Written by IFF Research

When life presents unexpected choices

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Sometimes things don’t go to plan. Sometimes what we think we want isn’t what we actually want. And sometimes we simply don’t know what we want. This is true of most things in life from choosing an ice cream flavour to buying a house.  It’s a very hot day as I write this so let’s stick with the ice cream example…you’re walking up to the ice cream parlour thinking you’ll opt for your favourite flavour – chocolate – only to discover that there is no chocolate, it’s run out. For a moment, panic sets in and you survey the choice in front of you and eventually plump for salted caramel. After your first lick you realise that salted caramel is OUT OF THIS WORLD, so much more satisfying that chocolate ever was and you can’t think back to the time before when all you’d ever consider was chocolate!

It can also be true of careers too. Not everyone goes to university knowing what want they want to do when they graduate. On the other hand, others might have a very clear idea of the career path that lies ahead of them when they finish university, but for one reason or another aren’t able or choose not to pursue these plans. That doesn’t mean to say that where they do eventually end up is any less rewarding, challenging or fulfilling than what they had originally hoped for and often, and can exceed all previous hopes and expectations.

In today’s blog we have some great contributions from a couple of people that can relate to things not quite going to plan, initially, and they tell their stories below.

What were your reasons for choosing your uni course and what did you hope you’d get out of it?

“I had originally planned to take an English Literature degree going straight to uni after my A levels. I enjoyed English and Theatre Studies but thought English Lit was the ‘sensible’ choice. However, it was not meant to be. A disappointing A level grade meant I had to change to my plans; quite considerably as it turned out! I was forced to take a year out which in fact turned out to be a positive thing as I ended up travelling around Australia and New Zealand for 4 months with a friend. The time out and self-refection meant I really questioned what I wanted to do with my life. The answer was I actually didn’t want to play safe but decided to do a Theatre Studies degree in the hope that perhaps I would try out for Drama School afterwards. I thought going to uni first would provide me a more in-depth knowledge of drama and the arts and if I didn’t get in to Drama School then at least I would have a degree from a reputable university (Lancaster) to fall back on.”

What are you actually doing now, how did you get there and why do you enjoy it so much?

“I am now an Events Manager at Jupiter Asset Management. I did succeed in getting into Drama School and in fact acting was my profession for around 8 years which was amazing and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Who wouldn’t love doing a job which didn’t feel like work and actually getting paid for it?! However, there came a point when I had to decide whether touring around the country and never being at home and continually coping with the rejection you often face in the acting world, was what I really wanted and whether I could do this for the rest of my working career. I didn’t want to leave it too late to start another career if I was to go down this route. So an opportunity came up to gain some corporate experience which I took and spent 18 months at HSBC in Canary Wharf as a PA. I then applied to Jupiter as a PA for the Head of Marketing as the job description mentioned working with the Events Manager and I had started thinking ‘events’ was the route I wanted to go down. After a year of hard work and showing enthusiasm, I transferred to the Events team as an executive and now I’m Events Manager in a team of three. I enjoy my job as no two days are ever the same. I’m a good organiser and can multitask which are key skills for the job. I enjoy the variety of events we run and as we act as the project manager, we have to liaise with a lot of teams which is great as I’m a very social person.”

What transferrable skills did you take from your uni course / experience and apply to what you are doing now?

“The most apparent transferable skill is the basic skill of acting. Events can be quite pressurising but you need to appear calm and stress free even if you are panicking underneath. The image of the swan gliding gracefully across the water, whilst paddling furiously underneath is a good one. You have to give the outward appearance of being in control. When you are face to face with clients you always have to be happy and approachable even if you are having a terrible day!

I also think that going to uni helped my confidence and meeting lots of different people, not only students but lecturers as well, meant I wasn’t afraid to interact with different levels of seniority in the workplace. Doing not only a practical degree but also theoretical, meant I had to research and produce a lot of essays so you have to work on your communication skills to get your point across succinctly and this is the same in events; you need to obtain a lot of information from a variety of sources and then amalgamate so it’s easily digestible and clear to those involved.”

What were your reasons for choosing your uni course and what did you hope you’d get out of it?

“I’d wanted to study medicine for as long as I could remember. When I was 8 years old I broke my arm very badly and it eventually took 18 months of rehab for me to be able to use the arm again, so I had been familiar with hospitals and healthcare from a very young age. As the first in my family to go to university I applied with the help of my school to Russell group universities and was offered a place at 3 London universities but unfortunately, I didn’t get the grades I was predicted. I was offered a place from a list of related but alternative programmes (a bit like clearing). I usually take weeks to decide on things but remember feeling so desperate and confused that I shut my eyes, ran my finger down the list and stopped on medical biochemistry.”

What were your plans for your future while at uni?

“The plan was to study the BSc in medical biochemistry and then apply for graduate entry medicine. Anyhow, I lived with medical students in halls, and was friends with lots of them as I played on sports teams for the medical school. In all honesty, I remember feeling bitter towards some of the medical students I encountered whilst I was studying biochemistry because I knew I had more potential than them and the support that they received was far, far greater than anything my peers on those alternative programmes received. So all of this meant that I spent the first 2.5 years of my 3 year degree hating what I was studying, and not really making the most of (or even thinking to seek out) opportunities during my degree.”

What are you doing now, how did you get there and why do you enjoy it so much?

“I’m now Associate Professor (Head of Biology) at University of Greenwich and have been at the university for 10 years! My journey to where I am now started in one of my medical biochemistry lectures and being really intrigued by a question mark that was shown in a biochemical pathway. I wondered why it was there and it dawned on me that we would only find out if someone dedicated their life to finding out through research. This was the second time that “research” had come to my mind as being something important as I had a sister who died when she was very young owing to congenital cardiac conditions; if she had been born today she almost certainly wouldn’t have died because research has improved surgical techniques and given us new pharmaceutical agents that could have been used to treat her. And then finally, as I was about to apply for graduate entry medicine my grandfather was diagnosed with cancer. This rocked my world but again, I realised that even if I was a medical doctor, I could do nothing to treat him without the appropriate treatments being available; and those treatments come from research.

I managed to secure a PhD scholarship funded by the British Heart Foundation at St Thomas’s Hospital and enjoyed every minute of it; working with such brilliant minds stimulated me like nothing else and during the course of the 4 years, took me across the world. When I was about to graduate from my PhD, I knew that I wanted some job security, a big salary and to become a homeowner so I managed to get a job as a research analyst in the City of London. The work was really interesting and the salary could have been very good after a few years, but I missed the academic environment, every day being different, no micro management, and interactions with some the greatest minds in the world. So, I applied for a lectureship at the University of Greenwich.”

What transferable skills did you take from your uni course / experience and apply to what you are doing now?

“My PhD definitely gave me the ability to explain things in a variety of formats and to a variety of audiences. I can remember doing everything I could to avoid giving my GCSE English language presentation to the class because I was petrified of public speaking. Just before the pandemic struck, I gave my largest ever lecture to an audience of around 5000 people!”

What are your reflections on what you are doing now versus what the younger version of you thought you’d be doing?

“Mostly, I love my job and I’m proud of my career. I get to work with some of the most interesting people, from all over the world, get to hear about what my colleagues are working on, and really see the transformation that education can bring to the lives of our students. My work is generally flexible and allows me to pursue my own interests. I can go to work one day and have a conversation with someone that radically changes their view of themselves or the world and with that comes great responsibility. I often think ‘What would I be doing now if my “sliding doors” moment had gone along my intended route?’ I still believe I would have enjoyed being a clinican because it is where science meets people, and I’d enjoy interacting with patients as much as I do my students. But a career in academia and in science has been something that I’ve truly loved and I’m both honoured and grateful to have been part of it; here’s to the next 10 years!”

Graduates rising to meet challenges

What these accounts demonstrate is that even our own interpretation of success isn’t fixed and can shift as we navigate through life. What we want to do and what we actually end up doing can be quite different things and it’s only through that journey that we can expand our horizons and come to really understand the many ways in which success can be measured. We also learn to transfer skills from one area of expertise to another, even if those areas are not directly relatable. Yes, for some people success will always be linked to salary, but for others success will be encapsulated in (many) other ways – mastering the perfect work life balance we all crave, making a positive impact on society or adapting to new situations and rising to different challenges.

Through our Graduate Index, we capture these broader outcomes and provide a rounded picture of the impact of higher education. To find out more about the Graduate Index and how it could help your university please contact us.