The employment lottery: two recent Cambridge grads' two very different experiences

Contrary to popular belief, a degree from a top university doesn’t guarantee a job after university. Many graduates struggle for months to find gainful employment, filling out endless applications to no avail, with the spectre of their student loan hanging over them.

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The Independent Online

In the third and final article about life after university, we trace the divergent paths of two recent Cambridge graduates: one is flourishing in her position at a world-renowned charity, while the other has moved back home and, after a futile job search, is now working as a coffee shop barista.

Heidi Aho, Charity Worker

Heidi Aho, 21, was born in Finland. Her father is a lawyer and her mother does volunteer work. Last summer, she graduated with a first in theology and religious studies from Cambridge University. She has since embarked on the graduate scheme for a leading UK children’s charity, and hasn’t looked back.

A passion for helping people made charity work a logical step for Heidi. Her work experience reflects her caring nature: in 2009, she spent three months working at a pre-primary school in Durban, South Africa. She later interned at a Finnish charity, providing support for truck drivers, sailors and other travellers. During university, she took part in a scheme to support schoolchildren who were victims of bullying.

Heidi was confident that she could land a job after university, but took nothing for granted. She said: “I was optimistic, but a degree is a piece of paper. A career is made from being successful and making connections wherever you are, and luck plays a big part. You need to think about how to influence your career path, you can’t just sit back.”

During her third year, Heidi applied for graduate positions at several UK charities. Her hope was to work for an organisation that had a positive impact on society. She was accepted on to a year-long third sector graduate scheme, and assigned to the media and campaigns division of a leading children’s charity in London.

Her work for the media team involves attracting publicity for the charity, while her campaigns team produces marketing materials and lobbies the government to make policy changes. Heidi is enthusiastic about her work, and highlights the networking opportunities as one of the strengths of her current position. She said: “The scheme and the charity fit well with my ideals, and I’m meeting lots of people from different departments and charities. I’m not only doing something fulfilling, I’m finding out about my options for the future.”

Participants of the graduate scheme also attend training sessions on management in the charity sector. Heidi points to the other graduates as a source of inspiration. She said: “They’re really great individuals, it’s such a source of energy being with them. I also get a perspective on their jobs in different charities, and how that relates to my work.”

Heidi’s toughest challenge has been adjusting to the rhythms of the workplace. “Having a job and training - it’s been full on,” she said. “You don’t realise how different working is from studying: I have a range of projects instead of just one, and my work is dependent on other people. It’s been a steep learning curve.”

The importance of her work makes her very self-critical.  She said: “If something isn’t going well, it can really get under my skin. I get frustrated with myself if I’m not performing to an optimum, because I want to make an impact.”

Heidi’s most memorable experience on the scheme occurred in September, when she met a group of 15 young runaways. “It was really exciting being able to speak to them,” she said. “Their energy was amazing, they’re survivors. Any opportunity to meet the people you’re working with is really rewarding.”

She acknowledges that recent graduates face a difficult job market, but believes that they can find employment if they’re willing to compromise. She said: “You need to be prepared to look at all the jobs out there. At university I was willing to try different things; I was really open to seeing what life would throw at me. If you’re willing to be flexible, then there are lots of opportunities.”

Heidi feels that she’s well poised to have a fulfilling career in the third sector. She said: “I’m so incredibly lucky, I’m in a really strong position. The work I’m doing has an impact on so many people. The articles that we publish, the campaigns materials that we produce, they all inform people about our cause. It’s really rewarding for me to be part of it.”

William Yang, coffee shop barista

22-year-old William Yang grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His parents are both academics. He graduated from Cambridge with a 2:2 in preclinical veterinary medicine last year. Unable to find a job because of his unfortunate result and lack of work experience, he has moved back in with his parents, and is now working as a barista at his local coffee shop.

Halfway through his six-year course, William opted to take his bachelor’s degree and not continue on to receive his professional veterinary qualification. He decided against becoming a vet because of the difficult lifestyle it entailed. He said: “I thought it was a glamorous role where you get paid a lot of money for not a lot of work. In reality it’s very tough, the hours are long and you pretty much have no social life. You need to be 100 per cent devoted, and I wasn’t.”

During his final exams, William accidentally missed out a question worth almost a tenth of his grade, and was awarded a 2:2. He points to this mistake as the main reason for his job market struggle. His troubles have been compounded by a lack of relevant work experience: as he expected to work as a vet after university, he spent his summers on farms rather than in an office.

Following graduation, William moved back to his parents’ home in Cardiff. He worked for two months in a university cancer research lab, then in September he signed up for Job Seekers’ Allowance and began searching for work full-time. 

Like many graduates, William was barred from applying for the large number of jobs which require a 2:1. He still applied for more than 40 jobs in the healthcare, banking, sales and retail sectors, but didn’t receive an offer. “My mediocre degree definitely set me back,” he said. “Companies don’t have the resources to filter through all the people applying, so they don’t consider anyone below the 2:1 threshold. Training interns is an investment, and they want to pick the best. So if you’re not the best, tough luck.”

William found it difficult to remain motivated during his repetitive job search. He said: “I made five or six applications a week, put a lot effort in to each one, and often I didn’t hear back. All the jobs began to blend into one, and I found that I was spending less and less time on each application. It was a downward spiral.”

Tired of a tedious and unproductive job search, and feeling pressured to pay his overdraft and save for next year, William took a minimum wage job at his local coffee shop. “I don’t want to be trapped at home by myself doing nothing,” he said. “I want to be busy during the day, interacting with people, even if it’s working as a barista. It just keeps me sane.”

However, he’s a bit out of place at his new job. He said: “I feel slightly overqualified for the position. I’m working with 17- and 18-year-olds who are still at school doing their A-Levels. I tell people my story and they ask: ‘so when are you leaving?’”

William highlights uncertainty and isolation as the worst aspects of his situation. “I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “Will I receive a job offer today or in two weeks’ time, who knows? Also, most of my friends are at university studying, so my social life has gone down the drain.”

His advice to other graduates is to take a proactive approach and not be too picky. He said: “You’ve got to keep trying.  There aren’t as many jobs as you think, so you can’t limit your options, especially as a new graduate with minimal experience. If something comes along that pays, you can climb up from there.”

Despite his frustration, William remains optimistic. “A momentary blunder landed me in this position,” he said. “I accept that it’s my fault, and I’m trying to make the best of it. I know for a fact that I’m not going to be stuck making coffee for the rest of my life - it’s not what I want to do, it’s not what I’m capable of.”

William is now applying for master’s courses in the bioscience field, hoping to overwrite his university results and improve his job prospects. Afterwards, he may follow his parents’ example and pursue a career in academia.


The three articles in this series illustrate how even top university graduates face a truly uncertain job market, where it’s possible to flourish or flounder. They show that luck, contacts and a good degree matter, but also demonstrate how graduates can tilt the odds in their favour: having a well thought-out career plan, looking for a job in a field related to your degree, and taking part in relevant work experience and internships will all boost their chances of finding employment.