Careers Advice

by Amber Johnson about a year ago in student

Or the Lack of It

Careers Advice

Second year.

I've gained a respectable mark for my first year of study (that doesn't count towards my actual degree) and now things are getting serious. I have to think about graduation and how I'm going to land my perfect job. Here's a quick snapshot of a lecture from which I soon zoned out.

"Right, now here's an exercise for you to try," said the Head of Employability. "It's called 'the Elevator Pitch'. Imagine you call the elevator after leaving an interview and when the doors open you see the CEO of the company inside. You have a maximum of 30 seconds to impress him enough to give you the job. Discuss it quickly in pairs for five minutes. Go!"

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking the same as I did when I was sat in that lecture hall. Firstly, if you haven't impressed enough in the interview then another 30 seconds isn't going to make the blindest bit of difference, and secondly, how on earth is any CEO going to be pleased to find some bumbling graduate cornering him and mithering him for a job?

I hope the following thought also crossed your mind: "We're in England, so it's lift, not elevator, you blithering idiot."

This "dynamic" approach to careers advice is undoubtedly the weirdest one I've seen and thanks to going on to undergraduate study I've seen a lot of it. That's the stupid thing about careers advice though, isn't it? It seems odd that people would want to spend their working life helping other people to find a working life that suits them. I find it even more odd considering that a lot of the advice I've received has been completely and utterly rubbish, and at times sitting through it has been torturous to say the least. Let me take you back to the beginning and show you what I mean.

My first experience of careers advice: School

About thirteen years ago, I was happy being a geeky fourteen-year-old. In between being beaten up on my way home from school, learning about the Tudors and getting a rubbish sonnet published in the school newspaper, a big decision was suddenly thrust upon me—what subjects to pick for my GCSEs. Looking back on it, thinking this was a horrendously hard decision was laughable. I honestly had sleepless nights about choosing which subjects to study because I was sure it was about to affect the course of my life forever.

With this 'big decision' looming over my head, I decided to seek out the 'careers lady.' I found her in an office akin to number 12 Grimmauld Place, in that it existed in a building everyone used but the room itself was invisible until you needed to seek it out. After discussing my options at length for about an hour and her making me realise I couldn't persuade the headteacher to put psychology and engineering on the syllabus just for me, I eventually chose the only four subjects I liked and was half good at: history, French, art, and food technology. Job done. Unfortunately though, careers advice at school was not completely over.

Seemingly, few others had knocked on the door of the mysterious number 12 and so a few days at the end of the school year were dedicated to us finding out what we might want to do 'when we grew up'. If we didn't know what we wanted to do we had to use the time to find out what we were good at doing and we did all of this thanks to a magical computer program 'Kudos', a name that couldn't be less apt if it tried. After doing the questionnaire that seemed to drag on for about a week, it turned out there were only three things I was good enough to do for a job. Apparently I'd be ok at some, like writing and a being a make-up artist (although I suspect I'd only get work in a circus), but after that it really was a case of 'computer says no'. This wasn't a good thing to hear, especially considering the perfect career for me was as a translator. And my brain couldn't even remember how to ask for a hot chocolate on the Eurostar to Paris.

Following this somewhat disappointing downturn in my future career prospects, I left searching out advice for quite a while. That was until I realised my GCSEs were over in a couple of months and the headache of choosing A Levels was just around the corner.

To any sixteen-year-olds reading this—don't panic. While choosing your A Levels is a little more important, there is plenty of time to change your mind. I didn't realise this at the time and so when I headed back into the mythic land of careers advice, I was still panicked and wondering what on earth I was going to do with my life. The answer was still "do what you feel like."

I know I started off this chapter by saying that careers advice was rubbish, but this didn't sound too bad, did it? The truth is, the school's careers lady couldn't help it. Fourteen and sixteen-year-olds aren't meant to know what they want to do when they're in their twenties, there's so much to learn about life and themselves first. The best you can hope for is what I got: a friendly face and reassurance. It's later careers advice that is more important and unfortunately, that's where mine started to get a bit shoddy.

My second experience of careers advice: College

It was just before Christmas in my first year that I sought out more careers advice. This time I wasn't completely panicked but talk of university study had made me interested enough to seek out my options. After the winter break, I'd have to start looking at courses, institutions and taking the next step. Always being a proactive person, I decided to get some advice a little early. If I wasn't panicked before I got into the office, I certainly was when I came out.

Like before, it took me a while to find the place. I swear that careers advisors are like the devil and it's impossible to find them in their lairs unless you are completely desperate. Anyway, I plonked myself down next to a stern looking woman who one could probably have been forgiven for thinking was Ann Widdicombe's evil twin. I knew straight away that this was going to be eventful to say the least.

Unlike my experience of careers advice in school, there was no reassurance—to her time was of the essence. Firstly, she asked if I knew what I wanted to study. Seeing as I first proclaimed to my parents that I wanted to be an author aged six, English has only ever been the real option. I mean I'd wavered a bit with psychology and criminology but knowing some critical studies and having a somewhat unhealthy passion for serial killers does not mean that you should study it for three years, in fact, it's probably a good idea to avoid it altogether. Anyway, the careers lady seemed pleased that I hadn't entered her office completely clueless, like this meant she was in for an easier ride. However, my decision on a subject didn't deter her from trying to scare the crap out of me. I quickly found out that the person advising me on my future was a real-life English graduate. As a budding student wishing to enter the same field of study, she had some advice for me.

It is the nature of an English course for your lecturers to suggest you read almost every single book that has been written on a topic since the beginning of time. As you can imagine, this is worse on certain topics than others. For example, a modern-day Matthew Hopkins might be able to crush a 'witch' to death with the contents of a reading list for Shakespeare. My career's advisor had been given such extended reading lists. However, in what she suggested as naivety and I saw as a complete lack of common sense, rather than using a resource most people take for granted (called a library), she went and bought every single book on her reading list and almost ran out of money for food. While I knew that I would not be making the same mistake by having my library card as my new best friend, this did suddenly make the topic of money come to the forefront of my mind. Now not only did I have to worry about picking exactly the right course and the right institution, I al had to panic about whether I would be able to afford it all. And that was when tuition fees were about £3000 a year.

I left her office hyperventilating and vowing not to set foot in there again.

The next few weeks saw me trawling the websites of institutions around the country and ordering so many prospectuses that I could probably have started my own library. I needed to be prepared to make a decision because according to the advisor it was going to creep up all too soon. In a way she was right.

Anyone that's gone through the UCAS process knows that unfortunately you can't just write to a university and ask if you can study there. Like Lancelot fighting for the honour of Guinevere, you have to prove you are worthy and you do this by writing a personal statement. Sounds innocuous, right? Nope. This is the forerunner to the CV and the job interview—you have to sell yourself. Not only that but you have to demonstrate some knowledge of a direction for your life to take. Both of these things are something I had great difficulty with and still do to this day. It's easy to decide you want to be an author but going about it is a lot harder, if you don't have the golden idea you're stuffed. Selling myself is where the problem really lies though, because I have absolutely no faith in my own ability.

The actual copy of my personal statement was lost in the ether when the blue-screen of death appeared on my old laptop, so I can't describe in detail exactly what is in it but I remember it seeming to be an anxious mess. After discussing questions like 'why do I want to study English?' (I like reading) & 'why do I want to be a writer?' (I'm no good at anything else), I had to prove that I'd done English-y things to show that this is what I was determined to study. From what I remember this was me saying 'I love Shakespeare!' and raving about my love of horror novels such as Dracula. Oh and I'm sorry UCAS but I lied. I've been a graduate for six years now and I still haven't finished Frankenstein, despite me saying it was one of my favourites.

While I might have told porkies on my personal statement, it wasn't the pile of garbage I thought it was. Thanks to it I got offers from three universities, none of which I was helped to decide between by the careers advisor. Considering the older you get the more you have a genuine need for careers advice, I was a little disappointed with the advice I received at college. Sure, she still couldn't give me a definitive answer when I was wondering what to do myself, but at least there could have been a friendly face masking the letdown. If only eighteen-year-old me could have known the bigger disappointment to come...

My third experience of careers advice: University

Having briefly touched upon university careers advice at the beginning of the chapter, you can probably see where this is headed. The difference with careers advice at university is that it is prevalent almost from day one and you don't have to search for it, it finds you. Mostly.

Aside from that superb lecture from the Head of Employability (in which I was also told that a lot of employers don't advertise jobs and I was expected to search them out myself), there were lots of other advice sessions that I sat through in place of lectures. As I did two subjects, I got two different perspectives on careers advice. Verbally seducing a company bigwig in a lift was some of the advice given from the English side of the outfit, along with a talk by visiting ex-students on their lives post-graduation. One was working in a local museum but other than that I don't remember. I don't think they were doing anything that remotely interested me and to be honest I was too busy thinking they were bloody lucky to have gained a job at all, thanks to more lectures from the Head of Employability. Previous to explaining the notion of 'the Elevator pitch', he'd seemingly decided to scare us into the idea by telling us some cold, hard facts about what was awaiting us when we left. Apparently, the first thing a company will look at on your CV is your degree result, anything less than a 2.1 and it's straight in the bin with you. Personally, I can't quite believe this because there can be mishaps and people have a lot more to offer than a number on a piece of paper. If it is true then shame on the company and shame on the Head of Employability for telling us in the first place. And now shame on me. Sorry about that undergrads. But please don't be under the misapprehension that getting a 2.1 will solve all your problems. So many people now get a 2.1 that if your CV is a plain Jane then that gets tossed in the bin too, according to the Head of Employability. You need to volunteer in your chosen field or do something exotic to make you stand out. I wasn't particularly sure how to volunteer in my chosen field (which we'll discuss in a bit) and I am not the type to trek through Borneo or sky-dive over Southern England. Besides my asthma would get in the way. This means that aside from a few months paid work in my chosen field, my CV during my years at university had all the sparkling promise of Herman Munster's toilet bowl. No wonder finding a job is so hard.

While the careers advice offered in the English side of the program seemed, at times, like an over the top horror story, the Creative Writing side was a bit more pragmatic. This was geared towards us writing for a living when we'd graduated rather than scaring us into thinking we'd never get a job. It gave us practical advice to help us achieve confidence in our writing whilst looking towards publication. One such lecture was entitled 'The Writer and the Law' and looked at libel and defamation. Handy but it kind of made me scared to write anything at all less I should be sued. (Note: the characters included in this article are exaggerated and not representations of any person who has ever lived in the world ever.)

As well as advice in lectures, as part of the creative writing program, there were 'cultural events' that took place every Thursday evening. Some of these events were talks by graduates or professors of Creative Writing but one was a talk by a freelance journalist. This was good because it offered practical advice on how to get published and more importantly, how much money you can make doing it. Suddenly I was learning not just how to be a journalist (which is all I ever learnt in class) but the day to day realities of what it's really like to be one and what financial advice/help I could get to do it. Overall then, a big thumbs up to Creative Writing.

To prove that I'd actually been taking this 'advice' in, I had to be assessed on it. This started pretty early, with one assignment at the end of our first term being to write a CV. Sounds simple right? It wasn't like I'd not written a CV before but that was in school and no-one really cared that it might be rubbish because I was 15 and I'd done sod all to write down. This was different. These three years were going to be the defining point of my life, it was (apparently) the last chance I'd get to sort my life out before I'd have to go out in the real world. It was time to finally make a decision to the immortal question—what do I want to do when I grow up. My decision was to be a motoring journalist. If you want to know how sensible this decision was, it wasn't but more on that another day! Anyway, like with most things that I find are the be-all and end-all, this CV was not as bad as I was thinking. All I had to do was give a few examples of my writing skills, show that I was responsible and I could work on a team, then list my education before handing it in. Bingo, a first before you know it.

For those who shied away from making a decision and vaguely fabricated something what they might want to be when they left, they couldn't get away with the same in second year. It was really time to start making some big decisions. Not only did we have to do another, better CV, but we also had to think seriously about what we were going to do after graduation. As a back up to the CV we had to write either a covering letter for a job or a personal statement for a further education course. I chose the latter. It contained all the usual jibber-jabber, how I hadn't felt I'd achieved my potential in my current studies, the personal qualities I would bring to the table and an over the top explanation of the points in my CV. We also had to do a career plan of the path we thought our lives should take over the next two years and beyond. Mine roughly consisted of 'write something for a national publication, find out whether to do a postgraduate course and earn £25,000.' In order to show that we hadn't bluffed all of this, we had to be interviewed. While we were told not to panic & we didn't have to dress appropriately, I was a little freaked out by the whole idea. You see my teacher was a bit unusual, one of those people who has lived enough for five people. I remember one story very well. He had previously worked at a nursing home and was once called to the bathroom because there was apparently someone trapped inside. After eventually forcing the door ajar, he found a resident collapsed against it having had a massive hemorrhage and then proceeded to slip over in the ginormous puddle of blood. And that's the kind of creative inspiration we had every week so how on earth would I manage to sit through a semi-serious interview?

After blagging the earliest interview slot to get it out of the way, I sat down opposite my teacher and proceeded to be asked question after question about my studies and plans. It all seemed to go rather well and my teacher agreed when I saw him in my next lesson so it was no wonder I was a tiny bit irate when I got my actual results back. Thanks to the interview being the only lesson I had in university that day, I only took a small bag with me, and to fit my CV into that bag I had to fold it. Now, I'm not an idiot. If I was taking a CV for a real interview I would never fold it. I would keep it pristine in a little folder and it would barely have a fingerprint on it. But we were told that it wasn't a real interview so I folded it and for that, I had a point knocked off and it stopped me getting a first. Bummer.

It wasn't just Creative Writing that decided I had to start taking my future more seriously, English had me doing yet another CV and best of all a 'Personal Development Plan'. This was a showy way of getting me to list my achievements (hurrah for bigging myself up again!), state my goals and ambitions (errr not flunking my degree), and how I was going to achieve those goals. I had absolutely no idea how to get to be a motoring journalist and to be honest apart from Clarkson, Slow and the Hamster, I thought I was one of a select few. The only idea I really had was to write a few hundred words about cars and send it into some magazines, however, that's really not going to be enough for a 1,500-word essay, so I decided to book an appointment with the careers advisor. I really don't know why I bothered.

When I eventually found the place (what is it with careers offices being invisible to the human eye?), I patiently awaited the arrival of the 'careers lady'. Her last appointment was running late. Eventually, I got into her office, sat down and explained why I was there.

"I'm pretty sure I know what I want to do but I'm not exactly sure how to get there," I said, not adding that I only really wanted to find out because of this blasted essay.

The simpering woman started talking about journalism options. She patiently explained to me how I could do a course at another institution or I could get a paper to take me on and learn on the job. I patiently told her that having read my local paper, reporting on stinking toilets and how the skittle league was progressing was definitely not for me. I wanted to write about something interesting, something that would be read (and cared about) by a lot of people. I wanted to write about cars. She was stunned by this. After initially looking at me with the glassy-eyed stare of a murder victim, an impenetrable silence then passed between us. Like many people before and since, she couldn't quite believe that someone who wore make-up and might actually look good in tight jeans (Clarkson take note!), could be interested in, and also might want to write about, cars. Having already gotten fed up of people's incredulity, I glossed over it and asked the million dollar question: how do I become a motoring journalist?

Aside from writing articles and sending them in to publications, I thought that there might be a course devoted to studying automotive journalism. A quick trawl of the internet and you can find courses that specialise in broadcast journalism, sports journalism, magazine journalism, even fashion journalism, so I figured there must be a course to learn how to write about cars. According to the university careers advisor, I was mistaken and the answer was no. Just no. She didn't even look it up. I resigned myself to having to try and find some other way to succeed in my chosen career and felt it really was a case of having to make it on my own. I left the meeting none the wiser as to what I should do and more importantly, still with no clue as to what to write in my essay. Apart from writing that I'd attended the meeting and found it unhelpful, of course. Looking back at my 'medium-term strategy', my plans were rather simple. Write articles & send them to publications, try and get work experience, work hard, look at courses, try and achieve my goals. Basically what I wrote was a load of old guff, disguised as something invaluable. Luckily, I'd disguised it well enough to get a good mark for it.

At the start of the chapter, I said that careers advice only got worse the further into education I got and that the advice I received at university was the worst. This statement can be proved by some of the things I learnt after my meeting with the careers advisor. You remember that she said there was no such thing as an automotive journalism course? Well, a couple of months after submitting the assessment, a real-life automotive journalist started following me on Twitter, and after looking at his bio, I found that he was a teacher on an automotive journalism course!

This example cements my problem with careers advice—it's going to be a broad spectrum. If you're a careers advisor you're going to meet all sorts of people. You'll get some that want to be nurses or teachers, and that's easy for you to point them in the direction of courses and funding and placements. But you'll also get people like me, people that want to do something different from the norm, and you have to know how to advise them too. After all, it's your job. You can't just tell people that it's hopeless and shut down their dreams in an instant, you still need to know how to help them achieve their goal and if you don't you need to be prepared to search. Otherwise, you are failing at not just your job but you are failing the youth of this country. I feel failed but more than that I feel a failure. Six years on from when I threw my mortarboard in the air in triumph, I am now frantically scrabbling around in despair for something where my degree and I are useful. And why shouldn't the pair of us go hand-in-hand, after all, I paid enough for it.

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Amber Johnson

I am an English/Creative Writing graduate. I've always wanted to write but not been doing it so much recently - hoping this is the way back in. I love making things and absorbing knowledge. INFJ for life.

See all posts by Amber Johnson