Career is a Billiard Ball

What you study may not be what you do for a career.


Illustration: Cosette Puckett

Some of us are blessed with having known our “true callings” since childhood. Some find them during secondary school, and some continue to explore various interests through their university years. Those of us who are less sure often end up pursuing a degree with which we are not wholeheartedly satisfied, or see our passions evolve after having committed to a specific course of study. However, changing passion comes easier than changing a degree, at least in the U.K. While the former may just take a flicker of thought, the latter often means that we have to start from square one. The bigger question, however, regards the future: does what we study for four years necessarily limit what we pursue in the next four decades?

In terms of a popular analogy, many see their career path like a bowling alley lane. The ball, which represents a course of study, starts rolling from one end, assumedly university, and carries itself to the end of the path where a career awaits. Whether the ball was off to a great start, thrown with a swift force, or goes in a straight line, there is only one final destination. I, on other hand, like to picture my career as a billiards ball. There’s no definitive destination, neither is it guaranteed that when I aim my ball towards a certain pocket it will roll into the pocket. Along the way, my ball could change course, unexpectedly collide with other balls, bounce against the cushions, head into an unintended direction, or stubbornly remain on the table and not end up in any pocket.

Despite the unpleasant surprises that a game of billiards might bring, it accurately represents the multiple avenues our degrees can take us down. Some of the destinations may be a result of networking and luck, but most of them happen due to our abilities, something much more than our technical knowledge. Given the changing nature of the job market, what we study at university does not necessarily dictate where we will end up, one of the reasons being that employers look for employability skills that are not taught at school.

As identified by Mrs. Batterham, a careers adviser at the Careers Center, some of these skills are critical thinking, communication, teamwork, emotional intelligence, and adaptability. “The application procedures of many major graduate employers have become explicitly focused on motivation, organisational fit, and competency. It is now common to have a personality profile or aptitude test as a part of the application process,” she says.

Ms. Brownlow, an alumna of St Andrews, believes that she was successful in landing her job because the application process focused on her personality rather than her qualifications. She first pursued something unrelated to her degree. Studying Italian, she had an epiphany while studying abroad. “I knew I didn’t want to follow one of the ‘traditional’ career routes for a languages graduate,” she said. “What I wanted to do was something creative, that broadened my horizons, and harnessed the skills I was learning along the way [both in the lecture, and outside of it].” After spending a long time searching for her ideal career, she found her current job as a managing consultant for a presentation and eLearning delivery specialist company. While her job does not necessarily require Italian, Ms. Brownlow finds that the skills that she accumulated while studying a language, namely communication and thinking outside the box, have come in handy in navigating her through the job.

Some other notable examples of St Andrews alumni who went on to pursue a career outside of their degree include Scottish politician Alex Salmond (who studied economics and medieval history), American actor Jonathan Thomas (who studied philosophy and history), and British journalist Louise Minchin (who studied Spanish). Given these success stories, one might enquire how a student might seek a job unrelated to their studies?

Mrs. Batterham suggests that students can look for suitable careers through their skill set. These experiences might come from internships, workplace shadowing, or extracurricular activities. Having had work experience is now necessary in many job applications. Specific knowledge of a sector, commercial awareness, and project management are all valuable skill sets that can be developed from relevant work experience. Additionally, postgraduate study is an option for those who would like to enhance specialised knowledge in a particular career.

However, the lack of a unique path to one’s dream career does mean that one has greater uncertainty to bear. Like many other students, I applied for a degree without seeing myself pursuing it for the rest of my life. Unlike other classmates, however, my passion for international relations did not increase as I moved through each academic year. This concern deepened as I moved closer to graduation date. Thankfully, however, my extracurriculars led me to a newfound interest in a completely different career path – marketing.

I was fortunate enough to intern in this job sector. While marketing and international relations seem to belong to two different worlds, I was able to employ the skills acquired from my courses, such as the ability to gather patterns from diverse contexts, and apply them to understanding customer behavior in various cultures. Yet, I have to admit, the anxiety of not knowing what lies ahead still occupies my mind. Given that there is no guaranteed path to a career, it is challenging to picture where exactly my degree will take me.

For those who share the same concerns, Mrs. Batterham adds a positive note: “Remember a degree from Scotland’s first university is an excellent start to any future career. St Andrews has a reputation for excellence and the ability to attract the brightest students worldwide. With this as a starting point, you are well on the way to impressing admissions tutors or future employers.”


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