On Graduating into a Recession

As an undergrad, I remember being incredibly excited to graduate. I couldn’t wait to leave school, move on with my life, start my career, and finally be financially independent. I was all set, I’d thought. Then I actually graduated — right into the height of the COVID pandemic — and reality quickly set in, vastly different from what I’d imagined. Instead of signing up for a gym membership in the CBD for pre-work workouts with my new disposable income (laughable in hindsight), I had to stay home, alternating between binge-watching Netflix and sending out increasingly desperate job applications that went largely ignored.

Graduating in the class of 2020 was undoubtedly difficult, but even in the best of times, I’d imagine that graduating from university can be difficult. It can be scary to leave the cosy, simple ecosystem of school life to join the workforce, where there are no more straightforward answers, just a lifetime of juggling competing priorities and desires to find the best compromises.

Some people are fortunate, having secured jobs before graduation, or at least knowing the direction they want to go in, but that wasn’t my experience, and as I sent out job applications for roles ranging from journalist to executive assistant, there was hardly any time to think about what I wanted. Looking back, I’m not sure why I felt so much urgency to find a job. The situation is different for everyone, of course — there are those who need to find a job ASAP to stay in the country, or who have student loans or other financial obligations to meet.

However, if the only thing spurring you to find a job quickly, even in difficult economic times, is pride or (wrongfully) basing your self-worth on walking the conventional path to success like it was for me, I urge you to reconsider. While some compromises might be necessary, don’t waste time applying for jobs completely different from what you’d want. I remember doing two online interviews for an Executive Assistant position for a large company before being ghosted, even though I had little to no interest in the function, the company, or the industry. I can’t even remember what the company does anymore.

Instead, look into other opportunities to gain experience in things you’re interested in, such as internships, traineeships, or even volunteering. While it may be discouraging to take on those roles instead of getting a full-time job, these could be a good way to pad your CV and gain more experience and networks, while simultaneously continuing the job search. I sometimes wonder how things would have been if I had kept my cool back then, and continued searching for the right opportunities…

Things didn’t end badly for me — I secured a job offer in the civil service, which was pretty much the only place that was hiring at the time. My educational background in politics and public policy made it a good match, and I’m still in service now.

Still, I cringe recalling about how eager and enthusiastic I was to accept the job offer. I try not to be too hard on myself about it, because the months of the uncertainty of my future, of sending out applications and being ghosted, and of preparing for interviews for roles that I knew I wasn’t interested in, and was likely not going to be offered, took an enormous toll on my mental health. By the time the first offer came, it felt like a lifebuoy, arriving just in time to keep me from drowning.

I accepted the job immediately, on the phone call, and then cancelled the interview I had lined up the following day. In hindsight, I should have played it cool with the initial offer, and then quickly compared the roles in terms of average compensation, job environment, long-term career prospects, and so on. The other interview I had lined up then was for a stat board, which I found out only later would have offered a higher starting salary than the job that I accepted.

Depending on the offer, you may also be able to negotiate for a better compensation package. This isn’t really possible in the public service, which has very rigid rules about compensation, but is fair game in the private sector.

Though it’s been about three years since I graduated, I still feel the impact of graduating into COVID. The experience fed into my existing fear of taking risks, something I’m still struggling with in my career. I’ve turned down offers since, because they represented a risk, a deviation from the straight and narrow path, and because everyone was telling me that they weren’t good enough, only to regret it after.

I don’t have any advice on overcoming this, since it’s an issue I’m still actively working to overcome. If my experience has taught me anything, however, it’s that there are no objectively right or wrong choices in your career. Each choice to leave or stay will bring with it benefits and drawbacks; either way, you’ll learn something new about yourself.

Eventually, all of these experiences will become useful — just have faith, and hang in there. As intimidating as adulting may seem (and honestly, I still feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants most days), having so many new options in both work and personal life can be exhilarating, and there will always be something new and exciting around the corner for you.

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