5 Things They Don’t Tell You When Leaving University (That They Really Should)

[This piece originally started out as an article for another website. However upon completion, I realised that it’s far too long and on a bit of a serious subject for said site. So, a loss for that site’s content calibre and a loss for my bank balance is a gain for you, my wonderful readers. Please enjoy.]

Since you’re reading me, or continuing to read me, I’m going to assume you’re actually quite like me in a few ways. First: you’re incredibly handsome (that goes for you too, ladies; it might not be your favoured complimentary adjective, but it’s still a compliment… learn to take it with grace). Second: you’re almost certainly reading this instead of doing something you actually ought to be doing. Thirdly and finally: if you’re reading advice on the internet, life probably isn’t going quite how you expected it to.

I’m not going to say it’s not your fault at all. For all I know, you might be a lazy, rude, dunderhead with bad hygiene that no prospective employer or sexual partner would ever want anything to do with. I’m not saying you are, I’m just saying that you hypothetically could be. However, what I can say with some degree of certainty is that it’s not entirely your fault.

There have been, at several points of your life, people around you; people of standing and experience, who society says we ought to listen to and follow the advice of, who have misled you. Some of them have done this on purpose, some of them haven’t. Regardless, the result is the same: you reach the end of university and take your first big step out into the world… only to trip magnificently, fall face-first onto the pavement in front of you and break your nose. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course, but it hurts all the same.

This is a list of the truths behind the lies you’ve been told. Try not to trip up on them.

#1: University is the Absolutely Best Option for You (Except it Might Not Have Been).

Being 17 is difficult at the best of times, but when you’re being told that the decisions you’re about to make are going to affect you for the rest of your life, it can be fucking terrifying.

The main perpetrators of this lie are school teachers; the ones who, when they have you as a captive audience for 8+ hours a day, insist that this is the best option for you and stick a set of university and college applications under your nose and tell you to fill them out. The first problem with this is that when you’re at such a young age, you can’t yet differentiate between what they tell you as ‘fact’ and what they say as ‘opinion’. They’re teachers; when they say gravity causes acceleration at 9.8m/s2 or that Latin conjugates as amo, amas, amat, amamis, amatis, amant; that’s a fact. So surely when they tell you that the best option for you is to go to university and study further, that’s also fact, right?

Like hell.

This is the academic equivalent of Fox News claiming to be ‘Fair and Balanced’, while negating to mention that this only applies to its ‘news coverage’, rather than its prime-time ‘opinion’ programming. Without knowing when the different types of content are broadcast, how can you begin to discern what are hard and fast facts about the world and which are merely one person’s vitriolic idea? You can’t. In fact, until Jon Stewart called out Fox on the difference in 2009, many people didn’t even know that there was a differentiation between when Fox placed News and when it placed Opinion.

Now imagine trying to discern that, unknown of, difference for yourself, with an underdeveloped juvenile brain, while surrounded by a culture that constantly streams the message of ‘obey teacher or bad shit happens’. Then, after managing to make the distinction, going against what you have been programmed to do for the last twelve years and ignoring what you’ve been told.

So why does this happen? Well, because while you might not have realised, given the average behaviour of any schoolteacher you had, they’re human beings too, and as flawed as any of us.

Firstly: almost all of them will have been to university themselves, and it worked out ok for them. They’ve got a job, at least and it required formal training at a higher education level. It’s the width of their scope. University = employment.

If you go to med school, this will be your life. I promise.

Secondly: I want you to take five minutes away from this article and go and ask somebody for advice. It can be about anything; about where you should buy a house to what kind of yoghurt you should have for breakfast. Now pay close attention to their reply, whatever it is. Have they given you advice that’s actually best suited for you, or what they would favour themselves? Ask somebody what restaurant you should take a date to, they’ll almost certainly reply with their own favourite restaurant.

You: “Any idea where I should take Natalie Portman out on that date I have with her, which is totally a real thing and definitely going to happen?”
Scumbag Steve: “Aw, check out the Bo’Vine Steakhouse, brah! I love it there.”
You: “That’s great, but she’s vegetarian and so am I, so—“
Scumbag Steve: “No, it’s the best, you’ll love it. You should go there!”
You: “… Thanks, Steve.”

When people give you advice, by and large, they’re telling you what they would do in your situation. Which can be utterly useless, especially when you take into account the differences between a 17-year-old with their crazy hormones, massive inexperience of life and steadfast conviction that they’re always right; and a 50-year-old teacher with their regimented life, decaying body and steadfast conviction that they’re always right.

Finally: the evil side – League Tables. Parents and governments judge schools based on exam pass rates and university entrance statistics. And it’s killing good schooling. When one student getting an ‘F’ instead of a ‘B’ can drop a school between 50 and 100 places on the league table, how likely is that school going to be to let them sit any exam that they might not excel in, despite either interest or love for the subject or whether it might not carry with it some non-academic benefits, such as social interaction?

Teachers aren’t judged on what’s best for their pupils, they’re judged on those same two criteria. They push you towards exams you can pass and towards universities or colleges that will accept you because if they don’t, they get yelled at, they get any bonus rescinded, they don’t get that promotion they want and their life gets harder. What do they care about you? Either way, you’ll be long gone from their life next year, but they’ve got to keep grinding away, year after year until they’re deemed too old and decrepit to continue to teach (and, in the case of one of my old English teachers, not even then).

Face it, what would you do in their situation?

#2: Outdated Experience and Advice (That Will Actively Damage You).

“Employers don’t care what kind of degree you have. You just need to have a degree because it shows you can think.”

I lost track of how many times I was told that, growing up. It mostly came from my Dad, but plenty of others were guilty of it, as well. It was true at one point, too… in the 80s and 90s, when the economy was booming. Companies were hiring hand over fist, jobs were plenty, and the economy was expanding and expanding and expanding. Just like Jessica Simpson.
Unfortunately, this piece of advice has proven to be wrong on two fronts.

Firstly: according to published statistics in mid-2011, there were 83 graduates on average for every job advertised in the market. Some companies even recorded up to 150 applicants per vacancy. Shitsnacks.

This is literally the only version of this which doesn’t reference slash-fiction. Really.

So your degree in English Literature is apparently just as useful as Avenue Q says it is.

Secondly: no, companies do not want people who can think for themselves. In fact, they want the exact opposite. They want obedient, unthinking automatons. Until the day the corporate world can replace you with an actual robot in order to frustrate and cockblock the public at large, they expect you to act in exactly that fashion for a pittance of pay.
Companies fire who they hate, hate who they fear and fear those whom they don’t obviously have total control over. It’s why people get let go for Facebook posts or doing the right thing by customers instead of the company. They want people who think about their employer first and foremost in every situation; who get genuinely excited by the prospect of improving efficiency or performance; who seriously enjoy making the rich people who own the company even richer; who have no qualms at all about either mis-selling, fobbing off or in any other way taking advantage of the people who need the products or services that their company provides. In short, companies want to be your God. If you’re not prepared to worship them, they don’t want you at all.

#3: Companies Don’t Know That Your Extra-Curriculars Were Utter Jokes.

Think back to your university days. What’s the first thing you remember? It’s the parties, isn’t it? Half the time, thrown by some joke ‘Society’, perhaps affiliated with some department or other; the riding club (with the rich, slutty girls), the rugby club (with the rich, slutty guys), the ultimate Frisbee team (with the slutty… um, Californians maybe?) or any other social niche you care to think of.

We all know the reason we joined these clubs or went to their parties; you knew that everyone there had at least one common interest with you which bought you conversation time in order to get your target suitably liquored up so as not to completely resist you putting the moves on them. These parties are there for people to get laid as quickly and easily as possible. Period.

At these sorts of things, you usually run into one of their ‘board members’ (that is, whomever won the damn popularity contest that year), thanking you for coming. Now we all know the deal; there’s nothing quite as trivial and meaningless about being the ‘President’ of a society (I should know, I was one – threw a kick-ass toga party or two in my time). However, there seems to be one group of overly-earnest people who either didn’t get invited to these parties, or simply never came across the entire concept and somehow think that these societies were actually serious things: Your Future Employers.

One time, a while back, I was working in a big, commercial theatre; the sort of place that hosted big, touring shows and musicals, as well as ballets, operas and other sorts. One week, we had a new show arrive, produced by the National Theatre of Scotland, no less. Government funded arts are a big deal here (and pretty much the only sure-fire way to make any real money out of theatre) and it’s notoriously difficult to get either funded or employed by these groups. Part of my job, that night, was to liaise with their new marketing officer, who, upon my meeting him, I realised I knew… from a university society.

This guy had had just about the same title when I knew him previously. He had been the marketing officer for my university’s student theatre group (and if there’s one thing as trivial and undeservedly pompous as being the President of a society, it’s all student theatre that’s ever existed anywhere – again, I should know – I was involved). He had also, steadfastly, done absolutely nothing during his year’s tenure in said role. See, I had written and produced this society’s production at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival a few years earlier. If you don’t know what the Fringe is, it’s the largest theatre and performing arts festival in the world and being produced there is a fucking big deal. While doing this, I had telephoned, emailed, tweeted and Facebooked this guy more times than I could count and never heard anything back, yet here he was, having somehow conned Scotland’s government-funded national theatre into giving him a job based on his degree title and whatever bullshit he had fed them about his ‘experience’ in the role.

And here’s the thing: he could have told them anything about what he’d done in that year and there would be no way from them to check up on him about it. They don’t know what you actually did at university, only what you tell them. All you can do is try to brazenly have the balls to lie your ass off in an interview and claim to be far more impressive than you actually are.

“Of course my time as Secretary of the Astronomy Society included interning on the International Space Station!”

And here’s the thing: all those dicks you know with the jobs you want? They did exactly that!

#4: ‘Phone Interviews’ Aren’t Interviews At All.

So you’re out of uni and desperately searching for a job. You’ve realised that neither your parents nor any teachers or professors are actually in any position to give you help or beneficial knowledge, so you turn to the internet. And that advert for that job site you saw looks pretty spiffy, pseudo, hairy-chested-stripping aside, right? After all, the promise of 120,000 jobs sounds appealing. There must be one for you there, right?

Well, to begin with, despite the way the ad apparently contains the power to retrain people and given them years-worth of study, knowledge and experience through only the magic of lens flares, you’re likely unqualified for most of those jobs. So you start looking at the ones with wonderful sounding phrases such as ‘no experience necessary’, ‘training will be provided’, ‘all degree types accepted’. But be careful…

“You have to imagine me with a giant squid head on.”

You’re finding yourself in the horrific job sector that is sales. But you go for it anyway. Hard work never hurt anyone, right? Well, except for internment camp victims… which you’d actually entertain the prospect of being right now if it came with a roof over your head at night and at least one meal a day. So, buoyed on the idea of an actual job, you spend two days making your CV and covering letter as utterly amazeballs as they can be and then tentatively hit the ‘submit’ button. You know it’ll take time for them to get back to you so you head to the kitchen to make a nice, big pot of earl grey tea (you’re a Cracked reader, so you’re classy like that). Before the kettle even boils, there’s an email in your inbox telling you to arrange a time for a telephone interview!

Victory! An interview!

No. I’d bust out the grumpy cat meme here, but you get the point.

But you arrange the time for them to call and excitedly wait by the phone, having told your parents, significant other, friends and the creepy old woman who lives downstairs that you have an honest to god interview for a real job! The phone rings, you answer.

It goes well. It goes surprisingly well. It goes amazing! The interviewer, despite never having met you, can tell immediately that you’re exactly the type of hardworking, intelligent go-getter that the company needs. Damn, that must have been a good covering letter; they love you! To not hire you would be insane! There’s no way this job isn’t yours! Now they’re just going to bring you in for the face-to face group interview stage, but you both know it’s just a formality for someone of your calibre. The job’s yours.

OK, this time I’m going to.

grumpy cat no
You deserve it, you idiot.

The person you’ve just been speaking to doesn’t work for the company you think you’re applying for. They probably don’t even know what the company does or where it even is.

No, you just spoke to a recruitment consultant: somebody whose job it is to make as many people as possible turn up to interviews for companies who hire and haemorrhage more staff a year than most independent companies will ever even hire. They’re not in the business of hiring people, they’re in the business of sales, just like you were about to be. Their worth is measure only in how many gullible fools they can cajole into making the trip to some centralised hiring venue for some beige, mid-sized multinational. They make you feel good about yourself and convince you you’ve a chance at the job when in reality the company has probably already decided who they’ll hire and you’re only going in order to make up the numbers.

Speaking of…

#5: Companies Will Hire You Simply in Order to Fire You.

“All right, Ed.” I hear you say. “I can believe that people have given me bad advice, whether meaning to or not. I can even believe that some people, struggling for their own job will try to use me as interview-fodder. But no-one… SURELY no-one is stupid enough to hire me with the sole intent of firing me?”

You’re right. Nobody’s that stupid. Unfortunately for you, there are many people who are just that smart to do it!
See, this is actually a behavioural by-product of something you’ve come across before in both school and university, except until now, you’ve usually benefitted by it. Just like university is split into different faculties and departments, every company you’ll ever work for is divided up in the same fashion: Admin, Sales, Marketing, R and D, etc. and so forth. Now instead of working together for the good of the company as a whole, like the noble Army Ant, these departments are all in deadly competition with each other over funding.

Money. The thing we can’t live without but yet seems to do nothing except make us miserable. That’s why it happens.

Add a line of cocaine and it’s like the 80s never ended.

Each year, every department has to submit its accounts and show its funding requirement for the next year. If they don’t use the money this year, they don’t get it next year when they may need it. Think about it, every summer, your university gym will have replaced 90% of its equipment and given the place a new coat of paint. It doesn’t matter if the previous stuff needed replacing, it was thrown out anyway. Because they had a budget for it, and they wanted to keep that budget, they wasted money on things they didn’t actually need.

Think about school; and the number of times that right at the end of the year you’d be all taken on a field day out to some completely irrelevant historical site or cultural function. Your English Lit class got taken to the theatre, why? Do you think your teacher really wanted to spend more time with you? No, it’s because tickets are £20 a pop and the department couldn’t bring itself to just physically set fire to the cash.

Personally, the greatest benefit I ever had of this was that my Honours Classics class was half the size of the previous years and every year, the department funded each student to go on a research trip to the Mediterranean. Half the people = twice the funding. So for three weeks in the summer of 2007 I sat in a streetside café in Athens, watching half of Greece burn to the ground, getting drunk on tax-payer dime, which, let me tell you, was even cooler than it sounds.
Unfortunately, once you’re attempting to enter the job market, this method of funding departments totally works against you. Whatever department of whatever company you apply for a job with; it has a training budget. Whomever runs it doesn’t want to lose that next year, either because they genuinely believe they’ll need it or (more likely) they don’t want to lose face in front of their own management-level peers. Because of this, they hire people and they train people, even when there are no jobs to go around.

Once upon a time, I was hired by a high-street bank. I was ‘trained’ for the role (this essentially involved a week of sitting around, brainstorming our way to the idea that more money = good, less money = bad) and assigned to a branch… where there were already three other people doing exactly the same job I was meant to be doing. This branch didn’t need a fourth person in the role; it simply didn’t have the customer base to support it. I was sent there simply to fill the role for my initial contract, use up some budget surplus, then be let go.

Why? Look at the headlines lately; “RBS to cut 618 jobs”, “…to cut further 300 jobs at investment bank”, “More than 300 agency staff at Honda will not have their contracts renewed on top of 800 staff losses”, “Blockbuster to axe 760 jobs”. Everywhere you look, staff are being laid off. Now look at it from the company’s point of view. Who do you fire; the guy who’s worked there for 20 years and you need to pay a huge redundancy package to, or the guy (that’s you) still on his very first contract which is worded is such a weasely way that they can fire you at a moment’s notice and not pay you a penny in compensation?

Yeah, you’re gonna get screwed with your pants on. Time to start this job-hunting fiasco all over again!

“Oh, what’s the point? I’ll just be a writer, instead.”


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s