When I entered law school I was passionate about the environment. I was working at the NSW Environment Protection Authority, initially in a policy role and then in the legal branch before I’d even finished my law degree.
Even though I had always aspired to work as a lawyer in exactly this space, I soon realised that I wasn’t happy. I had lost a lot of my youthful idealism and environmental zeal. I also found that as a lawyer I was expected to specialise and develop an in-depth knowledge of a particular area of the law. I wasn’t comfortable in this role – I discovered I was more suited to asking questions than answering them.
Expect that your dreams will change – your first job does not have to be a lifetime decision
I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was to be my first career change. I took time off to travel and reflect. It was an exciting but also very scary time, because I really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.
While travelling, I started writing long travel diaries back to family and friends and it dawned on me that what I really loved was writing. So when I returned to Sydney I enrolled in a journalism degree and, from the very first class, I knew that I’d made the right decision.
Working as a lawyer when you leave university does not mean you are locked into a static or linear career path. No job is forever these days. It is estimated that a school leaver today will have 17 jobs across five careers in their lifetime.
I am a perfect example: the decisions you make about your career today – yes, even the bad ones – are very rarely fatal and almost always reversible.
Your dream job today may be different to your dream job in five or 10 years’ time. It also doesn’t necessarily mean that your first job was a bad choice or a total waste of time. It may just mean that you’ve outgrown that job.
In fact, I gained many valuable skills in my first job: an eye for detail, written communication skills, dealing with bureaucracy, problem-solving, the ability to work in a team and flexibility, to name a few. These skills all proved invaluable in my next role as a science journalist, a career I enjoyed for over a decade.
Each job or avenue you pursue is an excellent way to discover which aspects of a job you enjoy and to develop a range of skills.
Do your research, study and volunteer
My next career change was more recent. With huge shifts in the media industry and a major restructure in the public broadcaster I was working for, I decided it was time for a new career.
Again, I had no idea what I wanted to do or what type of roles might interest me.
So I did some research. I talked to people. But I took what they said with a grain of salt. I knew that just because a job works for one person, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it will be right for me.
I went onto SEEK.com and started scrolling through the job categories.
Starting with the broadest classifications like Community Services & Development or Education & Training, I asked myself: 'Does this category interest you?', 'Which categories definitely don’t appeal?' for example, Construction and Banking & Financial Services were immediate turn-offs for me).
I then narrowed the search to looking at job titles and role descriptions. I asked myself: 'What aspects of the role do you think you would like and which are definite no’s?', 'Do the tasks appeal?'. I wasn’t concerned whether I had the skills listed for the jobs; I just asked myself, 'Would I like to do the job?'. I also knew that my dream job might not be advertised on the day I was looking, so I went back a number of times and repeated the process.
I also had to be aware to keep an open mind because I was completely surprised by the roles I was drawn to. I decided that career coaching was something that really appealed to me.
At this point, I did a couple of things.
Firstly, I enrolled to study career development. Study is an excellent way to determine whether an area interests you and whether you could focus your career in that space.
I often think back to my first journalism lecture and that wonderful realisation that I had found something I would really love to do.
Secondly, I volunteered. If you think you are interested in an area of work, find somewhere to volunteer and try it out. It’s the best and easiest way to determine if you’re headed in the right direction career-wise.
For example, I volunteer as a career coach at Dress for Success, a charity that improves the employability of women in need by giving them professional clothing, a network of support and career development tools.
Occasionally, there is the added bonus that you may be offered a paid role in the organisation in the exact area you want to focus your career on.
Follow your curiosity
Another thing that I did was look at my bookshelf. Why? Well, to remind myself of the areas I’m interested in.
I have a number of books about work and careers that I have read over the years; it’s an area I am naturally drawn to. I like talking to people about their careers and I enjoy reading about the topic.
While some interests may only ever be hobbies, asking yourself what you do in your spare time may give you vital clues about areas in your life you’d like to focus on in your career.
It may take time, in fact it may take a long time
Realising what you want to do with your life may not come in a flash of inspiration.
I’ve done a lot of soul-searching over time to work out what I want to do. As well as two major career changes, there have been a few minor detours along the way.
If you’re unsure of what you want to do, don’t expect to work it out quickly; it may take time. Sometimes you only discover you are interested in something once you get good at it. It takes patience: follow your interests, listen to your gut and look out for small realisations rather than that single 'light bulb moment'.
Apply for your dream job – you might just get it
Once you’ve chosen a career you want to move into, there’s nothing stopping you looking for jobs in that field and even applying for them.
After deciding that I wanted to become a career coach, I thought I’d have to wait a while before scoring my dream job, but I started looking anyway. I was lucky: there was a job advertised for an associate in the Careers Service at UNSW Law. I really wanted the role – I applied and was successful.
If you study and volunteer in the area/s you want to focus on, develop transferable skills, and can demonstrate your enthusiasm, there is nothing stopping you from applying for a role.
If you are not successful, make sure to get feedback and find out what skills and experience you need to get a similar role in the future.
The only way to score your dream job is to apply – just go for it!
Ruth Beran is a careers service associate, assisting Joanne Glanz in the Careers Service at the UNSW Law School.