“What do you do?” Careers and Labels

Careers are such strange things. When we’re children people ask us what we want to be and it’s always these clearly identifiable jobs, ones that carry an identity with them: teacher, fireman, policeman, actress, doctor, etc. When you get older you realise that there are so many jobs that don’t have a name, which you can’t aim for because you don’t know they exist, and where telling people what you do requires a paragraph of explanation. In some cases, this can make you feel like your job is worth less than the jobs that have a title, and less than the people who’ve been aiming for the same vocation their whole lives.

For example, my boyfriend is an academic, many of his friends are academics, some of his exes are academics. Before we met, after a period in publishing I decided to go back to university for a Master’s degree, with a thought that I might carry it on this time and become a lecturer. Talking it over with a teacher who knew me well he gently warned me that academia might not be right for me because there is so much time spent alone, doing research or marking or writing lectures, and the rest of the time you have to be in some way an extrovert, engaging the attention and motivating the minds of dozens of students. In the past I’ve heaped a whole load of contradictory labels onto myself – introvert (needs to spend time alone), history of depression (shouldn’t spend too much time alone), anxious (should steer clear of stressful situations). And then I wondered if I was limiting myself with these labels from a career that I could enjoy. So I kept aiming for the PhD, until I found out other, innate qualities about myself that don’t have labels but which do mean that being a lecturer wouldn’t be the best path for me. I don’t enjoy working on one thing for long periods of time, I find it tedious and frustrating. Although I enjoyed what I was researching in my MA I didn’t have that all-consuming desire to get to the bottom of a topic and do everything required – learn new languages, travel – to find out everything about it. Although I’m a competent public speaker it makes me extremely stressed. For these reasons amongst others (expense, lack of job opportunities on the other side) I decided not to carry on with my studies.

As someone who defined themselves for a long time by their grades (see other blog) I’m still coming to terms with this decision, and struggling not to feel inadequate and intellectually a lesser being next to these academics. And maybe I am, in some ways, if you judge by particular criteria. I don’t have the kind of memory that holds on to thousands of historical facts. I seem to have filled up my brain by age 16 with information about different horse breeds and the plots of hundreds of books – there’s not much space left. I’m not one of those people who can expostulate at length on various topics when I don’t know exactly what I’m talking about (introvert trait?) unless I’m drunk (or just shy?) so being a lecturer probably wouldn’t work out so well. If a student threw me a curveball question I’d either need to have a hip flask of gin to let me bullshit about it or tell them to ask again next week once I’d read up on it. Although it’s been a difficult process, I’m glad to have done the MA so I could find out these things about myself, about my differences. Essentially, I believe that’s what university is all about.

The company I work for has recently been approached by a group working to encourage students to take STEM subjects at GCSE and beyond. As a mapping company and technology company you’d assume we’d be a good fit for a slightly ‘think outside the box’ example of what you can do with STEM subjects. But the people in the office mostly didn’t do science and maths. Of the people who did further education, we have an assortment including English, History, Architecture, and Music. Some didn’t go to university at all, and their A Levels weren’t in the right ball park either – Latin, Greek, etc. We are, in fact, an advert for Arts and Humanities subjects as passports to whatever the hell you like. While I understand that we need to show children what they can do with maths and science and encourage them to carry it on if they enjoy it, I think we should also be teaching children that they can keep changing their minds, over and over again. What they do at university does not need to define them for the rest of their lives. Neither does their first job. Or their second job.

As you get older your ideas of yourself can change – they might not, you might carry out your childhood dream – but if, like me, your ‘childhood dream’ changed monthly and was remarkably similar to what your best friend’s ‘childhood dream’ was, or the occupation of the protagonist of the latest book you’d read, then don’t panic. You don’t have to have had a dream, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up about it. You have the freedom to just see what comes up, see what sounds interesting, and see what opportunities come from people that you know. Do not underestimate the advantages of going for something that isn’t what you ever imagined, if the people are nice and the job keeps your mind busy. I love working at the job I’m in now because I get to do so many different things every day. I have an obscure job title which nobody has ever thought up as their dream job while they’re at school (we invented it) and which tells you virtually nothing about what I do every day, but it suits me with my preference for short jobs I can chop and change between.

The film Good Will Hunting made me laugh in this respect (spoilers!). There’s so much debate about what Will should do, what job he should go for with this fantastic brain that was going to change the world. But why did he need to decide right then? He was what, 20? He could do one thing for a bit, then something else. He could go be in love with the girl for a while, sort his head out after some pretty serious and life-changing therapy, then think about what he wanted to do. We shouldn’t keep pushing young people to think of a career by an expiry date, especially when people are putting down that expiry date as 17, when you’re picking your university subjects. Hardly anybody knows themselves at 17 – that’s why most of us have relationships at that age which are, in retrospect, such monumentally bad ideas. People change their minds about their passions and careers at 28, 35, 50, 65, whenever. Talking the issue over with a colleague recently, he said he thought the best advice would be: whatever you’re doing, do it well. Do the best at it that you can. Which is why I believe it’s so important not to assign career paths to students and imply that their subjects and university degrees will be labels that define them for life. They need to be doing the topics that interest them, because it’s so much harder to do well at a subject that you don’t enjoy. Also, although we can encourage children to think of the big dream jobs, we could also try to explain that there are many jobs that they won’t be able to think of yet, but which will suit their qualities and differences just right. And they’ll find out those qualities and differences through experience, and little else.


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