What do you want to do when you grow up?

Closeup portrait of young woman thinking daydreaming deeply about something scratching head looking upwards, isolated on white b

Ask young people what they're looking for in a future career, and they'll almost certainly have a clear answer: fulfilling, creative, well-paid work.

When it comes to identifying what that work might be, though, many are stumped. Girls, apparently, are far slower off the mark than boys, with Oxford University researchers revealing last month that male undergraduates tend to start both thinking about and acting on their career goals much earlier than their female peers.

The answer, of course, is good careers advice. But the government is concerned that young people aren't getting the service they need, and has launched an inquiry to consider whether schools in particular are failing to give young people enough information about the range of options available to them.

"Good quality careers advice is exceptionally important but current provision often seems patchy and complex, falling short in providing young people with comprehensive advice about the range of career opportunities available," says Neil Carmichael, chair of the Education Select Committee.

"While routes to university may be well mapped out, alternatives such as apprenticeships and vocational qualifications are largely ignored."

It doesn't help that some young people have unrealistic expectations, believing they are far more likely to get a creative job than they really are, for example, or that they'll be earning a lot more than average.

Most, though, are well aware that they may have to take what they can get to begin with, and then work their way up to something a bit more fulfilling.

But how do you work out where to start?

If you're not sure what you'd like to do, there are various online aptitude tests that aim to give you an idea of the sort of careers you'd be best suited to. The starting point is usually your existing qualifications and experience - such as they are.

These tests then try to establish your individual strengths and weaknesses, as well as your personality type: do you prefer working alone or in a team, for example; would you rather be in an office or outdoors?

There's a rather lighthearted one at iCould, for example, that nonetheless makes some useful suggestions.

Rather more down to earth is the National Careers Service's Skills Health Check, a set of online questionnaires designed to give you information about your skills, interests and motivations in the workplace.

"Remember: you don't have to know what you want to do for the rest of your life," the site advises. "Sometimes it's not about finding the perfect job, but just finding a good match for your strengths and interests."

Meanwhile, London-based charity YouthNet has an online site that helps young people to look beyond their qualifications alone to find marketable skills. Tick the boxes that apply - everything from being a school prefect to having a blog - and it shows how these can be presented to best effect in a job application.

Specifically for graduates, Prospects, too, has an online planner allowing young people to fill in their skills, motivations and desires to work out the perfect job. It also has a site that gives examples of possible careers based on their degree subject.

For those, on the other hand, that don't want to go to university there's, well, Not Going to Uni. It gives a huge range of alternatives to standard further education, from apprenticeships to gap years and distance learning courses, with tips on finding the option that best suits your talents.

And there's much more information on apprenticeships here on the government website, including information on the types of placement available and advice on how to write an application.

In a survey last month, Standard Life found that most people give a number of different opportunities a try before finally making a career choice and working hard to move up the ladder.

"As we go through our lives, what motivates us and makes us happy in our job changes," says Julie Hutchison, a consumer finance expert with the company. "For some, the priority is moving up the career ladder, for others, having the security to support their family."

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that, whatever you find yourself doing, it's always possible to change your mind.

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The 25 top quotes about career success
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What do you want to do when you grow up?
"Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping: opportunity."
"Do what you have to do until you can do what you want to do."
"Youngsters have got to stop thinking about becoming the next Zuckerberg. It's a trillion-to-one chance. What they need is mater and pater to say, 'Get a job, son."
"The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on."
"It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default."
"I've missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed."
"You've got to love what you do to really make things happen."
"Don't think what's the cheapest way to do it or what's the fastest way to do it, think 'what's the most amazing way to do it?'"
"You cannot delegate entrepreneurship – if you are going to make mistakes make them yourself."
"It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you'll do things differently."
"If you're an entrepreneur and want to start a business, start small. You can start a business on your own or just with a partner or assistant. It's only when you take on your first member of staff that you're more than likely to encounter other problems."
"The entrepreneurial instinct is in you. You can't learn it, you can't buy it, you can't put it in a bottle. It's just there and it comes out."
"Whether you come from a council estate or a country estate, your success will be determined by your own confidence and fortitude."
"If you're offered a seat on a rocket ship, don't ask what seat! Just get on."
"If you are successful, it is because somewhere, sometime, someone gave you a life or an idea that started you in the right direction. Remember also that you are indebted to life until you help some less fortunate person, just as you were helped."
"Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself. Because it's only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you realize your true potential."
"Whoever decides to dedicate their life to politics knows that earning money isn't the top priority."
"I made my money without sector expertise, contacts or capital. I never had a USP, never had 'first mover advantage' or invented anything, and I didn't even do anything unique or that someone else couldn't have done. What I did have was a Yellow Pages and some determination – and that's all it takes."
"Everyone gets knocked back, no one rises smoothly to the top without hindrance. The ones who succeed are those who say, right, let's give it another go."
"Every day, you have to prove yourself and convince - move forward and challenge yourself. And doubt all the time."
"It is no good getting furious if you get stuck. What I do is keep thinking about the problem but work on something else. Sometimes it is years before I see the way forward. In the case of information loss and black holes, it was 29 years."
"My dad said to me, 'Work hard and be patient.' It was the best advice he ever gave me. You have to put the hours in."
"Behind every no entry sign there's a door."
"Women need to shift from thinking 'I'm not ready to do that' to thinking "I want to do that - and I'll learn by doing it."
"Son, if you really want something in this life, you have to work for it. Now quiet! They're about to announce the lottery numbers."
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