The Graduate’s Guide to Taking the First Steps in Your Career

the graduate's guide

With the end of the school year right around the corner, you’re probably wondering what to do after graduation. If you’re feeling anxious, uncertain and stressed, take consolation in the fact that you’re not alone; hundreds of other people, at the exact same stage, feel just as lost. What you should know is that life after graduation can be truly amazing.

The world is your oyster and all you need to do is decide which path to follow. To help you make a decision that is the right fit for you, below you’ll find info on all the career options after graduation.

1. Postgraduate degrees

postgraduate degree

Postgraduate degrees are becoming increasingly popular among people as they essentially provide a direct path to industry specialisation. The problem is that these courses do not come in cheap and this is the reason why many people keep postponing going back to school till they are better off financially.

Why you should consider them

As mentioned earlier, what’s great about postgraduate degrees is that they can help you specialise in a specific area of your field. So if you’re in marketing, for example, a social media master’s degree could help make it easier for you to get your first job, as more employers will be willing to trust you and your expertise.

What many people seem to take for granted is that a postgraduate degree will also mean a better remuneration package in the long run, but that isn’t always the case. In the workplace, a degree does not always mean more money; it’s always your ability to sell your skills that will get you a salary increase.

Therefore, if you feel like you’ve had enough education for now and are eager to jump into the workforce and get a head-start in your career after graduation, you should know that you’re not alone. Many people prefer to go into the labour market to increase their career options after graduation.

Of course, deciding whether to pursue a master’s or a different type of postgraduate degree is not a decision you should make lightly. You need to decide what the best move for you is, and this often means looking into current industry trends. If it’s common for people in your sector to hold postgraduate titles, not having one will probably set you apart for all the wrong reasons.

But if, on the other hand, work experience is valued over everything else, spending another year or two studying might hurt your employment opportunities. Bear in mind that if you want to pursue a career in business, an MBA might not be an option after graduation as most universities require applicants to have three to five years of work experience before applying.

Pros of a Master's

Cons of a Master's

More employable


Opens up new career paths


Allows you to explore your interests

Heavy workload

More specialised

Keeps you from gaining a salary

Bolsters a weak undergrad performance

You won’t be able to start paying off your loan

Where to start

If a postgraduate degree ticks all of your boxes, then the next thing you need to do is to decide which course you’d like to pursue. A good pointer is current job vacancy requirements, so take a look at what employers are looking for in people with your job title and this will help narrow things down.

After you’ve determined what you’d like to study, start working on your application. Most universities work on a first-come, first-serve basis, so sending in your application as early as possible can help you secure a spot at the university of your choice. Generally speaking, universities start accepting applications in January. However, many universities accept applications until the summer.

To apply, you’ll need to do it directly through the university. UCAS also offers a centralised service to a limited number of universities. Remember that getting an accredited degree is paramount, so make sure to read reviews and scores before you decide on a course.

2. Graduate jobs


Graduate jobs, often confused with graduate schemes, are essentially entry-level positions that target people who are just leaving university. Unlike other full-time jobs, work experience may not be required and, as such, can be significantly easier for people who’ve never worked before to get hired.

Considering a graduate job after you leave university is strongly recommended as it allows you to take charge of your future. Graduate jobs allow you to get a taste of the workforce and decide how you want to shape your work experience.

Of course, not everything is rosy with this type of job after graduation as inexperienced staff is often treated unfairly, and if you are someone who’s interested making an impact in the workplace, you’re definitely going to need to fight for it.

Why you should consider them

Graduate jobs can be the most direct way to get a job after graduation if you’re interested in building your career but don’t have the grades to get accepted in a graduate scheme. They are also great for people who are very confident and are not hesitant when demanding to be given responsibilities. Therefore, if you’re someone who’s very confident and believe that there’s something of value that you can offer to your first job and are willing to fight for your right to voice your opinion, then graduate jobs are definitely ideal.

Pros of Graduate Jobs

Cons of Graduate Jobs

Tailored training

Competition is high

Can gain valuable work experience

No value for personalities and personal aspirations

Opportunity to work in your industry

Do not allow initiative in developing talents and skills

Where to start

If you’re interested in getting this type of job after graduation, you need to start job hunting. Submitting an application that showcases your strengths and talents is essential, since competition can be rough and you need to show hiring managers and recruiters what you can do in spite of your inexperience. Keep in mind that it’s vital that you tailor each application (CV and cover letter) to fit the job description each employer has posted.

One way to find such opportunities is through job boards. These are some job boards which specifically target graduates and, therefore, worth a look:

Your other option is to go through a list of companies in your industry and send your résumé to them, even if they don’t have any vacancies. At the very least, this strategy will help you understand more about your industry; knowledge which will definitely come in handy.

3. Graduate schemes

graduate schemes

Graduate schemes are highly structured programmes that target people leaving university. They are usually offered by big companies and they include vigorous training and significant growth potential. They are usually available in specific sectors, such as finance and IT, but you might also be able to find similar opportunities in other sectors, as well.

Why you should consider them

Graduate schemes are very prestigious and getting accepted in one of them can significantly boost your career. Future employers will hold you in high regard, while you’ll also be able to learn a lot. Luckily, most employees on graduate schemes have a mentor or a guide to help them get through the rough patches at the beginning of the programme, which means that there’s always someone to tap into their knowledge to become more equipped to deal with different workplace situations.

However, graduate schemes do have their disadvantages, as well. As mentioned earlier, these are highly structured programmes which, as you probably realise, means little room for creativity and taking initiative. For many people, graduate schemes can be a bad idea because they often restrict employee personalities from shining through.

Pros of Graduate Schemes

Cons of Graduate Schemes

Vigorous training

Competition is high

Gain experience

No value for creativity or personality

Opportunity to work in one of the country’s top firms

Usually end up being in a single organisation for the biggest part of your career

Where to start

Graduate schemes are extremely competitive and, as such, submitting your application as soon as possible is vital. Generally speaking, your application should be handed in by December of your final year.

Take a look at this list of top graduate employers to decide where you’d prefer to work, but a word of warning: the interview process for these schemes can take as long as six months and is extremely intensive, so focus on the schemes that really interest you rather than applying to many and not being able to perform well during the interview process.

4. Gap years

The reason why so many people are uncertain about what to do after graduation is because they are not quite ready to settle down and take on the responsibilities that come with adulthood. Many would just like to explore the world, in an effort to find out more about themselves and figure out what they are meant to do professionally. A gap year can be beneficial as it gives you the time and space to do just that.

Gap years allow you to do something different and see the world. Many individuals decide to use their time abroad to volunteer which can be a great way to experience a completely different lifestyle while giving back.

There are many organisations that specialise in this type of volunteering. Projects you can participate range from protecting turtle babies to helping communities in third-world countries learn English. You can get some great gap year ideas over on our other article.

Why you should consider them

It’s important to note that most organisations that offer volunteer-abroad opportunities require a fee which generally covers your accommodation, transfers and a donation to the project you’ll be volunteering with. This means that having some money set aside is necessary. And although it may seem counterintuitive to pay money to volunteer, it can be safer, especially if this is your first time experiencing your target culture and country.

The reason why students are often encouraged to go on gap years as they can be very beneficial to many individuals. During your time abroad, you’ll get to see the world, do something entirely different and experience things you’ll probably get to experience only once in a lifetime. It’s wise to choose a programme that can be used to boost your résumé because, that way, you won’t have to do any explaining during job interviews, etc.

Pros of Gap Years

Cons of Gap Years

Explore the world


Change your perspective on life

Waste time which could otherwise be used to get a job

Allows you to explore your interests

Future employers might consider it as a waste of time

Where to start

The first thing you need to determine when thinking of gap years is to decide what you’d like to do and where you’d like to be for the next year of your life. Generally speaking, finding a project that aligns with your professional interests (eg: TEFL projects, if you are in education) can help you gain experience and skills, while it will also be more appealing to future employers.

Of course, it’s also vital that you find a project that is meaningful to you. A gap year has to do with exploring your interests and doing something completely different in order to emerge as a changed person, so finding something that speaks to your heart can help make you more committed.

Of course, there are many other career options after graduation if these don’t fit. Internships can allow you to gain the same experience as you would with a graduate scheme or job but without having to commit for lengthy periods of time. If you’re still figuring things out and would just like to have some more time to make career decisions, doing some freelance work can be quite beneficial as well.

The new economy and how it affects you

Economy effects

The reality is that today’s graduates have many issues to deal with, most of which do not necessarily have to do with what career option best fits their personality or their career objectives. In fact, with the economy being so bad, it’s important to consider what you can do to make a living that will allow you to live comfortably.

The majority of students emerge from university with a huge financial debt on their shoulders. Moreover, anticipating the effects of Brexit, it’s wise to say that many people will not be as fortunate as the previous generation was as they’ll probably need to deal with an unstable economy.

What’s more, employers still have a long time to go before they realise that generating profit often goes hand-in-hand with maintaining the workforce happy and they need to make an effort in providing benefits for their employees. What’s more, many employers now only offer zero-hour contracts, while many young people now rely on gigs to get them through their next month’s expenses.

Of course, not everything is grim. In fact, unemployment rates are in the lows and an increasing number of companies have adopted occasional remote working which means that people have a better shot at a work-life balance.

Student loans

If there’s one thing that keeps people up after graduation is their student loan and its repayment. With steady wages being a thing of the past, repaying your student loan can prove to be more difficult than you would have imagined when you were 18.

As you probably know, you are expected to pay nine per cent of your yearly income, before taxes, once you pass the threshold of £21,000 a year. Although, this might initially seem doable, the high cost of living in the UK, the raised tuition fees and the increased interest rates can make repaying your loan impossible, even if you meet the minimum requirement every month.

According to a recent study, the Student Loans Company assumes that families will be able to help graduates with their repayments, but as most families are struggling to get by as it is, they never manage to actually help their children. There is, of course, the possibility of your loan being written off but this will require a minimum of 35 years of never earning more than £21,000 a year.

Although the system is seemingly set into place to aid those in need and target top-earners, it begs the question whether earning £21,000 a year – before taxes – in the UK makes you a top earner.

The gig economy

Temporary positions are becoming more and more popular as they essentially allow employers to hire independent workers for short-time projects and pay them on a per-project or hourly rate.

The problem for the independent worker, however, is that they remain unprotected by law: employers are not required to pay them a minimum wage, there are no hour requirements, and there are no benefits. As such, surviving as a freelancer is often hard because piecing together an income every month is certainly a struggle.

In order to advance your career, you will eventually need to understand how to make the most of the gig economy. The truth is that not everything is ominous about this trend in economy. One of the benefits is that you get more flexibility. This can be beneficial as it will allow you to pursue various projects that you might be interested in. Another benefit is that you can choose which projects you take on.

Zero-hour contracts

Zero-hour contracts are also becoming vastly popular in the UK. According to a recent report, there are as many as 900,000 people on these schemes at the moment and, although this type of contract seems to embrace flexibility, the truth is that it has been created in order to fit the needs of the employer rather than those of the employee. Essentially, these contracts allow the employer to not guarantee minimum working hours while the employee is supposedly not obliged to accept the work that he or she is offered. It should be noted that 92 per cent of Brits consider job security important but only 65 per cent think they are secure professionally, meaning that there are hundreds of thousands of people out there who are worried about next month’s bills.

For people who’ve just graduated, security might not be a big concern but what most certainly is a concern is that zero-hour contracts make building a future almost impossible as they do not guarantee work or income.

But as it's becoming obvious that the economy is moving towards a freer job market, it’s essential that you get on top of these changes and start thinking of ways with which you can achieve your career goals.

Brexit effects

Life after graduation might get even more complicated as the effects of Brexit are expected to shake up the economy. According to The Independent, there’s a good chance that unemployment rates will rise to 6.5 per cent, and this will likely squeeze nominal household incomes.

Strategies that will help you get ahead

With the economy being so competitive, it’s important for everyone to have a few strategies that will allow them to set themselves apart. This means that you need to utilise every tool available to allow for your skills and talents to shine through.

Below you’ll find four strategies that can help anyone get a head start in their career after graduation.

1. Personal brand

A personal brand can help you set yourself apart from the competition and this is why you should invest time to make yours as professional as possible.

A personal brand is essentially your online presence but it’s also a lot more than that. It’s what you want to stand for in the professional world. Once you’ve determined what you want your professional brand to be like (ie: you’re creative, you’re an innovative thinker, you’re passionate about industry trends, etc), you can use your social media channels and website (you should definitely build one) to create and transmit your presence. So, if you’re a creative designer, for example, you can have samples of your work online, while you can also have a more creative website and designs.

In order to establish your brand, you need to start by thinking about your career goals. After you’ve decided on those, you need to think about your target audience as your strategy will depend heavily on who you wish to attract and for what reason. If you are going for a graduate job, for example, make sure that you include buzzwords as these will attract recruiters. If you are going for a small to medium-sized company, on the other hand, it’s important to emphasise your loyalty and interpersonal skills.

After you’ve identified these key areas, you need to start thinking about how to communicate your message. Again, this will largely depend on what you hope to achieve and what the industry you are trying to get in is like. So, if you are going for a marketing career, for example, creating your own videos could be a good idea. If, on the other hand, you are trying to get into business analysis, writing a few pieces and getting them published on relevant sites could get you the results you want.

2. Résumé

Your résumé is part of your personal brand and it should be treated as a branding strategy, which means that it needs to relate to your online presence (ie: use the same terms, be as professional/creative/passionate as you are on your ‘About Me’ page online, without overdoing it, of course). This means that you can stress your passion for the industry in your summary but the rest of your résumé needs to be written in a concise, easy-to-read format. It’s also important to tailor your résumé to your audience.

Of course, there are many dos and don’ts in résumé writing, so I’d advise you read up on the subject. There are many job seeking mistakes people often make without realising recruiters and hiring managers expect to see certain things and if you don’t cater to their needs, you might never get called in for an interview.

3. Network

One of the most effective strategies that can give you a head start in your career after graduation is networking. A strong professional network, as you’ll soon realise, is one of the most powerful tools in the professional world. Knowing the right people means having someone to refer you whenever there’s a suitable vacancy, and considering the fact that your inexperience will be viewed negatively by most employers, a good word from someone the potential employer trusts can go a long way in helping you secure your first job.

There are many ways to start making connections. For example, if you’d prefer to make connections online, you should sign up on LinkedIn, if you don’t already have an account, and start looking for companies you’d like to work for and industry leaders. Of course, you should also try to network with people in real life, as well. Nothing beats getting to know someone face-to-face.

Becoming a member of your university’s alumni can also help you advance your professional network, so try to actively look for other alumni and learn from them. To do that, go to your university’s website and look for after-graduation options listed there.

4. Volunteer

If you volunteered throughout university, congrats, because that was probably the smartest decision you could have made. Volunteer work speaks of your character and it also shows that you’re committed and that you possess some kind of workplace experience.

Of course, it’s never too late to start volunteering, and you can always do it while searching for a job, doing your postgrad degree or figuring out life, in general. There are top volunteering organisations which can help you find opportunities that fit your needs,

The truth is that real life begins after university and it can be a beautiful journey whatever you choose to do. Be smart and make the most of each opportunity presented to you and never let an opportunity to go to waste.

What career option after graduation fits your needs? Let me know in the comments section below!


This article was originally published in October 2016.