Almost 3 years ago, I accepted a job at a large technology company as part of their Graduate Scheme. I had graduated from university with a First Class MEng degree, and spent months applying to many different graduate jobs. I wasn’t having much luck, and had been out of university without earning money for about 6 months. The job I was offered wasn’t my first, second, or even third choice, but a last resort choice because I was getting desperate. Rent and bills do not pay themselves, and I don’t hide the fact that I needed money.
I knew that the job was in a very specific industry, and although it advertised itself as a technical job, I had my doubts as to how true this would actually be. All the advice I received at the time was to take the job, that it would be good experience and would help me move on to a better job in the future. I doubted this even then when I signed the contract, months before I started the job. I was very worried I would be getting in to a job where what I would learn would apply only to that one narrow industry, and not help me in the wider technical job market in the future. But I believed the advice and as I knew it would at least earn me something, much less than most other graduate jobs but still something, I accepted it. I still continued looking for other jobs right up until my first day of work, but to no avail.
When I started there it wasn’t long until I saw why the job only required someone with a minimum of a 2:2, and not even a 2:1 degree. The job had been sold to me as one with opportunities for electronics, embedded development, programming/software development, and even computational fluid dynamics. But in the 2.5 years I have been working there, it feels like I’ve barely gone beyond ‘Hello World’. There have been a few small projects which have been interesting and technically challenging, where I feel I have learnt something worthwhile. But the majority of work has barely required anything beyond what I was doing during my first and second years at university. Most of what I have learnt has been specific to that one industry, and so as I expected, not beneficial when looking for other work now.
As with any knowledge or skills, if you don’t apply them regularly, or keep developing them, you get rusty. Most of what I had learnt during the 4 years of my degree has been stagnating. I can go back and look at work I did at university, and some of it might as well be in a foreign language. I was under the possibly false impression that a graduate level job was meant to take someone after they have finished university, and provide them opportunities to develop knowledge and skills that build upon their degree. I hope that at other companies, this happens. But with the job I have been doing, I feel that I could have gone there without a university degree and be doing just as well, as all the industry specific training would have given me what I needed for those areas anyway.
So I really wish I had followed my instincts and gut feeling 3 years ago, and not taken this job. It would have meant times were harder financially for a bit longer, but it would have given me longer to find a more suitable job. I have now completed the 2 year Graduate Scheme, and see that as a good point to look for other opportunities. But as I come to look for other work, once potential employers find out what the past 2.5 years of employment has actually involved for me, they realise I wouldn’t be right for them. Yes I can make things look good on paper, and people tell me that my C.V. isn’t too bad. But most of that builds upon my time at university, which I finished 3 years ago. All of that is going rusty while I’m doing a job every day that uses only the basics from a technical point of view. It feels like my career has been set back considerably. What I am learning isn’t relevant outside that industry. The technology world is huge, and I’m finding it hard to work out what I should be learning in my spare time that will help me get a job I enjoy.
It feels in some way I’m still at zero or worse, and almost need to go back to university, get another degree, and start again. Everyone assured me what employers want is experience, that it doesn’t matter where. Even advice given to graduates today by careers advice services is that they shouldn’t be picky. They should take any job they get offered, whatever it is, because it will get them experience.
After making that mistake myself, and regretting it, I hope no one else does the same. Be picky. Don’t take the first job you’re offered if you’re unsure about it. Employers may want people with experience. But if the experience is in a totally different area to the job, then it’s not going to help. Don’t start working in an industry you know you don’t want to be in, because this could damage your chances of working somewhere else in the future. Be sure that the job will have you doing things you want to do, and let you develop the knowledge and skills you want to develop. If the job will only need knowledge you already have, won’t challenge you and give you the chances to develop, be wary. You could find that despite having experience, you still won’t have the skills potential employers are looking for should you go to leave that job for something you’d rather be doing.
The job market is tough, especially for graduates. But sometimes it is better to trust your instincts, your own gut feeling, than follow other people’s advice.
So it’s now been 5 weeks since I started work, and it’s safe to say I’ve fallen right into the routine of it now. I can easily get up about 6am every day, to get into work by 8am. This may seem far too early for some, but fortunately I am able to start early and finish early to avoid the worst periods of traffic. I would rather do this than spend double the time in my car each day, and have less free time after work.
This is only a short update; I want to wait until I’ve been there at least 2 months before I go into detail. So far the work has focussed on lots of introductory material and training courses, some aimed more at service engineers, to help me understand the company and what they do. I’m now involved in 3 different projects, and starting to feel a bit more like I know what I’m doing. The projects are varied, from designing components using CAD, to developing a web application in PHP with MySQL and hopefully now some embedded programming in C.
It’s not all exactly what I want to be doing, but the job description was vague to begin with. I applied because of the mention of system software engineering, and there does at least to be some of that now, after 5 weeks. When it came to the web application, it was unexpected, but not bad, as no one really knew what was needed to develop or host such a service. It meant I could just download whatever I needed to do it, and not be constrained to using any particular technologies. So far it’s worked quite well, and hopefully next week we’ll by tying it in with some of the hardware and embedded programming work.
Also next week I’m apparently going out on site visits. This is something I’m less keen on. I’ve already been on two training courses away from the office, with another one-off 2 day course coming up soon. But the site visits, to where their technology is installed, could become regular. This may mean much less time in the office, or even at home, if I have to spend lots of time travelling. Hopefully it won’t come to that. I can cope working from the office knowing I’ll get time at home each evening. If travelling prevents that; I’m not so sure.
Well, it would seem that my ongoing search for employment has finally been successful! After attending only the second Graduate Assessment Centre I was invited to, I received a phone call about a week later. It began with discussing how I felt the day went, and how I had performed. As we were given a surprise technical test on the day, which I felt I did poorly on, I was naturally expecting a negative outcome. It was to my great surprise when I was offered the job. I didn’t accept on the spot, I took some time to think, and also to chase up on a few recent telephone interviews. But after much thought, weighing up the positive aspects of the job, such as the potential to work with hardware, against the lack of any other offers, I accepted the job!
That decision was indeed the beginning of the end, signalling a close to my life as a student in limbo. But at the same time as being an end, it’s also a beginning. The beginning of my career. This I have found to be a powerful statement. Being faced with entering ‘the real world’ is a big prospect. Having been a student the majority of my life, with only temporary or part time jobs to show for it, the thought of a long term, permanent, full time position is, well, muddled.
Naturally I’m nervous about things, not knowing the people I will be working with, how good I will be at the tasks I am given, or how long the daily commute will be. But I’m also excited, looking forward to applying what I have spent years learning, and having the chance to work with some exciting technology. Of course I have a lot of doubts, I have always been someone that would focus more on the negative than positive. What if another company later gets back to me with a job offer? What if I had more actively pursued further study, rather than employment? What if I had taken more time off before seeking either option? All of these questions, and many others, will occasionally pop in to my head.
But when I remember that this is not me set in stone for the rest of my life, that it is only the beginning of my career, it is easier to be more positive. I know it’s silly to already be thinking that I may not enjoy the job. I have nothing to base those thoughts on, other than my own self-doubt! I know I am likely to enjoy the job, for the most part, even if it’s not every day; I’m sure that’s how everyone feels. When it comes to thinking long term, this starting point is a 2 year Graduate Scheme. It will be a great opportunity to get experience and develop my skills.
At the end of the 2 years, anything could happen. If all goes well, the preferred outcome would be to stay with the company, working in the same field, developing my career their further. But there will always be other options, depending on how I feel at the time. Whatever happens, I’m at both the end of one era of my life, and the beginning of the next.
I leave you with this Star Trek related quote which I keep being reminded of – “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it…”