Fast Track: Your first job is to be happy

Life's too short to do something for a living that doesn't suit you, and it's rarely too late to change, says Helena Pozniak
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The Independent Culture
THE CAREER adviser's relief is palpable. At last, someone wants to hear about the scores of graduates who have ignored her counsel and have opted for safety over risk. Choose your job in haste and repent at leisure, she warns. You'll be chained to a tedious routine day after day.

"We advise them, but we can't say outright: `Don't become an accountant,' or, `You can't take the pressure of banking.' Most people of 21 can't think beyond a year. We spend our lives saying what these jobs are really like, but they're still astonished by the sheer repetitive nature of the work."

If Anne Marie Martin, of London University Careers Service, sounds harsh, it's because she's watched graduates blunder into the same trap again and again. After the recruitment frenzy, she has watched all too often the bump as they fall to earth - jaundiced, disillusioned, and downright bored. And then the same formerly bright-eyed graduates end up back in her office, back-pedalling frantically after several years taking the wrong career track.

"Most people have a crisis around 30; they're suddenly confronted with the prospect of another 30 years of this," she notes. Priests, nurses, bankers and journalists have passed through her office in search of guidance. Fortunately, she says, it's rarely too late to alter the course of a professional life.

Sometimes a gentle tweak of a current job is better than a high-drama down-shift into - say - pottery or market gardening. "A lot of people perceive that they are stuck for life. Very few jobs are impossible to change, even quite dramatically if you really want to," she says.

Needless to say, a pronounced change of tack takes guts, money, time and a considerable leap of faith. But Anne Marie goes out of her way to encourage clients to be wildly unrealistic and to imagine their ultimate fantasy job. At the very least, this widens their horizons, although often the prospect of a plummeting salary is enough to nip aspirations in the bud.

However, this didn't deter Julie Wood. Initially the highest-paid graduate from her Cambridge college, she joined Citibank's trainee scheme in 1989 amid a scramble for the over-size salaries promised by the financial boom of the late Eighties. Five years into her second job - as a Hampshire schoolteacher - she's only just begun to earn the same amount as she was earning previously.

"Citibank was my first job offer to come through; nothing more discerning than that," she says. Her honeymoon period was short-lived - a brief but inspiring training course followed by months of tedium. She had grown disenchanted after three months, but stuck it for two years. With no natural feel for the work, her self-esteem sank and she felt unable to drive her career forward. It took a long holiday to force her to confront the problem.

"I didn't want to go back to work. I hid under the pillow. I just felt frustrated and unhappy, and it was quite obvious that I had to leave." Without qualms, she resigned from Citibank and spent a few months travelling. In the back of her mind, a teaching career had always beckoned. For three years, she taught on and off at London prep schools, on a starting salary of pounds 12,500. As she puts it, her lifestyle was "cut in half".

"At Citibank, I'd go to Paris for the weekend, or hit the alcohol - champagne, of course - then do it all again the next day. Suddenly I had to drop old work friends. I couldn't afford them." Surprisingly, she claims to have no regrets, either about dabbling in the world of the well-paid executive, or about having turned her back on it. "I'd always envied [people for] fast cars, champagne, London dinners, high heels and suits. Now I've lived it, and it's very sterile."

It's rare to discover such a strong sense of vocation. Few can claim - as Julie does - to leap out of bed in the morning in anticipation of the working day. It's rarer still to make a job-switch so smoothly, after minimum consultation. Colleagues in the small Hampshire school are unaware of her lack of formal training or professional background. "Now, I'm just plain Mrs Wood who teaches maths."

Julie stumbled into her first career, but Kalantha Brewis fought her way in despite all-round disapproval. Disbelief from friends and family greeted her determination in 1989 to go into nursing, having achieved a first-class degree in history. Personal reasons had pushed her there: a mother who died of cancer, and her perceived need to pay a debt for a privileged upbringing.

"Even other nurses said: `What a complete waste'. Most people thought I was mad. Doctors would patronise me, and say that I wouldn't be able to cope."

But, as Kalantha discovered, wanting to be good at something wasn't automatically enough. She admits: "I didn't have the emotional resources for nursing; I was still in the early stages of bereavement. I just couldn't cope with it - patients dying, suicides, strikes." After one year, eager to leave but unsure where to turn, she visited a recruitment consultant. He warned she might be looked upon by prospective employers as a "butterfly brain", lacking staying-power. But she has never encountered this: "If you have a good reason for leaving, people respect that."

Friends and family heaved a collective sigh of relief. "People said: `Oh you'll be much happier now,'" Kalantha remembers. Her search for a new job led her to consider for the first time the possibilities of a career in insurance, accountancy or the Civil Service. "I was manifestly unsuitable for them all. The trouble was that I'd always wanted to be a nurse."

Kalantha's degree and background won her a place at law school - "the first post I was offered and felt comfortable with" - and she now works for a firm of solicitors in Worcestershire. Although money did not play a role in either of her career moves, she notes wryly that it would have taken her 12 years in nursing before she could equal her starting salary as an articled clerk.

She is critical of the recruitment "milk round" and the financial sweeteners that large corporations use to entice graduates. Many of her peers stuck their high-flying new jobs for a few years, then quit. "We were all desperate to go straight to work. Most of us ended up hating it."

She advises recent graduates to look before they leap, taking at least a year to discern the way ahead if unsure, and avoiding financial commitment. Making money by temping is better than launching into a five-year career plan that leaves you cold.

"Cut your losses if you are unhappy; life's too short. Nothing is as irrevocable as it seems," she concludes.