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Generating Career Ideas | The Careers Service Generating Career Ideas – Oxford University Careers Service
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Getting started

With the wealth of possible careers open to them, many students find it hard to decide what they want to do after graduating and may even find the process quite daunting. The advice below will help you make a start or, if you already have some ideas but are still unsure which direction to pursue, to revisit and reflect on your ideas.

The simple idea at the heart of career planning is that people often find greatest career satisfaction when their work reflects their core values and motivations, allows them to use their skills and strengths, and is in a field of interest. You therefore need to look inwards as well as outwards, to integrate self-awareness with an understanding of the industries and types of careers available.

Careers Compass – our workbook

The Careers Service’s own careers workbook Careers Compass contains a number of tools, ideas and suggestions to start you thinking about your strengths, your preferences and what helps you to perform at your best.  This is a good place to start. When combined with other tools and resources you can develop a fuller understanding of your pattern of personal preferences to help you find potential careers that you would enjoy.

The main approaches and tools available to you are

  • Reflecting on your experience: Strengths based recruitment draws on the idea that “past behaviour is the best indicator of future behaviour”, and you can use it to find clues about what you might like to do professionally. Tools like The Lifeline Exercise and ‘Favourite Day’ outlined in our careers workbook help you to find themes and trends in the things that you do and have done: what you enjoy doing most; the areas where success seems to come more easily to you; what skills you like to use; the roles you choose to fill and reasons you enjoy these.
  • Psychometric Questionnaires: Personality based questionnaires can quickly provide you with real insights into your personal and work preferences, and can be linked explicitly to possible careers matches. The careers service provides Oxford students with free access to a sophisticated Career Interests Inventory provided by Profiling for Success, which will give you with a detailed personal report. In addition, the free Prospects Planner provides a report with links to your top graduate career matches, and links through to the relevant job descriptions online.There are many other personality based tools you might come across, such as ‘Strengths Finder 2.0’; the ‘Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)’ and Kiersey Temperament Sorter.
  • Creative Games, Tools and Questions: designed to provide structured prompts that help you think in a systematic way about interests, motivations and skills. These can help you to identify positive patterns of behaviour, generate ideas and options and define your personal goals. Examples are included in our Careers Compass Workbook, with many others in the books and resource listed below under Our Resources (eg, Build you own Rainbow and What Color is your Parachute?) and External Resources.
  • Talking with people who know you well: Many people find it hard to identify their own real strengths – these can be the things you find easiest or most natural, and so can be too easily overlooked. But these are perhaps the things that make you stand out in other people’s minds. Talking openly with family and friends, and tutors who know you well, may give you some interesting insights into your strengths and good (or challenging, or interesting) ideas about where you might flourish and why.

We also recommend that students arrange an impartial and confidential discussion with a Careers Adviser to review their emerging ideas or to consider next steps when reviewing their career options. Appointments are booked via CareerConnect.

Understand what interests and motivates you

Nearly all jobs involve a wide variety of situations and activities, and finding a role aligned with your personal ‘career interests’ and ‘motivations’ is one of the keys to long term career satisfaction.

Career interests

Trying to understand your personal pattern of career interests is important for effective career planning.

The concept of career interests refers to the ways that you like to think, work and apply your skills and knowledge, and to your preferred working environment. It is not related to the specific industry sector or functional role you take on: in fact, whatever your core career interests are, it is likely there will be a variety of sectors and roles where you can satisfy these.

It is especially important to understand what are your top two or three career interests, rather than ranking the full list below. Your personal shortlist provides a basis for evaluating the ideas and options you identify through your research into further study and different roles and occupations you are considering – and can also help you assess your likely ‘fit’ to a particular organisation.

Career Interests may include:

  • Analytical thinking: researching and investigating; numerical work
  • Collaborative style of working
  • Creativity and generating ideas
  • Enterprise & business
  • Influencing others
  • Managing and leading people
  • Social & caring roles
  • Solving problems
  • Structure: working with well-defined processes
  • Supporting and advising people
  • Theoretical and conceptual work
  • Working with technology

Use the approaches and tools listed in the ‘Getting Started’ section (above) to develop insights into your personal pattern of career interests, or choose and rank your top four from the list above to make a start.


A job that matches your motivations is more likely to be fulfilling. Similarly, if the organisation and the people around you provide the kind of opportunities, recognition and rewards that you value highly, you are more likely to feel valued and enjoy your work. This suggests that you should also consider what you want out of your life and your career, and which kinds of rewards and benefits you value most.

Common motivations include:

  • Altruism/Helping others/Social Good
  • Autonomy
  • Challenge/Intellectual challenge
  • Financial reward (and/or generous leave!)
  • Fun
  • Learning and personal growth
  • Personal recognition
  • Positioning (for next career move)
  • Producing a tangible ‘product’
  • Progression – scope for rapid promotion
  • Benefiting society
  • Making a profit
  • Responsibility – for people or things (processes; technology; outputs)
  • Status/Prestige
  • Security
  • Variety

As before, use the recommended approaches and tools to identify your top three or four motivations, or make a start by identifying and ranking your top six from the list above.

Recognising and developing your skills

It’s important to be aware of the skills that you have to offer. This awareness can help you both to make better career choices and ensure you can explain and showcase your skills in the applications that you make.

It’s worth remembering that the UK graduate employment market is very flexible and a substantial majority of advertised jobs are open to applicants of any discipline.

Employers understand that graduates may have only limited experience at the time they apply, and hire as much for future potential and the ability to learn quickly alongside your demonstrable skills. The training and development offered at the start of your career and a structured approach to your on-going personal development can be one of the key benefits of many ‘graduate schemes’. Nevertheless, recruiters will want to see evidence of the skills you have, and the willingness and drive to learn and develop skills needed for your chosen career.

Through your studies, your extra-curricular activities and any work experience or volunteering that you done you will have already developed and applied many different skills. At Oxford we focus on eight core transferable skills and have created the Octane framework to help you evaluate, develop and showcase your skills in any applications.

These eight skills within the Octane framework are:

  • Business Awareness
  • Communication
  • Creativity
  • Initiative
  • Leadership
  • Planning
  • Self-management
  • Teamwork

These skills can be developed and applied in many contexts, as illustrated within Octane and our webpage How to Prove or Improve your Skills. Getting involved in societies and clubs at university, volunteering, and work experience of all kinds (work shadowing; micro-internships; ‘spring weeks’ and ‘development’ programmes run by companies; paid internships) can all be valuable. In addition, The Careers Service runs a number of Skills and Employability Programmes that allow you to try new things and develop work-relevant experience and skills. These include:

In addition to the core transferable skills, organisations will sometimes want specific knowledge or technical skills for particular roles, and so request specific subject knowledge, languages or IT skills for example. However, for the majority of graduate entry positions, a keen interest, strong motivation, good transferable skills and the potential and desire to learn and adapt are the essential criteria.

How and where to use your degree

For many graduates, another important consideration is whether to use and apply the knowledge gained during their studies directly, or to find work in a field where this knowledge is useful, whilst many graduates choose to enter employment unrelated to their subject. For example:

  • someone who studied modern foreign languages may decide not to work as an interpreter, translator or teacher but feel excited by a role or organisation that works with clients who speak the language(s) they know.
  • a law student who decides not to pursue work as a solicitor or barrister may be attracted to policy roles in the Civil Service or a think tank, or an advocacy or campaigning role in the not-for-profit sector or political arena.

If you do want to use your degree, there are usually more options open to you than you might think. See our advice on Using Your Subject, or research careers more commonly filled by graduates in your subject via the Prospects sites: What can I do with my Degree?.

You can also search the data on what graduates in different subjects have gone on to do. To research the careers and further study destinations for Oxford graduates by subject, sector, role, gender and location, go to our pages on What Alumni have done and use the interactive tool to examine leavers’ destinations six months after graduation.

A high proportion of Oxford graduates choose to go on to further study and The Careers Service provides a variety of briefings on Further Study, including study options in the UK, USA and other destinations, options for funding and advice on applications. In addition, Careers Advisers are available to help you review your options and create a personal development plan, and to advise on applications, personal statements and preparation for tests and interviews.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that life is not all work, and that many people pursue interests and find great satisfaction outside their working life. For example, you can feed a love of literature or the arts in your spare time rather than becoming a book editor, sculptor or actor; and if travel and experiencing different cultures is important to you, it may be that a career which offers a good salary and time enough to travel widely during holidays is a more satisfying way to ‘scratch the itch’ than a life transiting airports and staying in city-centre hotels on business expenses.

Explore possible careers matches

No matter how expert or skilled you may become, longer term career success in an organisation or industry can be critically affected by all the factors outlined in this briefing. Your interest in the business; your motivation for the role(s); your personal ‘fit’ with the organisation’s style, culture and values are vitally important considerations, which may:

  • determine the extent to which you are engaged, and successful and – ultimately – happy in your chosen career; and
  • underpin hiring decisions to distinguish between closely matched candidates, or to select candidates considered to have the capacity to learn and integrate faster, or those with the greatest long-term potential.

Bringing together your thinking and generating a (long) list of possible careers will help you focus your research and ‘rule-in’ and rule-out’ different options. Even if you already have ideas about careers you might like to do it is worth thinking about other possibilities. Our website provides briefings on the main Sectors and Occupations that Oxford students enter, and this is an excellent place to start your research.

Beyond this, The Careers Service provides access to hundreds of companies through our programme of Career Fairs, company presentations, workshops and employer led events: use our events calendar on CareerConnect to find out about events in industries that you are most interested in. Take these opportunities to talk with company representatives and Oxford alumni in order to learn about the sector, the jobs you might do and the alumni’s early career experiences, likes and dislikes.

The Careers Service cannot provide a comprehensive set of briefings, however national graduate employment sites such as Prospects and TargetJobs do offer much wider coverage: for example,  Prospects provides details for more than 400 separate graduate job descriptions. Even within the sectors covered on our website, there are unusual, individual roles – so don’t feel stymied by the range of graduate jobs that normally get promoted. Every year a substantial numbers of graduates take roles in other sectors, such as Religion (particularly from Oxford’s Permanent Private Halls), Sport and Tourism. In recent years, students graduating from Oxford have taken on roles including:

  • Army Officer
  • Betting analyst
  • Conference producer
  • Property surveyor
  • Rugby development officer
  • Researcher at the College of Arms

Advisers at The Careers Service have been asked about careers as diverse as Ashtanga yoga therapist; designer of knitted goods; fine art conservator; horticulturalist; and kinetic artist. Careers as a stand-up comedian and circus performer have both been asked about multiple times, and we are regularly (if occasionally) asked about working as a Careers Adviser! If you can’t seem to find the right role for you, think creatively about what might be the best match for you and come and talk through  your ideas with a careers adviser: we will be happy to help you explore and ‘think along’ with you to help you develop your ideas.

As you work through your self-assessment and research possible careers, you will reach a point where you need to start making decision and identifying your most favoured options. For advice on how to approach these decisions, see our webpage on How to Make a Career Decision.

Our resources

Related pages


  • Build your own Rainbow: a workbook for career and life management (4th ed), Barrie Hopson, Mike Scally (2009)
  • How to Find Fulfilling Work, Roman Krznaric (2012)
  • How to get a job you’ll love, John Lees (2014)
  • No Idea about a Career? Chris Phillips, (2004)
  • So What Are You Going To Do With That? Finding Careers Outside Academia, Susan Basalla, Maggie Debelius (2007)
  • Strengthsfinder 2.0, Tom Rath (2007)
  • The Art of Building Windmills: career tactics for the 21st Century, Dr. Peter Hawkins (1999)
  • The Guardian Guide to Careers, Jimmy Leach (Ed.) (2005)
  • What Color is your Parachute?: a practical manual for job-hunters and career-changers (40th Anniversary Edition), Richard N. Bolles (2012)

Other resources

External resources
  • Prospects Planner is an online resource that has ways of exploring your motivation, and what you really want to get from a job.
  • What do graduates do? – This site presents national data about the destinations of graduates six months after leaving university. It covers 28 subjects, and shows how many graduates are in employment, the types of jobs they go into, and how many go into further study.
  • Prospects: What can I do with my subject? – Useful careers information tailored to students and graduates subject-by-subject. The pages include the broad employability advantages that your degree gives you, the skills that you may have developed, alongside ideas and suggestions for further study, and career and employment options that may prove promising.
This information was last updated on 28 February 2018.
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