'It seemed like a good idea at the time...'

The Age, Youth Expo Careers Supplement by Kerrin O'Sullivan

It seemed like a good idea at the time all those years ago - save hard, finish the final year of my course, go overseas for a month or two and come back knowing what I wanted to do for a career. Simple plan, simple solution. Except that when I returned from snow-driven Europe to the dying days of a hot Australian summer, I didn't have all the answers. In fact I didn't have any. I had no better idea of what I wanted to do than when I'd departed, and even less idea of what a graduate could do.

So I repeated the original plan - it seemed like a good idea at the time. I returned to university, completed post-graduate studies in psychology, saved hard and went overseas secure in the belief that when I came back in a couple of months I would have decided what I wanted to do. This time it took 10 months to return. I came back not only bereft of ideas but of my worldly possessions, which some opportunist relieved me of on a Greek wharf while I absent-mindedly queued for a ferry.

As I disembarked from the jumbo at Tullamarine, I remember secretly hoping that someone would walk up to me waving a job offer saying, "We've been waiting for you!"

As things turned out even my mother got the arrival date wrong, and my Greek coins got jammed in the arrivals lounge phone box.

Last week my indecisive past came back to haunt me - in the form of a masters student. Tony came to see me to explore the merits of undertaking a PhD in Sociology, an additional three years of study, but was also playing with ideas about beginning a Behavioural Science degree from scratch.

A Behavioural Science degree from scratch? I echoed. And Tony continued. By the end of the ensuing hour it had become clear to both of us that the issue was not which course offered what benefits but a fear of moving on to the next step, of leaving the safe confines of university for the world of work.

So what can be done? First, if procrastination is contributing to the problem, then start with that. What function does putting off things off serve? What is procrastination protecting you from?

If it seems as if you and Tony have something in common, it might help to focus on the workforce and identify why it makes you feel insecure about entering it. Even talking to other recent graduates about how they made the transition from university to work might help allay some of your fears. While insight alone cannot cure procrastination, understanding its hidden roots often seems to weaken them.

The next step involves developing strategies to change your behaviour. For Tony this might involve looking at beliefs he holds about his expectations, both positive and negative, and challenging these. With help, Tony volunteered that both from his family and the school he'd attended, he'd got the message loud and clear that he must be perfect and do things perfectly. Within the secure and familiar arena of university he could come quite close to living up to these unrealistic presumptions and at the same time satisfy some of his family's expectations. He saw his performance in the dog-eat-dog world of commerce and industry as much more unpredictable and rationalised that is safer to do nothing, than to risk and fail.

Like most of us, Tony could also do with a bit of help in clarifying goals and making decisions. What are his goals - study, career, personal, leisure? What is needed to achieve them? How might he allocate priorities?

With decision-making, one of the hardest facts to grasp is that very rarely is one decision actually better than another. Most choices and options have their good and bad points. What distinguishes the option that becomes a decision from all the other options available is our commitment to it and the investment of ourselves in it.

So far Tony has been paralysed by his indecision, and by not making any choices has invalidated all the options. So for him the first part of a successful decision is to make a decision - even something quite simple such as deciding to talk to someone about various employment options and to air his concerns about his suitability.

The second part, which really applies to all decisions is to credit it with the commitment it deserves. In other words, stick to it and make it work.

So if you are nearing the end of your course and the light at the end of the tunnel is getting blindingly bright yet not shedding any real light on the career options you have, resist the temptation to dig another tunnel. Or at least, before you buy the shovel talk to someone - maybe a careers adviser or counsellor. It can't hurt and might even help.

Alternatively you could always go overseas. You'll probably have a great time. And you can be sure that while you're away none of the really important decisions you face will have been resolved by the time you get back. Unless, of course, you've missed the boat…

© 2012 Kerrin O’Sullivan