Do you ever look around at where you are in life and think 'how on earth did I find myself here?'. A little like when you're walking somewhere familiar, only to realise on arrival that you don't really remember anything about the journey? For many of us, careers can be just like that.
Whether it’s somewhat blindly following an academic path, or gradually working our way up through a company, many of us get to a point where we stop, pause, and wonder how we wound up where we are, and more crucially, how on earth we can get out.
Today we're going to outline what on you do if the career conveyor belt is not for you, so you feel a little more like you're walking into something new, rather than walking the plank.
To know what to do next, it can help to reflect on how many people get to this point in the first place.
How did I get here?
There are many conveyor belt trajectories that bring us to the point of sudden doubt. Lots of folk jump on the academic conveyor belt. It’s easy to understand why. A 2019 study carried out by the Department for Education and the University of Warwick found that “there is some … evidence that information, advice and guidance is perceived to be biased towards academic routes and away from more technical and vocational options”.
You probably know this particular conveyor belt well. At 14, choose your GCSEs. Get them, choose your A Levels, get those, choose your degree, and on and on. Suddenly you look around aged 22 in your graduate job, your medical training, perhaps even your PGCE, and realise you’re not actually all that happy.
Perhaps you jumped on the employment conveyor belt instead. You finished your apprenticeship, got your first job, and five years in you’re managing an entire team. You’re responsible, you’re seen as a success, but actually, you find it all really stressful, and not all that rewarding.
Why do we jump on these conveyor belts? We’re not pots of yoghurt or car parts, after all. Well, there are a lot of reasons – but the big one would be our good friend, pressure. Pressure to perform academically like your family did or our siblings have. Perhaps pressure to earn and support your family. It could even be pressure from your family – to make their struggles to get you to a position where you can earn, worth it.
What happens, though, if we realise that perhaps the conveyor belt didn't really take us where we wanted it to? We're not happy, but we don't really know another way of living. The prescribed route is all we know, so surely everything around it is just a giant black hole? I've been there. It's scary, but I promise, there are magical things beyond the conveyor belt.
The overall thing I’d love you to remember is that getting off the conveyor belt is about realising that you, in fact, have agency. While family ties and societal pressure make it feel like other folk are pulling the strings, you truly are the one in charge. It takes lots of practical steps, which we’re going to go into, but the first thing I want you to know is that you do not have to live your life according to what you think you should be doing. Let’s talk now about recognising where our agency can take us.
Frequently, these changes of heart come at big junctures in education and work. Whether it’s changing your path when you come to deciding if you want to study a degree, or changing jobs when you come up for a big promotion, knowing how to pause and reflect can be overwhelming. Here’s our best advice.
Think about what you want (and don’t want)
If you’re deciding whether or not to move away from a path you’re already on, nothing beats a pros and cons list. Write down what you do and don’t like about your current path. Not only will it help inform your decision, it will help you decide what you do want for yourself. Perhaps it’s the working conditions you don’t like. You want a career with fewer hours and a better work life balance. Perhaps your course isn’t creative enough, or it’s too creative – and so too stressful!
If you are working, you might like to go through your job description to outline what you do and don’t like about your role. If you’re studying, break up your subjects into their main components. You might realise you just need a simple change of course, or you might know you’re on entirely the wrong path altogether. Once you know more about what you’re truly after, it’s time to do some research.
Make sure you’re financially sorted
We’d be living in dreamland, and not recognising reality, if we didn’t factor this in. If you’re still studying, this might feel a little different. But if you’re used to a regular salary, changing your mind can feel pretty scary. There are ways around this.
If you need a secure salary but want to change things up, look into bursaries, paid training, and movement within your current line of work. Could you ask to volunteer or job shadow in another department to build up experience? Could you access a bursary for training, such as those offered by the Department for Education for teaching professions, or perhaps take on part time training while still working? How about a degree apprenticeship? Factor these in when you’re thinking about mixing things up.
Do your research
You may at this point know what you’re after. Now you can use Sort Your Future to read up on how to get there. Whether it’s time to retrain or simply reapply for new roles, we have lots of resources to help. Use our CV guide to create a top-notch resumé. Research grad schemes and free training to upskill yourself, or learn what exactly you need for the dream job. Filter jobs by salary, too, so you have an idea of what will truly meet your goals. Look into what makes a great police officer right through to finding out how you set up your own business.
Saying this, for many folk, knowing you’re on the wrong path doesn’t help you know what exactly the right track is. You know you’re unfulfilled, but you’re not sure what fulfilled actually looks like. We’d love to offer help with that!
Head over to our website where you’ll find heaps of completely free resources to help you work out what you actually want to do. You can take personality quizzes, discover job types and more to find out what the right path truly is for you. Search through training opportunities as well as plenty of advice and guidance on everything from CVs to grad schemes. As you search through different opportunities, make a note of what makes you feel excited.
So, now you have an idea of where you want to go. There’s still that somewhat scary issue of *telling everyone*. We’ve touched a little on the influence of others on your career trajectory. Whether you are still in school or university and don’t feel like you’re following the right path, or you’re already on your way into a career, it’s very likely that there are folk in your life that have encouraged you on your journey. Talking to them about your career or education change is a vital step towards making the leap.
Whether it’s well-meaning family members pushing you into medicine, managers pushing you towards being a team leader, or mentors and counsellors encouraging you to keep chugging on the trajectory you’re already on, you’re going to need to have the talk. And while it’s not your job to convince anyone of your life choices, having these conversations can often be the main reason people choose to carry on doing what they’re doing.
The thought of disappointing or alienating others is pretty scary. I’d argue, though, that living a life purely to make others happy is more frightening. Let’s break down some tips on how to approach these tough chats.
Find a good time
Telling your Mum that you’re dropping out of your medical degree to pursue your lifelong dream in professional mountaineering while she’s halfway through the Asda shop on a Saturday is probably not a good time. Finding your school mentor in the middle of a busy period while they’re desperately chugging stale staff room coffee, equally, is not a good time.
Think about who the person you need to talk to is, and when they’re at their most relaxed. If it’s someone who rarely gets a chance to sit down, ask them. A to-the-point question like ‘I’d like to have a chat about how work/school/university is going - when would be a good time for you?’ is a great way to be sure that the person is at their most receptive.
Plan ahead - and be evidence-based
It’s easy for these conversations to get emotional, and for you to struggle to put forward what you want to say. So, plan just like you’d plan out an essay at school! Write down the key reasons you’re making the jump. If you can, use examples from your life and give evidence to explain them. ‘I never liked bricklaying and the thought of managing other bricklayers makes me want to scream’ will come across very differently than ‘I don’t like this line of work as it doesn’t give me enough challenge, and doesn’t make me excited. I see how my friend Kevin talks about being an architect. He gets so excited about his plans, and I want to feel that way too’.
Write down what you’d want the very best version of you to say in simple bullet points, and have it on hand when you’re talking. This way, you’re less likely to stumble, become defensive or upset.
Above all, have confidence
The best way to know the best path for you is to, however corny it might sound, follow your heart. With the right structures in place - that is, knowing what you’re after and the steps you need to take to get there, we know you can do it!