If you had asked me aged 17 where I saw myself in 10 years’ time, I would have been able to answer straight away: happily married, with a nice big house and at least two children.
I had a life plan.
But there’s one question I wouldn’t have been able to answer: What career did I want? And, to be honest, that thought probably didn’t ever cross my mind. After all, I had three years of uni – studying History at Durham University – to get through first. I’d have plenty of time to decide.
However, before I knew it final year had arrived and graduation day was on the horizon; my usual response to, “what are your plans after uni” (answer: “I don’t really know yet”) began to seem more and more inadequate.
However, I’ll be the first to admit that, even after graduation, I wasn’t really spurred into action. I lined up a couple of weeks at a kids’ summer camp and decided that I’d tackle the “big job hunt” after that, confident that I’d have that light bulb moment soon and would know what I would want to do.
Yet, as camp ended so did that breathing space. I found myself without a purpose, without any structure to my day, for the first time since school – over 15 years ago.
Fast-forward a few months and I found myself doing exhausting shifts in a local restaurant, back at home living with Mum and Dad and still earning minimum wage. My precious time off was spent browsing Facebook with an increasing sense of resentment – everyone seemed to be doing “graduate life” so much better than me. Many were working in London, some were travelling… How had they all moved forwards when I was stuck in the past? I even found it hard to ask how people were getting on because I didn’t know if I could face hearing how well they were doing.
Deep down, I did know that my situation wouldn’t last forever. The problem was that I still didn’t know how to get out of the rut that I’d blindly stumbled into.
The winter after my graduation was fraught with anxiety, which lead me to apply for a PGCE. My sister was a teacher so I thought I’d follow in her footsteps. Like her, I got an interview at Cambridge. Yet, unlike her, I was rejected at the interview stage. I was bitter at the time and I gave up on the idea completely (much like a moody teen that I’d regressed into). Yet looking back now, I know why it happened: I didn’t really want to teach, I just wanted to do something. They, very rightly, saw through me the moment I stepped through the door.
Several months on, I was still waitressing and still floundering. A couple more failed interviews down (all for very ill-suited jobs), I once again looked to my peers for careers advice and made the decision to become a lawyer quite simply because several of my friends were. I whipped up an application to do a part-time Law conversion and crossed my fingers that, finally, this would be the right move for me.
I started my course in September 2011, over a year after I graduated. However, unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for this new, rashly-concocted “dream” to fall apart. I was trying to balance studying with working part-time to pay for it and by Christmas, I was shattered. This may be someone else’s dream career but it certainly wasn’t mine.
I carried on simply because I didn’t know what else to do. Then, purely by chance, I came across an advert for a ‘Communications Assistant’ for my local council in the spring of 2012. I’d never heard of Communications as an industry before but as I read the job description I had an epiphany. Almost two years after graduating, I’d finally found something that I wanted to do.
For the first time since UCAS I took my time over an application, tailoring it to a company and ensuring that I really highlighted the skills I had. It paid off – I got an interview and, to my complete surprise, I was offered the job.
I started there in April 2012, almost two years after I graduated, and it was only then that I began to realise that I shouldn’t compare myself to other people so harshly. It didn’t matter that I was earning less than many of my peers because I was doing something that felt right for me and not just because I thought I should be.
Four years later and I’m still working in Communications. It would be a lie to say that I never find myself looking at the Facebook profile of “Polly from that random module I took” and drawing comparisons. However, I definitely don’t feel like a failure any more. I may not be a high flying lawyer, earning six figures, an inspirational teacher or even a mother of two, but that’s completely okay.
If I could offer a piece of advice to anyone feeling the way that I did, it would be this: have patience. The days after graduation may feel like they’re dark and full of terrors, but this is completely natural. When I speak to friends about that time now, free of bitterness and with a much wiser head on my shoulders, many will admit that they experienced the same state of disillusionment and fear, even if their smiling pictures or statuses suggested otherwise.
The real truth is that everyone’s story, especially their graduate story, is unique. It may take time to get to where you want to be, but stick with it – you just need to wait for the path that’s right for you, not follow the same one as everyone else.