“I don’t know what I want to do”

It’s probably the most common phrase we hear at the Careers Service, and something we’re more than happy to help you with, but …

The Big Careers Secret
A careers adviser can’t tell you which job you should do

The idea of a careers adviser being able to pick out the right job for you harks back to the days of a limited number of clearly defined “suitable roles” for a graduate – teacher, civil servant, doctor, lawyer, engineer, chemist. It also dates back to a time when students were prepared to follow a conventional career path, with the promise of a pension at the end of a long, predictable career.

Real students in the University of Manchester Students Union ... I couldn't believe it either!!!Now there are thousands of niche or specialist jobs to choose from, but you don’t expect to stay in one job or with one employer for very long. No-one can know about all those jobs, neither a careers adviser, nor you.

So, how do you choose?

lightbulbIf you haven’t had that “lightbulb moment” where your ideal career revealed itself to you, the temptation is to wait for inspiration, or think you can’t do anything to progress your career.

I’d suggest that a better approach is to:

  • Find a job which is a reasonable starting point – it doesn’t have to be perfect, just something you’re going to learn from and you’ve got the basic requirements for.
  • Learn from the experience – what do you enjoy, what do you dislike?
  • Pick up some skills and achievements along the way – get some good material to add to your CV.
  • Then, find another job which is closer to what you now know you want.

The grand experiment

Treat your career like a grand experiment, constantly testing out your theory of what you might want to do or might be good at, observe the outcome of any jobs you have a go at, refine the experiment and try again.

I can’t claim ownership of this “grand experiment” idea – it’s included in a great blog post from Nathaniel Koloc in the Harvard Business Review called Build a Career Worth Having.

However, it really resonated with me, probably because it matches my own meandering approach:

  • Try a career, find out what’s good/bad about it, step sideways into something else, and repeat until the lightbulb does suddenly go on.

(I really did have that sudden revelation that everything was leading me to becoming a careers adviser – but it’s a long story!)

Start with what you know, and build on it

One simple way to make a quick start is to create two lists

What you“Do want” and “Don’t want” in your career

You don’t have to add specific careers to your lists, although straight away, you can probably add lots of careers you don’t fancy to your “Don’t want” list.

You could add ideas about

  • work environment – outdoors, office, lab …
  • skills used – communicating, planning, creativity, teamworking …
  • location
  • working conditions – hours, pay …
  • purpose – helping others, inventing new products or services, organising people, creating wealth …

and whatever else is important to you for your future life.

pathways2012Whenever you hear or read about a type of career (a post/graduate profile on the web, an employer or alumni presentation, talking to a family friend about the work they do), add to your lists, until you start to build up a real picture of what you want from a career.

You still won’t have a job title, but now when you see a job ad or read about a career, you can review your list and see if it matches more of your “Do want” list than your “Don’t want” list. You can also judge whether you’re prepared to compromise on the rest.

This can give you more confidence that a job might be a good match for you.

It can also avoid you getting lured into a career which sounds great or which impresses your friends, but which is frankly unsuited to what you really want out of life.

Further support

There are lots of other ways to sneak up on your ideal career. If you want to explore this in more detail, have a look at our other online resources:

And, of course, you can always come and talk to a careers adviser. We’ll be very happy to help you find the right questions to ask yourself and others, can probably point you in the direction of resources which can help you – but don’t be disappointed if we can’t guess the ideal career for you.

2 responses to ““I don’t know what I want to do””

  1. With hindsight wish I’d received this advice before embarking on the “conventional career path with the promise of a pension!” Is it too late at 58 to change direction?

    1. Elizabeth (Postgraduate Careers) Avatar
      Elizabeth (Postgraduate Careers)

      It’s never too late, Jan! In fact, you’re just reaching that dangerous time of life when you think, “what the heck – now or never”. You’ve built up the pension, the kids are on their way to independence, so, what’s it going to be: run a horse-trekking company or import gluggable French wine? 🙂


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