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Graduate jobsearch blues

Diddy Kirton writes about the grief of trying to get that first job after graduating.

You have had the degree results; you’ve done the graduation ceremony; you have been welcomed home for a well-deserved holiday; and now, three months later, you are still lying on the sofa, your eyes glued to daytime television. What next?

This is when things can start to get nasty. Parents begin to get restless. Is this person they had thought was launched into the world ever going to get going? When is my son/daughter going to get a job?

Well, three months on the sofa is nothing. Expect 12 months or more. Graduates are finding it increasingly difficult to get work after completing their degrees – not because the job market is shrinking (it isn’t) and not necessarily because they don’t have the required abilities. Many of them just don’t know where to start and are terrified of the future.

I think that young people in this pickle are years behind already, in the sense that successful graduates (i.e. successful people who are also graduates) have, by this stage, for several years, been thinking about what they will be doing next, and have been networking within their future field of conquest, kissing arses and pressing flesh and generally putting themselves about. Indeed, they chose what to study with what they would do with it at the front of their minds. Yet a lot of schools still peddle the Big Lie: Pass Your Exams and Worry About Life Later. Not because they really believe that, more because teachers tend to be rewarded according to how hard their charges concentrate on the exam work right in front of them, rather than on how well their charges’ Lives go later.

There may be a little wisdom in this Big Lie, because, after all, those exam results do hang around, and a degree with no thought of the future is probably better than plain old no thought of the future without even a degree. All Big Lies have to have a grain of truth in them, in order to seem plausible. But if the what-the-hell-now? moment is merely delayed by all that Higher Education, even a degree may do more harm than good, because all it does is postpone Life. A good start at Life is at least as important as your mere exam results, and if you have a good first decade in your career, then your tacky degree won’t do you any great harm.

My Dad was very fond of telling me about all the High Court Judges (he was a QC himself and ended up as a sort of specialist Judge) who had ropy old 2:2 degrees or worse from unfashionable Oxbridge colleges, and about some who were never – horror of horrors – at Oxbridge in the first place, or even in some freakish cases at any university at all. What those gents had got right was that they had hit the ground running when Life kicked in.

I like to read the biographies of high achievers. (Sometimes I reproduce bits of them at my Education Blog.) I am struck by how often Life starts extremely early for such people, perhaps because of a family catastrophe or because of a catastrophically hopeless father who dumps all his responsibilities onto our hero, aged ten. By the time they reach the age of those daytime TV watching graduates, they are at least ten years ahead of them, career-wise, and often more like thirty.

Good teaching, it seems to me, includes getting ten-year-olds to think about Life, but without doing it by hurling huge catastrophes at them.

26 comments to Graduate jobsearch blues

  • Susan


    I’m surprised that Samizdata hasn’t focused on this one yet:
    Police will enforce fox-hunting ban with video cameras in trees


  • Peter Sykes

    Great post. Having graduated last year (and chosen to continue full time studies) its amazing how many of my peers are ‘amazed’ at the difficulty in getting a job with their degree.

    Employers quite rightly have high expectations, but some are trapped in their own top University arse-sniffing, recruiting those who have no idea what ‘life’ really is like.

    Its amusing when the so called lesser university students do a better job in keeping their employment having much greater life experience, having supported themselves and actually learnt what money is about over the years, rather than having mummy and daddy wiping their backsides for them.

  • Shannon Love

    This is one of those reoccurring news stories that comes out every couple of years. Back in the ’90s boom time in high-tech they ran stories about graduates unable to find jobs even though all employers at the time were looking for was a pulse and the ability to type.

    I am surprised how many people don’t know how to work. By work, I mean just the process of finding a job, showing up and cooperating with a team of coworkers. Young people (god I’m getting old) seem to think that rock stars establish the template for most peoples work. People seemed ashamed that they must show up at a particular time and cooperate with others to get their jobs done.

    Kids these days! grumble, grumble, grumble

  • CujoQuarrel

    Here (USA) it is a common practice for people in college to gain work experience as they go by participating in internships and co-op programs (as part of your class work you alternate semesters at school with semesters at wor).

    Is this not a common practice over there? I can say from experience that we tend to hire most of our summer hires, co-ops etc if they prove out.

    It’s the students responsibility to make sure they are employable once they leave the university. If you spent your whole time gaining fun but useless knowledge you have only yourself to blame. Art history may be your calling but don’t complain if you are flipping burgers for a living once you leave college.

  • Simon Lawrence

    Suffering from a similar, if smaller problem, I can fully sympathise. I am looking for work in my GAP year, and even with solid A Levels, it’s almost impossible to find any – even in central London.

    Simply because I didn’t get contacts, or get experience earlier.

  • What has always amused me is when graduates whinge they cannot get jobs and wonder why getting a degree in some dodgy subject doesn’t help them. There are industries that are desperate for talented people (that pay well) instead people are doing humanities subjects which give you skills that don’t aren’t maketable.

  • Tony Di Croce

    Pretty foreign concept to me!

    I was so into computer programming in high school that my grades suffered! Badly! In fact, their is no way I could have gotten into anything but a JC after high school… So I didn’t even try to get into school… Instead I built a cool demo that showed off my skills and sent it to an employer… I was 19 years old when I started working full time in the industry, and now at 27 I have 8 years experience and can usually find a job in my career subcategory (embedded systems) in a matter of days…

    Having said all that, I kind of wish I had been able to go to college…


  • Julian Morrison

    Uselessness for jobs need not rule out getting a degree. It’s perfectly reasonable to want an education for its own sake.

    The mistake is to assume there’s a link between academic merit and employment. It would be better to treat “becoming employable” as a separate and parallel endeavour.

  • David T

    I graduated in May, 2003. After graduating I continued to work the same grocery stocking job that I had used to support myself for the last two years in college. It wasn’t until January of this year that I finally decided to take the job search seriously. I saved up some money, quit my job, and moved to Northern Virginia and found a job within a month and a half.

    I think the thing that really helped me to get the job was that I mentioned on my resume that I had worked full time while attending college for the last two years.

  • mike

    Julian – I share your analysis. As a postgrad student myself (YES and in a ‘dodgy’ subject – environmental psychology), I have a few words in self-defence…

    You end up studying what you study because you’re in love with it – or if not quite in love, then you’re fascinated by it. Faced with the choice of studying at Uni what you enjoy anyway or sitting back and doing a serious job calculation thing is no fucking choice at all. You do the thing you’re into, and deal with the consequences – to drop something you love in order to work out the best way to make a little more money is like being some freak of nature amalgamation of Dr Spock and Charles Bronson.

    Besides there are only different probabilities of career success in deliberating over that choice – not logical certainties, so whichever choice you’ve made it’s still just risk management basically. And what kind of neo-fascist says everyone’s aim has to be ‘success’ (financial or recognition) anyway? There are plenty of things you can do with your life in which the thing itself has its’ own rewards – and everything else you just have to manage as best as you can be bothered with.

    Now, as for the morality of taking money from taxpayers via some buzzword research group to study an unnecessary subject… well that’s a whole different kettle of fish.

  • John J. Coupal

    If one invests years in university majoring in black studies, wymyns’ studies, or political science and then finds that there is no career – or even job – for one after graduation, then maybe….

  • Verity

    Although I suspect most commentators here are not large scale employers, this taking people too close to bureaucracy and regulations, there must be some medium or small sized employers here.

    It would be interesting to read what you look for in an applicant for employment. We realise that a degree in media studies or the history of surfing would probably be a clear tick for NO on the application form, but, given the huge surge in graduates, many of them holding ‘degrees’ from what were polytechnics before, what are employers actually looking for in a graduate?

    Obviously, chemistry and the sciences are taken with specific careers in mind. But what about the rest?

    It’s interesting.

  • Susan (in the first comment): We have White Rose to do that…

  • It would be interesting to read what you look for in an applicant for employment. We realise that a degree in media studies or the history of surfing would probably be a clear tick for NO on the application form, but, given the huge surge in graduates, many of them holding ‘degrees’ from what were polytechnics before, what are employers actually looking for in a graduate?

    Ooh, one I can answer: demonstrable literacy, some indication of numeracy, signs of not being unimaginably lazy (job history, sport, drama – anything other than *just* academic work), and enough wit to put together a coherent CV. This rules out about half the applicants.

    Obviously we then make them do more detailed tests at interview (as well as interviewing them, and making them give a presentation…)

    The degree subject doesn’t really matter at all, although I’ve got a mild prejudice against IT/compsci graduates for the analytical/editorial roles that I’m recruiting for (based purely on past recruitment experience).

  • A_t

    “Obviously chemistry and the sciences are taken with specific careers in mind.”

    In some cases, yes. In other cases, the person may just have an interest in the subject. Personally, I studied mathematics largely because I found it interesting, with a sideways eye on the fact that having a degree in mathematics could impress a number of potential employers afterwards (unlike, say English literature which also interested me but offered a significantly less rosy future post-graduation). I certainly didn’t have any specific career in mind when I embarked on my degree, & many people I knew who did Chemistry, Biology or Physics were quite similar.

    I think your comment might apply to engineering though (partly because the degree is so gruellingly boring and difficult that only strong determination to become an engineer could get you through it), and things like medicine or law. The rest of the sciences though, are far less vocational than you seem to think.

    As to the original blog post, I agree with Julian and Mike. I think the important point is not that one should only get an education for it’s career-enhancing prospects; that strikes me as exceedingly soulless, suggesting that the aquisition of knowledge is only worthwhile if it rewards one with worldly prosperity, but that students should not unrealistically expect such prospects.

    I think there’s still a message at large which says “a degree will make you employable”, whereas in fact a (good) degree will prove that you can learn things, think analytically, & communicate reasonably decently, along with some specialised stuff related to your chosen subject. The general qualities are certainly valued by many employers, but it would be foolish to think that they alone can get someone a job.

  • Jonathan L


    I am not an employer, but I do regularly perform interviews. As the CV’s are pre-selected I cannot say anything concerning which universities or subjects but I can tell you what I look for in a candidate.

    1) You would be amazed at the number of candidates that know nothing about the company for which they are applying. Such ignorance as a virtual guarantee of failure. The candidate should at least peruse the company’s website.

    2) Many young people have very little idea of what they want. Someone who is unable to give a good reason for wanting a particular job has little credibility.

    3) I remember for myself how difficult it was to sell myself in an interview. However a good understanding of one’s strengths and an ability to articulate them is essential.

    4) I ask questions that are irrelevant to the job, just to see their thinking processes. Those that seem to lack the ability to generate an opinion are immediately suspect. (The actual answer given is almost irrelevant)

    5) Don’t tell blatant lies, they can be easily found out.

    6) Confidence to answer the questions is very important. Interviewees often feel that they must be over polite. However this can lead to timidity. Tough challenges deserve tough rebuttals, condescending tones of voice require confident answers.

    7) I have interviewed candidates who refuse to let me see their real self. I can not take the risk of recommending such a person for a job.

    The job of interviewing graduates with no work experience is very difficult. Someone who has a story to tell (menial work experience included) has an advantage over all the other identikit candidates.

  • CJ

    It’s not just people with dodgy degrees who are having serious problems finding work!

    Chemical Engineering degrees from Russel Group universities don’t seem to get you anywhere either. 10 months and 5 interviews later I’m wiling away the hours watching day time TV.

    I’m caught in a horrible catch 22. Companies who employ chemical engineers want you to have 2+ years experience (or have a 1st with a gap year). While at the same time crying about a lack of chemical engineering graduates.

  • limberwulf

    I think a lot of the problem lies in the last part of the statement in the first paragraph: “lying on the sofa, your eyes glued to daytime television”
    Of course the kids are still unemployed, they’re at home watching TV, living off of mom and dad. I recently got laid off from an IT manager position, but I didnt watch a lot of TV while waiting for the phone to ring. I was in between real jobs for 2 months, and the job I am in now, while a great opportunity, is not in the IT feild. In that 2 months tho, I applied for over 120 position, and took a temporary labor job moving pianos. You want motivation, try doing hard labor at less than half what you were making, that will motivate you. If you have the mindset to lay on the couch, then what makes you think that you are elligible for the job market, degree or no degree?
    Just a thought…

  • Harry Powell

    I have an uncanny feeling I posted something here, must have fallen into the Bermuda comment box.

  • Harry Powell

    If you are reading this. You just posted three comments, the first two being a doubled up real comment and the third being an apology for doubling up one and two. I made the mistake of thinking that they were all the same and deleted the first two. And when I realised, I deleted the third because it then made no sense.

    Deepest apologies about this. As always, most of the harm in the world is done by people who are trying to help. I really am very sorry.

    You were saying something about the profound difference between the academic life and what employers are looking for, and ending with the paradox that, if anything, serious university students are, if anything, rather less employable than the rest. But I didn’t read it thoroughly enough to recall exactly.

    To all those who are saying: there’s more to university than being employable, education is a value in its own right, regardless of what money it may ever make for you, I agree. I include, among the successful people, those who want to study for its own sake, and who do just that, and thereby enrich the rest of their lives.

    The ones who bother me are the ones who were told and who believed that their university degrees, in and of themselves, wouldl make them immediately start earning more money. I met plenty like this when I was at university, and I met others who had left and were unemployed, just like the lady said in her Telegraph piece. (“I’ve sweated my guts out passing my exams” blah blah blah.)

    There is a correlation between university education and a good income later, which is that people smart enough to get a degree are also – as a general tendecy – smart enough eventually to get a reasonably good job and get reasonably well paid, and most do. But the degree itself is not a Good Job Voucher that you can just cash in. It distresses me how many people have to learn this the hard way, despite having spent the last decade and half learning so many other things.

  • Harry Powell

    No worries, Brian.

    I’m not sure my comment is worth retyping, but briefly it was that employer’s desire to treat a degree as one of a tickable list of achievements is totally at odds with the real nature of university life which is the kind of contemplation that only leisure allows. Fortunately, if the glut of “dodgy degrees” decreases the financial rewards of that qualification and makes it harder to differentiate between job applicants then eventually we will come to the situation that ought originally to have been the case – that in preference to a vocational qualification a degree makes you less employable.

  • Remember Shawna Gale, the Yale grad who famously whined about how her degree didn’t magically get her a six-figure job, but that she’d have to do such…degrading things as wait tables at restaurants or fold sweaters at clothing stores instead?

    At least Shawna’s literate. I just got off the phone with a friend who’s a college professor, and who like all the other faculty takes her turn teaching remedial writing. The other day, it turned out nobody in her class had done the reading assignment. She gave them what she called “the stern lecture” about how they need to do the work they’re assigned, and how participation in class (they were supposed to ask questions based on what they were supposed to have read) was a crucial part of their grades. During that “stern lecture,” several kids got up and walked out of her classroom.

    I’m currently job-hunting, and I’ve heard from more than one recruiter about young 20-somethings who can’t string together five words on a piece of paper without errors (or use of text-messaging abbreviations, believe it or not). Lots of these kids also show up in interviews in jeans and T-shirts. As Shannon mentions above, concepts like punctuality and workplace cooperation are lost on them. I know; I’ve met some of them in past jobs.

    I hasten to add that I’ve also met, worked with, and even befriended young adults who are bright, responsible, and hard-working. Most of them, though, didn’t go to ivy-league colleges; they “merely” had to learn responsibility at early ages.

    As for “dodgy subjects,” H.L. Mencken wittily assessed the lot of those who studied them a good 70 or 80 years ago:

    Whenever I hear a professor of philosophy complain that his wife has eloped with some moving-picture actor or bootlegger who can at least feed and clothe her, my natural sympathy for the man is greatly corrupted by contempt for his lack of sense. Would it be regarded as sane and laudable for a man to travel the Soudan trying to sell fountain-pens, or Greenland offering to teach double-entry bookkeeping or counterpoint? Coming closer, would the judicious pity or laugh at a man who opened a shop for the sale of incunabula in Little Rock, Ark., or who demanded a living in McKeesport, Pa., on the ground that he could read Sumerian?

  • Oh yeah. a fond topic and a pet peeve all rolled into one.

    The obsession with higher schooling both comes from and fuels an entitlement mentality : I have a diploma therefore I deserve such and such a job. It is even worse back in the old country (France) where graduates even demonstrate demanding jobs from time to time because….well, they’re entitled to one (no joke).

    On a trip home, I once ran into a few people I went to high school with. One of those fancy Parisian high schools; great teachers, great neighborhood, full of spoiled brats you could spend your days slapping around. The experience convinved me I’d rather not sign up for the alumni association. You see, we talked incomes. And when the well-schooled “Ecole Superieure” yuppies with two years experience discovered the guy with a high-school diploma – me – made twice as much – and that was before I told them about the taxes I paid in New Hampshire; or rather all the taxes I didn’t pay – they were shocked, then insulted. There had to be some kind of scheme involved.

    Well, sorry. While you were flossing your brain with theoretical textbooks, hanging out in bars and chasing tail for the past four or five years, I was busy expatriating myself and working my ass off up the income scale, sacrificing half my week-ends – during lazy summers – to getting better at what I’m doing. So get over it.

    And get in line.

  • eventually we will come to the situation that ought originally to have been the case – that in preference to a vocational qualification a degree makes you less employable.

    I doubt this, given that the world is becoming a decreasingly ‘job-for-life’ place: just as a qualification in blacksmithery would be of limited value today, so will be many of today’s vocational qualifications in 25 years’ time.

    The view also underestimates the ‘being forced to think for yourself’ aspect of a degree, which (despite Mickey Mouse-ation) is still far greater than on a vocational course. Certainly, all the people I know who work as senior lawyers or accountants prefer to employ graduates in academic subjects with postgrad qualifications, rather than people with law or accountancy degrees.

  • Florence Heath

    To CJ-have you tried applying to an oil company? They generally take people straight out of university. BTW 5 interviews isn’t that much…
    I graduated in June and got a job in July-I considered that to be late as I really should have sent in all applications by January (many companies have that as a deadline). What companies look for is not only academic achievement but also the capacity to be a human being ie have done other things, not just be a “nerd” in your subject. Other than that they very often do not care about what topic you studied (unless for a technical job) as getting a good degree implies you have the learning skills necessary. In fact I have to disagree with the idea that you have to know what you want before you even start your studies-I only chose my (scientific) topic because it interested me and I realised I would achieve a lot more by studying a topic that interested me than a so-called “useful” topic. And that has been the case for many of my friends too. But first and foremost, it is WHERE you do your degree and not WHAT you do that counts. Even if you got a first in maths from a random poly you would find it extremely hard to get a decent job unless you had done something pretty good outside uni. And before Peter Sykes goes off on one, if people (from “lesser universities” had so much “greater life experience” then they would know that a very large proportion of people in the Russel Group unis have a job to pay for their time at uni-they just happen to work harder at their degrees/be more intelligent than others. As for employability just take a look at the Times league table in terms of starting salaries and it is pretty obvious that employers are looking for quality (though often not finding it which is why there are actually so many jobs out there).
    As for how it works here as opposed to the US, yes companies do come round on a milkround to the best universities but links with universities are by far and away not developed enough over here, in most part due to Government funding of unis acting as a disincentive for companies to invest in and attract students. Though I suspect this is changing.
    As a conclusion therefore people need to not be lazy at A levels, get themselves into a decent uni, join clubs and socs, work at their degree and above all not be lazy about jobsearch and start looking before the end of their degree.

  • Verity

    One thing is for certain: lying around on the couch watching daytime TV waiting for employers to beat down your door waving contracts is not going to land you a job.

    When I have been unemployed, I went the cliched route. I treated looking for a job with the same seriousness and discipline one applies in an actual job. I got up on time and got properly dressed. I read every paper I could afford, or could get access to online, especially the business sections and the classifieds.

    I noted companies that were expanding or developing a new product and wrote to them, specifically tailoring my letters to the news I was responding to, mentioning how my experience might be appropriate and including my resume. I applied for dozens of jobs listed in the classifieds. It is soul destroying (and expensive, when you’re unemployed!) to send out 200 resumes and get two or three replies, but if you don’t send out the letters, you won’t get any replies.

    I also got appointments with groups of retired executives who now offered their experience to small start-up companies free of charge, in the expectation that they were still vaguely plugged in.

    I also read the promotions columns and dropped a line of congratulation to anyone who was promoted in my field.

    Oddly enough, I once got a very positive response – and a job – through the method of responding to a news item I’d read about a company. I’d written to the CE and got a letter back from someone else in the company (so he had passed my letter down with a note) saying they didn’t think I would have a place in the project mentioned in the item, but they had something else coming up that they thought I might be appropriate for.

    This is how you get employment. Not lying around on the couch.