Saying “I don’t know what I want to do” and why this isn’t a problem

Written by Paul Gratrick, Careers Manager for the Faculty of Humanities.

One of the most common sentences that I hear from students of all year groups and subjects is ‘I don’t know what I want to do’. This is almost always in a future career context, but at a University with a huge amount of choice with regards to course units, accommodation, places to eat and all other manner of things, it’s a question that can occur on an almost daily basis and let’s face it – making a choice is hard! I can present my son with the choice of a chocolate ice cream or a strawberry one and the existential crisis that this causes him is painful to watch. The morality of choosing a chocolate ice cream (because why wouldn’t he? He’s not a monster) isn’t the ongoing subject of this blog post, but being comfortable with ambiguity is.

ice cream

Hello ambiguity my old friend

Not knowing what’s going to happen isn’t fun for a lot of people. You want to know what’s for tea, how much money you have, when and where your lectures are and what time you’re all meeting up later. Some people get a thrill out of the unknown but when it comes to knowing what you’re going to do with your life after University, this is a big unknown and the ambiguity beast can loom large. During my final year I lived with six other people and we’ve been graduates for just over 10 years now. Not one of us works for the same company we first did after leaving university, and none of us are in the same role. The lawyer amongst us (spoiler alert) is still a lawyer but that’s not common. The Anthropology one of us works in finance for a sugar merchant, a sweet gig if ever there was one, but my point is that knowing what you want to do isn’t a question you can reasonably answer because life gets in the way. To be honest, you sometimes need to do something you don’t want to do to work out what you do want.

I left university and began a career in sales. I was good at it for a time, progressing through a graduate scheme but it wasn’t a forever job. Half way through my 11 year career thus far I began working at the University of Manchester which I love, and I get a great deal of satisfaction from my role and from the inspirational blog posts that I’m allowed to write. I studied Philosophy and had no idea what I wanted to do at the point of graduation, and it took time for me to realise it. Only through having a job (it could have been any job) did that become clear. The secret is doing something rather than nothing.


Cooking up a treat in your career kitchen

The fact of the matter is that whatever you apply for after university (be it a job, masters, charity work scheme) you are going to be asked about the things you’ve done at university that are both academic and non-academic. The former everyone has by default, and so it’s the latter that you have control over – and that’s a key point, you do have control in those extra-curricular things you go for or don’t. Even if you don’t know what you want to do, you’ll be applying for something and so need examples. That’s where being at Manchester is to your advantage as there is a lot to get involved with. Societies, reps, sport, PEER/PASS, part-time work, vacation work, volunteering – there’s a lot basically.

Everyone loves an analogy. If you want to make a career cake at the end of university then you’re going to need ingredients. If all you’ve got are your academic studies then your cake is going to, as a celebrity chef may say, lack flavour and substance. So whilst you’re studying collect those non-academic ingredients so that you can make some meal at the end. Otherwise you’ve got bare cupboards and you’re starting from scratch at that point.

“This is easy for you to say, Paul. You’ve got a job!”

It is easy for me to sit here and type this wisdom, but it comes from working with hundreds of graduates and being one myself and seeing the long term trajectory. Saying “I don’t know what I want to do” is fine and if you ask a room full of students many would probably say the same. You’re not alone and I get that it’s a huge double edge sword in that you have lots of choice by being a Manchester student (great!) but you have a to pick something (the not so great bit!).

Do something, as the barriers to entry are far lower at University and you have access to roles that you can pick up and drop easily. They are still ingredients in your lovely career cake though, so keep hold of them for later.

“I don’t know” is such a common query for us as a Careers Service that a whole section of our website is dedicated to it – so start here if you’re not sure

Failing that you’ll find me on Facebook here and I’ll answer any questions. And if I don’t know the answer then I’ll bet my son’s ice cream supply that I’ll know someone who does.

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