Navigating life after high school

Posted December 5, 2012, by Molly Wiltshire-Bridle

‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ For many children, the bold proclamations of ‘firefighter’, ‘doctor’ and ‘astronaut’ seem glaringly obvious. Fast-forward a few years, and the question of what career path to pursue is decidedly more difficult.

For many young adults, choosing which direction to take after high school can feel like an insurmountable task. Should I pursue further study? Which education provider do I choose? Which course is right for me? Should I take some time out?

Unfortunately, there are no hard and fast rules. As many career veterans can attest, it takes a combination of trial and error, dedication and even a dash of luck to find your dream career. But whilst the road ahead may be uncertain, there are some steps that you can take to ensure you’re headed in the right direction. 

Get to know yourself

When it comes to choosing your career, the old maxim ‘know thyself’ is key. Taking the time to carefully assess your interests, aptitudes and personality type goes a long way towards identifying your potential. Like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, a career mismatch can be incredibly counterproductive, so it’s time to take a good, hard look in the mirror.

As Loretta Toole, Director of Career Development at MLC School asserts, conducting some form of self-assessment is an excellent starting point.

‘Understanding one’s personality helps students identify careers which would make good use of their strengths, interests and talents’, she says.

There are several ways that you can get to know yourself. Consider what subjects you enjoy, and which you excel in. Do you pursue any extracurricular activities? What are your values and your worldview?

Figuring out your personality type, strengths and interests is the first step in getting your career compass pointing in the right direction.

Seek advice

Although it’s important to pursue your passion, it’s also worthwhile getting a second opinion from someone you respect, who has valuable experience. Sourcing some first-hand, industry knowledge will help you decide how realistic your prospects are, expose the perks and the pitfalls, and open your eyes to new possibilities.

Most high schools offer some form of careers guidance service, so this should be your first stop. Where possible, make a booking to see an advisor one-on-one – you’ll be amazed at what a difference it can make. After assessing your general aptitudes and goals, you’ll be given more tailored advice on your shortlisted options: what the job market is like, salary, potential career progression, stability, hours, work–life balance and qualification requirements. Don’t be afraid to use this opportunity as a sounding board for your queries and concerns; most students are in the same boat.

‘They are not always certain that what they choose will be a satisfying course or whether it will have good career prospects into the future’, reveals Toole.

Attending a range of tertiary education expos and university information days will help to further demystify the complex task of choosing your post-school pathway, but remember to start researching early. Most events, like the annual Sydney Morning Herald HSC and Careers Expo, showcase mid-year in order to give students ample time to ponder university preferences. Many other trade fairs and faculty-specific events are staggered throughout the year, so keep your eye out.

It doesn’t hurt to have a chat with family and friends, either – get your hands on advice, tips and industry insight in any way you can! The sad reality is that although many of us dream of our designs strutting the runways of Paris, or of reclining in a leather upholstered CEO’s chair, many areas offer only a limited window for employment. So that means the more informed you are, the better equipped you’ll be to forge ahead. 

Pursue further study

After the frenzied ordeal of end-of-school exams, it can be tempting to declare an all-out ban on ever writing an essay again. For the vast majority of professions, however, pursuing further education and getting qualified is a crucial link in the chain of career progression. For some jobs like pharmacy, nursing, teaching or law, a degree is a must, whereas for others, like photography and writing, further studies are a means of honing your skill set and enhancing your employment profile.

Finding the course that best suits your projected career path, and the study method that best complements your learning style, can be a mammoth task. When coupled with navigating the maze of diplomas, certificates and bachelor degrees that comprise the Australian Qualifications Framework, you can be forgiven for feeling slightly disoriented! Again, the important thing to bear in mind is that help is always available. Want to break into biotechnology, but keep your day job? Or perhaps you’ve already locked down a design internship and want to complement it with some formal training. Luckily for you, flexible options like online/distance education are becoming increasingly popular and prevalent. Now you can complete your Bachelor of Science after hours, or sketch your way to a Diploma of Graphic Design while gaining hands-on experience.

Resist the tendency to feel pigeonholed by your decisions – a marketing qualification could lead you to a multitude of roles within the communications industry, just as a degree in theology doesn’t brand you a minister. If it happens that you arrive part-way through your course and realise it’s just not for you, there are several options for transferring or deferring your studies, and many unis offer recognition of prior learning as credit towards future learning. Think of further study as broadening your horizons, not as boxing you in!

Prepare a professional resume

Whether you decide to launch straight into further study or jet off on an around-the-world adventure, a current and professional-looking resume is a must.

Ensuring that your credentials are up-to-date and up to scratch could mean the difference between securing a last-minute internship or snaring that bar job in Costa Rica – you never know when it will come in handy!

Further study may be a vital component in your career chase, but don’t underestimate the importance of pursuing other forms of hands-on experience.

‘Education is a life-long process and they [students] can add to their portfolio of skills and qualifications as they navigate their way through life’, says Toole.

Don’t forget that despite your perhaps limited professional experience, it’s still important to identify whatever skills and achievements you’ve gained thus far – like the skills you’ve developed in your part-time job, your educational achievements, or the leadership skills you demonstrated in your extracurricular activities. You need to distinguish yourself in whatever way you can by making the most of your experiences.

If you’re struggling with this, you can always get help with our professional resume writing service. Alternatively, ensure that your resume is fighting fit with our Resume Health Check.

Head vs heart

Just when you think you’re starting to get a handle on things, that dreaded dilemma rears its ugly head – do you follow your heart and choose a path based on your passions and interests, or do you follow your head and choose a ‘practical’ job path that offers great career and salary prospects?

‘Passion versus pragmatism is a difficult choice. I think the decision is very individual and depends on so many factors. Some people have different priorities and family influences as well’, reflects Toole.

There’s no easy solution to this common predicament, but let’s face it – if you do decide to pursue a career you don’t enjoy simply because of practical considerations or parental expectations, you’re setting yourself up for future unhappiness or a mid-career crisis.

Remember to keep your options open; life after school need not necessarily mean stepping out of the classroom and into the lecture theatre. If your heart just isn’t drawn to the idea of further study, then consider alternatives like apprenticeships, vocational education or even a gap year.

Whatever your decision, bear in mind that most people change career paths three to five times during their lifetime, so recalibrating your professional direction is not unusual, and can make for an even more interesting and stimulating journey.

To kick-start your further education and broaden your horizons, take a look at our range of flexible online courses.

Molly Wiltshire-Bridle

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