The Careers Adviser: 'What can I do with my history degree? And will a year out damage my career prospects?'

Past and present

Q. I've just graduated with a degree in history and I've absolutely no idea what career I can go into or how to decide – can you help?

Perhaps you eliminated your worst GCSE subjects to choose A-level subjects and then applied the same principle to degree choice. That has merits – it should ensure that you enjoy your degree and do your best academically, but the day of reckoning eventually comes and you have to make your first positive career decision. Find out from your university careers service what previous graduates from your course did. That might give you some ideas, but remember that those figures are collected six months after graduation and some graduates will not be settled at this point.

You can get ideas about careers where your degree is required, where it is useful, and careers open to graduates regardless of their degree subject – about 50 per cent of all graduate vacancies – from Or use a computer-aided guidance programme like Prospects Planner on the same site to build your own career profile and match it with hundreds of careers. After this you should be getting some ideas – find out more about them and run the ideas past friends and family. Are there other factors to take into account such as family ties? Do you want to use your subject knowledge? Are you willing to undertake further study at this stage?

Next take any work experience, interests, or voluntary work into account. Create a balance sheet for each job/activity with a line across the middle. Above the line write activities, skills and working conditions that you liked or suited you. Below it write things you didn't like or didn't do well. You may have hated a bar job for the obnoxious customers, for instance, but enjoyed planning and ordering weekly stock. Do this in some detail over a week and see if themes emerge. Ignore any negatives at your peril. It's a methodical process, but worth the investment in time.

Late break

Q. I've just graduated and would like to take a year out before settling down into a career. I didn't take a year out between school and university and I want a break before I begin working. Is this too much of a luxury?

A. Taking a year out after graduation offers an opportunity to travel, understand cultures, meet people, learn languages, acquire skills and pack a CV full of work from cherry-picking to selling books door to door. You don't have to leave home. Many graduates volunteer, giving back to the community while gaining skills, independence and maturity.

Some careers require experience for entry to a vocational course. Social work is one example where considerable experience working with your eventual client groups is essential. Maybe you have some relevant experience, but need time to consolidate and make applications. Most employers now demand some experience before entry. If rocket science or MI5 is your goal, relevant work experience won't be possible, but you can still demonstrate relevant skills acquired in a different context.

Can you lose out? With technical or engineering degrees you may lose subject knowledge during time out. In general, technical employers see the least benefits from a year out. It is important to plan in advance, or you may find that one year stretches into two, as you miss course or job application deadlines. You will be competing with graduates from 2008 on your return – how will you be a better candidate?

Send your queries to Caroline Haydon at 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or e-mail chaydon

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