How to figure out what you want to do after graduation

As I’ve been talking about the topic of millennials and jobs recently, I’ve received some questions from my young peers on what they should do after graduation.

Many of them feel that they are left behind from their peers who seem to be set on what they want to do after graduation. However, the thing is most of us have no clue what we want to do with our lives. This is the case even after we finish school and even after we get a job.

As Mark Manson describes it:

It’s a struggle almost every adult goes through. “What do I want to do with my life?” “What am I passionate about?” “What do I not suck at?” I often receive emails from people in their 40s and 50s who still have no clue what they want to do with themselves.

It is definitely normal for college students to face this problem. This is because you’ve spent most of your life and time in an academic environment and seldom come in contact with the ‘real world’. Your understanding of careers available are pretty much limited to that 1-2 internships; career fairs and the media.

I was in a similar situation two years ago when I graduated from NTU. It was super hard to get advice as when I asked the older folks, they would say things which are not particularly useful to everyone i.e. “Study science! There will be tons of jobs waiting for you”, “Join the civil service. It is an iron ricebowl” or the generic “just follow your heart and passion”.

Having found out what I wanted to do earlier this year after a lot of serious thought and experimenting, I thought I would share some of my tips as a senior who graduated two years ago.

 

Firstly, I think that before deciding what you would want to do, it is important to know your own strengths and weaknesses very well.

After all, not everyone is good at everything which is perfectly alright because we all need one another in a society.

For example, I know that I have a lot of energy and am more driven than most other women I know.  Based on DISC personality test, I am super high “D” (Dominant) followed by I (Influential). I am not very sure why this is the case. Maybe, some people are just born like this.

At the same time, I am also aware of my weaknesses like I am not so good with details and repetitive tasks. In my first job after A levels, I was a marketing assistant at this car brand and really struggled with having to input people’s contact details from cards they’ve filled in to an excel sheet.

Understanding my strengths and weaknesses enabled me to narrow my options to look for a career that is fast-paced, requires a lot of self-motivation but does not require a high level of detail.

While it is good to be aware of your strengths, it is equally important to understand that what is perceived as a ‘strength’ for one role may not be the case for another.

For instance, I was evaluated by two employers – one for a sales role and another for a creative role. The first was impressed by my energy and focus but the other felt I was ‘too aggressive’.

Similarly, I always put blogging in my resume because it shows a good understanding of how to produce good digital content. There are usually two types of reactions to this. When I meet older or more socially apathetic type of Asian employers, they tend to view it more negatively and ask me if blogging will distract me from my day job. However, if I were to present the same information to an ‘angmoh’ employer, they will usually find it cool, interesting and a good example of how I’ve pursued an interest and learnt valuable skills from it.

 

Besides knowing your strengths, I think it is important to also understand your own preferences and motivations.

For example in my first few internships and first job, I’ve picked out things I like such as:

  1. Having mentorship and help from my peers instead of working for bosses who do not know their stuff
  2. Being able to go out for meetings and not be too desk bound
  3. Having good worklife balance and lots of annual leave so I can help out at home and go on holidays
  4. Having a more ‘western’ management style instead of a more ‘Asian’ one and a great company culture i.e. focus more on results than process; being more flexible
  5. Having the opportunity to meet new people and expand my network in the region

These requirements guided me when evaluating potential employers and to pick out red flags in interviews. Eventually, I was able to find a job which makes me feel happy.

As for motivations, I think everyone is motivated by different things. For me, I know that I will feel motivated to do something if it meets three criterias: If it benefits the team/community; if it benefits myself and if I feel appreciated. Knowing this about myself has made decision making in life much simpler for me.

For example, when I was younger, I wanted to become a graphic designer because I love art and learnt many things by myself like graphic design; web design and photo editing.  However, subsequently I changed my mind because in my personal experiences for designing for others, the career simply did not meet my motivation structure and I rather pursue this as a personal interest or useful side skill to have.

The key to having a good understanding about yourself and society would be to start exposing yourself to new activities and projects.

I’ve given this advice to my bestfriend who is currently in NUS and often ask her to sign up for new activities if time allows. This is particularly a useful way to start for those who do not know what they want to do in life and do not feel particularly passionate about anything.

Quoting Professor Youngme Moon from Harvard Business School:

“If at every choice you come to in life, what job to take, what subject to major in, what city to live in, if at every fork in the road you take the option you care about more, the option that gets you excited and whets your curiosity … then you’ll come to the next fork in the road and you’ll take the option you care about more… then you’ll come to the next fork in the road and you’ll take the option you care about more … you’ll keep coming to these forks and keep taking the options you care about more, then one day, you’ll wake up and realize that you’re doing something you’re passionate about.”

 

Exposing to yourself to many different types of activities will also equip you with better soft skills; a wider network but would also help you better understand the opportunities available out there and yourself.

For example, I got interested in data and analytics industry because I realized that I tend to get frustrated when people don’t trust numbers or science and simply do things because they ‘feel’ it will be effective. When I started blogging, I started to work with marketing and communication professionals while I was in college. This was when I learnt many of them really do not know what they are doing and are just jumping on the bandwagon of social media. Hence, I wanted to promote a more evidence based approach of doing things.

This led me to the research industry. After speaking to many marketers, I realized that traditional market research was a stagnating field and decided to hop over to digital data because both the big data and digital analytics sectors were set to grow rapidly in the next few years.

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I hope that sharing my experience and thoughts about this issue has been useful to college students and early career professionals who are thinking about what they want to do in the long term. No one can help you discover yourself and what you want to do in life but I thought it will be useful to have some kind of pointers to start with.

What do you think of this post? Do you have any other ideas to share? Feel free to do so in the comments below:

 

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