Primary school. High school. College. University. Job. The commonly accepted ‘normal’ route into the world of… well, almost anything. Whether your passion is academia or advertising, philosophy or physics, the job you’ll spend much of your life toiling over awaits you at the end of university.
This is the advice I may have been giving next weekend, if Cambridge Science Week were happening a couple of years ago, and if I had followed the conventional route to where I am today. As it is, however, I doubt that this would do much good. In today’s market, if you don’t have a job already, then finding one is going to be tough. The rate of job loss is growing steadily, with such previously secure careers as banking and advertising suffering alongside smaller enterprises whose profits have fallen. Now, people are becoming desperate: everyone wants anything, just to make ends meet. When my husband applied for a usually very unpopular kitchen porter position some time ago, one hundred other people were at the interview. Under normal circumstances, the number would have been less than a dozen.
Employers are now faced with the difficult task of choosing between numerous competent, experienced people; and potential employees are up against ever more desperate contemporaries. So what do I tell the undergraduates next week? Don’t bother? Give up? Go somewhere warm, with white sand beaches, and never return? Tempting.
Perhaps a slightly more constructive piece of advice to give would be ‘showcase your skills’. This may be difficult if your party trick is Belly Sevalis, à la Black Books, but everyone has something that makes them unique. My sister-in-law was recently lamenting the fact that she shares 99.999% of her genes with her brothers and sister; yet she is very different from them. She is a science teacher; they are respectively a debt collector, a servery supervisor, and a Mandarin-speaking astrophysicist with an additional degree in law. The fact that of all four siblings, the latter is the one currently seeking employment is in itself an illustration of the current climate.
In this day and age, standing out is really your only hope. Whether you do this by running societies whilst at university, by setting up a small business of your own, or by not attending university at all but plunging straight into the job market, it will say something about you. Undergraduates at this time are looking for potential jobs; what they need to be doing instead is looking for potential interests. If your boss supports Celtic and you love Rangers, it’s just not going to work. If you both have a mutual interest in rock-climbing and both dropped out halfway through university because the work was dull, you have something in common. Not being afraid to be yourself is an important part of the jobseeking process. You want the company to hire you, after all: not some strange façade self who bears little resemblance to the real thing.
What do you guys think? How did you get where you are today? What advice would you give to young, apprehensive undergraduates seeking a career in science and technology? I’d love to hear your thoughts.