Employment Advice for Students

Hello any university students who accidentally read this!

The Guardian is running a singularly pessimistic series of articles on The Graduate without a future. It’s a popular topic at the moment, with the Torygraph featuring similar articles which are made a little less accessible by not having their own series with a snappy title. One thing which universities don’t usually cover these days is that you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the newspapers (I have a vague recollection of an anecdote about one provincial paper which made up a story about alien invasion to fill the otherwise empty front page) so some kind of balance may be in order.

“Without a future” is tosh. You always have a future (unless you’re dead) even if it just involves spending weekends in lying in a field with a book after writing comic literature (aka doomed job applications) all week for employers to throw away. Even then, you’re providing valuable employment to the Human Resources person tasked with deleting your application email.

For any graduates planning on graduating at some point (this summer, next summer or at some point beyond), particularly with “appalling” degrees like the one I got, consider the following from someone with a 2:2 in Law and a job which does not involve any law at all. And if you are getting rejected because you got a 2:2, at least it’s fairer than the probably not apocryphal HR person who drops half the applications in the bin to weed out the unlucky ones.

(I should note, for the avoidance of any doubt, that my 2:2 was derived from slogging my way through the subject but never really getting my head round the intricacies. Since degrees are awarded based on your understanding of the topic, not how much time you spend trying to grasp the relevance of Oughtred Inland Revenue, I got the same degree classification as a student who grasped the topic but went to a party rather than digging deeper and can hardly complain about this. Eventually in my third year I took to lemonade and my marks went up. Some getting out in the evening helps you to relax and if done as part of a society can top up a CV – particularly useful if the actual degree is unexceptional.)

1) Don’t drop out!

At least, not in your final year. You’re not getting a lead on your cohort in the jobs market. You’re hurling yourself into last year’s lot, except minus a degree. Your reasons for interviews as to why you dropped out will play just as well as reasons why you got a 2:1 rather than a first.

There is support out there for people who are struggling, though it does take some finding. But ultimately dropping out, particularly towards the end, won’t save you much cash and if you’re really doomed there’s nothing to stop you doing job applications during the run-down towards your exams. Law students are expected to do them anyway.

2) Don’t worry about the debts.

My debts are currently being repaid at the rather luxurious rate of slightly less than £20 per roughly monthly paycheque. This does admittedly sound like more when I add that while at university £20 would pay for a week’s shopping. It sounds like rather less when you realise that I’m not even covering the interest payments. Happily, nobody cares.

3) Feel free to go home.

Saves a bomb on the student rents and means that you have someone to ask for advice, bring you drinks and kick you into doing things. Of course, I have self-made middle-class parents. Other classes of parent may be less understanding. I only have the one set, so can’t advise on other people’s, but a friend of mine from a more working-class background has parents who are similarly keeping him under their roof with occasional grumps. Having got a job I lost no time in flying the nest, which is probably a good understanding to have in advance to keep down any parental qualms.

Once home, circulate, talk to the family and generally make it seem worthwhile having to prepare your room for your glorious, higher-educated return.

4) Go to the Jobcentre and sign on.

The Jobcentre is the Government’s contribution towards your situation and, while not impressive, £52 per week in dole money is not to be sneezed at. Actually, once you consider that if you are paying rent to someone then you may be able to claim housing benefit and cover it separately, £52 per week is probably more than you had floating round at uni. Hoard some of it – you may want cash later.

You don’t even need to leave the house to do the first stage of signing on, which can be done on the Direct.Gov website. (Yes, that slow orange and white affair that you’ll soon be thoroughly sick of.) Do it quick because they’ll backdate your claim to when you applied but probably not before then.

The Jobcentre will also suggest jobs – some of which may actually be fun if you get a good advisor and interact with them properly – and can cover various out-of-pocket expenses which would inhibit your ability to get a job (or something to that effect). Even more helpfully, they will suggest websites where you can find more relevant jobs. Your local “this is Wherevershire” website also has a jobs section. Employers have websites on which they may list job vacancies; keep an eye on employers that you like. All of these can be set up to punt emails into your inbox with helpful suggestions at six in the morning, eradicating the need to actually do any hunting.

5) Get out of the house.

The immediate temptation upon getting home is to start writing job applications. Certainly spending the first week writing off two dozen applications to the local hotels asking for work is good practice and, who knows, one of them may immediately give you a job and solve your problems.

If they don’t, sitting around all day writing off random job applications to the latest adverts on Direct.Gov’s  job listings and never getting responses is a) soul destroying and b) not a very good answer to an interviewer’s question of “What have you been doing since you graduated?”

So, join the local drama society/ pigeon fancier’s group/ fishing party/ football team, do useful courses (the Jobcentre paid for me to do a first aid course), try to find out what happened to your old friends from before uni (and probably fail dismally), go for some long walks and find some voluntary work you can do. If you have a local heritage railway, they’ll love you to turn up and transfer all the muck from their stuff onto your old clothes. Your local castle may like a few guides. It doesn’t have to be cleaning bedpans and some employers may actually be more impressed if it isn’t. Something a bit different shows character and imagination.

Plus, when you do get a job, you have more people to whom you can boast about it.

6) Hone your applications.

There is a theory that doing the same thing ten times in the same circumstances and expecting different results is a sign of insanity.

If you write off two dozen applications to the local hotels and none of them reply, evidently local hotels aren’t interested. Turn your attention elsewhere.

Ignore job adverts that you’re not going to get. You’ll soon learn to spot them. They’re depressing things if they look fun, but worse when you get rejected after writing an application. Ultimately this may mean a rather stop-start approach to jobhunting – I did four goodish applications in one week, one of which took me on two months later, and then had a dry spell for two weeks.

Over time, you’ll learn what seems to be getting you interviews and what doesn’t. I learnt to be brief and to get applications off quickly as soon as the adverts appeared. My first interview came from a hotel where I saw the advert in the morning, cycled over, picked up an application form as requested, cycled back, filled it out, had lunch and cycled over there again to return it – in the pouring rain. Did it help? Well, it didn’t do any harm…

7) Play the Jobcentre.

The Jobcentre is there to help but their ideas of help may differ to yours. My uni careers people and Jobcentre people all assumed that because I’d done a law degree I must want a law job and telling them otherwise didn’t redirect their interests.

Telling one of my Jobcentre people that I was looking at history jobs did however get him to punt a history job my way and I got an interview out of it, if not an actual job. Every interview is good. You’re doing better than people who aren’t getting interviews and statistically within 6 to 8 interviews you should have a job. (Employers will struggle to interview more than 10 people for one position.) If after 10 interviews you don’t have a job there’s little wrong with your applications but you need to look very seriously at your interview techniques. Employers will often give feedback if asked and can tell you what was good as well as what wasn’t.

Tell the Jobcentre as soon as you’re offered an interview. If it’s more than an hour away, they can be leant on to pay travel costs out of a budget which, in my experience, actually had plenty of flex to supply far more people with walk-up rail fares halfway across the country than it was actually serving. Of course, it’s discretionary so after half-a-dozen interviews in noted beauty spots but no job offers the Jobcentre may get awkward.

If the Jobcentre tells you to do something then show willing, otherwise they will start referring you to Decision Makers and other such grandly titled people who can deprive you of your £52 per week for a few months.  If you really don’t want a sales assistant job in a high street shop, rest assured that you probably won’t get it simply because your lack of interest will show at interview. At the same time, if you don’t get anything better sharp then the Jobcentre may start finding you such roles to do for free.

8) Go on employability courses.

In Cardiff the Welsh Assembly paid for me to do one of these. It was advertised in the city library and done by the local university careers team – the quality academics who they keep hidden in a cupboard, not the careers advisors who tell you to put your CV in a fancy font – who also offered post-course guidance that I didn’t have much chance to use before I got employed. Outside Wales the UK Government may be less friendly. But if you can do one, do it. (You may not wish to rush to tell the Jobcentre if you find one independently, depending on your advisor, since they may make comments about how it doesn’t count as jobhunting and so doesn’t earn you dole.)

You’ll get useful advice, do stuff which helps to concentrate your mind in various directions and meet lots of other unemployed people, which is always reassuring.

9) Look out for Christmas!

Christmas means people spending more and getting lots of presents and cards. While the economists talk about the figures of how many billions Christmas injects into the economy, you’ll get to see how this works on the ground. Those billions are spent on employing people to serve the people celebrating Christmas.

Conveniently, the Jobcentre will largely leave you to your own devices and hope you’ll do well with some nudging for about 6 months continuous unemployment, after which you become more of a cause for concern. However, the Christmas period begins a mere 5 months after you graduate, so if you can get a Christmas job you get off their books for a month, the clock restarts, you’re fine doing your own thing again until next July and you’ll get some money and work experience.

Having to get up in the morning may be weird, but it’s good practice. Personally I’d recommend Royal Mail as moderately interesting (and you won’t do much better than that) but local cafés and high street stores are also good bets. (Royal Mail does shift work, but in my experience it’s the same shift all the time, so your hours will be consistently odd. Plus sorters get the days around Christmas off, since there’s no point in sorting letters on Christmas Eve for delivery on Christmas Day. On the other paw, extroverts may not like silently sorting letters all day.)

After Christmas, these jobs prove to the Jobcentre, your family, potential employers and perhaps most importantly yourself (five months is a long time to be unemployed) that you can hold down a job. If you’re really lucky your Christmas employer will keep you on. If they don’t, you should have some wonderful anecdotes to dine out on for a bit.

If you don’t get a Christmas job then hard cheese and back on the job hunt.

10) Play to your strengths.

You can listen to the Press and stuff your dreams if you want, but it depends a bit on the dreams. Stuff the job of ruling the world, since it’s rarely given to 21-year-olds. (Actually, since it’s never been given to anyone except maybe Queen Victoria and a few Roman Emperors the exact job requirements are fuzzy, but for the purposes of this argument let’s assume that you don’t meet them.)

However, for those who have been giggled at for years for obscure technical interests by people who think they’re polymaths because they know little about everything, you may be about to turn the tables. If you know a lot about a subject already, you can answer interview questions about it pretty well and more instinctively than someone who’s been swotting hurriedly since the interview invite arrived (one of mine came 24 hours in advance for a job I’d forgotten I’d applied for). You may want to keep it as a hobby, but when you read that people no longer have choices as to what they do any more that includes being allowed to say that your immense technical knowledge of drum kits will be kept as a hobby rather than applied to earning hard dough.

I happened to know that a rather bouncy fleet of trains called Pacers are banned from an obscure West Country branchline serving a new village called Gunnislake. My brain is full of this stuff but unless I see the right people it’s not going to get me far. It’s the sort of thing which in the real world is completely irrelevant and which friends aren’t really interested in.

Mentioning it as an aside in my interview may also have got me my job.

11) Keep some perspective.

The friends proved a little more interested in my Gunnislake branch facts when I persuaded them onto a trip to Gunnislake. It’s a beautiful line in lovely scenery with good pubs and I’ve had three very successful days out with people up there forgetting everything else which may be going on in the world.

If all else fails in job hunting, save up some dole money and visit your local Gunnislake equivalent (or, better still, take the train to Gunnislake itself and contribute to my pay packet). Admire the view, breathe in the air, walk around a bit and just reflect that, whether you get a job or not, places like Gunni will always be around to relax in.

Which is more than can be said for the newspapers that are so busy claiming you’ll never get a job.


As a final statistic, at my university I got mixed up in the drama society for my final year. Five of us who graduated last year remained involved to some degree or another which meant being about quite frequently and being seen around several of this year’s productions or socials, idly causing trouble.

Four of us, to the best of my knowledge, have money-earning jobs. The fifth has just finished a MA.

(It may help that we’ve all been job hunting out in the destitute provinces rather than competing with all the first-class honours people in London, so the competition is easier, the jobs more varied and the rent much cheaper.)


3 thoughts on “Employment Advice for Students

  1. gawainsmum July 7, 2012 / 14:36

    I’ll forward this to my students — they need to know the truth …

    • thegawain July 7, 2012 / 21:24

      Well, as long as you think that Point 3 is acceptable…

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