Discovering what you want to do, when you have no idea what you want to do

Written by Chloe Cox, 21.

As my second year at university progressed, more and more of my classmates and friends were saying the words I dreaded. “I’ve got a placement!”. Whilst they embarked on the world of work in order to better their CV’s and gain a year of invaluable experience, I’d been left behind to battle final year alone; no experience, no friends, no fun. As the numbers of those of us staying behind dwindled I realised if you can’t beat them – join them. If they could do it – why couldn’t? So, I switched from a three to a four-year degree course and my search for a placement began.

I didn't believe that I wouldn’t get the job but nonetheless it would be a good opportunity to get in some interview practice

I had no idea what industry I wanted a year of experience in. This meant often I was sat at my laptop until the late hours applying for a whole host of placements. I didn’t have a burning passion to enter a certain industry, so when I stumbled across the job description for a role as a Statistical Officer in the Civil Service I applied more out of desperation than desire. Maths never was my strong point, and statistics was always my least favourite module throughout my Sociology and Criminology degree, but I was desperate to secure a placement and although the role didn’t look very appealing to me, I thought - why not? I’ll just apply and see what happens. A telephone interview led to a face-to-face interview and, although apprehensive, I attended. I didn't believe that I wouldn’t get the job but nonetheless it would be a good opportunity to get in some interview practice. A phone call followed a few days later. “You’ve got the job!”. I was shocked and eventually accepted the role; being persuaded by its locality and the wage it offered.

For me, placement year also meant moving out of my student house, away from my friends and back into my tiny box room at home with my parents. Yes, my bank balance looked healthier than ever not having to fork out hundreds of pounds a month on rent, but this didn’t seem to make up for the loss of independence I felt. I had just become a fully-fledged adult, living with my friends and taking care of myself so moving home felt like a step back in time. Although the people I worked with were lovely, my team was a small band of 5 and my time was largely spent behind a screen. I craved to see new faces and meet new people, yet the social aspect of the role was challenging, with very few people getting involved in out of work socials. This made moving home even harder, as my friends enjoyed Friday night drinks with their new colleagues, whilst I headed home or to a gym class. Today, I make sure to do some further research into companies I am applying for and take an interest in their social aspects. Of course, this is not the most important part of a job; however, for me, this is something I missed and mitigates the negative aspects of moving home and being without my friends from university.

I value the negative experiences I had on placement so much more than the positive ones

Looking back on my placement year as a fresh-faced graduate staring into the abyss that was my future in the working world, it was a mixed bag. I learnt more than I ever thought I could in a year; but whilst my friends were moving to new cities and working for some of the biggest names in business, I felt isolated and unfulfilled because I had accepted a job I ultimately knew wasn’t right for me. Despite the hurdles I faced, I’m glad I made the decision to do a placement year because of the invaluable lessons it taught me about what I look for and value in a future job role. Robin Sharma was quoted as saying “there is no such thing as a negative experience, only opportunities to grow, learn and advance”. This quote really resonates with me. I value the negative experiences I had on placement so much more than the positive ones. Those experiences showed me that learning what you DON’T want in a job is just as important, if not more so, than learning what you do want from a future career.

As a graduate now embarking on the painful task that is job hunting (made no easier due to the recent global pandemic) I wanted to reflect on the lessons I learnt from my placement year how it is influencing my search for jobs as a graduate. Due to my struggles during placement, my current task of job hunting was initially very daunting. However, I found reassurance in a student mentor job I undertook after my placement during my final year at university. In this role I was a mentor to 55 first year students, visiting them in halls and helping with a variety of issues they faced. I loved the face-to-face interaction with the students, and the feeling of helping someone to overcome a problem. Although this was a small, part-time role, it showed me one bad experience doesn’t reflect on every job, and gave me the reassurance I needed that it wasn’t impossible to find a role which provided me with the fulfillment and face-to-face interactions I longed for during my placement.

Turning down a role or withdrawing an application felt so alien to me that I hadn’t even considered it to be an option a year ago

My mentoring role and the mistakes I’d made in applying for literally any placement I laid my eyes on gave me the boost in confidence I needed to make me realise that it is OK to say No to an employer. Turning down a role or withdrawing an application felt so alien to me that I hadn’t even considered it to be an option a year ago. However, I paid the price for this mistake, ending up in a Statistical Officer role which I had no passion or real interest in. This meant I often felt like I was producing work which didn’t live up to my full potential and left me feeling deflated. So, a few months ago, when I was at the third stage of a possible graduate role, I did some digging and found out more about the job specifics. I grew disheartened by what it entailed, and I made the decision to withdraw my application. Previously I would never have done this as it felt counterproductive and a waste of the time and effort I had put into the application. However, I knew carrying on would have put me in the same position I had been in a year ago. By continuing to apply for roles which I did not feel passionate or excited about I would be doing a disservice to not only the employer but to myself.

As time at my placement progressed, I grew to love the structure of a 9-5 working day, and the flexible working scheme the Civil Service promoted. It gave me the freedom to fit my job around my life rather than fit my life around my job. I didn’t mind a long commute, happy to bury my head in a podcast or a book, and most importantly of all, it taught me to be more confident in my own company. Being a twin and living with my friends meant previously I always had someone by my side practically 24/7. But stripped of my security blankets and left to take on the world of work by myself, I learnt that I enjoyed the pressure of new challenges and projects which I proved I could successfully work on alone and manage. An ever-growing workload seemed to make me work harder and faster and the most important lesson I learnt was to make the best of a bad situation. If I wasn’t getting everything I needed out of the job I was in now, I made it my mission to be proactive and get involved in new projects and departments in order to gain as much insight and experience as possible to figure out what it was I wanted from future roles.

So, where am I at today? Determined to learn from my previous mistake, I am still on the hunt for a job which is right for me and who knows, it might be right around the corner…

This contribution was written by Chloe Cox, 21. Visit her profile here to find out more about the voice behind the words.