home Features “When I grow up…” The Pressures and Stresses of Career Decision-Making  

“When I grow up…” The Pressures and Stresses of Career Decision-Making  

By Maeve O’Keeffe

Perhaps you were born with an innate desire to work in a certain job. You popped out of the  womb, and just like that, had your calling to become a data analyst, Geography teacher, or civil  engineer. OK, maybe you weren’t born with this knowledge, but perhaps it was evident from  an early age where you wanted to end up in life. I have friends in Medicine who say that as  children, they used to pretend their teddy bears were ill so that they could nurse them back to  health. I have other friends in Teaching who used to complete homework exercises for  their dolls, so that they could then go and correct the work, give feedback, and impose “school  rules” all from their childhood bedroom. For others, the call to a vocation may have come a  little later. Maybe you did a week’s work experience with a solicitor or pharmacist back in the transition year, and realised that you could see yourself being really happy in that profession  down the line. Without wishing to suggest that the road to college is ever easy, having a clear  idea of what you are aiming towards in university certainly irons out one aspect of the daunting  challenge that is starting and finishing third level education. 

Or perhaps the road to college was not so straightforward for you. The immense choice leaving  cert students are confronted by in filling out CAO applications can be overwhelming. At the  ripe old age of seventeen or eighteen, we are expected to make a huge decision regarding our  future. And for those of us who come to university to study something broad and “keep our  options open,” anticipating that we will figure it all out along the way, we are often  disillusioned when we reach final year, and still feel overwhelmed by the array of options that  present themselves to us, from entering the workforce, to various Masters and postgraduate  programmes. 

There is often a tendency to think of the decisions like the CAO and postgraduate options as  ultimate, and final. It’s reminiscent of Frost’s famous poem, The Road Not Taken. We see endless possibilities stretching out before us, without truly knowing what choice is best, and  feel sorry we cannot travel along each and every pathway. When I was in school, I used to wish  I could time travel to some indistinct point in my future, and catch a glimpse of how my life  would turn out based on the course I selected as my number one on the CAO, so that I could  make an informed choice on my application. How would I live if I studied English, as opposed  to Dietetics, or Midwifery, or Psychology, or any one of the flights of fancy I toyed around  with in my final year of school? How fulfilled would I be, how successful, how happy? I  agonised over the decision making, torturing myself by churning out dozens of imagined  futures for myself. Of course, the exercise was totally futile. It’s a cliché, but we can never  know what the future holds. Though I envied the kids in my class who had a dream pathway set in stone from what seemed like infancy, I have a different perspective now.  

You see, the hype surrounding the CAO, college courses, points, and places, is just that – hype.  Media outlets like to fixate on the Leaving Certificate each year, because it is close to a  universal experience of being educated in Ireland. Leaving Cert points league tables by school,  and spreadsheets showing the points increase for each course are nice newspaper fodder. Radio  shows can discuss the merits of same sex or co-ed schools, private or public education, or how  girls get better grades than their male classmates. Each year the same stories crop up, as  inevitable as inane comments about how the weather always improves right as the exams start.  That doesn’t mean that the discourse holds much significance in the grand scheme of things.  

The reality is that many of us stumble into university courses based on the whims of our  immature adolescent selves. It might not feel like it, but the people who have had their entire  careers mapped out for them for years are in the minority. We do some googling, take Qualifax  quizzes to ascertain our interests, and sit in front of generally well-intentioned, but occasionally  disinterested career guidance teachers who ask if we’ve considered going to Maynooth? To  think of our adolescent brain, so malleable and moody, bearing the burden of such crucial decisions about careers is a little scary, especially when, at the time, it seems that the decisions  we made were set in stone.  

What many of us fail to realise prior to starting college is what exactly a university education  equips us with. Though many modules will incorporate practical information for a given job,  so much of the learning we do is not centred on concrete information. Yes, we acquire a certain  level of knowledge and expertise, and hopefully this knowledge will be relevant to the field we  ultimately progress into. However, I see the real benefit of university as learning to learn.  Critical thinking may seem like no more than the beloved buzzword of our college tutors, but  it truly is a skill that is necessary in the current world of work, and becoming more so. In an  age of information where knowledge is more accessible and easily disseminated than ever  before, it is vital that we can think critically about the sources we are presented with, the  broader context in which we find ourselves, and ethical dilemmas of a changing world.  

Moving beyond the traditional view of education as the learning of information, to viewing it  as a progression through new perspectives towards independent thinking can be so liberating if you’re someone who does not necessarily have a fixed goal in mind for the end of your  degree. Jobs are more flexible than ever before, and the most recent statistics reveal that the  average person will change careers about 3 to 7 times. The idea of a “job for life” that so many  previous generations held in such high esteem is being eclipsed by a more dynamic working  environment where the need to upskill and adapt to new technologies and systems is seen as  rudimentary and essential. More of us are aspiring for growth and advancement in the  workplace. Chances are, many of us will end up working in fields that seem, at least on a  surface level, completely unrelated to our undergraduate degree.  

Though some may be daunted at the idea of an ever-evolving career pathway and a constant  need to improve to keep up, others may find solace in the fact that we are not necessarily restricted by the decisions we made in the career guidance teacher’s office when we were in  school. Some of the most successful people in life carve out their careers in areas completely unrelated to their undergraduate degree. Love or loathe Pat Kenny, his successful broadcasting  career was preceded by a chemical engineering degree. Lisa Kudrow studied psychobiology  before landing her iconic role as Phoebe Buffay in Friends, and Angela Merkel holds an  undergraduate degree in physics, as well as a doctorate in quantum chemistry. In fact, recent  statistics show that 46% of graduates in Ireland are employed in areas unrelated to their  undergraduate degree.  

With that in mind, some would argue that it’s not about what you study in college, but more  on how you make use of your time in college. Critically engage with the readings, make it your  business to encounter new perspectives, and learn by questioning. Think of how young children  learn so much simply by asking “Why?” and questioning the things that adults take for granted.  Research in work and organisational psychology illustrate trends towards the desirability of  soft skills such as creativity, effective communication, adaptability, and stress and time  management, as opposed to simply being able to recall the hard skills or knowledge acquired  through your studies. New technologies render so much information obsolete in a short period  of time, so employers are looking for candidates who can think on their feet, research and  communicate new ideas, and problem solve when faced with challenges in an ever-changing  work environment, be it virtual or in person.  

But what if it’s not enough? The investment of time and money that it takes to go to college  cannot be underestimated, but it would be glib to suggest that once you’ve completed your  undergraduate, you’re set for wherever life takes you. Though third level education is by no  means totally accessible, the reality is that more people have an undergraduate degree than ever  before. In our moments of self-doubt, we can find ourselves wondering what makes us stand  out to future employers, in a sea of well-educated eager graduates hungry for opportunities. It is crucial that we optimise the limited time we get to spend in the cocoon of diverse and  developing perspectives that university offers us.  

Embrace the vibrant culture of societies and clubs in UCC and discover what you are passionate  about. Many of us get sucked into the limited mentality of viewing participation in college life  as some kind of box-ticking exercise. “It’ll be good for the CV,” we say, when considering  involvement with campus life. Granted, becoming an OCM in a society or two won’t look too  bad on your LinkedIn profile, but with a less cynical mindset, you could view your role in  campus life as a vital aspect of self-discovery in establishing what career path you would like  to pursue. Maybe you know where you want to end up, and view your involvement in campus  life in a similar way to your degree – as a stepping-stone towards reaching your end goal. But  your involvement can be more than a means to an end; it can provide insight into what your  ultimate goal is. Maybe you got the role of public relations officer in a society you were roped  into as a bright-eyed first year, and you discovered that you are really good at communicating  information in a visually appealing way. Or perhaps your teammates made you captain of your  sports team and you surprised yourself by realising that you’re a natural leader. Maybe you  found you were fulfilled by volunteering to help students with Nightline or Peer Support, and  want to pursue a career that centres around supporting others. Or maybe, you got involved with  student media on a whim, and learned that writing articles like these is what makes you  happy… 

I’m still daunted at what lies ahead. I still feel dread when people ask me what I want to do  when I graduate. However, though you may feel as clueless as you did while seventeen and sat  in careers class in secondary school, it is important to remind yourself of all that you are  learning, all you have learned so far, and all that you will learn in future. We are all still  figuring it out, improvising and trying out different roles like we are playing dress-up, trying  to find a costume that suits us so well, it stops feeling like a costume. Remember that it’s not a race. There is no deadline on the journey of figuring out what you’d like to do, and it’s ok if  the road to your dream job is unconventional. Because in today’s world, unconventionality is  a strength.