On Unemployment and Graduate Life

I apologise: it’s a bit of a clickbait title to say that this graduate has a discernible “life”.

At the point of writing I’m still an unemployed graduate so you might already be thinking about why I of all people should be writing a post such as this? This is further proof that you should approach my stuff with a certain degree of dubiousness. I do think my missteps have allowed some clarity which could be useful, though.

Being unemployed is difficult.

It’s isolating and lonely because you can’t soak in the joys of fellowship because you have no money so people asking to hang out brings you pain not pleasure. The internet’s a useful tool to make sure you’re not completely alone but it’s still not the same as a flesh-and-blood conversation. The degree that you sweated your arse off for seems like a flimsy piece of paper that has little to no value. You never have enough experience and it’s impossible to get it with your budget of zero quid. You must be Objectively Bad.

It’s a head-clutching time that, if not dealt with as much grace and determination that you can muster (which needn’t be a huge amount, just enough to take it a day at a time), it can be very Sad, a long haunting spectre of “I’m not good enough!” dogging your footsteps.

Here’s a weird paradox that you might encounter during this time: you want to be employed for a career but you also want to sustain yourself in some way so that means getting a job, but having a job of course means that you can’t partake in the vetting process that’s involved in getting the desired job (interviews and stuff). Here’s another niggle: some sites list job adverts naming them as “graduate” roles but they come with the caveat of requiring 2 years of experience in a chosen field, something that’s not at all likely if you’ve studied full time. It’s agitating.

If a job is not on the cards due to it being irregular shift work, or the vetting process for even part-time work is being as quick (slow) as your desired career, consider welfare.

Getting on some welfare is not the end of the world.

A lot of media likes to vilify the very concept of welfare. Often it seems that the only people who are on welfare are scroungers—frauds, low-lifes, nobodies—and if you ever get to the point that you require it then you’re a failure. This is sad for a lot of reasons I’m going to refrain from expanding upon, but anyway, get on it if you need it. It exists for this exact purpose so if you’re not walking into the welcoming arms of employment when you graduate, you’ll probably have nothing. It’s not like our job market’s booming. It’s understandable.

Moving in on this early is especially pertinent if you’re eligible for Universal Credit. The payment process takes 6 weeks but it’s at least a week on top of that for your registration to be acknowledged. The sooner you do it, the better. The requirements for JSA/welfare are usually that you should be searching for employment for such and such hours per day but I assume that you want to be employed so behaviourally you won’t be doing anything different (it might be a bit more than you think but it’s by no means a taxing amount). Co-operate with your work coaches. In general, they’re pretty friendly and patient people. They get it: the economy’s bust. The children have been failed. Broken Britain. Thanks, Brexit, etc.

The bulk of this post is to explore some other things I’ve picked up on the Long Road.

CVs and cover letter tips

1.) CVs

With regards to the old curriculum vitae: brevity is a gift. You’ve probably heard this enough times before but the CV is about information, facts: you’ve got to get out where you studied, where you’ve worked, skills, hobbies & interests, all within two pages. You haven’t got time to chart a tome-sized epic, as large as the temptation is.
That being said, being specific with what you did in certain roles will go a long way. So describe your duties, responsibilities, and main achievements, then quantify these accomplishments where possible.

(Improvements and expansions are obviously favourable: “I worked in a team that managed project X and we got firsts,” as a stock example that definitely did not happen to me. Seriously.)

CVs needn’t be the standard format either: they can even be a little creative (within reason/it’s relevant).

Here’s a thing you might not have thought about: think about making a CV into a pdf.

I was at a graduate jobs fair many moons ago at university and the person presenting, a recent graduate, told a horror story about how she did an application. It took her hours of careful formatting to produce but the person she sent it to gave it right back, saying that she “didn’t bother” formatting it—it was a mess.

The truth of the matter was that both the person and the employer had different versions of Word and that meant that the formatting for one didn’t carry over to the other. So putting your CV into pdf format will preserve your formatting. This is something I’ve not seen enough of before. Unless expressly asked for as a Word document, which has happened to me (though it didn’t result in anything—not bitter, promise), I would go for making your Word CV into a pdf, and keep a copy in either format, making sure to edit both of them when appropriate.

The actual content of your CV usually follows a basic structure: your name and contact details; a four or five line personal statement, education, work experience, skills and achievements, and hobbies and interests. Again, within two pages.

I’ll break down each bit from top to tail.

i.) Name and contact details. Fairly self-explanatory. Your name, address, phone number, and email address all go here. Should go without saying that crudeness in the email should be avoided (no “wellhung@hotmail.co.uk”, thank you very much).

ii.) Personal statement. This is pretty tricky but having four or five lines describing who you are (graduate, current job role, etc.), what you can offer. It’s best to update this regularly and for every job you apply for because certain jobs might require you to privilege certain skills over others. In a lot of ways, the personal statement is a truncation of the CV-proper, but with the added bonus of being even more directed at the specific role. It’s like a synopsis for you.

As I said, it’s pretty tricky to get this right. Reed has a good guide for one if you’re stuck and have never done one before. Through this link, there is more general advice (if you scroll down there’s stuff to help out graduates).

iii.) Education. Where did you go to school/college and/or university? What did you get? Don’t laboriously list every grade. “number of GCSEs between grades and z” usually is enough. That’s if you even want to include your GCSEs. If all your A-Levels are different letters then do that. That won’t take up too much space. Neither should your degree result (or equivalent) if you just put the grade and subject, as well as the place you got it from. Go from most recent to least recent so university downwards if you’re a university graduate, for example.

iv.) Work experience. This covers work experience, internships, and actual jobs you’ve undertaken. Listing what you’ve done in each of these roles and understanding their relevance is useful to highlight. For example, going for a marketing role? Highlight where you might’ve aided a customer, helped shift products, or promote and distributed things. This needn’t be huge. Retail experience will give you similar skills that you can highlight, and demonstrates your understanding of how you can help transfer skills from one role to another. Again, start from the most recent thing you did.

If it’s been over four years since you had an experience, it’s probably worth removing it from your CV altogether.

v.) Skills and achievements. This is to cover anything not part of your work experience. Any extra-curricular activities. What societies have you joined, for example? If so, were you committee? Any other kinds of things? Part of any student-bodies?

vi.) Hobbies and interests. There might be overlaps with skills and interests but this section is for anything else that rounds you out as an individual. Anyone can put that they like to read on their CV but that’s hardly uncommon. Besides, it has little relevance. Let’s say that you want a finance role. If you put “reading” what do you read that relates to that? The Financial Times, The Economist? Do you read anything else?

When people say “tailor” your CV, really tailor it. Every aspect of it has to reflect your interest and relevance for the desired role.

Don’t bullshit in this because your interviewer can see pretty easily if you’ve lied. My general rule for people who are worried about what to put in sections v.) & vi.) is that everyone has something of interest that they do/have done. Think carefully and list them down, then decide on which ones are likely to be useful on a CV.

N.B.: I’ve laid out the CV structure as such but honestly you can mess around with it. Example: you might want to put your work experience before your education. Keep your personal statement near the top though. It’s supposed to tease the CV and it’s pretty useless in the middle or the bottom.

2.) Cover letters

Sweet Mother Goddess cover letters. The bane/boon of the application process. This can either be the best or worst time during your application.

I’ll do what the cover letter is not: it is not CV Redux: The Long And Accomplished Times of [name]. It is a way to demonstrate a vested interest in the company and role that you are applying for. This is hard to pull off. It requires very specific skills that can be the difference between an interview and the dreaded no response.

It has to convey your interest in the role, the skills you’ve cultivated that are relevant for the role, as well as why you might be an asset to this company as opposed to an awkward flailing mess (that’s a band name to shelf). For a more detailed way of cover letter etiquette, have a look at Pub Interns’ incredible post. I found it just after sending off an application that followed basically none of those rules and I didn’t get a response (surprise, surprise). Though it’s specific to publishing, it has a lot of things in it that are transferable for other sectors, I’m sure.

Also, another weird thing is that you have to marry the idea of job application promiscuity and showing a vested interest in a specific job role which, considering the likelihood of even getting a rejection letter is hard to think about, and is worse if your interests are multifarious—even worse if you’re applying for different roles in the same company.

The probability that your dream company (if you have one, that is) will hire you and you’ll land your dream career in mere weeks is low. That’s just the reality.

But if you have a dream sector and you apply for all the companies doing that then the response probability increases … but is still low. So of course the natural solution is to focus on a maximal set of companies: just fire off a bunch of CVs and cover letters and hope that there’s a fair ratio of call-backs from that large quantity.

Unfortunately, companies have a lot of applications to sift through so they’ll know what they don’t like in an application fairly quickly, and unoriginal, template-filled affairs are going to be ignored. I learnt this hard way.

Treat every cover letter like it’s a work of art. They take time to write, I know, but the potential pay-off, both literal and metaphorical, makes it worthwhile.

3.) Interviews

Preamble: Okay so I’ve only really had like four interviews in my life, two of which were a formality because they needed the numbers for their workforce and just wanted to know that they weren’t hiring a complete buffoon (jury’s still out, sadly) and the other two I flopped despite them being low-energy and casual.

This is slightly tangential data but the first of the two low-energy-and-casual interview was a gentle Stage 1 before Stage 2 which was supposed to be a much more rigorous and stressful experience. The second of these low-energy-and-casual interviews was a diabolical cocktail of Literally Unavoidable Lateness (I planned my journey to account for an extra hour Just In Case and my coach swallowed that hour whole and crapped out another ten minutes so I ended up getting there just about on time but very flustered) and General Unpreparedness. I researched, sure, but being flustered meant I couldn’t centre myself. Naturally I did not get the job. That was a very dark day.

The short: I am quite possibly—quite certainly—the worst person to ask about interviews in terms of what one ought to do. But what I hope this section will do instead is show you something from someone who has slipped up enough to know what’s what. A learning process, if you will. Learn from the buffoon and avoid everything he has done.

Clichés incoming:

i.) Do your research into the company you’re interviewing for.

This should be obvious but if you legitimately show interest in the job and company you’re interviewing for, it will go a long way. It’s bandied around a lot, true. But an easy way to know if a company’s a good fit for you is when you research them you don’t feel exceptionally drained. Enthusiasm for a company is fairly difficult to feign. Though I am certain people will try to prove me wrong.

The kind of research has to be a little deeper than the research for your cover letter, more than the About page and a couple of blog posts. Look to trends and previously favourable incentives the company has done. Stay positive. If you criticise (which I say it’s better to stay away from but hey, what do I know?) then do so with the intention of effecting change, improvement. Note this, however: you’re clearly desirable if you’ve got to the interview stage and there are a lot of fresh things that graduates can contribute in terms of new ideas, but remember that people already working in the industry trump you in experience of said industry. Obviously. Again, this is not to say that a fresh perspective is not desirable. I mean I’m going into detail on a less-than-likely scenario but really, really be careful with this.

Bonus round: be wary of the news. I don’t mean have a grasp of it in a I Know Everything There Is sense, I just mean know what’s what in the news. Current affairs, and the like. You’re more likely to be asked about your industry and the news therein but don’t rule out general news. I think they ask this so you can demonstrate awareness of wider cultural impacts and changes to the social sphere both locally and globally.

Every time I’ve been asked about this I’ve fluffed it and since then I’ve been reading New Statesman and Guardian long reads feverishly to make up for my awful failing* of Not Being Informed. These take a while. Just explore farther afield than your Twitter or Facebook feed for more realistic and less time-consuming endeavours. Most articles online average around the 800-word mark which is about a 10 minutes committed read at most. 10 minutes of your day is not going to be a burden, especially if you’ve got nothing going for you.

Hell, even read papers and magazines you don’t normally go to. There’s always new stuff to learn. Everyone tells it differently.

*it was literally only one time. That was enough for me.

ii.) Answer the question. If you don’t know, it’s fine to take a moment and think about it. It’s way better to not know than bullshit an answer. It’s embarrassing. Also, sometimes interviewers ask questions that even they can’t answer so demonstrating your abilities to solve a problem shows off your skills, especially in unfamiliar territory, which you’re more than likely to land in during the job. It’s not the answer per se, but rather how you get there that matters.

iii.) Handle your nerves. This is not always the easiest the thing to do, I know. Sounds lame, I know. But if you charitably acknowledge that the interviewer is not trying to catch you out, but genuinely trying to ascertain your skills, especially in relation to your application, then things should fall into place. At least a tiny bit. Nerves are natural. Remember to breathe and take your time.

iv.) Follow up; ask some questions. People love this because it does two things:

1.) Shows your interest because you’re listening and;

2.) Brings the interview as close to a conversation—a two-way interaction—as possible.

A good one that I like to use is asking about the qualities and challenges of the interviewer’s day-to-day life. This is a good and simple one because you’ll get a quick insight of what you’d be doing on a daily basis.

There are others but ruminate on them further.

Think about what you don’t know about the industry as opposed to asking a question through the lens of what you do know (though that can be good if it’s framed well). This way it’s from genuine curiosity. Scribble a few ideas down before your interview or—even better—ask after things you’re curious about across the course of the dialogue. Here’s a useful post to get the ideas flowing.

I think it’s fair to say that there’s an implication in your interview you want a job for more selfish reasons, like basic sustenance as well as non-essentials. This is of course beyond what the role provides intellectually and skills-wise, so being sensitive to the idea that it is Known you want the Basic Sustenance As Well As Non-Essentials, while not explicitly saying that is what you want, will go a long way. You should probably not mention salary at all. Only if you’re asked.

I don’t know the nuances of salary expectations when it’s requested of you but it’s generally accepted that the starting salary of a graduate in 2016/17 is between £19,000 and £22,000 so negotiate between there. If there’s demand (which I doubt) I’ll come back to this point because I wouldn’t know where to begin with this but it’ll be pretty useful to know.

The hilarious thing is that even through learning more about improving your chances, it’s still very plausible that you might not get what you’re after. This has been one of the hardest parts of the job application process.

It might sound trite but do your best and try not to take it personally, which is biting advice considering, and very tough to swallow, trust me. But it is true. Take every loss as a chance for growth, fuel for determination. It takes some time to actually secure work but you’ll get there. Those articles are gloomy in tone, the process might seem crushing, but we still have to try. Else what’s the point?

Right, how about some actual job resources, eh?

LinkedIn is constantly bandied around for where one can find potential jobs. I personally have not mastered the resource so I can’t massively vouch for it. But it might be worthwhile to do some investigating in case it can be useful. Here’s a way to help use it. And another right here.

If you know what industry you want to get into, following their Twitter and Facebook pages and checking frequently is useful for any new job opportunities that may or may not be posted on their respective company websites. Some people have spoken about asking companies directly about opportunities. Some people love this and there are some success stories. I have not done that yet. I’ve sent off an application for some courage but it’s still pending, so *shrugs*.

The Guardian has a comprehensive list of jobs that can be subdivided into industry and job level. Good resource. I know it updates on Mondays and Saturdays but I only have this information in relationship to the publishing industry but I can’t see how it doesn’t apply to the site more broadly. Check frequently.

Graduate Talent Pool from the Government posts fairly frequently in a variety of industries that you can sort through the drop-down menu.

Inspiring Interns has a system where grads post a video CV (usually about 30-60 seconds) and potential employers will offer interviews if they’re interested. Good spread of a wide-range of jobs. The sign-up for this is pretty painless.

Target Jobs tends to have a lot of opportunities about. Less so for some creative jobs but if you’re interested in stuff like finance there tends to be some arable pickings.

Prospects is another site. Not too familiar with it but it is a resource worth investigating.

Then there are the typical job sites such as Reed and Indeed.

Any others, I’d love to know about to add to the list. You know for, er, unselfish reasons.

Good luck out there. Leave some for me, too.


6 thoughts on “On Unemployment and Graduate Life

  1. glad (not glad?) to see that someone’s in the same position as I am. Not that I take joy out of this, it’s more of a comfort. I graduated last summer and in all honesty, I didn’t think I’d be unemployed this long (I know, I’m pulling a major Rory Gilmore). I am fortunate enough to have a partner that I live with, so although I am still INCREDIBLY lonely and very disheartened (easily the worst stage in my life so far) I do at least have him to hold onto whenever I feel miserable.

    I’m still not entirely certain what it is that I’m doing wrong – and just wish I could get through to the interview stage at least. It probably doesn’t help that I’ve set my sights on an infamously difficult career path to get on to.

    Oh, well. I was told to just keep trying, just keep sending in those CVs and covering letters.
    I wish you the best of luck in your job search!


    • Haha, I understood the meaning. Now it’s my time to be glad (in that way you carefully outlined) that there’s even a trace of comfort to be had from the general situation.

      But yeah, I’m the same as you. My idea was: graduate in summer, be employed before year’s end. The reality is, again, just like yours where I am very much in love with a notoriously difficult career path. Be that as it may, even with less competitive industries, a lot of my other friends are still struggling. All of us are kind of Rory in that respect, I suppose. It’s good to hear that you at least have a support system; being able to be in a loving environment is definitely a boon!

      I, too, am a little puzzled at where the problem lies. My thinking is that a lack of opportunity is contributing to the issue that you, I, and my peers are facing. My post really only increases the likeliness of getting employed. But that’s still a big if. Applicants aren’t solely to blame, I don’t think. Sure, bad applications get sidelined, but what about good applications, with qualified and/or hard-working candidates? I feel the latter are going to feel more disenfranchised because if the only problem that’s barring you from employment is a bad application, then you only need to improve it, yes? But if you’re already writing good applications, have applied yourself, got good experience, etc., then it becomes difficult to see what the issue is, where the blame lies. Usually, I would go and think, “I must be crap”/ “I’m doing something wrong” too … And I think that’s only a tiny part of what’s at play.

      Another complicating factor is that the industries that have a high level of applicants per role. Because an already tough market is made harder by desiring roles that just by their nature are going to be harder to scoop up …

      I’m sorry. This was supposed to be descriptive and hopeful look at what the issue at hand might be, but turned into an awful, knotted rant.

      At the end of this it might sound trite (even fake) but I genuinely hope things start turning out better for you, and sooner rather than later.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am great and accidentally writing a rant – or else something I call the great wall of text.

    I think I made a mistake in the very beginning, before I even graduated, in being too selective. I wanted a very specific job in the publishing industry. I learned really quickly that I would have to broaden my interests, be far less specific, and just hope for the best. But how horrible is is that after 3-4 years of university education, experience in the industry, and what (I feel) is an alright application, it still feels like I’ll just eventually have to settle for something. The whole reason I went to university was to study what I loved, in order to hopefully garner a career in something I loved. Perhaps that was disillusioned thinking though.

    But yeah… I’ve broadened my (career) horizon so much so that it’s barely even connected to what I initially thought and hoped I would get.

    Back in mid-September I applied for an entry-level dream-type position. When I got rejected I mustered up all of my courage to tweet the careers site in the hope that I would get some sort of response. All I wanted to know was what was missing on my application and what I could work on. Unlike pressing for information via email, the public staging on twitter did illicit an emailed response. But still, no real feedback. There was nothing I could work on or develop. I wanted an answer to the constantly echoing “why?” in my mind, but I was told that my application was good. I was also told in the email that there was an extraordinarily high number of applicants for this same role (almost 600!) which made me feel even more downtrodden. How can a single application, even if it is well written and hits all the marks, even shine among hundreds and hundreds of other hopefuls?


    • Apologies for the late response.

      I know the feeling. Part of me kind of suspected I was gunning for some level of failure when I latched onto the first thing I fell in love with. But I don’t think it’s disillusioned to go for something you enjoy. That being said it’s difficult to marry career ambitions with an actual job which, like you said, is difficult to do when it’s so, so subscribed.

      Then there’s the issue of what to do if your efforts don’t match up with anything? Any other job seems more like a stop-gap over actual desire and fulfilment. If getting rejected is soul-crushing, doing something out of necessity is horrible.

      With such a stress on finding that “right” career, I don’t think there’s been a lot of help in understanding what to actually do to get there.


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