Graduate graveyard

How so many excellent students end up on the scrapheap

22nd November 2017

Students have a pretty tough time coming out of university. Despite having three or more years of higher education under their belt, a smattering of letters after their name, and nearly 100 likes on their graduation picture on Instagram, nearly all are massively in debt, and many struggle to find work.

Many graduates find themselves not knowing what to do, not having a job lined up, or not having enough experience to go into their chosen field.

Only 50% of UK graduates are working in the industry they studied in, according to a 2014 survey, but what’s the reality for the other half?

“I’m working full time in a pub,” Róisín Boggan tells The Overtake. “It’s really demoralising and bloody hard.” Despite having a degree in biology from Reading, a master’s in genomic medicine from Queen Mary University of London, Róisín is struggling to find work appropriate for her level of education. “Most places want a BSc [and] experience. I can’t seem to find places that specifically require a master’s. They jump then to PhD.”

When asked for her plans for the future, more education is on the cards. “I want to do a PhD to do research and be a lecturer,” Róisín says.

With all the pressure placed on young people to go to university, it’s even more disheartening that Róisín can’t find any better work, or just work with more sociable hours, and it might be surprising that she is staying positive and working towards her goals.

For many recent graduates, education has been such a constant in their lives that they return to its comforting arms when they see that the job market is so uninviting and the jobs are ultimately unsatisfying. And maybe this dissatisfaction stems from the fact that graduates have had three or more years to hone their interests in a particular field, only to find that there are very few jobs available in those fields.

Róisín also felt that she had very little aid from her universities in finding work. “Especially at master’s level, I felt very on my own and I feel like all the work I’ve done [to find a job] is off my own back.” Support for students needs to be in place, and although Queen Mary’s website says the average salary of a graduate from their university is £24,000, Róisín is less than convinced that this has much to do with the university. “I’ve had a much much worse experience at Queen Mary in regards to student experience/pastoral care,” she tells us, “but again I’m not sure if that is down to masters’ in general or a specific Queen Mary problem.”

You feel like you should be achieving because you’re a graduate, but no employer wants you

She also tells us that she feels like she is in limbo. “I don’t think anyone fully prepares you for that, the in-between of graduation and looking for a job in your field, but having to live a life in a state of flux essentially, and not knowing when you could get an incredible job, or not knowing if it will ever happen. Where you feel like you should be achieving because you’re a graduate, but no employer wants you.” Graduates’ first experience of the so-called “real world” and “adult life” is one of intense ambiguity and fluctuation, and the reality of unemployment or low-paid work can hit them like Anthony Joshua, if he had six fists and gloves made of steel. Nearly a third of graduates aged 21-30 are employed in medium or low skilled jobs, a statistic that has risen from just over a quarter in the past ten years. With more and more graduates struggling to find work, it becomes clear why some look back fondly at their university years and enrol in a master’s degree, planned or otherwise.

Ollie Banatvala feels similarly when it comes to job requirements: “It felt like in order to work in this field I needed more than just an undergraduate degree.”  After completing his bachelor’s degree in Russian from the University of Leeds, he took an unpaid job in Samara, Russia, where he works for a charity. He freely admits that this is unsustainable, but his plans for the future, like Róisín, include even more studies. While his ultimate goal is “to work in the UK, focusing on Russian culture, which could be like journalism, a think tank, an NGO or anything really”, for now, Ollie knows he wants to complete “a research master’s focusing on Russian culture, in particular, literature”.

However, he doesn’t appear to be too distressed about not finding a job after his degree. “I wasn’t studying it to get a good job in some huge oil company and earn a stack of money. I was studying it to find out more about this amazing place,” he tells The Overtake. “I genuinely enjoy learning about Russia.”

Ollie’s love of the country and its culture began when he was studying the language in sixth form. “When I first started to learn Russian, my teacher always encouraged us to think of the subject it as more than just a language: studying Russian meant exploring the culture – literature, art, food, history, politics etc. – as well.

“When I was in year 12, my teacher gave me Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita to read, and since then Russian literature has been my favourite aspect of studying Russian.” His passion for Russian culture and literature is palpable, which is why he is considering a PhD or further study after his master’s.

For those who stay in education simply for the sake of learning, rather than in order to get a job, the point of university is very different. While some people struggle to find work or to apply their degree upon graduating, it seems that Ollie’s degree has fulfilled its purpose already, as he has learned more and expanded his horizons in a field that he is especially interested and invested in.

A piece of Department of Education research from 2016 found that 10.6% of 2008/2009 graduates were still in further study five years after graduating, showing that Ollie and Róisín have plenty of company in their plans for further studies, and that, while definitely the minority, many graduates are in fact studying for more qualifications after their bachelor’s degree.

Ben Ezard has quite different thoughts about his university experience, however, describing it as “a means to an end”.

“Just to get the piece of paper that says ‘has degree’ that ticks that checkbox for employers.” Ben graduated from the University of York with a degree in computer science, although he cut his integrated master’s a year short and instead chose to receive a bachelor’s degree. “I decided to quit whilst I was ahead and jump into the world of work. Having talked to interviewers when applying for my placement year, it became apparent that having a master’s didn’t give a huge advantage over a bachelor’s.”

As his degree became more and more theory-based, Ben had decided that it wasn’t his style of learning. “Well it [my placement year] definitely confirmed that, for me, being in a work environment was more productive than being in an academic environment. Just in terms of making the most of my time I guess. At least at work I’m doing something useful, as opposed to just learning stuff that I’ll never use.” He didn’t find his degree particularly helpful in teaching him skills appropriate to his preferred field of work, but “the obvious exception is the placement year, since employers love it when applicants have some experience.”

None of the skills that I use at work were taught by my degree

While he received no help or support in finding a graduate job, he is at least pleased with how the University of York helped him to apply for his placement year, the year of his course that he found the most interesting and useful. “There was a guided option in place, whereby select companies came to the university and conducted a primary interview with candidates.” This level of aid in finding placements seems to be what Róisín felt was lacking with job hunting on her courses, and although it was also not present for Ben when he was graduating and looking for jobs, it helped him find an important placement year which helped him find work. However, now that he has a job as an app designer, “none of the skills that I use at work were taught by my degree – I learnt them all in my free time, over the last six or so years.” He does note that all jobs he applied for required a relevant computer science degree, even though few required the specific skills taught on his course.

Despite wanting to be an archaeologist, a footballer, and to work at Legoland when they grew up respectively, these three graduates are forging their own paths into adulthood in very different directions to what their childhood selves might have expected.

The lack of direction given to young people who have been in education for pretty much their entire lives makes being a graduate a seemingly overwhelming challenge, a challenge many feel unprepared and ill-equipped for.

This challenge is even harder for female graduates and graduates of colour. According to research, 12% fewer female graduates are employed in high skilled, or “graduate”, jobs than their male counterparts, earning an average of £8,000 less, and 20.4% fewer black graduates are employed in high skilled jobs, earning an average of £6,500 less than white graduates. These statistics from 2016 might sound like they are from the 1960s but they show how far British society still has to go before reaching any semblance of equality.

The problems with graduate employment, especially for female graduates and graduates of colour, are numerous, but not everything about being a graduate is to do with careers or work. Since graduating, Róisín is most proud of finding a place to live and getting by in London on a very limited budget, Ollie cooked a pumpkin pie for his host family in Russia and their three-year old niece refused to eat anything else, and a game that Ben is working on in his spare time is starting to get more and more noticed. It would be nice to focus on these little individual things that make us all proud, but with the shadows of impending rent payments, potentially lifelong careers, and Student Loans Company debt collectors looming over them, graduates have to be constantly looking for the next step on their hunt for a job that provides them with not only enjoyment and satisfaction, but also a living wage.

22nd November 2017