Help! I can’t use my degree!

A little while ago I wrote an article for another publication, which didn’t get used in the end (so it seems). It’s a different writing style to the one I use on my blog, but I enjoyed writing it so I figured I’d share it here.


When I was 18, I had my whole life mapped out. I was going to study Japanese, and do a year abroad. Then, having graduated top of my class, I would live in Japan and work as a teacher in a local school, marry this guy called Yusuke who I met at 15 when his school took a trip to my hometown, and then live happily ever after.

I’m now 32. I managed some of those things. I did Japanese, and lived in Japan. Yusuke even came to visit me but sadly our love lasted just for one steamy weekend in 2010. When the tsunami happened in 2011 and I decided to leave Japan.

While I worked for a well-known Japanese video games company in Germany for a few years, when I came back to the UK 5 years ago I found that no one really cared that I was this awesome bilingual person with world experience… and my hard earned degree suddenly meant nothing.

Research from 2017 found that 1 in 5 graduates regret their degree choices, and it’s not hard to see why. At sixth form or college, we’re rushed into decisions, made to feel on a conveyor belt, with little to no proper advice. With many teachers having no careers experience beyond being a teacher, unless your parents are clued up to what’s good to study, you’re left to guess by yourself.

But further than that, when we’re teenagers, we don’t know enough about the world, or indeed about ourselves to know what’s out there and what part of “out there” we want to contribute to. Teenage brains aren’t equipped to be able to make decisions that will develop their futures, so it’s no wonder we make choices that seem right at the time, but don’t serve us when we are looking for employment.

Back in 2014 when I was stuck with skills no one cared about, I spent 3 months applying for jobs, and over £500 in transport getting me to interviews. I eventually landed a position as a personal assistant at a Japanese company. I stuck at it for a year or so but found I am a terrible personal assistant. I moved from PA to recruiter, to recruiting young people to apprenticeships, to managing events giving careers advice to young people, to the position I’m in now working with secondary school students and helping them with their next steps.

Over the course of these 5 years each step I took taught me something new about myself, and I slowly found where I wanted to be – in a position to help other people avoid being in the place I was in 2014. It was a hard transition, and I took a massive pay cut from being a PA to working my way up from the bottom, but it was all worth it to find where I needed to be.

Here’s my advice for other people struggling to get a career from their degree:

Look at your transferable skills

At university you probably did electives, or took other courses linked to your subject. Focus on what you gained from these when applying to jobs. For example, the teaching course I took at university has been a great help in getting me my most recent jobs working with young people, though I’m not exactly a teacher.

Furthermore, there are 7 widely acknowledged skills that will be needed in the workplace moving forward. These are:

  • Adaptability – respond better to opportunities and change by being flexible and agile
  • Critical thinking – think smarter, more resourcefully, creatively and collaboratively
  • Empathy – nurture all your relationships by learning how to listen and be present
  • Integrity – trust, values and honesty are the name of the game now as is authenticity
  • Optimism – be the most positive person you know
  • Being Proactive – respond rather than react and learn to reinvent yourself
  • Resilience – make mistakes, bounce back, learn from experience and move on to the next challenge

These are all “soft” skills, ones that can be picked up without going back to education to learn something new. What’s more many of them can be picked up outside the classroom. If you took part in clubs and societies at university (and, no, having to wait for 15 minutes to get served at the Student Union bar doesn’t count as resilience…) then you might have experience you can use to demonstrate these skills.

Be open about different careers

I feel that lack of knowledge about what jobs are out there is the main reason why people are unhappy with their careers. While I was dying of boredom photocopying as a personal assistant, I had no idea that there were people out there who get paid to do what I do now. What’s that saying about doing what you love and not working a day in your life?

Depending on what you feel comfortable with, there are different things you can do to find out about careers. If you are quite outgoing, spending some time at networking events can be really useful. Grabbing a coffee with a friend to understand more about their job (even if you don’t think you’d want to do the same as them) can also be a real eye opener. Otherwise, getting on LinkedIn and being nosy about how people got to where they are now is a great way to find out routes into different fields. You’ll also see how many people do things completely different to their degrees.

Be prepared for life to not be perfect from the get go

Very few people are going to land the perfect job straight out of university – many of us have to work from the bottom up to get to where we want to be. Many of my friends in really amazing jobs talk openly about how they slogged their guts out in terrible jobs for awful bosses for next to no money. Every step is still a step, though, and a career is a path rather than a reward. Besides, for me, working for the terrible bosses for really low salaries makes me appreciate all I have achieved so far. If I had been handed everything instantly, I would not be nearly as happy to have my current situation as I do.

Whether you’re fresh out of university wondering what to do, or in your first years of work in a field you don’t want to be in, don’t fret. University may have given you a degree you no longer want, but it also gave you so many other opportunities, whether that was connections to other bright sparks like you, an excuse to leave home and gain independence, or even the space to grow as a person in a new environment.

Look at everything you have going for you – not just the piece of paper your mum keeps in a frame on the living room wall – and equip yourself with knowledge of the range of opportunities out there.


  1. Good post! Most of the people I know aren’t actually using their degrees, with the sole exception being people with specialized degrees like medicine and law. The rest of us got a degree we thought sounded good at the time, and just went on with life. In my experience, most employers don’t care what your degree is in, they only care that you have a degree.
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