Generating Career Ideas | The Careers Service Generating Career Ideas – Oxford University Careers Service
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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 work preferences, 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.

• Creating a grounded understanding of who you are and what you core 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.

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 focuses on exploring your personal preferences and how to start 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.

Building self-awareness
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It can be empowering to understand:

  • what you enjoy doing most;
  • what helps you to succeed (and to feel successful); and
  • why you not only choose to contribute your time and effort to something but also what keeps you on track and motivated to see it through to the end.

The Careers Service has created Career Weaver, a web-based app to help stimulate and structure reflection on these keys for your career success and happiness. The exercises will help you explore and articulate your career drivers, skills, strengths and motivations.The themes you uncover are likely to have underpinned your choices and enjoyment of the things you have done in the past and will probably continue to be important for your satisfaction and successes in future. More information, including how students and staff can access the tool using their SSO is provided in our briefing on Career Weaver.

Alumni have continuing access to our Careers Compass tool (accessed via Our Resources, below), which includes many exercises incorporated into Career Weaver.

It can also help to seek an independent or external perspective to build your self-awareness and develop a fuller understanding of your pattern of personal preferences. Some alternative approaches include:

  • 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: see Career Planning Tests in the section Understanding the Job Market (below).
  • Creative Games, Tools and Questions, like the exercises in Career Weaver, can be found in self-directed career-planning books, including some in our library (see Our Resources: e.g., Build you own Rainbow and What Color is your Parachute?).
  • Talking with people who know you well may give you some interesting insights. Family and friends, and perhaps tutors, can help you to understand the things that make you stand out in other people’s minds.
  • Seeing a Careers Adviser. We offer impartial and confidential advice and are happy to discuss your emerging thoughts and review your freshest thinking about your career drivers and next steps for career planning. Book an advice appointment via CareerConnect.
Recognising and developing your skills
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It is important to be aware of your strengths and skills. This can help you both in making better career choices and in showcasing your skills through the applications you make.

Employers understand that graduates may have only limited experience at the time they apply, and assess ‘future potential’ and the ‘ability to learn quickly’ alongside your demonstrable skills. Nevertheless, recruiters will want to see evidence of the skills you have, as well as the willingness and drive to learn and develop skills needed for your chosen career.

You will have already developed and applied many different skills through your studies, volunteering, extra-curricular activities and any work experience. 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:

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

The approaches outlined here offer a ‘pick and mix’ 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. 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 form your work experience. First hand work experience allows you to try out the actual content and focus of the work and even work shadowing and micro-internships provide insights into both the work itself and the kind of organisational environments and cultures that might be right for you.

Assuming these are good experiences, you can generate ideas either directly or tangentially linked to the sectors, organisations and roles that you have tried. Once you have identified a possibility, you can use detailed job descriptions to explore in detail the skills and knowledge required as well as finding ideas of how best to prepare and position yourself for applications. In addition to advertised job descriptions, both Prospects and TargetJobs provide hundreds of job profiles, which include suggestions on ‘adjacent careers’ that require similar skills and knowledge, or which offer similar challenges and opportunities. So, from a single starting point, you may be able to identify a range of alternative jobs or roles to consider.

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?

Career planning tests

In the section above on building self-awareness we mention 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.

  • You may have already used some of these, for example, by taking a Morrisby Test or similar whilst at school.
  • A few companies include personality questionnaires on their career pages which make recommendations about which roles seem to be the best match for your work style preferences.
  • Use to the Prospects Planner or other tools are listed below in External Resources.
  • National graduate careers website Prospects offers the free Prospects Planner that will identify 20+ best-matched careers to your personality profile, and other personality tools are listed under External Resources (below).

The range of ideas suggested by these tools will still be very varied. Follow your instincts and start by researching the options that most appeal to you to create a fuller understanding both of what the 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 before it is likely to be a productive process. 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;
  • Using employer directories and rankings such as The Times Top 100 and the UK 300 listing of graduate employers – free copies 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.

Deepening your research
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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, properly 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 register to receive email alerts to stay up to date and follow firms on social media.

Talking to people with relevant knowledge and experience will help you go beyond the carefully manicured ‘marketing’ content of the careers pages. Seek out opportunities to talk with current employees, both through on-campus events and by following our advice on Networking. 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 and current DPhils in your Department for advice.
  • 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.
Looking beyond the obvious
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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 intent rather than the destinations of graduates. For 2017 Oxford’s Destination Statistics include data for more than 10,000 graduates and these 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 started ‘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, which have included the climbing instructor; conference production; design; fashion; fine art conservation; property development; stand-up comedian, unformed forces and – occasionally – even about 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. Becoming more active through networking and trying different activities 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.

Our resources
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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. Currently accessible only for Oxford staff and students, accessed via the Career Weaver homepage.

Careers Compass: A paper-based version of many of the exercises contained in the Career Weaver workbook.

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.

Book an appointment with a careers adviser!

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


  • 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)
External resources
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You might find the resources listed here 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 of 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 Career websites 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 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. 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.
  • Find My Why .com … helping people make positive change, find personal purpose and create a life they love, all for free.
  • 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 directions.
  • Buzz Quiz from 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.

Tools offering initial free access and additional fee-based resources

  • 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.

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.
  • 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’.
This information was last updated on 15 January 2020.
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