by Alice Harper
21st May 2019

Alice Harper

Alice Harper

Following the publication of The End of Aspiration by Duncan Exley, Alice Harper, a recent graduate, speaks about her experience of expectation, aspiration and finding a job after graduation.

Having attained an education to be proud of, I had high expectations of myself as a graduate. It turns out that being able and willing to achieve your aspirations is only half the battle. Knowing how to get there is another thing entirely.

Relative to my peers, I’ve always felt my background puts me somewhere in the middle. I was state-educated in rural Yorkshire, but was encouraged to apply for university by my teachers. I was the first in my immediate family to go to university, so while the concept existed for me, it felt fairly distant and abstract. My upbringing was financially stable, and I was also encouraged to get a part time job as soon as I was old enough. I paid my way through university with a combination of the necessary loans, help from mum and dad to cover bills, and my own holiday earnings.

I graduated on 21st July 2017. During the next four months I moved from my university flat to a friend’s floor to my aunt and uncle’s spare room. I did two weeks of unpaid media internships, applied for hundreds of jobs and was rejected for all of them, some with the bonus of interview practice. In December I got my first post-graduation job (Christmas retail work paying minimum wage) and was able to move in with a friend, due to my parents being willing and able to help me with rent payments. I worked in retail for four more months while applying for jobs, internships, work experience, anything I could find, with no success.

At this point, self-doubt started to weigh heavy on me. I knew how lucky I was to have been encouraged throughout school, gone to a Russell Group university, and have the financial and emotional support of friends and family. If, with all that help, I still couldn’t get a job… then surely the problem was me? I clearly wasn’t working hard enough and was wasting time feeling sorry for myself. The guilt was suffocating. I know now that the emotionally draining retail work and the repeated knock-backs had sapped my energy for job applications. It’s hard to envisage yourself walking into an office and getting a job, when the only times you’ve been in that situation before you’ve been told ‘no’.

Something my parents and education couldn’t give me, which I hadn’t considered until reading Duncan Exley’s book as research for this piece, were connections and first-hand experience within the careers I might want to pursue. The prevailing attitude seemed to be that if you worked hard and got yourself into a respected university, the rest of your life would be sorted. Apart from my Saturday job I had one week of work experience in school and a single practice interview for a career chosen at random. Even at university, the suggestion that my degree alone wouldn’t be enough rarely came up. Vague ideas about ‘bolstering my CV’ prompted me to do some reviewing at the Edinburgh Fringe and volunteer at the SS Great Britain. I went for careers advice in third year, prompted by sudden fear that I didn’t have a plan, and looking for guidance and reassurance. Rather than offering me the tailored advice I was hoping for, they told me to do my own research online. More helpful were some talks towards the end of my degree, with speakers from publishing, theatre and heritage. They had all left university without any idea of what they wanted to do, worked minimum wage jobs for a while, then eventually fallen into a role they enjoyed. The advice they gave was mostly ‘work hard, keep your eyes open and something will come along’. At this point, I’d started to feel like the usefulness of this philosophy was wearing thin. As a hard-working student with no knowledge of how to apply my skills to job hunting, I needed specific pointers, not generic encouragement.

In March 2018 I got my job in museum visitor services. At the time it felt like a lifeline. The pay allows me to be financially independent, but it’s a zero-hours contract, and I don’t see many opportunities for progression within the organisation. If I want to pursue a career in heritage, I’ll probably need a relevant masters degree, which would mean more debt for a shot at a job in a completely saturated sector.

English was sold to me as a degree which is so broad that it can lead on to a huge range of careers. What I had to find out myself is that this is close to useless without practical experience to back it up. I have applied for countless entry-level jobs in publishing, media and PR and been rejected each time on the basis that I have never had direct experience of those industries. I can find endless creative ways to present my skill for communication, time-management and efficiency, but when employers have 100 applications to narrow down, my lack of specific training puts me squarely in the ‘no’ pile. Arts degrees are the absolute minimum for the kinds of careers I would like to pursue, and everyone’s got one of those.

I feel very lucky to be happy in my job, and not under pressure to find the next step, but one disadvantage I do feel is a lack of knowledge about opportunities and how to reach them. My education was conspicuously lacking in consistent, meaningful career advice. As a teenager I thought it was stupid that I was expected to think about my future in any detail, but this is why it’s so important. More guidance from adults with the right training would have made the subject far less intimidating and shown me how university fitted into my overall progression.

Since graduation I have been attempting to fill in the gaps, all while feeling the pressure to be independent and earn money. What my experiences have taught me, and reading this book has highlighted, is that privilege comes in many different forms. While I possess qualifications and something of a financial safety net, I lack the confidence to understand and navigate the routes to progression. Especially for those of us within the arts, it can sometimes feel like these routes are limited, not signposted, and paved with impossible expectations.

The End of Aspiration?, by Duncan Exley is available on the Policy Press website. Order here for £10.39.

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Image Credit: Simon Lieschke, via Flickr