exceeded that of graduates (65.4%).
Some professions, like law, healthcare and architecture, require further studies. But further education doesn’t always mean going back to uni. It may take the shape of short courses to develop expertise, such as learning how to use a certain software or gaining qualifications like a PGCE for teaching or an NCTJ for journalism.
But a warning: what this option should never be is a stalling tactic to keep you busy until you can decide what you want to do for work. Postgraduate courses often involve considerable costs and simply aren’t necessary for a lot of professions, so you need to be clear on how the qualification will help you achieve your goal long before you enrol.
(Career) gap year
After decades in the education system, many want to take a break before jumping headfirst into the ‘real world’ and getting tied down to a location and a job. According to Bright’s What Graduates Want Survey in 2018, only 58% of students surveyed expected to start a graduate job straight after university.
A post-uni gap gear that combines some work and travelling or volunteering roles that offer food and board can be an amazing way to do some good, experience new things and make friends while you do it.
Taking some time out is a lot more than just an excuse to party. You can develop new skills, explore industries you may want to work in, learn a language or even find a fantastic contact in line of work you’ve never considered before.
Also, you’ll get tonnes of stories that you can bring up to all your friends to annoy them. Oh, that reminds me of this one time when I was backpacking through the Andes...