What do you want to be when you grow up?

The course you choose now will not necessarily define your future career

What do you want to be when you grow up? It’s the type of question you might ask a seven-year-old but – perhaps surprisingly – one that today’s school-leaver may rarely hear.

That’s because, today, there’s a more widespread understanding that the neat career silos of doctor/nurse/ teacher/vet/engineer and so on don’t necessarily apply: the course you choose will not necessarily define your future career.

It is, hopefully, a reassuring thought for a generation who have faced unprecedented stresses and strains on their journey to the Leaving Cert. First, there was the pandemic that saw them miss the “practice exam” of the Junior Cert, and miss out on spending crucial time with their friends. Second, the knock-on effect of the pandemic has been widespread grade inflation which, in turn, led to points inflation, ramping up the pressure for many.

Third, earlier puberty, the pitfalls of social media, the fear of climate breakdown and the worries about student accommodation present today’s teens with challenges not faced by previous generations. In the midst of all of the ways adults have failed young people, we expect them to make tough career choices. It’d be enough to stretch most adults to breaking point.


The good news: When it comes to hiring, employers are often more interested in your wider skill set and your ability to continue learning throughout your career.

And, even if you do want to be a doctor or teacher but don’t get the course you want through the CAO, postgraduate courses can offer entry routes – even into areas such as medicine. Many students who don’t get the CAO points they want here may also look at options to study abroad.

Career guidance teachers generally report that only a minority of 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds have a clear idea of the course they want. Of these, some will have long harboured ambitions to be a doctor, dentist, solicitor, teacher or another clear-cut profession. But most students either have a vague sense that they’re interested in a broad area such as law, arts, commerce or science – or they’re at a loss.

Elaine Daly and Jennifer Kwan are career consultants at Dublin City University (DCU), working with students and, up to two years after they leave third-level, graduates.

“It can be challenging for students, especially at school-leaving age, to make the right decision,” says Daly. “It takes time and research, especially when there is so much choice and so many options. It can be hard to make sense of it all, which comes back to students having a lack of information about themselves, the career that suits them or the options open to them.”

You can look at the jobs in demand and what skills are needed, but you have to be interested in those careers and not just thinking of a job at the other end

—  Elaine Daly

Neil McCann is a guidance counsellor at St Vincent’s in Glasnevin, and he says it is not necessarily difficult for students to identify their path, “but they tend to be unsure about committing to one course and knowing what they want to do in the longer term. We help them to make the best decision they can, based on research and being well-informed.”

How do students become better informed about what careers and courses might be of interest to them?

Transition year work experience can be helpful, as can asking adults who are in those careers.

“This can help students to understand the tasks, roles and responsibilities in different places of work,” says Kwan. “It can also help them to understand post-degree career options, as can looking at sites such as CareersPortal.ie and GradIreland.com. Another way is to read the course prospectus and look at the career outcomes listed.”

Daly suggests that finding a course you like increases the chance of working in a career area that you also like.

“Yes, you can look at the jobs in demand and what skills are needed, but you have to be interested in those careers and not just thinking of a job at the other end,” she says.

McCann says that, ideally, students should consider a mix of what they want and what type of skills and qualifications will be of value to an employer.

“A degree shows that you have an ability to learn, you can meet deadlines and you have focus, drive and determination. There is a lot to be said for committing to a course and completing it, and employers know this.”

Some professions, such as a doctor or architect, require particular undergraduate or postgraduate qualifications, albeit with the important caveat that they alone may not qualify you for a particular job and that you will probably require further training beyond education (for instance, a law degree does not qualify you to be a lawyer: for that, you need to sit specialised exams in Blackhall Place to be a solicitor or at King’s Inns to be a barrister). Even within particularly vocationally oriented careers, however, the broader skills that you will develop in further education, such as teamwork, research and communication, will be of value in your career.

“It’s important to be committed to a course you feel you would enjoy, bearing in mind that you will be upskilling throughout your career,” says McCann. “Employers can teach you the skills that you need for the job on a training programme or during a probation period. They are looking for college graduates who have shown an ability to learn.”

Many students will plump for a course that opens up their future options.

This could, for example, include a broad or general-entry arts, humanities, business, law, social science, science or engineering degree. Many such courses contain broad subject choices in the first year or two, before giving students a chance to specialise later on.

Take advantage of every opportunity in college to get involved in clubs and societies, taking on those committee positions that help you to develop those transferable skills

—  Jennifer Kwan

These days, employers are likely to receive dozens of CVs from students who leave college with a 2:1 or first-class honours degree. What really sets one such CV against another is how a student developed other key skills in college.

Part-time work, volunteering and getting involved in clubs and societies are all ways to build experience and develop yourself in advance of graduate job applications. Daly says employers are increasingly aware of the challenges facing students who want to immerse themselves in college life, including the pressure of part-time work to fund accommodation costs, or the need for long commutes to and from college making it harder to get involved, so graduates will ultimately need to focus on their strengths, rather than what they may be missing.

“Part of the [third-level] experience is learning more about yourself, including what you do and don’t like,” says Kwan. “Take advantage of every opportunity in college to get involved in clubs and societies, taking on those committee positions that help you to develop those transferable skills.”

All guidance experts, however, advise against making choices solely because they will look good on your CV.

“If you do this, you may get caught out in an interview situation because you were not really motivated by a genuine desire to learn,” says McCann.