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Exploring Higher Education: starting point

On here: a brief and more in depth way to explore ideas and options

Planning your future
Exploring higher education
Student finance
Choosing a course
Choosing a university
Your application

Exploring Options

Before going to university, it is worthwhile thinking where it will all lead. Of course, you can study for a variety of reasons, but as university in the England at least, has become more expensive, most people will think more carefully what benefits a university education will give them. Most of the time, this decision will be made in terms of career prospects. 

Explore possibilities not just through introspection, but also through experimentation… 

There is even more pressure to ‘get it right first time’. Whether this is really necessary is debatable. Many university courses don’t aim for one particular career. Increasingly, any career decision does not need to be one with life long consequences. Often, what is an excellent decision today may not be the best one tomorrow. We change… and our surroundings change… In that sense, the best we can do is… the best we can do at any given time.

‘Getting it right’ is often not an easy task, and takes a lot of time and effort to think through, explore, make decisions about and act upon these decisions… Paradoxically, getting it wrong is sometimes an equally important learning experience… not that I would like to advise you to make a habit of it!

However, we need to make decisions somehow, and it may be useful to think through how to make any important decisions in which you invest a lot of money, time and energy. Below is a very brief summary of how planning and decision making could work, to get you started.

Please bear in mind this is just one example of how planning could work. It’s intended to get you thinking, rather than as a ‘manual’ you have to follow step by step. It’s important to use your own creativity and to take calculated risks, experiment and try…. Also have a look at the ‘How can I plan?’ page on this website.

Below in ‘Exploring Options 2.0’ I will go into more detail and offer useful links, ideas and tools to hopefully take your planning and decision making to the next level.

On the left hand side (the green side) are the things that are within your power to change. That is where you can have most effect. It requires investigation, including self-investigation, thought and introspection. 

The right hand side (the blue side) consists of things that are ‘out there’ and cannot generally be changed by you, or not quickly at least. You may need time explore to get a good idea of what really is ‘out there’, without making too many assumptions. Assumptions are hurdles we put up for ourselves for a number of reasons. They can in the worst case stop us in our tracks where we don’t have to be stopped. It’s always important to be factual. 

One way in which you can potentially change outside influences is by moving to where you find different outside circumstances. If you’re one of many fish in a large pond, move to a smaller pond where you are the big fish! This is a decision you can either take or not, just like all choices.

The key to this activity, and to planning in general, is to see how the two sides match up and what career ideas would be generated as a result. Remember that you’re not necessarily are making decisions on ‘the rest of your life’. Equally, it could be more important to think of a broad career direction, rather than a very strict career path, especially when you’re an undergraduate. If you want to do this in more detail, skip to the next section.

You could take three pieces of A4 paper, or you could have a blank Word document with a table with two columns.

  1. On the first piece of paper or the column on the left hand side, just as if you were writing a CV, you could write down your strengths, abilities, talents, personality traits, interests, weaknesses, dislikes, etc…
  2. On the second piece of paper or column on the right side, whatever you have arranged to do this, you can write down the things that can’t be changed. This is personal but it could include any family circumstances that would limit your options, anything you’re physically not capable of doing, limitations in the local job market you have noticed, etc… You don’t need to go too far at this point.
  3. Then underneath or on a third piece of paper, you can write down any career ideas you have in mind or a university course or university you have in mind. You can then see how all three match up. If you don’t know what career you’re going to get into yet, you can do a bit of research on https://www.prospects.ac.uk/careers-advice/what-can-i-do-with-my-degree where you can explore kinds of careers a university degree in a subject can lead on to.

Don’t worry about getting this finished any time soon. This is more of a process instead of a piece of work to do. You can see this as a reflection diary if you like, for what you find out about:

  1. Yourself
  2. The world around you
  3. Any opportunities out there

And you can then use all three of these to see how they match with each other and more importantly, what decisions you need to make to make it all work and to get to a ‘next step’ that really suits you.

For instance:

  • If you are interested in a career in… let’s say aeronautical engineering 3.),
  • and it matches with 1.) what you have to offer personally (good at maths and science, a bit of a perfectionist, good sense of responsibility, keen to work in a team, good with fixed procedures, etc…)
  • but there isn’t an airport nearby 2.), then the decisions you need to make to get there are to either move or to look for an alternative career linked to aeronautical engineering which is available locally.

Practically, you can then look for opportunities of what you need to study where, what the nearest opportunities are and whether you would be able to and like to live there, or what any related careers to aeronautical engineering have to offer on www.prospects.ac.uk.

Of course, this is a very generic and simplistic overview and just an example.

 

Exploring Options 2.0

For those who are not sure at all and those who want to confirm their choice

  • This page will build on the basic grid from the previous page and will offer the tools to be able to do this. Again, this is not ‘a bit if homework’ (actually this isn’t homework at all!) to do in one evening. It’s an ongoing process and you fill in pieces off the puzzle one by one over time. You don’t have to write this down either but it’s easier, at least to start with. In a way, especially with the jobmarket as it is, this is a life long journey of exploration and discovery about yourself, the way you change throughout life, and the world around you. Ultimately also of where you fit in.
  • Don’t feel you have to complete all (or any!) of this. Pick the bits out which you feel would benefit you.
 

1. In the first part you will explore and find tools for self awareness

  • What kind of person you are, your likes and dislikes, are often disregarded or minimised in deciding on a career or education plan. I would argue it’s one of the most important things when planning your future. After all… it’s YOUR future.
     
 

2. The second part we will explore opportunity awareness

  • This means exploring what is out there, and almost as important, what is NOT out there… It’s easy to see opportunities where there are none, or to see ‘dream opportunities’ which are either not there are which are very difficult to obtain. How can we make sure opportunities we like are realistic?

 

1. Self Awareness

It’s easy to go with what people around you expect of you, or what society expects of you, and sometimes that’s useful, but beware…

In my view, the ideal career or job is one where you don’t feel you are going to work. It’s a job that fulfils you as a person… every bit of you. If at the end of most weekends you feel the doom and gloom descending, thinking of ‘having to’ go back to work, it may be useful to have a good look at the whole situation and find out what is not right. If you recognise yourself in this, the quest may consist of getting as close to the ideal situation as possible.

What if you were to find a career that doesn’t feel like work, but that just feels like part of life… part of what you like doing anyway…

Assessment of what you have to offer and who you are

There are a number of things you can do to, one of which is going on a real exploration of:

  • Your likes and dislikes
  • What you want and don’t want to do
  • What your main personality traits are
  • What skills, talents and abilities you have
  • What your weaknesses are

While doing this it’s important to open up to what comes out of your exploration, without making assumptions or going along well trodden paths. The more honest you are, the better the decisions can come out of this. This is not an easy task and it takes time…

An additional difficulty is that most of us have been taught from a very young age not to ‘brag’ about ourselves. Many of us live a life of relative ‘dishonesty’ with ourselves because of this. To overcome this we need to open up to listening to the people around us who can be more honest and tell us what we are good at. We need to listen, take things in, process this information and store it to use not only in our career planning, but also in our quest for a job from ‘marketing’ ourselves in our CV and in job interviews to establishing ourselves in our jobs to achieve the things we want to achieve.

Marketing in this sense doesn’t mean ‘bigging ourselves up’. It’s more about being honest to others about what we have to offer and how we can contribute, opening up new possibilities for developing our skills, personality and options, building on the adventure we’ve embarked on.

One way of taking this forward is to keep a record of all the things that make up your personality.

Click here to download a full size worksheet if helpful. (Download Adobe Reader if you haven’t got this, to open the file)

How to use this?

  • Over a couple of days or weeks, note down anything you can think of that fits in any of the boxes on the worksheet.
  • Take your time and be as honest and complete as you can be.
  • Further build on this over time if you can to have an as complete overview of who you are as possible.

This will provide you with:

  • An excellent, complete and honest tool to compare with any descriptions of career options or jobs
  • A file to fall back on once you are writing or tweaking your CV
  • A file to use when preparing for interviews for jobs or university
  • A tool to work against our natural inhibitions and to market ourselves in a fair (to ourselves) and honest way

Another thing that can help you get more of an insight in what makes you tick is by doing a free or paid for Meyers-Briggs personality test online. You can easily look for one of these by entering ‘Meyers Briggs test’ in your search engine. You can find some examples here and here, but make sure you don’t take the result on any of the free test for absolute gospel. The intention is to make you think and to explore what it says. I have found this website useful in reading more about different personality types, and there’s a section on career choice. Of course, I am not related to or involved in any of those sites and I take no responsibility whatsoever for the outcome of any of those tests or your interpretation, but they can be useful in many cases.

The bit in the middle: compromise

I’ve sketched an ideal situation at the top where you don’t feel like you’re going to work. Most of us have to compromise, and sometimes other things are more important. This can either be temporarily or permanently.

For instance:

  • You want to get into your ideal university course but you’re not getting the grades to get in, or there are too few places and too many applicants. You need to compromise. This can be a permanent compromise in that you look for something related that’s good but not perfect. Or you can compromise temporarily by taking another course and finding a different way into your ideal career.
  • You have a great job and career but it doesn’t pay that well. You would like to save up for the deposit for a house so you decide to compromise by taking a less exciting but better paying job to be able to save up.

So your needs are linked to this as well. Sometimes all you need is a stable job with enough money to keep your lifestyle going. This is another example of a compromise, the practical things that sometimes even force us to decide to move away from the ideal.Sometimes you see someone doing a job where you think “how can anyone be passionate about that?” – that person may be compromising and putting their needs in other areas before their ideal career.

First career exploration and matching exercise

Once we have put together a complete list like the one above, you could the explore career ideas by using tools available on the web. These tools are not there to tell you what you have to do or to limit the number of careers you would be able to do. They are there to offer a starting point from where to explore possibilities, nothing more, nothing less.

If you have a good idea of what you are interested in:

One set of tools consists of job profiles for people who have some idea of careers they may be interested in.

The Prospects website offers an excellent set of tools to explore specific careers. You could explore the suggestions below to ensure you get the best out of this website.

  1. If you have specific jobs in mind, on the Prospects website go to ‘Jobs and work experience’ –> ‘Types of jobs’ –> ‘Browse all jobs’.
  2. Once you have found the job entry you are interested in and you open it you will find a Job Description.
  3. In the column next to this called ‘More in this section’ you will find additional tools to make your exploration more worthwhile.
  4. Once you have read the information in your job profile and have made a decision on whether it suits you you will find ‘Related jobs’ at the bottom of the list.
  5. Related jobs is where you will find other careers which may either suit you better or which will help you decide to stay with your initial idea.

There are other tabs on the homepage which are worth exploring, but which will be more relevant to a course search rather than a career exploration. There may be one exception however:

Go to ‘Careers advice’ –> ‘Options with your subject’ to see what you can do with your chosen subject of study…

Other opportunities to do a similar exercise of researching careers, not just linked to higher education this time, are:

Of course, the information on these individual websites is not necessarily only applicable in the respective areas in Great Britain, but most of the information will be applicable nationally, if not to some extent internationally as well.

If you are not quite sure what direction you would like to go into:

A second set of tools consists of question and answer sessions to explore your preferences after which it will match a set of careers with the answers you have provided. I would like to stress again that these won’t tell you what you have to do for the rest of your life, they only offer suggestions and a starting point from which you can explore possibilities in relation to the list in the exploration in the previous section.

  • Again, the Prospects website has a good tool. You can try out the Career Quiz on their website.
    • You need to register but it doesn’t cost anything and is very straightforward.
  • If you prefer a career quiz to provide you with a starting point, Startprofile is a good option.

 

2. Opportunity Awareness

…or knowing what is ‘out there’. No need to say, this is far more difficult to do, as it depends not on you, or on some easy to find information on the internet. There are at least two dimensions to this.

  1. where is the job I would like to do, or the career I would like to build up, available?
  2. how available is what I want to do? Or what are the chances for ‘making it’ in your chosen career?

A third question would be: what do I need to do to get to a place where I can build up my possibilities and chances for entry into your chosen career? This is, of course, where your choice of course comes in as well as any other activities you need to undertake to increase your chances.

Where are the opportunities?

The first question of the two is easier to answer than the second. A good starting point again could be the Prospects website. If you look up your career there, as described above, you will find ‘Employers and vacancy sources’ in the menu on the right, where you will be able to find opportunities in your chosen direction.

The work is not over by reading this, however. It does indicate what you could look into to further your search and come to some idea of where the possibilities are:

  • industry sectors in society: you could look up companies, organisations, institutions etc… in your local area, or the area where you would like to live, to find out where any possibilities are. At the same time, this will give you a very rough indication of how easy it is to get in. If there are only two or so companies, that could mean it’s harder to break into your chosen career than if there are hundreds. This is only half the story, as we will see below. If you are looking for opportunities in the UK, and companies linked to these, have a look on www.yell.com, where you can see your opportunities on a map.
  • job vacancies: which companies are they with and where are they? What is the pay and what are the working conditions and job description? Are there many? Or only a few? Be aware that not all career paths are regularly openly advertised in job adverts.
  • Professional organisations and unions: these could provide excellent points of contact for finding out more, but they may also provide an opportunity for starting to ’embed’ yourself in your (new) professional community. LinkedIn can offer even more possibilities in this respect.

 

How available are any opportunities?

This is more complicated to explore than the previous question. These obviously depend on the state of the economy, but also on local and regional differences, the availability and cost of resources, the success of major employers and linked to that, their position in the world market. To lesser or greater extent, even the state of international economic configurations and business as well as other occurrences, natural or otherwise, all have an influence on the availability of (local) opportunities.

All this means that, whenever you make a decision based on the availability of opportunities, the tables could turn completely by the time you have completed your studies. However important availability of your chosen direction in the labour market can be in helping you make your decision, the best you can do is make an educated guess or estimate based on advise and information you find.

Sources of information for a balanced view could be:

  • The national and economic press.

Labour market information can be found on the following selection of websites:

  • www.prospects.ac.uk, then go to ‘Jobs and work experience’ –> ‘ Industry insights’ and you will find ‘Future trends’ in the menu on the right. You can also find a series of tools and information here.
  • https://www.lmiforall.org.uk/
  • www.hecsu.ac.uk: containing papers on the labour market and other publications.
  • Most university websites and university career services will have a section on labour market information. These may offer more local labour market information for the area the university is located in, as well as national and international labour market information.
  • www.statistics.gov.uk: a government website with a range of statistics, including those for the labour market.
  • www.nomisweb.co.uk: labour market information from a range of official sources.

Professional organisations may have labour market information available on their website as well.

Of course, in all but the toughest labour markets will there be opportunities for those who are determined and know how to access them. Building up a professional network and maintaining this, as well as building up extra skills that help you stand out in a positive way are important… as well as luck! You will be able to read more about these in the ‘Moving on…’ section on this website.