When I finished my stay at Imperial College London there wasn’t much on my mind except (a) waiting to hear back from the PhD programs I’d applied to (b) going back to Scotland and sorting out a job from there. Given the full-time research I’d been carrying out and the emotionally-draining nature of applying to grad school for a second time, I thought it would be best to relax the forward planning and let events take their course.
Until I got back to Fife and was asked rather pointedly: “Are in you intending to sign on?” My parents were willing to house me and provide financial support for a couple of months…but they made it quite clear that their monetary support was finite.
I don’t need to tell my British & American readers that the portrayal of unemployed people in the media & popular culture is less than favourable. “Fury at job seekers ‘too good to stack shelves‘” was one of the first news article I found in a Google Search of ‘Jobseekers’. In the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s October 2012 speech he referred to the unemployed as “Sleeping off a life of benefits” – playing to the common British resentment of “benefits cheats” and “welfare scroungers”.
Well, my becoming one of those leechers off the state had to happen. Since I’d come back from Switzerland I’d been eating in to my savings to stay afloat in London. I could continue withdrawing money from my ISAs, but I didn’t want to start grad school or graduate 5 years down with no back-up cash. I wanted a job and the financial independence it would grant me. I understood that getting a job would take me at least a month (even if I got lucky most there is still the time gap between Application Deadline, Interview, Offer & Job Start Date), probably longer. The decision was made to start on the Jobseekers Allowance (JSA) sooner rather than later.
My God, the whole process is depressing. Middle class individuals and young professionals usually have savings in place to withstand short bursts of unemployment. They rarely need to head down to the local Jobcentre Plus in search of assistance. Instead the people you find in there are those born into more working-class backgrounds: the ones who left school at 16, whose families can’t afford to bail them out, who work in low-skilled professions where degrees aren’t required. People for whom unemployment is more than a temporary inconvenience: for whom long-term unemployment runs in the family. They invariably come in to the Jobcentre looking haggard, hunched and beaten down by the system.
My greatest fear is that I will one day turn into those people. Beaten down by the system.
I couldn’t affect any sort of moral high ground over my fellow Jobseekers, because as soon as I set about drafting a suitable CV I realised I was in for an uphill struggle. The CV created to find PhD positions demonstrated my stellar credentials as a research scientist – the international pharmaceutical experience, the educational background, the technical skillset – but such credentials were completely irrelevant to any “casual work” I might choose to apply for. Of course I did have a quantity of suitable work experience…but my last relevant job was in the summer of 2009 before I flew over to the USA. This made my experience horribly outdated: I wouldn’t stand a chance against applicants with recent experience, many of whom would have put in more than just a few summer’s-worth of employment.
Still, the only way was forward. I re-started my charity shop volunteering – it could go on my CV in the category of ”retail/customer service”. As part of my Jobseeker’s Agreement (signed before the first instalment of JSA could come in) I had to do 13 things per week that counted as ‘Looking for Work’. Most of that was looking online and applying to what I found. The 13 Things sounds arbitrary, but was based upon the preceding conversation where I explained what approaches I would take to finding work: if you say you typically check a job website 3-5 times per week, look in multiple newspapers and hand in CVs to shops in town then it does quickly add up and before you know it you’re obliged to do every single one of those them.
It took a little over a month to get an offer. I maximised my slim chances – applying to a range of jobs in St Andrews, Edinburgh & Dundee (because how many jobs are there in Fife, realistically?) and trying to apply to the jobs I thought I was qualified for as well as the jobs I’d like to do (there *is* a gap between the two). I got invitations for interviews. I attended them even when I felt lukewarm about the advertised position – any opportunity to practice answering those insidious HR-type questions was a gift. “What is my greatest weakness? Why, I am so glad you asked me that…”
Most places don’t email back to let you know that your interview was unsuccessful. Even if they promise you that they will.
When you see an email from a company that has interviewed you, it’s almost always a good sign. As it was in my case.
Things suddenly moved fast. The offer came out of the blue: I didn’t think the interview had gone especially well, and I wasn’t anticipating any reply for another week. The job I’d been offered was based in Edinburgh, and they wanted me to start before the end of the week. The start time was an early one – it wouldn’t be possible to get a train to work from Fife each day. If I agreed to take this job I would have to move to Edinburgh…and I would have to make the decision within 24 hours.
Finally, an easy choice for me to make.