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Three Years Later: 6 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me When I Graduated

17/06/2013 14:30 BST | Updated 17/08/2013 10:12 BST
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As we trundle through June and universities across the country roll out new graduates, a fresh wave of talent, optimism and enthusiasm is unleashed into the working world. But amidst the back-patting from proud parents and the trawling of job adverts, what does it really feel like to be turfed out into the real world after university?

It has been three years since I emerged from the world of academia, triumphantly brandishing the piece of paper which, in its fragile entity, personified four years of blood, vodka and tears.

I graduated from the University of Dundee in 2010 with a degree in Digital Interaction Design. My final year at university was the home straight - one project, for the entire year - yet it felt like running a marathon, backwards, whilst being shot at. The poignant yet sobering end of my time at university triggered a rush of mixed feelings that I neither saw coming nor knew how to deal with.

Part of me was crawling out of a battlefield, battered but triumphant, knowing I was going to need some time to piece myself back together before even thinking about what I was going to do next. But another part of me was waltzing out of those university gates, through shoves of gospel singers belting out 'Aquarius', heading off into the sunset towards the magical kingdom of future employment and splendor.

Marrying the experience of what you've just been through with your hopes moving forward can be difficult. I started my own company almost straight after university and, to be completely honest, for the last three years I've felt like I've been stumbling along, defiantly trying to find my way in the world.

And then this week, a newly graduated student from my old university approached me and asked if we could go for coffee. Sitting across the table from her as she animatedly talked about her work and what she was going to do next, I could spot the flashes of uncertainty and trepidation in amongst her ambition. It was in that instant that I realised how much I have learned since I graduated. Sitting opposite the 2010 version of myself made it impossible to ignore how much I have grown as a person and, as I chatted to her, it struck me that there were actually quite a lot of things I could have done with hearing at that point in my life.

1. It's okay to have absolutely no idea what's coming next

As I said above, you will probably feel like someone has thrown your brain into a blender on the highest setting and then poured it back into your skull. This is normal and it's just the way you feel after anything that you've worked really hard at. If you need some time to regroup, take it. Don't rush into anything when your head is still swirling. I had a brief flirtation with a PhD when I graduated, but when I look back now, I can see I made that decision before I was ready to. Something that feels like a great idea today might not feel like a great idea tomorrow, so watch out for that.

2. Trying things will help you work out what you want to do

Test the water. Internships get a lot of bad press these days but - even if they're unpaid - if you make them work for you, they can be worthwhile. I did some work experience as a web designer... which made me realise I didn't want to be a web designer. If you don't know what you want to do, that's fine - but don't sit around thinking about it for too long. If you're not sure, some trial and error will, at the very least, help you eliminate some options. Take the odd opportunity that might seem like a strange fit - you never know what you will enjoy.

3. If you want to go it alone, now is the best time to try

When I decided to turn down two job offers and start my own company, most of my friends and classmates told me I was out of my mind. To them, the idea of forgoing the security of a job and the comfort of a regular salary for something uncertain was ridiculous - but the reality is, you have nothing to lose. For the previous three or four years you've been flat broke and living on beans on toast, so your life won't really change, will it? I mean, don't hold me to that when your Council Tax bill arrives, but other than that, you have no commitments and are perfectly placed to give self-employment or enterprise a shot. It will be harder (but not impossible!) further down the line with a salary rolling in and bigger bills racing out so if you fancy being your own boss, now is the time to give it a shot.

4. Never settle

I watched fellow graduates accept any old job, purely because it was a job. I understand the importance of survival - but don't get stuck in a rat race that doesn't interest you. If you have to take a job but know it's not what you want, keep an eye open for other opportunities and use your spare time to work towards them. If something's not working for you, drop it as soon as you can and move on. You are a point in your life where you can really choose who and what you want to be so don't be complacent about it. Feeling lost or undecided for a little while is fine, but feeling unhappy or unfulfilled is not.

5. Things probably won't pan out the way you expect them to

And that's okay. Just run with it. I'm a big believer in following your gut instinct, so if something feels right and you're enjoying the journey, see where it leads. Just because you have a degree in politics doesn't mean you need to become a politician. A bachelor of textiles needn't spend the rest of her days sewing. Don't feel bad if your path veers away from the subject you studied because you don't owe your degree anything unless you want to. Regardless of the title on your certificate, you learned discipline, problem solving, collaboration, commitment and a whole host of other transferable skills that will benefit you no matter what you choose to do. Three years ago, I could never have imagined being where I am now, but I'm glad I am - and no one throws me out of meetings because I don't have a degree in business studies.

6. Trust others

No one expects you to know everything. Be transparent about your fears as well as your ambitions because it shows an understanding of self. Speak to anyone who will listen and anyone who interests you because surrounding yourself with good people makes everything far less scary. That big job interview you're worried about? Just be honest with them - they're interested in your potential, not your shop talk. I was desperate to write my business plan on my own, but the reality is that I needed the support of those more experienced than me - and no one thought any less of me because of that.

As my rendezvous with the 2010 Version of Myself came to an end, I was hit by some new mixed feelings of my own. We headed out of the coffee shop and parted ways, but later that day I found myself wondering if I was glad to be three years into my career, or envious of her. Would I do things different now, given the chance? Graduating is exciting because you have the whole world at your fingertips, and it's terrifying because you have the whole world at your fingertips. There is one mighty adventure ahead of you, but trust me when I say you're going to be just fine.