A while ago I was on the phone with one of my best friends, who I met and lived with while we were both studying English at university. I now live in Leeds and she lives in London, and we were trying to find a free weekend to meet up.
“I can’t do the bank holiday weekend; my company are sending me to Spain to attend a blogger conference,” I told her. “That’s fine,” she replied, “I’ve got to go to a festival that weekend to report on it for my magazine.” We both paused. “How did we get such awesome jobs?”
It was a good question. Our English degree course was punctuated with regular quips about how we were all doomed to unemployment; a couple of years of crying over rejection letters while hugging volumes of Chaucer before finally taking a low-paid job that wasn’t even related to our degree. We were all joking, but underneath the laughter was a hint of fear, a little voice in our heads whispering that the jokes might not turn out to be so funny in a few years.
I’ll always remember a particularly unpleasant talk that I had to sit through in my third year; the title was something vague about ‘Personal Development and Your Degree’, and the focus turned out to be our employment prospects post-graduation. I remember nothing about the presentation itself; what I do remember is the speaker asking us to raise our hands if we knew what we wanted to do after we finished the course, and seeing about 25 hands go up in a room of at least 200 students. My own not included.
Most Maths, Science, Law, Engineering and Medicine students know exactly what their end game is, but for the vast majority of Arts & Humanities students the future is not as certain. The subjects are more open-ended and therefore so are the career paths; our ‘transferable skills’ make many jobs a possibility, but it can be hard to figure out which one you want and even harder to convince an employer to hire you when your only proven skills are memorising Renaissance drama quotes and writing 5000-word essays on Post-structuralism. Incredibly, these talents are not so useful in the real world.
Between 16 and 21 a range of career possibilities floated through my head including teaching, journalism and publishing, but all I knew when I graduated was that I needed a break and a chance to clear my head. I worked full time in a supermarket for 6 months to fund a round-the-world trip, and although I had an amazing time I returned as unsure as ever about what I wanted to do. I started applying for jobs with nothing to my name except a degree, a few part-time service industry jobs and a small travel blog, and by some miracle managed to get a job as an Online Marketing Assistant at a holiday website.
Flash forward a year and a half to that phone conversation with my friend. It certainly didn’t happen overnight, but gradually I progressed from Marketing Assistant to Social Media Exec to my current job as an SEO Content Exec, taking responsibility for all the content on my company’s website as well as learning about technical SEO and helping to coordinate the company’s first blogger outreach campaign. It took me a while to get here, but my job now is pretty damn good.
But here’s the funny thing. I originally went to interview for a Content Writer position – the interviewers liked me but felt I lacked experience, which was why I ended up being offered the assistant job instead. I took it because I needed a job and liked the idea of working for a travel firm, but if I’d seen an advert for a marketing assistant job I’d probably have skimmed right past it and my life would have taken an entirely different path, probably not including the amazing colleagues and all-expenses-paid trips abroad.
I suppose the point of this is that there is no solid gold formula to get to where you want to be. I spent so many years stressing out about my future, about what would happen if I didn’t decide what I wanted to do early enough, or I didn’t get the grades, or I didn’t do work experience placements or make the right connections. Turns out all I needed to do was work hard, follow my interests, and trust that great opportunities can come from the most unlikely places. I’m not saying that you should drop the reins and leave everything to the ‘powers that be’ – I’ve always believed that you make your own destiny – but don’t ruin your life stressing about how to make it good. If you’re an English grad, chances are you chose your course not for the high-powered career it would lead to or the wage you were likely to get, but for the simple fact that you loved it. If you keep making decisions on that basis, you’ll never go far wrong.