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A degree is not a life sentence

A degree is not a life sentence

70% of graduates end up working in a different field to what they studied, and in a tough job market - that figure could be higher. In this article we explore the graduate experience of getting that first job - whatever it may be.

Chances are, your first job out of college or university will not be a home run. We’ve heard the now common stories: the business graduate forced into a waiting job, or the economics graduate who took a job in public relations after a failed job search in their field of study. Turbulent times throw economic curve-balls at ill-prepared graduates, who, stepping up to the plate for the first time, might find themselves feeling lost and depressed, after having been promised home-runs their whole lives.

Two clichés, a fact and a joke

So it’s a cliché: every cloud has a silver lining. Today’s volatile job market could be a blessing in disguise (cliché #2) - a serendipitous burp from the universe, reminding you that other paths remain untravelled. Now for the fact: 70% of graduates end up working in a different field to what they studied, and the other 30% are unemployed (that's the joke - but not too far from the truth).

Real-world examples

Lets look at a handful of real-world examples of graduate career transition experiences. They fall under 3 broad groups: those that try something completely different to what they studied, often based on their interests; those that are doing something related to what they studied, but more focused on their interests; and those that combined their studies with their interests, to form new and interesting careers. Finally, this article is not just for degree-toting graduates, we also examine the early career transition experiences of real people who left school to work at a young age. 

1) Try something completely different to what you studied, based on your interests


Case studies: Neuropharmacology to eco fashion; Marketing to wine label copywriting

One option for graduates is to try something completely different, often along the lines of interests, talents, or ‘niche know-how’. Here are a few real-world examples. Theresa graduated with a prestigious liberal arts degree majoring in neuropharmacology. She’s smart, for sure. She’s also young, colourful and gloriously impulsive. So she moved to New York to pursue an internship working for an eco fashion label. James graduated with a double degree in marketing and international business. Such jobs were in short supply, so James kept busy doing freelance graphic design with his brother to keep busy. Living nearby a wine region, many clientele were wine companies who needed design and copywriting done for their labels. Unexpectedly, James has carved out a little niche with his brother doing the design, and himself doing the copywriting for wine labels. And its pretty good business for a young graduate.

2) Try something related to your study, specialising in your talents

Case studies: Urban planning to: landscape architecture, academia, renewable energy and real estate.


A second option for graduates is to consider the multitude of related career paths to what you studied, focused on your unique talents. A year after graduating in urban planning, my uni buddies have all gone on to pursue niche interests within the scope of those four years of lectures. Andy - the artist  - is completing further study in landscape architecture, oriented to designing affordable, sustainable housing. Ann - the smart one - took the academic route, and is doing her PhD on historical patterns of urban planning. Josh - the activist - is training in the renewable energy sector. And Neb - the salesman - began working in his father’s real estate agency. They are all using the knowledge they gained in their degree to pursue related interests and forge fascinating, targeted, fulfilling careers.

3) Combine your study with your interests, to form new and interesting careers

Case studies: Music + psychology = music therapist; Computer science + sustainability = eco-innovation manager


The diversity of job opportunities available today never cease to astound me. Traditional career are splitting and merging to form new and interesting career niches. Take for example, Richie, who is both a talented musician and recording artist, but has additional interests in psychology and counseling. He is combining his interests by taking up overseas studies for his Masters in Music Therapy, which explores compelling new healing techniques through musical or artistic expression. Kirsten is a computer scientist by trade, but was always interested in sustainability. She found she could combine both interests by working on the website for the Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab, and grew her career into a policy management role. She is now a leading thinker on sustainability, technology and environmental policy in Melbourne.

Early career transition is not just for graduates

Case studies: School leaver to professional pilot; Army cadet to professional paramedic

Early changes in career is not just for those who graduated from university. Ben never did get round to finishing high school, opting to work odd jobs over the years to save enough money to fulfill a childhood ambition: getting his pilot’s license. High school buddy Joe completed his basic schooling (by a whisker), but was never genuinely interested in school. Unsure of his future, Joe join the Australian Army cadets. Meeting him a few short years later, Joe was - to my pleasant surprise - a fully trained and qualified paramedic (not to mention the army covering his education expenses), he was also well travelled, physically fit and loved his work. Joe did good.



Not every attempted career transition, especially from university or college to the real world, will be a spectacular home-run. One of the joys of teenage jobs lies in gaining exposure to a bunch of different industries and working environments. Even into our late twenties, early thirties and onwards, there is an emerging trend that continues after our schooling, the 'pick 'n' mix' approach to career (see link below) - whereby young workers pick and mix a multitude of different job roles before finding and selecting their chosen vocation. But as you can see above, countless real-world examples abound of successful transitions into completely different fields, related ‘niche’ fields, as well as combining fields to carve out new and interesting career paths. So you may not hit a home-run on your first swing - but then again - maybe baseball isn’t the sport you are best suited to!

Have a think about these options, and when you are ready to take the plunge, sign up for a WorkLifeGroup passport as a starting point for your career transition journey ahead.

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EARLY CAREER: Gen Y, Graduates and Early Careerists

Guy has worked as a business journalist, urban planner, slow food chef, denim salesperson and digital media manager, and shares original insights on diverse Gen Y career experiences.

Guy holds a B. Urban Planning & Development (Hons), has worked in 5 different industries and knows what its like to face the challenge of graduate transition. New career choices, personal branding and balancing passions with money are all part of the mix.

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