Welcome to the real world: now where do we go from here?

The world is your oyster but working out what to do after you graduate can be daunting


It’s time to graduate. Many students will eagerly await their entry into the “real world”. Others will fear what’s out there: long hours at work and, most likely, years of renting.

So, how much should students plan for the future? Do you need to be an ambitious type A to think ahead? Are five-year plans just for the likes of Stalin, or should you consider one too? And, as you embark on life and a career, just what should you be cognisant of?

We asked a psychotherapist, a recruitment specialist and a successful businesswoman for their advice.

The psychotherapist: Helen Vaughan, owner of Maynooth Counselling

“Getting the work-life balance can be really hard, particularly when your workplace constantly exists on your phone. How many of us send and check emails at night when we should be relaxing? We do it because we can, even though we know we shouldn’t.

“When you are available 24/7, your head is in work 24/7. The first thing you do in the morning is check your emails, and it’s the last thing you do before you go to sleep. In the cyber world, we see everyone else having great holidays or losing weight and looking brilliant, and we compare ourselves to them negatively. If you work in property, don’t spend your evening on the property sites; if you’re a journalist, avoid constantly scrolling through news.

“Boundaries are really important and, at therapy, we teach people to set them. And this can be more important if you are juggling work and children. Deciding you will spend a certain amount of time on the phone and then putting it away can help alleviate that feeling of being stressed and overwhelmed. If you have a separate work phone, which is ideal, don’t bring it out at night with you and make sure not to have it by your side at evenings and weekends.

“You need to work out boundaries that work for you, perhaps not having screen time for an hour before you sleep. Exercise matters: if you even tell yourself that you’ll go for a 20-minute walk and get out the door, you might find that you stay for longer. For me, swimming is great: it’s quiet and it dulls the senses. But go for whatever works for you, whether that’s running, walking, joining a gym, yoga or meditation – whatever takes you out of yourself for an hour or so. Drink lots of water.

“The biggest problems I see with people in their 20s and 30s? Anxiety. This can stem from work, relationships or what happened in childhood. It is worse when we compare ourselves to others, particularly if you’re starting off in a job and thinking you’ll never be as good as your seniors. ‘Imposter syndrome’, where we feel like we’re a fraud and not really good enough for the job we’re in, is common, but people who feel it are more than likely being hard on themselves for no reason. Think of all the times you’ve stressed about something that never happened. I find that a gratitude journal – writing down three things that you are grateful for that day, like when the sun shone or you enjoyed your lunch – can help us focus on the positive.”

The recruitment specialist: Ken Lee, managing director of Eden Recruitment

“When it comes to your career, how long-term should you think? It depends on your personality: some people need to know what they will be doing tomorrow, in a week and in 10 years.

“While some people take a very structured approach to their career, others may only have a notional idea of where they want to go, only to get into a job and find that it takes them in a completely different direction.

“The millennial generation want to ensure they make a contribution and their work is meaningful. When they join an organisation, they are keen to have an impact. So the difficult task is how to motivate that generation and keep them satisfied in their job. In a market like Dublin, there are many skills shortages and candidates are being headhunted, so they can jump job easily, meaning that today’s HR managers are very focused on keeping people motivated and satisfied. They know that, if people have a chance to use their core strengths on a daily basis, they will be happier in – and better at – their job.

“Wages and rents are a problem for the Irish economy right now, particularly in Dublin. People are coming for job interviews in Dublin, accepting the job and realising that, for a €30,000-per-year role, they will be spending 60 per cent of their salary on rent ; they’re then turning the role down.

“Young people really care about work-life balance. Yes, they want to make an impact, but they also want to enjoy their life. This is all about results instead of putting in long hours, and if you can achieve in 30 hours what someone else does in 60. We will see a lot more people on flexi-time and working from home a few days a week. That said, there will always be times when there’s a big project to be finished and it’s all hands on deck, as well as industries like law where juniors are putting in 13-hour days.

“Today, workplace hierarchies are becoming flatter [ie they have fewer layers of middle management] and today’s graduates are more likely to be in companies where the CEO is sitting at the same open-plan desk as a €30,000-per-year employee. Open-door policies where staff have access to management translates to a more positive, open and transparent culture, which is important for today’s graduates.

“Freelancing and self-employment is becoming more common, and the power is moving to the employee to dictate terms. People are interested in choosing their own areas and this is only going to grow. Rolling contracts will become more common. Is this a positive development? In Ireland, I think it is a choice; there is enough work available but we are seeing permanent employees choosing to move to contracts or self-employment.”

The businesswoman: Sinead Doherty, founder and CEO of Fenero

“We are a Dublin-based tax and accountancy firm which deals exclusively with freelancers and contractors. I know what it’s like to work for yourself: I was self-employed for the first time at the age of 25 and, at 27, I set this business up.

“A lot of people don’t know what they want to do when they leave college, and the experiences they have will change their plans. I don’t think you should put pressure on yourself to have it all figured out in your early 20s; it’s fine to take time to discover what is the right career path for you. Start by thinking what is important for you and what you want for life – and only then, think about how work and career can fit around that.

“I think it is important to consider why you want something in your career. Why are you drawn to this particular field? And could you get what you want in a broader range of jobs?

“Starting off after college can be hugely daunting. It took me a while to get confidence and to visualise myself as someone who could achieve. Today, I’m growing a business and I have two young children but, for a long time, I ran on empty and didn’t look after myself as well as I should. I was exhausted, burnt out and making mistakes. So I’ve learned how important it is to take care of the basics: sleep and eat well, exercise and make sure to see family and friends.

“Eating well doesn’t mean some kind of crazy diet: just don’t skip breakfast, and aim for a reasonable amount of fruit and vegetables. In the past few years, I’ve also worked to change my attitude to sleep, and I’ve a FitBit which helps me gather information about my sleep.

“Workplace culture: if you’re constantly working late nights and weekends, there’s either something wrong with the company and their culture, or with your approach to the job. Work on time management and organisation skills.

“In our company, we’re seeing growing opportunities for freelancers and contractors. For graduates, it can mean getting exposure to different projects and experiences, although the lack of security can be hard, which makes it important to set aside some money for unplanned non-working periods.

“Get income protection insurance if you are self-employed. And, while nobody in their 20s want to talk about pensions, it’s worth bearing in mind that if you’re self-employed and don’t contribute to your pension, nobody else will – and the state pension won’t take you that far. Even €50 a month can build up on compound returns. Also, try to put some money into savings when you can; this is a discipline but the earlier you get into the habit, the less painful it will be.”