You’ve just received your final exam results, and you’ve passed with flying colors. The next exciting phase will be getting to wear the fancy hat and robe and taking obligatory pictures with said hats flying through the air. While these memorable experiences are incredibly worthwhile, finishing university and entering ‘the real world’ can be a very scary and anti-climactic reality for many graduates across the UK.
Being a graduate looking for a job introduces a number of complications into your life, including the most disheartening of them all: you will most likely most get the job you thought you would right away. That is an unfortunate fact of life that isn’t unique to the UK. Before we delve into the muddy waters of graduate jobseeking and managing expectations, let me just for a moment try to pinpoint what the main problem is:
Unrealistic Career Advice
As a graduate myself who went through the entire university cycle right up to PhD level, unrealistic career advice is primarily to blame for my unrealistic expectations after going through my final graduation ceremony. Does anyone remember careers in primary and secondary school? I sure as heck do. I remember the teacher simply handing out cards about different jobs and their salaries. This same teacher would then pretty much just talk about what subjects you needed to get good GCSE or A level grades in, and that was that. So right away I’m looking at these different cards and thinking ‘hmm, which of these would I like to do’ and then doing the figurative math in my head of what my grade in that subject might be.
Do you notice something missing here? At that naive age I didn’t, but in this elusive ‘real world’ we often hear tell of, I sure do. The gaping flaw in the teaching methodology here is no reference to the notion of supply and demand. Sure, I might want to be an astronaut, and I might even have the scientific and mathematical prowess to be one, but there is no way to be an astronaut if there are currently no astronaut spaces available.
As far as I see it, this fundamental flaw tricks students from high school level and beyond into believing they can be whatever they want to be, as long as they work hard enough. While this is a wonderful way of perceiving the world, it has little to no basis in reality. Sure, there are those lucky ducks like JK Rowling who do actually get to achieve their dreams. There are also those lucky ducks who win the lottery. I’ve yet to win the lottery, have you?
This fallacy extends right into university. I never visited a specific career person, but even in standard lectures where questions like ‘how do you become a journalist’ were asked, lecturers would simply respond with what you needed to specialize in. Again, there was no reference to ‘well, in fact, it’s exceedingly difficult to become a journalist, because there are many more would-be journalists than there are newspapers needing their expertise.’
And so, it is simply not enough to be good at something. It’s not enough to study it at university level. The ‘real world’ doesn’t stop spinning just because you need a job. Unfortunately, unless you’re in the lucky position where demands exceeds supply, you will almost certainly find this out the hard way the moment you leave university.
So, with this in mind, how on earth do you not just stick your head in the sand and spend the rest of your days in bed, scrounging on the government? Come on now, you’re better than that. There are ways to negotiate your current crappy position and make the best of things, so let’s find out how to make the most of your precarious situation, shall we?
Does a Degree Mean Much of Anything These Days?
Despite the fact that degrees are handed out to pretty much anyone with an arm and a leg, they do actually still mean something. You might be disheartened to find out what they mean, but they are not entirely meaningless.
When you’re applying for a job and it requires a degree in something specific, having the required degree means that your application will make it to the second round of the application pile. That’s pretty much it really. Any job that requires a certain degree will simply not hire anyone without it, and any job which doesn’t require a degree will not look at you more favorably for having one. In fact, going by my own experience, putting down your extensive education on an application for a job that doesn’t require it will almost certainly mean you won’t get it. Congratulations. You have officially been bamboozled.
You must remember that where education is concerned, the supply and demand concept kicks in big time. Back in the days of those glorious English poets like Shelley and Wordsworth, education was like gold dust. Education today is more akin to standard, household dust. When soft educational policies that seek to make everyone equal are put into place, softer entry requirements are introduced. Moreover, courses that don’t get enough bums on the seats the first round are then introduced a second time with lower entry rates. All of these things should tell you that it’s genuinely very easy to be admitted into university. This means that more people tend to go to university. The downside to this is that more people graduate, and your Humanities degree that might’ve been wildly impressive two centuries ago is almost downright embarrassing these days.
Sad but true.
If you’re getting mad right now, this is the little voice deep down in your gut telling you this is absolutely true. Sorry to be blunt, but there is nothing better than a healthy dose of honesty to shake you from your post-graduate stint of depressive existentialism.
And yes, there is something you can do about it:
What to Do When You Realize a Degree Doesn’t Automatically Land You a Job.
This can be a hard-hitting, utterly depressing moment in a graduate’s life. I’ve been there. Actually, I’ve been there twice. It’s even worse the second time, especially when that second time means you’re now a PhD graduate. I even struggled to get work after this, so it was exponentially disheartening to realize that these bits of paper hanging up on my wall were essentially useless.
Every graduate reading this must not forget that universities are essentially profiteering businesses. If you want to look at it in a very bleak way, you could plausibly argue that universities profit off the dreams of idealistic young adults. Again, sad but true.
So what do you do when reality hits home?
Luckily, this isn’t the end for you. Post-graduate life, once you realize the job you wanted is not within your reach right now, is a wonderful time to re-assess everything. The first thing you have to do is sit down and have an honest thinking session with yourself. Get out a pen and paper if necessary. Think about what your priorities are where a career is concerned. Actually, put it all down there: what are your life goals? Where do you want to live? What kind of lifestyle do you want? Do you yearn for an apartment in the city or a cabin in the mountains.
Consider the goals and aspirations you’ve just thought about, and then think of a realistic way to get there. Just because your graduate status has severely disappointed you doesn’t mean your life has to. There are always unrealistic jobs that rarely happen to anyone, like being an actress or a writer. However, does this mean you have to completely eradicate your passion from your life? The short answer is no. What’s so wrong with taking acting classes while working in a shop? What’s so wrong with applying for a job that sounds a bit boring but gives you the extra income you need to save towards your real goals?
Once you think of your prospects in these terms, working towards your goals will give a renewed sense of purpose and direction in your life. It’s not an easy time to leave university and come to the dismal understanding of real life, but do not give up hope. The jobs you really want are attainable if you simply take the time to figure out how to improve your employability. If it’s journalism, you need to write articles and get them published. If it’s starting your own business you need to do extensive research on what this entails and then figure out how to get the necessary funding. If you want to be a filmmaker you need to make industry connections and actually make some films.
It sounds simple, but too many graduates believe that their film degree means they will be hired for the next season of Game of Thrones. A piece of paper with basic modules and soft assessment criteria does not an excellent cameraman make. Your potential employees need to see that you are more than this bit of paper. The bit of paper simply gets you in the door.
Remember this, and your journey from graduate to employee will be a lot easier.
by Gillian Rixey
(Gillian is a PhD qualified freelance writer and scholar born in Ireland but currently residing in the United States.)