Planning for university? Your career prospects after college

What students beginning their third-level education in 2023 should expect when they graduate

With unemployment levels at record lows, there are lots of reasons for students transitioning from second to third-level education to feel confident about their career prospects when they finally take that leap into the jobs market.

Notwithstanding the many issues facing young people nowadays – not least the seemingly impossible prospect of someday owning a home – getting on the job ladder has scarcely ever seemed more manageable.

But what can the students embarking on the start of third-level education today expect when that day finally arrives?

The first thing to say, according to Sharon McCooey, head of LinkedIn Ireland, is that “the only certainty in life is uncertainty”, as she points to events such as the Covid-19 pandemic and the Ukraine war in recent years.


“The first piece of advice I give anyone thinking about what course to study at university is that many job opportunities available today are very different from a decade ago,” she says.

“What students need to keep in mind is that they are at the beginning of a journey of lifelong learning. Key to that journey is an adaptable mindset as the reality is today’s graduates are likely to change careers multiple times over their lifetime.”

Her sentiments are shared by Pawel Adrjan, an economist and director of EMEA economic research at jobs website Indeed. “If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected,” he says.

“So while some areas look set for increased demand over coming years, the best thing an early careerist can do is make sure they get a broad range of experience early on. A degree can be a jumping off point and does not necessarily dictate what you have to do for the rest of your life.

“Take stock of your values, skills and aptitudes. Look at the key skills that your degree gives you, and then look at where they best transfer. That will help you map out avenues you might like to explore in your career.

“It’s also important to identify what your priorities are when looking for a job. Is salary key or would you be willing to trade off for more flexibility? What learning opportunities would you like to access? Would you like to travel or work from a certain location?

“These priorities are likely to change throughout your career so it’s good to check in with yourself regularly as your priorities shift.”

Undergraduate course selection is the first chapter in your career story rather than a high-pressure lifelong decision

—  Brendan Lally, University of Limerick careers adviser

University of Limerick (UL) careers adviser Brendan Lally also acknowledges the uncertainties with predicting the future jobs market, but says school leavers “should expect lifelong learning to include upskilling and re-skilling with multiple career changes as people work longer”.

“What you’re good at now and what your parents and teachers have helped you identify as your strengths is just a starting point,” he says. “Undergraduate course selection is more a first chapter in your career story rather than a high-pressure lifelong decision.

“There are current students at the University of Limerick and other campuses around the country studying for careers that may not exist yet or will be radically different in 10 years’ time.

“Many of next year’s first years in higher education will study for careers that have yet to be defined. So, students preparing for third-level must be more conscious of the world they live in rather than just their world.”

Lally points to Government reports of “future skills needs” that can provide useful information for those making choices and which give rise to in-demand courses.

“They give good indications of what can be expected and point to growth in green technology, bio medical and bio pharma,” he says.

“The upward trajectory of tech and, in particular, the challenges around privacy and cyber security point to other rapid growth areas. Demographics point to an ageing population, with challenges around care and health.

“Engineering will continue to advance with automation, robotics and machine learning, and the impact of AI and big data to name but a few.”

LinkedIn’s McCooey agrees that areas such as the green economy are likely to be bountiful hunting grounds for jobseekers down the tracks.

“Obviously there are industries like technology and pharma that are in high demand, as well as more traditional industries that will always be hiring such as the legal and engineering sectors,” she says.

“For example, one of the most popular roles advertised on LinkedIn last year was for software engineers.

“Naturally sectors like the tech, healthcare and legal sectors will continue to need large pipelines of talent, but we will also see new areas emerge, particularly in the green economy.

“Looking at the area of climate change, it’s obvious that many industries need to change and there will be opportunities across the board, whether it is a reimagining of traditional areas like the boom in retrofitting in the construction sector or a future demand for expertise about renewable energy sources like wind turbines.

“In the past five years, the number of renewables and environment jobs in the US has increased by 237 per cent. We expect a similar boom in demand in Ireland.”

McCooey says the five fastest growing green jobs between 2016 and 2021 were sustainability managers, wind turbine technicians, solar consultants, ecologists, and environmental health and safety specialists.

Indeed’s Adrjan says demand for healthcare roles – which was boosted by the pandemic – will persevere in the years ahead.

“Since the pandemic we have seen consistent high demand across essential services such as healthcare – at the moment therapy, pharmacy and home care are particularly in demand,” he says.

“When trying to predict a prosperous career path, one thing to look at is currently pressing problems or developing areas – environmental issues, socio economic development, digital connectivity – these can be a good predictor of where demand will lie.

“Trends indicate demand for remote work will continue in office-based roles, which means that graduates may need to prepare to enter a new hybrid workforce, and must be ready to adapt to that style of working from the outset.”

If you take the same role from 2015 to 2022, roughly 25 per cent of the skills that are required for that role have changed

—  Sharon McCooey, head of LinkedIn Ireland

Most of the experts agree that the best thing students can do as they begin life at third-level education is to build a bank of transferrable skills rather than worrying too much about the specifics of what they are doing.

“If you have an obvious interest in an area like tech or law, obviously pursue your passion,” says McCooey.

“If it’s a case, however, that you are simply choosing a course based on a greater chance of getting employed once you graduate, it is important to know that you can always study something that you enjoy and then add extra qualifications or learn additional skills required for a role.

“Employers are rethinking hiring and increasingly placing greater emphasis on a candidate’s skills and overall potential to ensure great talent is not overlooked. This is actually a really important consideration for very specialised areas.

“For example, AI is a sector that’s on the rise, but the pipeline of talent available is quite small, so most organisations have to rely on professionals transitioning into the space,” McCooey says.

“Recent LinkedIn data shows us that if you take the same role from 2015 to 2022, roughly 25 per cent of the skills that are required for that role have changed.

“For example, Jira, Kubernetes and Python were among the top 10 skills added by LinkedIn members in the IT sector during 2021 contrasting with more traditional skills like SQL, JavaScript and Software Development topping the list back in 2015.

“Ultimately, a key takeaway for any student is that you do not stop your education journey when you graduate.

“By the time this generation enters the workforce, hiring practices will be reimagined in that the focus will not simply be on your degree – recruiters will be looking at your core skills and how adaptable you are.”

UL’s Lally pushes the importance that school leavers understand that deep learning, even in big demand disciplines, is not enough to ensure guaranteed future success.

“In higher education what defines success can often be viewed as the grade you come out with at the end,” he says. “Graduate recruiters in organisations will define success more broadly.

“In your final year, graduate employers will want you to show them evidence and examples of your ability and transferable skills. Skills required can include evidence of collaboration, resilience, learning agility, growth mind-set, critical analysis, initiative, drive and adaptability.

“Much of this will be determined by what you do outside the classroom and lecture theatre. My tip for reaching your career goals is not only to study hard... Your future employment and life prospects will improve with experiences such as a work placement, a study abroad Erasmus experience with foreign language opportunity, part-time jobs, sports participation, campus societies and volunteering.

“These will allow you to take ownership and demonstrate skills and ability. Balancing your time for all of this is difficult, but prospective employers recognise this and target those that do it well.”

Lally advises students at this point in their journeys to devote one hour per week to their “own personal career education”.

“Your college career service and website will have everything you need, to plan ahead,” he says. They can help you with self-awareness; job market analysis; how best to present yourself; and how to understand how employers will assess you.”

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson

Colin Gleeson is an Irish Times reporter