Hey, I’m Martin, the guy behind Verge.
This post is kicking off the first of many valuable resources aimed at helping Uni students like you prepare for life after study (also known as your career.)
I’m writing this post after finishing O-week at the three major VU campuses in Melbourne. This week was not just about bribing students with tote bags and free popcorn to register with Verge, it was also a great time to chat with many first-year Uni students (also known as freshers) about their plans after University.
Chatting with students is always an enlightening experience. As someone who’s spent the best part of the last 4 years of my life helping students prepare for their careers, it’s useful to remember that have not everyone spends as much time obsessing over this topic as me. And in fact, when I was a first-year student some 10 years ago I barely gave my future career any thought at all.
l pretty much waited until the end of my 5-year degree before I began to realise that employers wouldn’t be climbing over themselves to hire me thanks to the fact I had a Uni degree. This caused more than a few issues for me when it came time to graduate but I won’t go into all of them now and unfortunately, I saw many friends and fellow students fall into a similar trap. Needless to say, looking back 10 years to when I was a fresh-faced first-year student I wish I had known a few things that I do now.
So, in an effort to pass on some of what I’ve learned in the last 4 years to those students I met on o-week and all other students, here are 10 things that every Uni student should know about their career.
1. University is a big investment, so make sure it’s a good one!
I think this only becomes clear after you finish studying and you actually realise that HECS is something you need to pay back. For me, I remember looking at my income tax statement after my first year of work and realising that I owed the government the daunting amount of $45,000 of HECS fees, whilst about $4,000 had come out that year. For the average undergraduate student who completes a degree, your HECs debt will be around $20,000 and yes, you will almost certainly have to pay that back (unless you go and hide away in Siberia, of course).
On top of that, the other part of the investment is the time you commit to studying. So how much is that time worth? Well, let’s say you put in 30 hours a week to your studies, including time spent at Uni, preparing for class and travelling in between. If you study for 30 weeks of the year (yes that’s actually close how much time you spend at Uni – don’t tell me that you don’t get enough holidays!) it’s about 600 hours a year. Times that by the average 4-year degree and you’ve put in about 2400 hours at Uni. Now if you think about what that time might be worth doing something else like working (the opportunity cost for all you economic nerds like me out there) that’s a lot of money. In fact, 2400 hours at close to the minimum wage of $25 p/h is $60,000.
So, it seems based on my very rough calculations that University is nearly a $80,000 investment for the average student. The big question to consider while you’re studying is how can you make sure this investment pays off for you? In my completely unbiased opinion, I’d say that career outcomes will play a big role in this.
For most students, one of the main reasons why you choose to study is to improve your career options. And considering that many of us will spend around 40 years of our life working, this initial upfront investment makes a lot of sense as any improvement to your career prospects will be amplified over the rest of your career. The key is to ensure you’re getting the most you possibly can out of this investment.
2. Choosing a career isn’t like choosing a part-time job
When I was studying, I used to work as a pizza delivery driver (before you judge, I’d like to point out that it was a gourmet pizza restaurant thank you very much). I honestly loved this job for two main reasons, the pay was good and the work was low stress. However, whilst driving around all night dropping off pizzas for some generous tips was nice for a few years, I knew that it couldn’t last forever.
The mistake I made when it came to approaching decisions about my career was to evaluate opportunities in the same way I did for my part-time work. I prioritise the careers that seemed to be low stress and highly paid as opposed to looking more deeply at the other important factors. Research from the 80,000 careers blog, shows that low stress and high pay are two of the most overrated factors when it comes to choosing a career.
On reflection, the reason I fell into this trap is because I failed to realise just how much of a role your career plays in your overall happiness and life quality. Not only are you spending the majority of your waking hours at this job now, but it’s also closely aligned to you on a personal level. This is something very hard to know as a student, as most of us have never worked full-time for any serious length of time.
The impact that you’re able to make on the world, the people you’ll meet and the lifestyle that you’ll enjoy is very closely dependent on your career choices. Compare the contrasting lives of a national geographic photographer and a city banker for a moment and you’ll notice the difference.
3. Salary is less important than you think
One of the reasons that I choose to study commerce and economics when I left high-school was that it seemed like there were plenty of jobs available in this field and at serious companies. I looked at the logos of banks, accounting firms and resource companies on the skyscrapers in the city and thought that this was a shrewd move.
Whilst my logic was sound in trying to align my studies with a long-term career plan, I’d say that 18-year-old Martin was placing too much of an emphasis on salary when it came to these decisions. Research suggests that when it comes to career satisfaction, salary is only important to a point of providing a level of income you need to support your lifestyle and then after that, extra money becomes less important. As we can see by this handy graph below
Think about this scenario. Would you prefer to earn $120,000 a year in a job that required you to work until 9 o’clock on weeknights night as well as Saturdays, whilst commuting on a busy train each way or $80,000 a year without the late nights or weekend work? There is no correct answer to this question, but it’s worth considering that not all jobs are created equal.
When it comes to salary, I wish I had known that it was only one of the many factors to consider when it came to choosing a job and not the most important. In fact, as this HBR study shows on the 5 biggest career regrets, taking a job for the money is the number one career regret that people have.
4. Remember that the competition will also likely have a degree too.
I feel that my attitude towards University when I first started was to treat it as an extension of high-school. To be successful, I thought, all you need to do was follow what the teachers said, get good marks and the rest would take care of itself. What I failed to realise was that just a degree by itself would not guarantee me a job. And that the onus was on me to make sure that people wanted to hire me when the time came.
It’s useful to put yourself in the shoes of an employer when thinking about the job market. It helps you frame yourself from their perspective. When it comes to a degree, what does it mean to an employer running a business? For many, a degree shows that you’ve got a reasonable level or character and discipline to finish your studies. Does it mean that you’ve got everything you need to do the job they need you to do? Probably not.
It’s easy to see why when you think about the task of preparing University students for the workforce. Think about how many different types of jobs are available. There’s a lot. So unless it’s a very popular and specific role like a doctor or a lawyer it’s extremely hard to prepare students for every possible role that available. This is especially true when you realise that many students probably couldn’t tell you exactly what career they’d like when they graduate.
For this reason, Universities stick to teaching foundational knowledge in broad buckets such as sports science, business and psychology. And whilst a degree in psychology might make you slightly more suited to a marketing job than someone with a chemistry degree, there’s still plenty more that an employer would look at when making a hiring decision.
That means that the more specific skills required for many jobs need to come from other places like work experience. As this ABC podcast outlines, most employers view a University degree as one of many signalling factors. It might help you get your foot in the door, but you’ll probably need plenty more to land the job you want.
5. Most available jobs are never actually advertised
When it came time to start looking for a “proper” job after Uni, like most students I went online to sites like Gradconnection, Seek and LinkedIn. I assumed that this was the full range of jobs available to me at the time, which wasn’t true. What I wasn’t taking into consideration was all the available jobs that weren’t being advertised, what is known as the hidden job market.
Now I’m sure you might be thinking “wait, how can a job be available if it’s not advertised?” my 18-year-old self would have certainly agreed with you, but there are plenty of opportunities that never get advertised. Most employers will only advertise a job as a last resort. Before that, they’ll look to their personal connections for referrals and people they know to fill the role.
By understanding how you can tap into this hidden market, you’ll open yourself up to new and much less competitive opportunities.
6. Don’t be afraid to go niche
For many Uni students, the job market can seem pretty daunting. There are almost unlimited options available for your career when it comes to choosing a field, a location and a specific role. For most of us, when faced with so many options we end up playing it safe and going with the popular choices.
This is certainly what I did. I looked at the big and most visible companies as the easiest option for finding work. I barely even considered that there were small to medium sized businesses who would happily take University graduates.
Again, like many important career decisions, the choice between working at a big company or a small one comes down to your own personal preferences and what you want from a career. Unfortunately, many students don’t give serious thought to discovering what it would be like to work for a smaller business or in a niche role. My advice would be to give these businesses a try so you can decide for yourself what you’d prefer.
7. When it comes to work experience, you can’t have too much.
To be fair, choosing a career is one of the most important and complicated decisions that you’ll make. Over the last 4 years, I’ve learned that there is no simple answer to finding what’s right for you. The difficulty comes from the act that the job market and ourselves are constantly changing as we try to match ourselves with the right role at the right time. Check out this diagram from WaitButWhy, which shows how complicated the process of choosing a career can be.
The fact that so many graduates change jobs after the first couple of years highlights that our career assumptions can be quick to change once we’ve actually spent some time in a role. This also tells us that the best way that we can discover which roles work for us is to actually try them out.
Internships, practical placements, part-time jobs and even just catching up with people for coffee can help us to understand for ourselves what a different role actually involves. The more of this kind of information you can gather whilst you’re studying, the better placed you’ll be to make an informed decision after you graduate and avoid the all too common quarter-life crisis.
8. Enjoyment in your career and your life and closely linked
It’s estimated that we’ll spend anywhere between 50,000 and 150,000 hours working over the course of our lives. Looking at the handy graph below, you’ll see that this makes up a large proportion of your meaningful adult time.
For me, I spent more than a year and a half in a job that I didn’t enjoy after graduating and I noticed the effect on the quality of my life. To be fair, the job wasn’t horrible but it didn’t align with my future plans or personal values. What this meant was that the time I spent at work wasn’t very enjoyable as I struggled to find work that I could engage with.
Comparing that experience to my work now and the difference is clear. I actually look forward to work each day as I’m working in an area that I’m deeply interested in and allows me to utilise my existing skills whilst developing new ones. I’ll now happily steer social conversations towards the topic of student employability and I could literally talk about it for hours (so look out if you ever see me in the coffee shop line).
9. Think like an employer when looking for a job
For a business, hiring a new staff member is a big investment. Beyond the obvious cost of salary and equipment, they are investing time and energy to train a new member of their team. This investment is usually tens of thousands of dollars for each new employee, which is why employers want to minimise their risk at all times during the hiring process.
It’s always a useful exercise to consider what the employer is looking for. It helps to get specific. If you’re reading a job description you can probably see what skills and experience may be required for the role but it helps to go much deeper in your thought process.
If you make it to the interview stage of a job application, you’ve likely got the skills and experience required. What usually makes the biggest difference now, is how you fit into the company culture and long-term plans of the business. This sort of information won’t be available in the job description so it’ll be up to you to track it down.
10. Understand the importance of career capital
Our generation won’t experience the same linear career progression as our parents or grandparents. For many of us, we’ll likely jump between a variety of different industries over the course of our careers.
Career capital can be thought of as the assets that will help you when looking for a job. This includes your skills, education, experience and connections. Check out this post from the 80,000 hours career blog for more information on career capital and how you can build it. Whilst we may not know the destination for our careers, we know that building our career capital will lead to more and better options when it comes time to take the next step.
For me, I left my stable job after a year and a half to try and start a business, which may have seemed like a risky decision at the time (my parents would have certainly agreed). What I didn’t know at the time was that this move was going to allow me to build my career capital very fast.
Whilst I ran that business for nearly three years I was only getting paid a fraction of my previous wage. However, it allowed me to develop new skills and connections that allowed me some much-improved career prospects when it came time to look for another job (working for Verge, of course!)
Well done on making it all the way to the end of the post, you must be really interested in careers, or sitting in a really boring lecture right now. Studies show that a useful way to reinforce information after you’ve learned it is to test your knowledge, which is why we put together this quick quiz on this post. Since you’ve clearly got a spare 2 minutes, not is the perfect time to give it a go before all those valuable pearls of wisdom you’ve just collect fade into the blurry haze of your subconscious.
And finally, don’t forget to share this post with your friends. It’s the gift that costs you nothing to give 😉