How I decided not-for-profit was right for me

Geography graduate Jen Durrant shares her career journey


Name: Jen Durrant

Degree course: Geography

College: Sidney Sussex

Graduated: 2014


Did you have an idea of what type of career you wanted when you first joined university?

Not at all! I had a vague sense I wanted to do something ‘worthwhile’ – but no clue what that meant. Studying geography opened my mind to a lot of the different issues and needs out there, but of course too much choice can be confusing.  And I enjoyed such a variety of extracurricular activities that the idea of ever finding a career that suited me seemed pretty overwhelming.

Before landing her current position at anti-poverty charity Toynbee Hall, Jen worked for the not-for-profit Zacchaeus 2000 Trust

What Careers Service sessions did you attend to help you gain a clearer idea?

For a long time I thought I wanted to go into international relations or development, so I went to several speaker events and panel discussions related to that. I liked hearing from real people about the work they did – without that, it’s hard to know what jobs even exist, let alone what it’s like doing them.

I also found individual appointments with careers advisers very helpful for talking through the possibilities, and I went to a great CV workshop which has definitely opened doors for me.

But it wasn’t until two years after graduating that I was really ready to start thinking about what sort of career I might want to do in the long term; before then it was a lot of short-term jobs, volunteering and travel while I was trying out a whole range of different interests.

I was living abroad at that point, so I relied a lot on the website. I read up on possible routes and options across policy, public sector, think tanks and charities in various topic areas – but again it was hearing from real people that was most useful. I listened to several of the panel discussion podcasts on the website: they gave me a great insight into the realities of different roles, and from that I could refine my searching to the types of jobs that really interested me.

An event Jen attended with her previous employer, the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust

How did you develop the skills you needed for a role in the charities sector while studying?

One of the key things the Careers Service showed me is that all experience is worthwhile. Of course, I gained a huge amount from volunteering – not only is it immensely rewarding in itself, it’s also a great way to gain new skills and learn about important issues. Running the homelessness charity Streetbite developed my leadership and organisation skills, deepened my understanding of social problems and inspired the dissertation that eventually formed the basis of my career in social research – but I would never have predicted that at the time.

In fact, everything I did at university – from theatre and creative writing to bar work and rowing, not to mention the enormous challenge of actually doing a degree  – helped me to develop and demonstrate my abilities and interests.

When it came to applying for jobs, it was less about doing extra and more about seeing the value in what I’d already done. The Careers Service CV workshop was crucial for showing me how to present those experiences most effectively.

How did you navigate the job market to find your dream position?

I never had a particular destination in mind, so it was more about casting the net wide, sifting through the possibilities and refining my ideas over time. Reading adverts on sites like Charity Jobs, Twitter and the Careers Service helped me learn more about what organisations and roles are out there and get a sense for what did or didn’t appeal to me – even if I wasn’t looking for a new job at the time.

Going to interviews whenever possible was also important – both for the practice and for testing out how I felt about the organisation (interviews are never just a one-way process!).

And phone appointments with Careers Advisers have been vital for guiding me through.

Anti-poverty charity Toynbee Hall in the East End of London, where Jen now works as a Financial Health Research Manager

If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your student self?

Don’t feel you have to have it all figured out right now! There’s so much pressure when you’re in your twenties to have this grand plan about what you’re going to do with your life – in my experience, the best thing to do with that is forget it. Life doesn’t follow the instructions, and what’s right for you changes anyway. So focus instead on what you enjoy now, and if something seems interesting, try it.

You can read and listen and research jobs as much as you like – and I would definitely recommend doing that – but at the end of the day, the only way to find out what suits you is by doing it. So try it.

And if you don’t like it, you can move on to something else – with that added experience behind you. Because there isn’t One Right Answer to the Great Careers Question. You don’t have to find one single job that ticks all the boxes, or one single path that will lead to your dream destination. All you have to do is take a first step, open your mind and let the next steps appear in time. Just try what sounds good for now.

If you are still looking for career ideas, head to our ‘I’M LOOKING FOR IDEAS‘ webpages to help find out what step to take next in your career journey.

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