I went to university in the UK to do a Business and Management degree. Originally I wanted to specialize in a marketing degree, because this was the area I was most interested in pursuing in my future career, but someone advised me to broaden my studies so that I wasn’t limiting my options. It was good advice.
My three years at the University of Exeter were really positive. I was the sort of person who could do well academically, but I had to work hard to get decent results, though I still made time to enjoy the university experience. Looking back, I wish I had taken advantage of extracurricular activities by joining more societies and clubs, because once you start working you’re unlikely to have access to so many of those opportunities. Plus those experiences help you stand out from the crowd when it comes to applying for your first job – an employer isn’t just interested in your academic background.
I knew that I wanted to work in marketing – because this was the only subject area that I could get excited about and see myself doing – so I applied for relevant internships with well‑known companies to occupy my summers between my university years, but these were such competitive schemes that I didn’t have any success. One of my contacts offered to set up a meeting with his colleague, who was looking for temporary support. This colleague worked as the Head of Fundraising and although I wasn’t directly interested in fundraising, I could see how gaining experience in her department could be transferable to a future role within marketing.
I worked in that role for the summer between my second and third year of university, and since I hadn’t succeeded in getting onto a marketing graduate programme, I returned to the same fundraising role after my three years of study were up, and worked there for 18 months.
It was clear early on that the job wasn’t the best fit for me and I wasn’t ready to give up on my dream to work in marketing, even though I knew it was going to be a difficult industry to break into. I spent nine challenging months scouring the internet and applying for marketing jobs before making any kind of progress. I had a four hour daily commute to the fundraising job and I would spend those hours scribbling draft answers to job application questions or thinking about which organizations I wanted to work for, I minimized my social plans for the week to maximize evenings job hunting, and often my weekends would be spent searching for jobs. Eventually I came up with the idea to gain direct experience within marketing to increase my chances of being taken seriously by recruiters, so I organized to take a week’s annual leave from my fundraising job, did (free) marketing work experience for a friend’s business and added this onto my CV at the earliest opportunity.
By coincidence my first phone interview from the many jobs I applied for happened during this week of work experience, which then led to two further interviews for the same company, and I was absolutely delighted to be offered the Account Coordinator role within that marketing agency. I landed that job because I took the time to understand their culture and communication style, and I mirrored their language within my own application – making it easy for them to see how I would be a good fit within their organization. I was honest about my determination to work in marketing, demonstrated that I’m a hard worker and why I would be of value to them. They liked my authenticity.
With the benefit of hindsight it’s so clear to me that I would have made quicker progress if I’d made use of my network, by stepping away from my laptop screen and having more conversations with people. We may live in a digital world, but forming connections in real life still has huge value.
I spent three and a half years at that agency, working my way up the ranks within project and client management. I was good at my job because it required three core skills that came naturally to me: organization, attention to detail and relationship building. There were lots of highs – I made some special friends, had many free nights out with media contacts, grew my network and invested in my professional development. But all of that was overshadowed by things I was struggling to deal with: very long working hours, high stress levels and a growing feeling of incompatibility with this career path. And the problem with that last one was I had only ever thought about working in this field and couldn’t begin to imagine what else I could do with my career.
Lots of competitor marketing agencies had approached me on LinkedIn with offers of informal conversations about their job openings, but there was only one competitor I would consider working for. So when they got in touch, I was open to hearing what they had to say. The reason they were interested in me was pretty simple: I had developed a good reputation within my network, and people were willing to recommend me because they could place their trust in my ability to do a good job (and be a nice person too – that counts for a lot!). My chances of getting a job with this agency were greatly increased by the fact I had come personally recommended. In fact they hadn’t publicly advertised the role they wanted to discuss with me, which is typical practice. It’s been said that 80% of job openings are never advertised because recruiters would rather want to fill them with internal candidates (people already working for the company), or through referrals. You’ll find that’s the case with graduate jobs too – often companies will use successful interns they’ve taken on to fill up the graduate scheme spots.
I took the job at this other agency as a bit of an experiment; I wanted to see whether my doubts about my career path were valid, or whether I simply needed a change of scene, which I could fulfill by joining another employer. Turns out it was the former: working within client management in marketing agencies was no longer right for me.
I’d worked myself into the ground through those four years, so I took some time off to recuperate. Over the course of the next two years I worked in various lower skilled part-time, seasonal and temporary jobs, and took on some freelance and voluntary work too. This all involved taking a significant pay cut and massively effected my quality of life, but in exchange I no longer had high anxiety, sleepless nights and regular palpitations, which had become a normal part of my experience through working in marketing. And although it’s such a cliché, I’d learnt for myself that a decent salary was not enough to keep me satisfied. Money certainly helps, but it doesn’t buy happiness.
I viewed my career break as an opportunity and decided to do some traveling, study towards a qualification, as well as consume as much advice I could get my hands on to do with career change; I bought all the books, listened to all the podcasts, went along to events and joined communities to learn how I could make a career pivot. It baffled me that all this information didn’t exist in one place – after all, so many people are unhappy in their career and want to make a change, but don’t feel confident enough to do it, or don’t know where to begin. So I created that one place and built a website to house my recommended career change tools: https://morefrommycareer.com
These days, I’m mindful of my responsibility to invest in my personal and professional development, to ensure that I am an attractive prospect to future employers and customers coming to my website. I believe that it’s becoming harder to differentiate ourselves from the competition, so we have to work on remaining current and valuable. As well as regularly listening to career-related podcasts and reading career strategies within books and articles on Medium.com, my coaching qualification has helped me personally develop greater emotional intelligence, which is an increasingly desirable quality that employers look for, and I am expanding my skills through my website work; for example through writing, curating social media content, and selling my proposition to develop partnerships.
Steve Jobs once said that it’s easy to look back over your career path and join up the dots – because only at that point can you make sense of every decision you made and role you took on. It’s so much harder to look ahead and plan every career move in advance, because you never know who you might meet, what aspects of a role you’ll enjoy or never want to do again, and how a new contact may be of help to you in the future. In my case, from a young age I had my heart set on a long career path within marketing, but that view was formed before I had any real experience of working day in and day out in that industry.
So my main advice is to not get too stressed about finding the right career path fit as soon as you finish university. After all, you have many years of working ahead of you, so there’s no rush to get it right straight away! The world of work is completely different to how it was 10 years ago, and it will develop even more in the next 10 years, in some ways which we won’t be able to predict. With rapid developments in technology, new jobs are being created all the time so there’s plenty of opportunity available for everyone.
You have a choice with how you want to view your career path. I know many, many people who feel that they aren’t in a career path that fits them, but they’ve made peace with that by devoting their free time to interests that do light them up. Or they treat their working life as an experiment through trying out different roles that take their fancy, allowing them to explore their curiosities without getting fixated on finding ‘the one’. Portfolio careers are on the rise too, meaning people don’t just have one job or one income stream, but split their time over several areas of interest, allowing them to fulfill multiple skills.
I also think that for career-minded people, simply fulfilling your contracted hours and doing the responsibilities listed on your job description is not enough. To stand out, stick your hand up: be a helpful, valuable person that’s good to have around. Solve your colleagues’ problems, be interested in what others have to say, build your network, pursue your curiosities and build a meaningful life outside of work. Above all else: be authentic and believe in yourself.
Roz Jackson works as a content editor and proofreader, is a qualified career path coach and manages a website designed for career changers. You can follow her at @morefrommycareer on Instagram, @morefromacareer on Twitter