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Room at the top: alternative routes to your brilliant career

Here’s a thought for all you school-leavers who are currently wrestling with that toughest of questions: what am I going to do with the rest of my life?

The average 17- and 18-year-olds sitting their Highers and A-Levels this year can expect their working lives to last for half a century.

So, no pressure then, on making life-changing decisions about future qualifications and jobs when you’re still in your teens - it’ll only affect you for another few decades…

 Of course, there is a minority who have known with absolute certainty from the age of four that they wanted to be a doctor, a teacher, or a professional mattress tester. For many of us, though, the answer to that other dreaded question – what do you want to be when you grow up? – is brutally honest and short: No idea.


Into the great unknown

Many students will admit that they felt pressured by their parents or peer group to pursue a particular course or career. It’s incredibly common for students to select a particular university or apprenticeship just because their friends were going there.

Often it can seem that the route of Nat 5s, Highers and university – or GCSEs, A-Levels and university – is an unstoppable, pre-destined path that you are powerless to challenge. But it’s worth stopping and asking yourself if a degree is really necessary to do what you want in life.

Despite all the pressure, you don’t have to get it right first time. Very few people meet their life partner on their very first romantic date, so why should education and career be any different? Play the field a bit, in terms of trying different things, and have fun doing it.

Talk to relatives, friends and neighbours about their work, what they like about it and what they don’t. Get valuable career and life insights by volunteering, doing night classes, taking a gap year or finding a part-time job.

Jim Rijks, a high-flying graduate engineer with ScottishPower Renewables, has valuable insights in this area. He became interested in the energy sector through his dad’s work in the oil and gas industry and his own restless curiosity.

But while Jim took a traditional university path, earning a first-class honours masters’ degree in energy engineering, he notes that two close friends both took alternative routes to their successful careers in the energy sector.

One friend used his part-time job in a local boat-hire yard as a transferrable skill to get him a role in logistics and vessel management. Another friend now has a stimulating role as a commercial data analyst but arrived there via her qualifications in the completely unrelated areas of international relations and social studies.

So, above all, start by thinking about what you enjoy and what you really like doing, rather than focusing on a job title, a status or a salary. Reflect on what you’re passionate about and what gives you real satisfaction. Those will be good indications of your natural preferences and will lead to career and study choices that fulfil you, allow you to be yourself and get you excited about work rather than dreading it.

After all, if you’re going to be spending a lot of time in the workplace in the coming years, you owe it to yourself to enjoy it.