Words by: Brittany Busch
“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
It’s a question many of us have been asked from a young age — but the questions don’t ever really stop, even once the ‘growing up’ is done. When meeting someone for the first time, we still ask “So what do you do?”. This emphasis on careers has students jumping straight into degrees that they aren’t even sure they want to finish, and the consequences are significant.
18-year-old Aaiza began university this year after graduating high school in 2022. Although she wasn’t sure what degree she wanted to do, both her school and her parents encouraged her to go to university.
“I was like, I’ll just do it, try it, but it wasn’t like I was given many other options besides university
It’s a path that many go down by default.
28-year-old Karl works as an insurance broker, and he says that persevering with a degree straight out of high school isn’t always worth it.
“There’s no point doing it if you’re not committed.”
Karl told me that after sinking so much time and money into his degree, he felt he had no choice but find a job that was relevant to his degree, even though he doesn’t enjoy what he does.
“Now I feel like it’s too late,” he said.
Cosette, who is 26, went straight from high school to a Bachelor of Education (Primary), to working as a teacher. Her story highlights that not taking a break when you need it can also impact your mental health. “I’ve been at school since prep,” she laughed when she told me. “It hurts my soul. There’s been no gap in between.”
Cosette said she chose teaching partly because she had always enjoyed being around kids, but partly because she felt comfortable doing it.
“‘I think I was comfortable, but I wasn’t… happy,” she said.
Though she loved the kids in the classroom, other aspects of the job such as the lack of time to pursue personal goals wore her down.
“I was driving to work and crying, and I didn’t know why I was crying,” she said.
Cosette knew at that point that she needed a break and decided to take a step back from her full-time role in 2023. She’s taking the opportunity as a big reset to think about what she wants out of life. It’s been an opportunity for her to challenge herself and try new things, and work has shifted down her list of priorities.
“I feel motivated again… It’s not really a motivation for the classroom, it’s more of a motivation for my own personal growth,” she told me.
“I’ve told my brother, who’s doing VCE at the moment, to really think about what you want to do and if you want to take a year off and travel or… [if] you want to have a rest, that’s actually okay.”
“I wish I could go back and say to myself, ‘Take a gap year, you’ll still have it figured out, you’ll be fine. Go see some things.’”
“If I had taken that time off, maybe I wouldn’t have burnt out or felt so overwhelmed and stressed later on.”
25-year-old Jess said she also felt the pressure to go straight to university from high school.
Though she knows it’s a privileged position to be in, having so many paths in front of you can be stressful.
“Which one do I pick? What if I pick the right one or the wrong one? Or is there ever a right or wrong?” were some of the questions she asked herself.
Since leaving high school, Jess has started studying Occupational Therapy, lived overseas, is running her own art business, and has begun a Bachelor of Arts. She hopes that she can take all the things she has learned and put them towards doing good for her community, in whatever form that takes.
But she knows there’s no rush.
“Take your time and do what’s right for you. Not what your school’s telling you to do, or maybe your parents or your friends.”
Instead of focusing so much on the end goal, she tries to think, “What can I do now to put me on the right path to get to where I want to be? You know how people say… life’s short? Life is long. Every day you can achieve so much if you go and do it.”
“You can learn so, so much, just living.”
And taking time to reflect isn’t just beneficial straight after high school.
Marcelle got a junior bank teller role after school. She worked at the bank for seven years and assumed that is where she would stay, until she took time off to have her children.
“To be honest, I probably wasn’t really that happy in the bank,” she said. “It just wasn’t really me.”
“When you’re in it, you don’t see it. But when you step away, you’ve got a bit of time to think about it and reflect on what you like doing.”
She decided on a career change and went back to university to study teaching after she became a mum.
Marcelle, who is now 51 and still teaching, said going back to university at a later point in her life meant that she had really thought about the decision and was sure she wanted to be there.
“You’ve got time to think about it. And you also know what you’re giving up to do it.”
Her advice for students struggling to make a decision about their future: “Know that you’ve got a lot of time. You don’t really have to make that decision about your future right then and there.”
“Just live a bit, you know?”