Generating Career Ideas

A degree opens up a wide variety of potential career directions and it can be hard to decide what you want to do after graduating. This briefing will help you make a start in exploring your personal preferences and researching the roles and sectors that you might enjoy working in. It should be useful whether you are:

  • taking your first steps on thinking about possible future roles;
  • wanting to assess ideas or choices about which directions to pursue; or
  • revisiting ideas you have, or even considering a change in your current direction whether this is related to work or further study.

The simple idea at the heart of career planning is that people often find greatest career satisfaction when their work reflects their personal ‘career drivers’ and offers scope not only to apply their knowledge and skills but also to continue to learn and develop.

When generating ideas it helps, therefore, to look inwards as well as outwards.

  • Creating a grounded understanding of who you are and what your ‘career drivers’ look like is one piece of the puzzle.
  • Researching roles and opportunities that could be a good ‘fit’ for your knowledge, skills and personal preferences helps link this to the job market.

In addition to this briefing, DPhils and research staff should also read our web page What’s Next for You? which examines future scenarios for people with research backgrounds, whether or not they intend to stay close to their academic roots.

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Your ‘career drivers’ reflect your values, motivations and work preferences. These are rooted in your underlying beliefs about what is most important and will often guide your decisions without you applying them consciously and can be difficult to identify. However, they are likely to have underpinned your choices and enjoyment of the things you have done, and will continue to be important for your satisfaction and successes in future, and it can be empowering to understand:

  • what you enjoy doing most;
  • what helps you to succeed and to feel successful; and
  • why you not choose to do something and also what keeps you on track and motivated to see it through to the end.

Career Weaver: Our free web-based app to help you explore your personal work-drivers

The Careers Service has created Career Weaver, a novel web-based app to help stimulate reflection on these keys for your career success and happiness. There are a dozen short exercises, which provide a language and a varied range of approaches to help you explore, identify and articulate your career drivers, skills and strengths. Most exercises need only 5-10 minutes work before the user is reflecting on ideas and content they have created.

Career Weaver provides a first introduction to this kind of reflective work and users are not expected to complete every exercise. We encourage everyone to explore the different options to find the exercises that seem to match best with how they like to work, which speak most clearly to them and offer insight and direction to their thinking. More information is provided in our briefing on Career Weaver, and the two sections below offer short introductions to the language surrounding ‘career drivers’ and ‘skills and strengths’.

Access Career Weaver

Career Weaver is accessed by staff and students using their SSO, and alumni can open an account through their CareerConnect account by sending the Careers Service a request via the ‘queries tab’.

For anyone wishing to dive deeper, there are many more options, most of which focus on a specific approach or lens. The External Resources section (below) offers suggestions including the following:

  • Personality questionnaires, which can quickly provide you with insights into your work preferences. Many also make suggestions about which careers might be a good fit with your personality profile. Examples include the short free personality-based tools on Prospects and TargetJobs (graduate careers websites); FindMyWhy; the Careers Service works with both the DISC profile and Myers Briggs Type Indicator assessments; and some students may have completed a Morrisby profile while at school.
  • Values or Strengths based tools that adopt a single lens to drive reflection, understanding and career (and life!) planning, including the Values into Action website, and the Cappfinity Strengths Profile.
  • Creative Games, Tools and Questions found both in the Career Weaver exercises and in self-directed career-planning books, such as What Color is your Parachute? and The Squiggly Career.

Trying to understand your personal pattern of career interests is important for effective career planning. This broad concept 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 and you can probably satisfy your core career interests in a variety of different roles.

Whichever lens or lenses you are working with, whether it is a ‘values’ lens, or ‘interests’, or ‘motivations’, aim to identify, understand and take ownerships of the ones that are most important to you. It’s better to have a clear understanding of your top three or four than a ranked listing of your top ten or twelve.

Generating your personal shortlist and taking real ownership of that can help to ground your thinking and keep you focused on what is most important to you when evaluating ideas and opportunities as you research options around further study and possible work choices. This is relevant to both:

  • What the role involves, the nature of the work, and the knowledge and skills you will be applying and developing; and
  • How you will be working, especially the working environment and culture of the organisation and how this might be a good 'fit' for you and your working style.

You are likely to find that your work and working environment are positive and enjoyable if you can match or satisfy your top ‘drivers’.

We recommend working with the tools and approaches outlined above, however, you can make a start by picking out your top three or four Career Interests and Motivations from the following lists.

Career interests

  • 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

Motivations

  • 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

A good job description and person specification will set out the knowledge, skills and attributes that an organisation is looking for in a good candidate. These criteria provide the basis for making initial judgements on a candidate’s suitability throughout the application process, and are an important part of the recruitment mix.

It is therefore important for you to be aware of your skills, both to help you make better career decisions and so that you can showcase your skills effectively in applications.

At the Careers Service we focus on a framework of eight transferable employability skills Business Awareness; Communication; Creativity; Initiative; Leadership; Planning; Self-management and Teamwork. You can use this framework to evaluate the skills you have and find ideas for how enhance these and develop new skills through our employability programmes and extra-curricular activities. See:

A degree programme embraces both its subject specific knowledge and any related technical skills, and a variety of transferrable skills developed through research; academic writing, ‘labs’; and ‘tutorials’. However, there will be other skills that are difficult to develop within your degree and we encourage students to take advantage of some of the many other opportunities available to them throughout their time at University. Transferable employability skills can be developed in many different ways, whether through volunteering, extra-curricular activities, research placements or work experience.

Lastly, employers understand that graduates may have limited experience at the time they apply. For this reason, they also evaluate candidates’ ‘potential’ and their ‘ability to learn quickly’. This means that a good candidate is not expected to be ‘the finished article’ and it is important to demonstrate your drive, aptitude and interest in the organisation and the work as you go through the application process. Motivation and a hunger to learn and develop the skills needed for your chosen career can be highly persuasive.

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

The UK graduate employment market is very flexible and a substantial majority of advertised jobs are open to applicants from any discipline. This means the breadth of opportunity for most graduates is huge and an unfocused approach can be both time consuming and ineffective. Time spent thinking about and researching your options is likely to be time well spent, particularly if you feel that you have ‘no idea’ of what kind of job(s) you are interested in.

The approaches outlined here offer a variety of starting points to generate ideas and assemble a meaningful list of options that might match your interests, strengths and personal preferences.

Using your degree

Many graduates want to use the knowledge and skills developed through their degree in their work. A good degree in a relevant discipline will help ensure that you have appropriate knowledge and perhaps skills needed in many careers, and certainly the capacity to learn what is most needed. The following resources can help you follow-up this line of research.

Starting from your work experience

In the same way that you can explore ideas based on your degree, you can start from your work experience. First hand work experience allows you to try out both the content and type of the work.  A summer internship lasting a month or longer can provide you with rich insights in the work itself and the working culture of your host organisation. It is also an opportunity to meet a wider range of people you can ask for advice and support. However, even short-term work-shadowing and micro-internship experiences can help you experience different work environments and to test out whether or not the industry, company and style of work might offer you interesting and challenging projects.

Assuming you enjoy your work experience, you can generate leads directly linked to the sectors, organisations and roles that you have tried. You can expand your thinking by looking at similar or adjacent fields. Once you have identified possibilities, you can:

  • use job descriptions to explore the skills and knowledge required and begin to consider how best to prepare and position yourself for applications;
  • examine job profiles, such as those listed on both Prospects and TargetJobs to deepen your understanding; and
  • use the suggestions in these profile on ‘adjacent careers’ to identify a range of alternative jobs or roles to consider which require similar skills and knowledge, or offer similar challenges and opportunities.

Remember to dream

You can also gain insights by blocking out real-world constraints and fears and allowing yourself to dream about the possibilities if there are no barriers in your way.

  • Interview your younger self: When you were much younger was there something you wanted to do? Even ideas that seem wildly out of reach now can still offer insights into what remains attractive to you and what you hope to achieve.
  • Dreams for your future:  Take time to look ahead and dream.  Try to paint a rich picture for yourself of the work you would do, including what you do in the role(s); the people around you; where you are; how you feel about yourself; and the results or impact you are able to achieve. Use the following prompts to create two or three future scenarios.
    • If your first choice career field simply did not exist, what else might you do?
    • If there were no constraints, and anything and everything was possible, what would you choose to do?
    • If you had only 5 more years ahead of you, what would you like to achieve?

Career planning tests

In the section above on building self-awareness we mentioned the use of personality questionnaires. These tools can be excellent and many will quickly deliver a list of possible career ideas based on your pattern of answers, such as the free Prospects Planner. A number of these test and personality tools are listed under External Resources (below).

You may have already used some of these, for example, if you took a Morrisby Test or similar whilst at school. A few companies include personality questionnaires on their career pages which can be used to understand which of their roles might be the best match for your work style preferences.

The range of career ideas suggested by these tools is still likely to be very varied, with perhaps 20 or 30 different roles suggested. Allow yourself to use your instincts and start by researching the options that appeal to you most intuitively: explore what these roles involve and why each particular option might be a good fit for you.

Browsing and scanning the horizons

Browsing industry sector briefings, our career fair booklets and job boards/vacancy listings needs a degree of focus if it is to be productive. However, once you start to clarify and define for yourself what might be ‘right for you’, your sub-conscious mind can become a powerful ally if you pay attention to your instincts and become aware of what ‘catches your attention’.  Potential starting points include:

  • The Oxford Guide to Careers, published each year with over 50 alumni profiles, short introductions to more than 20 sectors and supported by recruitment advertisements;
  • Employer directories and rankings such as The Times Top 100 and the UK 300 listing of graduate employers – free copies are available from The Careers Service.

For avid readers, natural networkers and thorough researchers, the ideas outlined in the next section can also all be enlisted as ways to scan the horizon to add to your emergent careers thinking, but it pays to be purposeful and directed with these approaches.

To properly bring together your growing understanding of your career drivers and possible career options, it will be necessary to do some focused research into industry sectors, specific roles and individual companies. Doing this well will ensure you are ready to make strong, well-targeted, applications.

Once you have created some focus, read widely and seek out the information and roles that speak to you loudest. Start by reviewing relevant content within:

Deepen you research by using the dedicated career pages on company websites. In addition to information about the application process you will find advice and profiles of recent graduate hires to help you understand the firm, the work and the reasons their employees enjoy and value their roles. You can also follow firms on social media and register to receive email alerts to stay up to date.

Talking to people with relevant knowledge and experience will help you go beyond the carefully manicured ‘marketing’ content of the careers pages. Seek opportunities to talk with current employees, both through on-campus events and by following our advice on Networking.

The Careers Service provides access to hundreds of companies through our Career Fairs, company presentations, workshops and employer led events listed on the calendar on CareerConnect. Many of the company representatives will be recent graduates with clear memories of being in your position only recently. Ask them to share what worked for them when they were applying, as well as what they like most about their current role and organisation.

If you are uncertain about where to start, consider starting with people who you can reach relatively easily:

  • Family and close friends – people you know well, but do you know who else they know and what those people do?
  • People around you at University, from lecturers to classmates.
    • For business careers, there may be final year students on your course, in College or involved in a student society who have recently interned in the sector or perhaps with firms you are most keen to research.
    • If you are considering an academic post-graduate route, approach tutors, current students on the Masters courses you are considering, and DPhils in your Department for advice.

The destinations for our students on graduation are many and varied, and we encourage all our students to explore and to think beyond the obvious when consider their next steps.

Whilst it is true that some industry sectors are very visible on campus, this reflects the companies’ interests and their need to market themselves and their opportunities to increase application numbers. That visibility does not mean that everyone goes into those sectors, as shown by a quick look at Oxford’s Destination Statistics. The 2012-2017 DLHE data, on the destinations of more than 30,000 graduates, show:

  • three graduates continued in ‘further education’ for every graduate entering the ‘consulting’ and ‘banking & Investment’ sectors combined;
  • more graduates entered the ‘charity and not-for profit’ sector than entered ‘law’;
  • more than twice the number of graduates entered the ‘health and social care’ sector as those entering ‘financial services’ (accountancy; actuarial; insurance).

There is no need to limit your thinking to the sectors on our website or the individual roles that carry the title ‘graduate jobs’. Every year a substantial number of our graduates take roles in other sectors, such as ‘logistics & transport’religion’, ‘sports & tourism’ or choose to work freelance or start their own ventures. In addition, the team of Careers Advisers are asked about a wide variety of quite different roles and fields, including: climbing instructor; conference production; design; fashion; fine art conservation; property development; stand-up comedian, unformed forces and – occasionally – even working as a Careers Adviser!

Luck favours the prepared mind

Lastly, whilst this briefing recommends a process based on reflection and research with a view to creating a more focused approach for career planning, many successful careers include unexpected events, newly discovered interests and chance meetings that can be important or even pivotal.

This idea is reflected in ‘Planned Happenstance Theory’ which suggests that students’ can prepare themselves for and even construct ‘unexpected career opportunities’ by their own actions. Trying out different activities, getting involved in societies and volunteering, or actively exploring ideas and talking with a wider variety of people will bring you into contact with the people, ideas, opportunities and knowledge that can help you move forward purposefully. It also increases your visibility and the chances that one day it will be your time to be ‘in the right place at the right time’.

You can book an advice appointment with a careers adviser to talk through your ideas, questions and concerns, wherever you are in your career thinking.

Tools for self-awareness

Career Weaver: A web-based tool to structure, support and stimulate reflection on personal Values and Work Style, Strengths and Skills, and Motivations. Accessible to Oxford staff and students with their SSO via the Career Weaver homepage.

Alumni can also use Career Weaver. They must send a request the Query tab in their CareerConnect account to ask for an account to be set up.   

Personality based assessments: We provide access to the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and the DISC behavioural assessment tools a greatly reduced costs to commercially delivered support. Full details are included in our briefing on Services for Alumni. Current matriculated students and research staff may also secure a free referral onto these programmes following discussion with a career adviser. Note: due to Covid-19 we are not currently offering group MBTI sessions.

See a careers adviser

Book an appointment with a careers adviser.

Related content on www.careers.ox.ac.uk

Our website covers a very wide range of relevant ideas, advice and resources to help you research and evaluate potential career paths. Start with the following:

Books

Career planning and the various facets outlined in this briefing related to the many aspects of 'personality', 'personal effectiveness' and the various elements that underpin and drive an individual's personal successes and joy are closely tied to the content found in many self-help books, and their related websites. Remember, "all models are wrong, but some are useful". Here is a selection of just some of the books that we like: 

  • 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)
  • Strengthsfinder 2.0, Tom Rath, which should include a code to access the online CliftonStrengths assessment.
  • The Squiggly Career, Helen Tupper, Sarah Ellis (2020)
  • What Color is your Parachute?: a practical manual for job-hunters and career-changers (40th Anniversary Edition), Richard N. Bolles (2012)

Web-based tools and resources

You might find the resources listed below useful, however, The Careers Service does not provide assurances on accuracy, validity and reliability of these tools and resources. Use your judgement on the quality of any tools you try and do make an appointment with a Careers Adviser if you want help in understanding the results or to discuss any questions that you may have once you have completed any of the tests.

Please note, in the following introductions, any text in italics has been copied from the sites themselves. 

Free resources on graduate careers websites

Prospects.ac.uk The AGCAS website offers a wide range of resources and advice on a national basis, including:

  • Prospects Planner: ‘Job matching’ tool based on a  personality questionnaire
  • What do graduates do? – National survey of over 250,000 graduates and their work destinations, including subject-by-subject data, analysis and commentary.
  • Prospects: What can I do with my subject? – Useful careers information tailored to students and graduates subject-by-subject. The pages include the broad 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.

TargetJobs.com: A second comprehensive graduate website offering careers advice, including advice on knowing your options; exploring your skills and motivations; how to look for graduate opportunities, job descriptions and advice on what you can do with your degree.

Free tools

  • 16 Personalities offers a free personality type questionnaire in more than 30 languages. The model is based on the Big 5 model of personality, and the website provides both explanations of their method, your profile and links to other resources.
  • Buzz Quiz from iCould.com is a very quick personality test based on the MBTI model of personality type, which is linked to the UK’s UCAS service to support university applications.
  • CareerRadar is a free personality test for use by students and young people as “a smarter way of getting careers advice, and more generally to provide an intelligent toolset for personal development. It provides insights to your personality type and possible career direction based on the MBTI framework.
  • FindMyWhy .com … helping people make positive change, find personal purpose and create a life they love, all for free.
  • The Hexaco Personality Inventory: A six-dimension personality tool developed by researchers in Canada. A free test (about 15 minutes) that provides a personality profile and supported by some limited explanatory content.

Tools offering initial free access and additional fee-based resources

  • https://www.viacharacter.org VIA stands for Values in Action and the VIA Institute is a not-for-profit that aims to help people change their lives by tapping into the power of their own greatest strengths. The VIA Institute offers a free 10 minute test, and additional fee based resources.
  • Kiersey Temperament Sorter offers a 70-question personality test linked to 16 categories that match-up with the MBTI test. The free test results provides only a limited amount of information and additional fee-based resources.
  • Strengths Profile is an online assessment that gives you a unique profile revealing your realised and unrealised strengths, learned behaviours and weaknesses, and available for individuals ‘to reveal and develop your passions further’. The free starter profile, launched in 2021, provides your assessed top 3 Realised Strengths; top 3 Unrealised Strengths, 2 Learned Behaviours and 1 Weakness.

Fee-based resources

  • Clifton Strengths Assessment, developed by Gallup. The Gallup book ‘Strengths Finder 2.0’ also introduces the CSA and each book includes a free access code for the assessment in the purchase price.
  • The Morrisby Test is a personality based tool used quite often by schools for careers advice. It is marketed as an impartial decision making companion and offers insight into multiple aspects of personality and includes pathways and advice for further study and career options.
  • Profiling for Success provides an extensive suite of tests, including a Career Interests Inventory to help people explore their personality preferences and how these relate to the world of work.
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