Things I didn’t know when I graduated

youarestronger Let’s talk about expectation versus reality when you graduate. I graduated from my undergrad in 2010. Right around the beginning of the financial crisis (or the credit crunch, as they were calling it then, haven’t heard that term in a while). The Conservatives had just won the general election, austerity had yet to rear it’s ugly head in full in relation to cuts to arts, education and basically everything that makes life just a little bit richer. I was excited to start a PGCE in Nottingham, secure in the knowledge that there were plenty of teaching jobs in England.

Well, as it turned out, I hated teaching. I can honestly say it was one of the worst times of my life. I was homesick, I couldn’t settle in, I cried – a lot. I hated the bureaucracy and the classroom discipline aspect (I was terrible at it FYI). I hated living in England (no offence England, I’m sure part of that was the PGCE and not you). I would constantly worry about my lessons, stay up late trying to make them the best that they could be, wake up in the middle of the night, convinced I had slept in, or forgotten something vital. I had great support in my first placement and terrible, passive aggressive support in my second placement, where I was once told that a skirt that fell to my knees was inappropriate, and routinely noticed one teacher roll his eyes throughout lessons of his that I took. And it’s only now, five years on, that I’ve realised it was terrible, passive aggressive behaviour. I was in no way prepared to go in to a profession where some of the staff (albeit a minority) acted like the students they taught.

I had some brilliant classes, full of lovely and lively students, I had some classes that were a little too lively and didn’t click with me at all, were impossible to discipline or that I just plain could not come to grips with. I met some wonderful dedicated teachers that were nothing but kind and professional and passionate about their jobs. I met some who were frustrated and disillusioned by pressure in all the wrong places and constant changes to the National Curriculum. Changes made by people who had obviously never taught a day in their lives.

My point is, it wasn’t for me, and if I’m honest, I knew that within the first two weeks. But I stuck with it, because that’s what you do, you don’t quit, you tell yourself you just need time to settle, that it’s homesickness, that it will get better. I wasn’t confident enough in the fact that I was an adult who actually had a pretty good measure of her own mind and self.

But mostly, and this is something that I think could apply to a lot of arts graduates, I didn’t really know what I could do. I wasn’t sure what my options were. Teaching had been the plan for me for years. I applied for my degree in English and History knowing I would follow it up with a teaching qualification. I didn’t really question my school not going through my other options with me, because I had a plan. At university, I didn’t really think about exploring those options, and the university wasn’t exactly bothered either. The few times I did go to careers events, they seemed lacklustre, I went to one careers talk where the speaker forgot to show up and never bothered to reschedule.

But it didn’t matter: I had a plan.

I’ll note here, as I have before, that never, not once, was it ever suggested, at school or university, that a move to software might be a good idea. I distinctly remember teachers in my school commenting that there were too many people going for IT degrees, that there wouldn’t be enough jobs for them when they graduated (jokes on them, Northern Ireland is crying out for IT graduates now). This was one of the top schools in Northern Ireland as well, and they really, truly, didn’t have a clue.

I do think an arts degree has value. Real value. It teaches you to think critically, it teaches you the value of stories (historical and otherwise, people love stories: they take on a life of their own). It improves your basic communication skills: written, spoken, general chit chat, and that will get you so much further in life than you’ve ever realised, I promise. An arts degree can make you a more well rounded individual by grace of its content. I am a stronger person now, and a stronger job candidate, because of my arts background. It makes me employable, even though my software qualification is from a conversion masters and not a four year undergrad with a placement year spent in industry. I think differently to those people, I problem solve differently, I communicate differently. My mind, quite literally, does not work in the same way as theirs, and that is an asset (don’t get me wrong, actually doing well in the software masters helped quite a lot as well).

I think the arts are so valuable, but I had no idea what options were open to me when I graduated. I’m not saying there are no jobs in the arts, I know people who are working artists, authors, playwrights, musicians, but no one ever sat me down and said: “Yeah, arts, teaching, great: but think about internships, volunteering, writing and placements.” (I’ll point out here that I suffered quite badly from depression in my late teens and early twenties, I don’t know if a sit down talk like that would have had any effect on me).

And if I could do it again? Go back to eighteen year old Laura? I might still do English and History, but I’d do more. I’d do all the placements I could, volunteer where I could, throw myself at publishers for internships (I would get the support I needed to deal with my depression).

You can’t go back. Not really. The advice I would give to someone like her is this:

  1. Volunteer, fight for placements, get yourself out there at every opportunity. You will never be in this position again, and every single extra thing you do looks good on your CV, and develops you, your personality and social skills in ways you’re not even aware of. It makes you interesting.
  2. Go to all of your classes. You are paying a hell of a lot of money for your education. Make it work for you.
  3. If you feel down, get help. Talk to people, even if it’s just your doctor, and be careful who you put your trust in.
  4. Teaching is hard and often unrewarding (and as a profession it is being demonised and beat down by a government that honestly have no idea what they are doing). If you still want to do it, go for it, but just be aware of what you’re getting yourself into.
  5. And finally: it’s ok to not have a post graduation plan. Really. Your plans, priorities and ambitions are going to change, and that’s ok.

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