The Real World: Alain de Botton, philosopher, writer and TV presenter

'The PhD was the perfect cover - I never had to admit i was trying to be a writer'

Alain de Botton studied history at Cambridge University. He graduated in 1992 with a double-starred first

Did you have a part-time job at university?

I worked a few days a week at the university paper, Varsity, but the pay was minimal. It was done far more out of a motivation to have something impressive to put on a CV.

Did you do any work experience while at university?

One summer I worked at Time Out, helping to put together a guide on interior decoration. It was mind-numbing work but the people were great fun.

Another summer, I got a job at Grove/Atlantic, a US publishing house in New York. This was much more glamorous, giving me the chance of spending a few months in NY. Not least, it helped to dispel romantic myths about publishing. I saw it to be a business like any other and when, a few years later, I was submitting my own manuscript for publication, those few months at Grove/Atlantic held me in good stead. It's worth adding that I was a completely useless worker and was particularly bad at accurately taking down a phone message.

Did you pick your degree with a specific career in mind?

I wanted to do something that would be broadly creative and I picked history. At various points in my degree, I wanted to change to politics, history of art, architecture and English. But I always stuck with history, not least because I found it very easy to do, and thus it enabled me to pursue my other intellectual interests alongside the official degree course.

Why did you pick Cambridge?

I was attracted to the prestige of either Oxford or Cambridge and picked Cambridge because I liked the flat, rather Dutch quality of the surrounding countryside. I also hoped that I would meet beautiful and intelligent girls with whom to have long conversations about love and truth. It didn't quite turn out that way, in fact rarely have I felt more starved of female company than at Cambridge.

How soon after leaving university did you get a job?

I earned my first money about 12 months after leaving university. This wasn't in a regular job however. That was the royalty cheque for my first book, Essays in Love, which I'd been writing since graduating, while pretending to be doing a PhD at London University. The PhD provided the perfect cover for my ambitions, as it meant I never had to tell anyone that I had hatched the crazed scheme of trying to become a writer.

Do you still use skills that you picked up at university?

Doing university essays taught me the valuable skill of condensing a huge amount of material in a minimal amount of time.

Has your career progressed as you imagined it would?

I never imagined having the financial success I have had.

Are you still in touch with university friends?

I've a group of some 12 people that I still see on a fairly regular basis.

Looking back, are you glad that you went to university?

Very much so. Going to Cambridge spared me any feelings that the place was somehow glamorous or special. If I hadn't gone there, I might have had romantic fantasies about it. Now I wish I'd gone somewhere else.

Alain de Botton's latest book, 'The Architecture of Happiness' (Hamish Hamilton Limited) is out now, priced £17.99

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