Finalist? Unsure what you’re doing after university? Here’s what to do.

Recently, I got to talking with another final year student about post-university plans.

‘Since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a lawyer,’ she told me, ‘but I got experience in a law firm over summer, and I realized that isn’t what I want to do forever. So now, I don’t know. I DO still enjoy my law modules, and it would be cool to explore something in business. But I’m not sure where to go from here.’

This situation – being a finalist, and unsure about what to do next – seems pretty common, given the statistics. And that raises the simple yet quite difficult question, what SHOULD you do after university?

But to answer THAT, we need to understand something else…

What actually happens after your last summer as an undergrad?

Remember the transition from college/sixth form to university? How qualitatively different it was in terms of what you had to figure out?

Not just in study – but in learning to live with others, socializing, finding sources of guidance, figuring out cooking, shopping, laundry, bills, termly budgeting, renting (including predatory landlords), and things which had simply never occurred to you, but you were just expected to be able to do?

Well – when you graduate that basically happens again, but much more intensely.

Why exactly is post-university life so different?

It’s because university’s a bubble – an incredibly useful bubble you can utilize to give yourself a massive edge in your professional and personal life – but a bubble nonetheless, where are reduced consequences for mistakes (thus giving you a dry run before the stakes get greater).

In its turn, this entire situation is possible because you have:

  1. Support and advice in the form of an entire institution of working professionals whose roles exist to help you to succeed and improve in whatever way you so choose.
  2. National financial support networks and discounted services. And finally…
  3. An unspoken understanding from the world at large that as a student, you’re still someone who is in training. This status tends to get you more general leeway than someone who is not.

This is the backdrop to our individual university experiences. And when we leave – that’s gone.

So how does that change life when you leave?

I identify the following as the big four;

  1. The new backdrop is making money to survive. You’re not looking to test well for a professor anymore – you’re looking to make money. Unless you’re already being bankrolled by parents, you’re suddenly paying rent and bills without the benefit of low-interest student funds. Taxes are bigger, as are financial penalties. Rent, bills, and groceries no longer have student deals or discounts, and council tax is a whole thing. The main pressure isn’t to make grades and socialise with peers –it’s to make money, while paying back accumulated costs of study on top of the new, non-discounted costs of living. Following on from that….
  2. Performing well isn’t an accomplishment anymore – it’s a baseline. You’re a hard-worker who’s good at your job? No one cares. Once you’re out of learning environments, you don’t stand out or progress with hard work and good performance. For better or worse – progression happens because of interpersonal politics, and your ability to market yourself and your team’s work as valuable. This is why you get things like the Peter Principle, and managers who rarely seem to match your efforts or knowledge (retail and service workers – you’ve met this person).  The main currency in an organization isn’t effort, knowledge, or even competence – but the ability to present as competent, and utilize your team’s time and hard work to hit targets and goals set by the company.

I’m NOT saying that you never need to work hard to progress– if all you can do is posture without backing it up, then eventually there’s probably going to be a cap on how far ahead you go. But without the soft skills market yourself well to your employers–you’ll be at the complete mercy of those who can.

On a related note…

  1. At university – the institutions are invested in your progress and well-being. When you leave university? No such institution cares. There is no Support Centre to advise you, no Course Rep voted in to advocate your cases, Academic Tutor to advise you, dedicated Disability Liaison, drop-in hours, or any joint discussion panel for in-person feedback. Decisions will be based on results, politics, and what’s best for the company. Not for what’s best for you as an individual;
  • Having trouble with the work? No one cares.
  • Not sure what you want to do with life? No one cares.
  • Messed up due to an honest mistakes or unfair circumstances? Decisions will be made based on what’s good for the company – because as an individual, you’ll have no real advocates, and no one cares.
  1. You’re tired. This is one that didn’t really ‘click’ until I was working full-time. Be it service/retail, skilled labor, or an office job –40+ hour jobs are draining. 8+ hours per day being focused leaves you with less energy in the evenings (and on weekends) to make future plans and pursue passions, on top of maintaining a social life, as well as keeping your life-admin and housework/chores in order.

Sure –healthy living helps to mitigate this (and I’d advise nailing the basics of this now, so that you’re not learning on the fly when you’re already swamped and tired) – but nothing removes it completely.

Like I said. It’s a bit like the transition from college to university – but a lot more intense.

So what do you do after university?

When you leave university then, one way or another, you’ll need to be doing the following, at some point –

  • Making enough money to pay for necessities (and ideally, not just that – but enough to be worth the time and money investment of university).
  • Developing the independence, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills you need to maintain yourself.
  • Figuring out what your long-term goals are, and knowing how to make those happen – since all progression will be self-directed hereon in.

Particular with the last two – this is a LOT when you’re working 9-5.

Sounds kind of intense, right? Bear with me.

You now know what’s coming. This means there are ways to prepare for it right now, while you’re still a student. That will lessen the shock of the fall, and can set you up for a smoother, more successful transition (which in turn is gonna put you right ahead of the competition).

So without any further ado:

What you need to do right now – as a finalist – to prepare for post-uni pressures

Start regularly practicing at least one of the following – each will cut down your learning curve, and make one of the 4 pressures of post-uni life much easier. It will be MUCH easier to start learning while you’re at university, and will make life a lot easier when you’ve left:

  1. Start getting paid for skilled work – and start right now.

Service/retail is fine to tide you over, but I highly recommend pushing for skilled work experience while you still have access to subsidized living costs because this isn’t about saving money.  It’s about building the portfolio of experience you need to get into well-compensated grad roles – and getting these experiences is much harder (and more costly) when you’re no longer a student. So apply everywhere you can right now- search for volunteer roles, speak to agencies, and explore freelance websites if you want to strike off on your own. Or, just use Campus Jobs and the Careers department; in two years, I’ve worked as a Digital Content Creator, Copywriter, Content Marketer, and Social Media Manager, all through the University.

You’ve probably learned marketable skills via your degree and maybe even your spare time – potentially without even realizing it. In the interests of time, I’d recommend taking stock of what you CAN do right now, and running with that. Some possible skills you could probably get paid for right now:

  • Graphic design
  • Audio and visual content creation
  • Proofreading and editing
  • Writing (creative, blog, technical, or copy)
  • Research (web and contact)
  • Programming (Drupal, PHP, WordPress, JavaScript, Python– there’s a LOT of programming languages, so take your pick)
  • Customer service (taking calls and emails – even remotely)
  • Management of any kind

Unsure what marketable skills you have? Ask Careers to help you take stock– it’s an entire (award winning) department of specialists, who will help you figure out what you’ve got and what you can do with it.

Note – all of the above are things you could start teaching yourself right now with practice, so if anything’s standing out to you, start doing it (self-directed personal projects are good if you can manage them– a buddy of mine landed a job with no prior experience after messing around with coding and building his own website).

Want to get a head-start learning what other skills are in demand? Start researching the ‘person specification’ section of attractive job applications online – those tend to list the skills you need to be able to demonstrate on paper to have a shot at the roles.

  1. Put aside time to get better at life-skills that will make your life easier.

I guess point 1 falls into this category – job skills will make your life easier, for sure.

But my point here is that if job skills are not your current priority, there are other skills you’d benefit from learning now, while you’re still a student. This can range from practicalities like cooking and budgeting to more complex issues like mental health and social skills so as a rule of thumb, I’d say this – if your time is going into something that’s stopping you from figuring out your passions and dreams and making them a reality, figure out what skills you need to make them as simple/non-time consuming as possible. Struggling because you’re not well fed? Invest some time and money learning the basics of cooking cheaply and simply while you’re here, with subsidized costs. Struggling with mental health issues? Prioritize learning to get things under control while you have access to university welfare support (NHS waitlists are LONG, and your schedule will be a lot less flexible). Social life/skills your main concern? You’re in the most fluid social environment you’ll ever encounter –practicing these will be FAR more complicated when you leave.

  1. Keep developing medium and longer-term goals – career and otherwise.

As far as long term work and career goals go – this is one I’ve covered in another article, so I won’t repeat that here. But I will recommend this: if you can, I highly advocate making one of your long term goals financial independence – be it running your own business, developing passive income streams, having some decent side gigs, real estate, or anything else. 9-5 is fine – we all start here, it’s how we learn marketable industry skills. But for all the benefits, this puts us at the mercy of others for whom your life and working needs really, truly do not matter beyond what is required. Plus, increasingly digitized and automated industries means increased savings for company heads which –especially in times of economic downturn – means high risk for workers. So traditional corporate loyalty guarantees absolutely nothing. I’m always going to advocate using your time working for others to glean the skills to do what they do – then strike off on your own.

And as for longer-term, non-career goals? That’s one of those esoteric things that, in a lot of ways, defines who you are and what you consider your life’s purpose. And that’s WAY beyond the purview of this article, which is already long enough as it is (shout-out to my copy editor– I owe you coffee). If people are interested, maybe it’s something I can publish before I graduate.


To recap:

  1. After university, your main pressures change from directed learning and socializing, to full responsibility for financing, progression, and any further learning and training. You also have much less personal time.
  2. As a finalist – you can prepare for this by using your last 6 months here to give yourself a head-start in one (or more) of the following:
    1. Getting paid for (and therefore developing) in-demand work skills of your choice, or…
    2. Learning specific life skills now, while you have the time and reduced costs, or…
    3. Developing your long-term plans and goals now, so you’re not figuring them out later – but executing.

I’ll also end by saying this – I’m aware I’ve made it sound scary. And to a degree, yes – there’s a lot to adapt to, and it’s daunting. But you won’t be going at it completely alone –this is specific to Reading University students, but after graduation, you WILL have the advantage of post-grad careers support, including direct access to employers and grad jobs via the University. So you’ll have 18 months of leeway in terms of job-searching and skills development if you start late.

And more important is this – if you can adapt to it, post-uni life in general comes with some HUGE advantages:

  • When you get home from work, you get to leave it all behind. You’re stress free, because you’re not reading ahead, looking through timetables, or preparing anything for the next day unless you want to. Your time is actually Meaning…
  • The best years of your life are not at university – whoever said that was just wrong. Your life can get a LOT more interesting when you leave. After you graduate, that free time, and that extra money means that you have a lot more scope to enjoy life, REALLY pursue hobbies and passion projects, and travel without worrying about homework, reading, exams, group projects, and career plans. You’ll also be working towards your own, actual, personalized life goals – things you care about, and things you really want to do.

So post-uni life CAN be awesome. But that’s if– and ONLY if – you’re not struggling to stay afloat.

So especially as a finalist, you’ll want a head-start. So start small- but start early.

Do the legwork for your best life now.

Then – when it’s all done, and you’ve hung up the grad gown – you won’t be confused, lost, or overwhelmed.

You’ll be ready.

Written by Elliot Kim

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