It's easy to think that getting a graduate job is all about working out what employers want, but thinking carefully about your aspirations for your working life is a crucial step for any undergraduate too. Finding a path that you know is right for you means it's far more likely that you'll not only get a job, but also that it'll be the first step in a successful and happy career. Here's how to do it.
Think about yourself
Think about who you are - what you're good at now, the skills you're developing, and what's never going to change about your personality. Think about what you like about your degree studies and what you don't, including ways of working as much as particular academic topics. What are your interests? What you like doing in your free time will also give you insights into what you really want from your working days.
Mark Armitage, Careers Consultant at the University of Exeter, points out that your personal principles and priorities should also play a part in your thinking at this point: "Students who get graduate jobs tend to be those who are comfortable with their new employer's values - they can identify with what it's about and what it's doing." If you're business-orientated, a City or corporate job might be for you, but if you'd rather not work in an environment ultimately driven by a balance sheet, perhaps you'd rather be a teacher or work in the public sector, with pressures that are different, if no less intense.
Talk to other people
Mark is keen to encourage students to come to their university careers service: "Don't be put off because you haven't got clear ideas about what you want to do. We can help you see things differently and open your ideas out a bit."
University tutors, friends and more senior students can also be very helpful - and, says Mark, don't forget your parents! They might not know much about actuarial science or electrical engineering, but they probably know you better than almost anyone else.
Think about where you're most likely to win a job you'll love. Many sectors are open to graduates from all disciplines, but some, such as law, require entrants to have taken particular undergraduate courses or postgraduate qualifications.
And, "it's important," says Mark, "particularly in the present economic climate, to be realistic about what the graduate market is like." It's not easy to get a job at the moment, particularly in popular sectors, but there are still many opportunities out there for the well-prepared.
Get to know the sectors you're interested in
Read up, attend campus presentations and, most importantly, do some work experience if you can.
Your university should be able to put you in touch with graduates working in the industries you're investigating. "These opportunities can be really powerful" says Mark, "- both in terms of getting an insight into the work and also in terms of building networks."
Get to know the sectors you're interested in - some more
Working in any sector has downsides, so take a deep breath and ask someone in the know what they are - and then think carefully about whether you can deal with them.
Also, you might have a pretty good idea by now of what a graduate role in your chosen area will be like, but find out where you could be in five years - and twenty-five years. Is that where you want to be at those stages of your life? And is the industry growing, changing - or in decline? You don't want to get stranded in a role that has become redundant.
Choose specific employers within a sector
Work out which employers within the sector focus on the areas you're particularly interested in. You also need to make sure that they've got a generally good reputation - not just according to their website - and that they've weathered the financial crisis well, are currently stable and, ideally, growing.
To get to this kind of in-depth information you could check out industry publications and other industry-specific sources. Another great approach is to talk to employees from the firms you're interested in at networking events, presentations or open days. And as you do so, consider your emotional responses as well as making intellectual assessments. Do you like the people you meet? How do you feel about the way proceedings are structured? Do you feel comfortable? Thinking about these questions carefully will give you valuable insights into whether an employer is right for you in reality as well as on paper.
Consider all the options
Some sectors and employers have very strong presences on campus so it's easy to get drawn to them, but there are other less prominent employers out there who could also offer you some great opportunities.
Smaller firms in any industry tend to fall into this category, where you might get more responsibility and a closer-knit working team than at their larger equivalents. To turn to specific industries, if you're interested in finance, have you checked out asset management as well as investment banking? Budding consultants: what about getting super-close to a business with a strategy or logistics role at a large corporate?
Stay on track
Keep considering your future direction throughout your time at university. You'll find that putting plenty of thought into what you want from your career and taking action to move things forward will significantly increase your chances of getting a job - remember that someone who's exacting, determined and focused about their goals is also a dream employee!
How I did it
We asked three of this summer's crop of graduates how they chose their career path and got their role with a top employer
Sales and Analytics Representative at a global data firm
It's really hard to know what you want to do when you're 19. I went to careers events from all the different sectors, but most employers give you the same kind of picture. They're helpful, but not helpful enough for you to know for sure whether something's the job for you or not.
When I went to a CV skills workshop that my employer did, the facilitators suggested we email them if we had any questions afterwards. So I sent one of them my CV and we chatted over email about his job, and he advised me to apply for an internship. They invited me for an interview and I wanted to be honest so I told them I'd applied to some different sectors as well to try different things. But I was still offered a place on the internship and really loved it, and that's when I realised it was the right job for me.
My plans for the future: I love trying new things in life, so would like to cover different regions and markets, and maybe relocate to another country. Obviously I want a senior position one day - I think everyone wants that!
My top tip: Apply for internship opportunities available to you, because you can't tell whether you'll like a job unless you work where it's on offer. You should apply from your first year of university - you don't want to miss out!
Corporate finance analyst at a leading investment bank
When I was at school I was adamant I wanted to be an engineer, but I got involved with the Investment Society at university and from that thought that maybe investment banking looked good. Because the society has lots of links with bankers, we were able to talk to them and see what they did and what they enjoyed about their jobs.
I applied for eight banks, those which had the best reputations within the industry and also for their corporate social responsibility programmes. I got three interviews, was offered two jobs, and picked my bank on the basis of the people I'd met at there. Given the hours you tend to end up working in banking, it makes sense to be somewhere where you get on with the people you're working with.
My plans for the future: I'm hoping to stay within banking and progress. I'd like to be a managing director one day. I'd like to try doing various things within the bank and gain as much exposure as I can - there's so many sides to the job!
My top tip: When you're choosing a career, pick something you're interested in and are going to want to get up every morning to do. Also, think about what area within an industry you want to be in, why, and what you want to get out of it - you have to know what your aims are.
Audit ACA at a major professional services firm
My path to my job started when I was 17 and did some work experience at the professional services firm where I'll be working. I started looking for an internship in my second year of university. I narrowed my choices down to stockbroking and accountancy and I looked into what I could do in the future with either of them. At a professional services firm, I'll have another three years of exams to get my ACA qualification, but it means I'll have a lot of options afterwards, so I thought it would be a good investment to go for that.
I did a two-month internship with my employer and really enjoyed it. I really liked the work, the people and the ethos. I had another interview at the end and then got offered my graduate role.
My plans for the future: I'm going into audit, but I plan to move into consultancy. If I stay at my firm, it's is the kind of place where I could go and work in, say, Venezuela if I want to. With my ACA, I could also go into the City or private equity. I could also become a financial director at a company.
My top tip: Go into the process of finding a career with an open mind and opportunities will present themselves.