Loads of people are just finishing uni and taking their first proper steps into the big, wide world this month. I’ve decided to be rather self-centred and to collate my experiences since leaving uni, just in case this is of any use to anyone.
So on the 7th of June 2012 I walked out of Brighton University as a student for the last time. On 7th June 2013 I received am email from my past self sent a year prior. I won’t quote it here, but the main things I was worried about were finding a job, having friends and moving back in with my family. So how did these things go?
Moving back with my family was never a prospect I relished, indeed my mum always thought I’d move out at 18 for uni and then not return. Unfortunately uni has a very draining effect on your finances and most people have no choice but to move back home after studying, unless they’re in the fortunate position of having their life subsidised from somewhere. I am not one of those people, so home I trotted. To be honest, it wasn’t that bad, I had my own room, I started getting on with my step-father (except for a few incidents), my family situation calmed down generally and being in close proximity to London and Cambridge meant that although I knew nobody where I lived, people I did know or got to know weren’t that far away. More on the friend situation later actually. The main problem with moving home for me now, in hindsight, is that “home” for me is in Essex. And after Brighton, Essex doesn’t seem so fabulous. I’m not looking forward to having to move back there after living in the rural seaside paradise that is Swanage, although “the Essex Newport” does have good transport links at least. Anyway, the gist is, I shouldn’t have dreaded it as much as I did.
And then there’s the job thing. I was really fortunate to get a job as a mentor for the National Citizen Service in Slough almost straight out of uni, which you can read about here. Unfortunately this meant commuting to Slough every Monday for a month very early in the morning (which actually I didn’t mind so much), and also it was only for a month. I picked up some absolutely vital experience from it though, and it helped me to realise that my future definitely involves working with children and young people. So my advice would be to take temporary jobs in areas that interest you, even if they are for a month. Treat them as paid work experience, better than unpaid at the end of the day!
And then, in August, I became unemployed properly for the first time in my life. Which meant frequent, incredibly patronising jobcentre visits and a sort of depression that caused me to become quite worried about myself. I managed to get a brief job as a litter picker at Leeds Festival, which was, well, fairly gross really, and then it was back to unemployment. I found myself being judged for not getting a job straight away by more people than I expected, a notable example being when my step-dad (and this is the first time I’ve publicly called him that) had a very long rant at me about spending all my time sitting on the sofa on my laptop when I should be looking for jobs. I’m not entirely sure what he thought I was doing, because in the 21st century “sitting on the sofa on a laptop” is the way you apply for jobs, it’s certainly more effective than “going out to look for one and not coming back until you’ve found one”. Certainly I had much more luck with applying online than handing CVs out, as most jobs you hand CVs to want retail or catering experience, of which I have neither. But despite applying for several jobs, I had two months of just the litter picking job and nothing else.
It was when I was on the way home from Alchemy Festival (which I was reviewing and so got into for free, in case you’re going to accuse me of wasting my benefits) that I received a phone call out of the blue from an agency offering me a data entry job for three weeks at Stansted Airport. I actually ended up in that job for two months, working for the company that does the facilities maintenance for FedEx. It wasn’t a bad experience; I was relatively well paid and worked with nice people, but it was fairly obvious my future definitely wasn’t in admin. However, at this time I was convinced I was going to do a masters in Environmental Health the next September and was prepared to do any job I could to save the money. This job got me out of my overdraft and little else. And as December rolled round and my employment ceased, I realised that doing the masters might not actually be feasible.
So I was unemployed again, and just as miserable as all sorts of realisations hit me. Alongside the masters realisation was the “I’ve still not had a full time, permanent job” realisation and the “I can’t get work experience in my chosen field” realisation. I handed out CVs, which was miserable as it was clear that I didn’t have the experience they required, and I went to visit an admin agency who told me two months in a data entry job meant I didn’t have anything like the skills I was looking for. That old catch-22 about not getting work without experience/not getting experience without a job began to hit. And then I got an interview with a charity and an interview for a one month temporary job at a security firm. The short and short of it is that I got the latter job and spent January as a filing clerk.
It was at the beginning of January that I was messed around a bit by someone and once that finished I began to re-evaluate my life. I realised I had no ties to anyone or anything and that I could do pretty much anything I wanted anywhere I wanted. So I applied to PGL and an outdoor centre in Swanage, as well as a library job back home. I got a job at PGL, and still set on doing my masters at this point, I realised that on an apprentice wage I would earn next to nothing. So I waited hopefully for an interview with the outdoor centre, and I got one. It meant having to travel to Dorset with only four days notice, but I did it and after a fortnight of nervous waiting I got that all important phone call and moved to Swanage three weeks later.
So I’m an outdoor learning tutor until August. I’ve talked about my job before, but the gist is that I teach geography in action and outdoor adventurous activities to children and GCSE students. And mostly it’s absolutely great and I love my job. But it’s also really, really hard work, especially at present as we have several groups in and we’re all very busy, although I do tend to thrive off hard work. I thought I had it all planned, I was going to work here until August, go travelling and then come next February I would work here again.
Then I had my appraisal and was told my low self-esteem was stopping me from doing a good job, and surprise, surprise this made me lose all confidence in my abilities. Which I have subsequently clawed back, but only just. And then it hit me that I’d have no idea if I was able to return here until January next year. And maybe having that much uncertainty in employment wasn’t a good thing. And somewhere in the midst of this I decided I was going to do a PGCE.
Yes, “those that can, do…” etc. But I don’t think there’s much shame in turning to teaching, and in my case I don’t plan to stay in the classroom very long. My current plan is to do a primary PGCE, maybe with a specialism, and then look for work in LEA outdoor centres or for an environmental education charity like Groundwork. I feel having a teaching qualification would improve my chances at these jobs, and also ensure that I do have something to fall back on. Besides, as it turns out, I really love to teach. However I don’t plan to do this until September 2014, and I have no idea what I’m doing in the mean time.
That leaves the friendship situation. I have many wonderful friends up and down the country, unfortunately none of them live particularly near me. And when I finished uni having made good, close by friends I knew I’d miss that. What I didn’t anticipate was not talking to my university friends properly ever again, but that’s a different, far more whiny story. My time at home was pretty lonely, I saw friends in London now and again but that was it. My social life was saved by the Cambridge National Novel Writing Month group, which I met with in the pub and in a cafe throughout November whilst I attempted to write a novel in a month. Which I sort of did. The novel is awful but at least I had a social event to attend; after November we met in the pub every second and fourth Wednesday of the month and I’m convinced it was these gatherings that kept me sane. It’s hard trying to make friends in a new area, especially when you’re out of education, so I really struck it lucky. So many interest groups are aimed at retired people, I wish this wasn’t the case. Then I moved to Swanage and now I have my house/workmates to drink with, so that’s OK.
So, in all, it hasn’t been the terrible year I envisioned it being, but it hasn’t been easy. It’s definitely getting that first foothold on the career ladder that’s the tricky bit, and that’s really hard for graduates. My sister was fortunate enough to get a job straight out of FE college, so I feel this has probably made it look like I wasn’t looking hard enough or something. I looked bloody hard, and I explored every avenue. It’s just sad it’s such a disheartening process, and people will tell you not to be downhearted but that’s so difficult.
Now I have to think about what I want from my second year as a graduate. This is difficult because there are so many pathways and options I can take. The two main ones are either to move back home for a year (not the greatest prospect on either mine or my mum’s part) and work and learn to drive and then do my PGCE. The other is to look for a job I want in a place I want and use the money I put away for saving to move to where a job is. Everything is very uncertain, and crunch time will be August. The unfortunate thing about the job I do is that it is seasonal and there is no work in the industry in winter, so I will have to get a job in any old field. I am looking very closely at teaching assistant jobs at the moment but I’m not convinced they’ll have me as I lack school experience completely.
I’m sure things will come out in the wash, indeed they always seem to. I may find myself back here in February, or maybe even on the Isle of Wight. I may find myself working another job that I actually want to do in the West Country (which is definitely the best scenario). Or I may find myself back home, temping and trying not to feel sorry for myself. Who knows.
I do know that the past year has been invaluable. I know what I want to do, where I want to do it and how I’m going to get there. It’s just that intervening year that may be tricky, but it’s only a year, just like the one that has passed.
So to those finishing uni now, don’t panic. You may have plans, but don’t be afraid to change them. You may have no idea what you want to do, and that’s actually fine. You may even find yourself missing writing essays and reminiscing about your dissertation (guilty as charged). If you are free from ties, then this is probably the best time to explore what you do want to do, and where you want to do it as well. So little emphasis is put on choosing where you want to live, I suppose most people choose either their university town or where they grew up. But what of those of us who want to live in neither place?
I suppose you may be lucky, or you may not be. But the next year is just that, a year. Everything can change, and actually that can be quite exciting. Just got to ride it out.