Rebuilding Your Post-degree Confidence
My name is Alex. Got straight A* at GCSE, 4 A grades from college, a first class BA and distinction for my Master’s.
And I’m still living at home. At the age of 25.
Barely able to get my CV shortlisted, sometimes I feel like calling my university’s customer complaints department, demanding my money back. For I was certainly given the impression that Higher Education is like a theme park, a Disney World, from which everyone comes out brimming with skills and experience. There would be rides for everyone: from the ‘badminton club’ pirate ship to the ‘film club’ rollercoaster. In between you would mingle with colourful characters - not Goofy or Mickey, but ‘Dr CuttingEdgeResearch’ and ‘Professor StimulatingThought’.
Then came the statistics: post-degree average starting salaries of £16K, nearly everyone in a job six months after graduation... Overall it seemed that you entered university a student, but came out a man. Or woman.
To be fair, I'm not going to argue with the statistics. Indeed, I watched enviously on social media as fellow students’ careers took off. The problem was that my experience compared unfavourably.
I started well. Back at the beginning of my degree, supported by great results for my A-levels, I had no doubt that I belonged at university. Yet I found the jump from A-level to degree difficult. As I clung to the quality that had defined me – academic achievement – I made the mistake of spending every second trying to rectify that problem, without exploring my other talents. I was involved minimally in the theatre society but turned my back on it in my final year. When my first article was rejected, I took that as a sign that the student magazine was not for me.
I got what I wanted in the end - a first-class degree – but it came at a price. My skills were skewed towards ‘academic’ capabilities, and I felt distinctly unemployable, doubting I really could demonstrate the ‘leadership’ or ‘project management’ experience that employers wanted. A crash in confidence coincided with a lack of direction and I drifted into a sales assistant role, killing some more time with a Master’s degree.
Consequently, I sometimes felt that ‘University Wonder Land’ had been mis-sold. I was tempted to march down to the admissions office, point accusingly at the prospectus and proclaim "Well it was nothing like the brochure."
It was, however, my fault. I treated university like a structured package holiday, expecting everything to fall into place. What really happened is that I went to a theme park and barely went on any rides. Instead of having a bash at the ‘CV-boosting’ Tower of Terror or the ‘Career-Motivation’ Funhouse, I all too easily settled on the ‘academic’ ride I was comfortable with: let’s say, the monorail that takes you through the theme park.
Or perhaps the log flume with its certificate-like photo-finish.
Despite a confused metaphor, my point still stands: a strong correlation exists between the awesomeness of university and how proactive you are.
Before I start being accused of pessimism here, I learned a very valuable lesson from all this: life is what you make of it. It is a cliché but it is true. It became abundantly clear to me that the only cure to missing a ride is to find one and strap in.
So, if you find yourself in a similar predicament to me (I am definitely not the only one) here are a few steps and realisations that helped me rebuild my confidence:
Learn from, do not wallow in, your mistakes
I did not make full use of my university experience. Now I have no career, no pension, no independence. Great.
Turn this self-loathing into self-motivation. My goals have sharpened in the past year: start a career, earn money, MOVE OUT.
Just because you did not make things happen at university does not mean you cannot do so now. Generate and seize opportunities that will expand your CV – and your ego.
For instance, I was given the opportunity recently to tutor a girl in French. Now if a job description emphasises creativity, problem-solving and building relationships, I can talk about my innovative teaching style and how I analysed my tutee’s learning needs.
Volunteering can be a brilliant way to explore new routes and demonstrate certain competencies. Volunteer roles are easy to find and easy to get: which organisation wouldn’t want free labour? Such placements are flexible and can be fit around other commitments, training and job-hunting you need to do. And if you work with a small organisation and get yourself noticed, you might be able to gain control of your own project and really show off your managerial skills. As the compliments rolled in, I found, my self-esteem improved.
Job-hunting can be an evolving process
Just start searching (and even applying). Don’t dither. Fine, you do not know what you are looking for, but you will never know until you get an idea of roles that actually exist. Getting excited about a job description lets you imagine a future beyond ‘retail assistant.’ If you fail to meet certain criteria for a role, this gives you signposts to the next ‘ride’ you need to look for.
Applications clarify your skills
Filling out job applications takes practice. Getting started early means that when that amazing job does emerge, you’ll be ready with a bank of ways you can demonstrate certain skills. Sure, you do not contribute to society. But darn it, you are good at succinctly describing your written and verbal communication skills.
Productivity leads to confidence
All the steps above lead to the achievement of small goals. Even sending off a job application (which can take hours) is a success in itself. And every achievement will give you the impression that your life is progressing, not stalling.