Life After [Insert Discipline Here] : An Alternative Career Guide For Graduates

Life shuffles on, putting one tenuous foot in front of the other hoping that the next step leads somewhere decent, but eventually you manage to find some solid ground that doesn’t have the feeling that it might  run out of strength and fall from under you. With handing in my masters degree and finally managing to secure an awesome (and well paid!) job, it seems appropriate for me now to do a little post about life after university and the unexpected career and study routes that you can take in life.

Not many people expect to hear someone say they do heritage science, let alone that rocks need conserving and least of all that you used to be a geologist with a world of opportunities in the oil and gas industries ahead of you with people ready to offer you lots and lots of money. You explain that you aren’t driven by money (and groan internally at your own naivety) and that a research career in the heritage sector seemed like such a good idea when you found that course on the internet one day and ended up applying. The inevitable question follows “So, what made you want to do that?”. Short, to the point and identical to the question you have been asking yourself for the past year.

When I look at it now, I see a great fun experience in the past year and importantly a dissertation that I am immensely proud of. Unfortunately for many leaving their undergraduate in geology there are only two main career paths: academia or industry. Fortunately however there are alternatives that don’t mean you have to leave all that well learned knowledge behind but where you can be innovative and put them to good use in a range of other exciting disciplines.

For me, it was science communication. At 16 I somehow landed an amazing position as front of house staff (after a horrendous interview) at a science centre in Edinburgh. I kept the job throughout university, and used my expanding knowledge of science to progress my communication skills in the job. It was an ideal match and a great maturing experience. Through my director of studies at university, I was then offered a position with the Scottish Earth Science Education Forum (which he was the director of) and became involved in some amazing projects across the country delivering formal education resources for the earth sciences to secondary schools.

Nearing the end of my degree, I started to wonder what I wanted to do next. I can’t quite remember what drove me to do further education rather than get a job in science communication but I think that one of the main factors that enticed me was the uniqueness of the particular masters and the fact that it was at one of the best universities in the world. The idea for going into heritage mainly spawned from the fact I didn’t want to do pure geology and I always wanted to be a curator in a geology museum when I was younger, and had always had an interest in history and archaeology. Simple, really.

Since the masters was only one year long it wasn’t long before I was panicking about what to do next – again. Because I like keeping as many options open and was dreading not having a job at the end of the year I began to look at some of the interesting questions I had come across when doing the research project, but couldn’t address in such a short project. From this spawned a proposal for another research project that began as a one page summary, but with encouragement and interest from a couple of supervisors in the sustainable heritage centre it grew into a fully fledged PhD proposal. I also applied for another PhD at another university, and although I was not qualified for it they wanted to keep in touch and get me involved in other projects, which led to one of them becoming a partner for the PhD proposal. This has happened to me again since in an interview, where although I wasn’t right for the job they referred me on to others and I have ended up cultivating some useful and interesting professional relationships from these experiences.

Towards the end of the degree however I felt that I needed a break from academia, another 3 years of study immediately after did not look exciting to me at the time. i considered taking a part time job and doing the PhD, but realised that this would be too much work and double the amount of time needed to complete the degree. So, I postponed the proposal indefinitely to enable me to get a job for a couple of years and reanimate the proposal at a time to suit me.

This then meant I had to find a job. I thought I had lots of skills that are all highly transferable, but I soon realised that this was also my enemy. Combined with the fact that I had no set idea of exactly what I wanted to do meant that tailoring my CV and LinkedIn profile was nightmarish. However, I knew that ‘communications’ in a broad sense was my biggest passion and skill. This led me to look at a wide range of jobs ranging from marketing and public relations positions in random businesses and press office and publishing/editorial roles to science communications and community development in science/government and higher education organisations. I think I was too transferable for a large number of the jobs I applied for. However, I did get a number of interviews where the particular range of skills were relevant – niche and innovative or new roles that needed lots of strong competencies or specific qualifications/knowledge.

I finally got a job that I was very excited about and knew I had the correct skills for as soon as I saw the advert. The position is looking at ways to engage students more effectively in their higher education to ensure they get the best possible experience from their time at university. Now more than ever this is important as students have to pay higher fees, and universities need to prove they can provide an all-round excellent experience bringing out the best skills in their graduates. I will be developing a range of initiatives for mainly postgraduate and doctorate students and see it as an exciting role that utilises my best communications, research and project management skills. Not only will it also develop me in a really exciting area that I can see a bright future in terms of a career, but also for when I want to return to the PhD proposal.

Looking at my LinkedIn profile and CV now, I have a much better idea of what skills and experience I should highlight. I think that especially for my online professional presence I was trying to put too much into the space provided, and it was difficult to see what I was looking for in  a job as well as where my relevant skills were. However, I also realised how many disciplines I could go into with the skills I had to gain experience in a range of abstract fields.

I think it is important for graduates to be able to look critically at their experiences and manage to tease out their best skills and individual experiences that could see them with a successful career in something they would not have even dreamed of at the beginning of their degree. You don’t have to stick to what you choose early on in your studies or career, and knowing that there is a whole world of possibilities is crucial. But even more crucial is knowing how to actually do this, because it can get depressing when you know you could do something but just can’t seem to get the right opportunity. Making graduates aware of this and how to market themselves effectively is just one of the things I want to implement in this new position I have, and hopefully it is something other graduates will feel is useful too.