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A Durham Graduate: Six Months On

Posted on 2nd December 2009. 12 Comments

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Michael Ashby left Durham six months ago with a First Class Honours and imparts some knowledge to this years finalists…

“All that I needed to worry about was that golden first. I’ll worry about what next later. Sorted.”

beard_travel_wideweb__430x397“After years of expensive education, a car full of books and anticipation, I’m an expert on Shakespeare and that’s a hell of a lot, but the world don’t need scholars as much as I thought”. Jamie Cullum.

He may not be the world’s greatest singer but he does make a good point. Jamie Cullum released his Twentysomething in October 2003. Three years later in 2006, with the last few A-Level Hamlet quotations slipping from my mind, I made the terrifying, exciting journey to University. Even then Cullum’s lyrics rang true, so much so that they even made it on to your writer’s Facebook page. At best, I thought, the arts provide ’soft skills’, giving their students the ability to do things like read and, if they’re really good, write. At worst, they leave their students unqualified for anything practical, condemning them to a lifetime of interesting, yet ultimately penniless, academia. But at the time, did it really matter? Of course not! All that I needed to worry about was that golden first. I’ll worry about what next later. Sorted.

Fast forward three years. As it turns out, I’m not an expert on Shakespeare – ask me anything about eighteenth-century medical history though and I reckon I could give you a decent answer. More importantly, however, I’ve shaken Bill Bryson’s welcoming hand, graduated and crucially got that golden first!

But here’s the rub.

That first, that oh so crucial first, that first which dominated three years of my life, well, it doesn’t really, actually, seem to matter that much. While it does provide a proud talking point, for some odd reason, I don’t know why, that first doesn’t provide an automatic ticket into a job.

All I say is think about ‘what next’ now, before you graduate.

With exactly (probably) 99% of graduates out of work due to the credit crunch, and with the numbers of graduates risingbeard_travel_wideweb__430x397 every year, a first class arts degree does of course help in the elusive quest for a job, but by no means guarantees it. Rather, graduates of the arts are in the somewhat awkward position of being over-qualified for half the jobs out there, but devastatingly under-qualified for the other half. For every job in publishing, for example, there’s a publishing master’s, in journalism – a journalism masters, in library work – a library masters, etc. For everything else, there’s contacts (which, sadly, I don’t have).

A sound career choice, I’m repeatedly told, is Law. Law, like medicine, is a solid ‘profession’, the source of respect in the community and, of course, a healthy, very healthy in fact, bank balance. It is, of course, a wise choice, a dependable choice. However, with a one year conversion course costing c.£9000, followed by a second year legal practice course at the same price, it is a costly option, adding thousands of pounds of debt onto an already hefty graduate loan.

Where, then, does this leave the arts graduate? There are options. Further study is the obvious choice. If you love the subject and are good enough, a masters in your original subject is the first step to a long and satisfying life in academia. The other option? Further study. Convert to something practical. Whether that be that law, journalism, publishing, teaching or anything else that takes your fancy, your original degree alone will, most likely, not result in the job of your dreams.

This is not to say that I regret studying History. How else could I have learnt the intricacies of late-medieval German Humanism, or early-modern medical quackery? During my three years of study, I matured, gaining a greater understanding of society and why things are as they are: by no means, was it a waste of time. All I say is think about ‘what next’ now, before you graduate.

Why, then, do I write this embittered article? In my world of self-delusion, it’s a piece of altruism, lending my experience to generations of future students.  In reality, it’s for my benefit – a CV builder. That’s all. Another notch on the bedpost.

 Michael Ashby


  • Anonymous said:

    This is a very well written article. I think Michael picks up on a relevant point, what are graduates supposed to do when they are faced with the dilemma that employers require experience yet to gain experience you need to get employed?

  • Dan said:

    Good article, very entertaining and very accurate! I’m in exactly the same position as you Michael except I’m also in that journalism masters you’re going on about. But it goes further – when I finish, I’ll *still* be a trainee for 2 years after getting a job (if I get one) and with a salary, oh, just under double what the course cost? Living the dream eh!

  • Mike (author) said:

    Thanks for the feedback! Dan – what journalism course are you doing – would you reccomend?

  • Mike (author) said:

    (forgive my spelling!)

  • Dan said:

    Hey Michael, I’m on the one at Cardiff Uni. It’s great, needless to say! There tend to be 2 main roads you can go down for training (in order of cost). People have totally different opinions on what’s good/necessary.

    - Fast track courses at dedicated centres / colleges (eg Lambeth College in London), or the (much more expensive, £5k, but v highly acclaimed) Press Association Training course just over in Newcastle – it’s one floor below the paper there so you get a very vocational focus. To work as a (local, print) journalist you need the NCTJ foundation qualification, covering media law, shorthand, public administration, newswriting, court reporting, etc. Short courses are about 17-18 weeks and run twice a year, though with some you can do distance learning. So these courses aim to give you that.

    - Diploma-level courses at unis. The big-time ones include Cardiff Uni, City University in London (these 2 are generally regarded as the top ones), Sheffield, UCLAN, Bournemouth (maybe??) and a few others. Apart from City, which has opted out of the NCTJ and just gives you an MA (it claims you don’t need it, and City historically gets people straight onto nationals, where you don’t), these will give you a diploma or MA qualification and an industry qualification. That means twice as many exams, but you also get the benefit of a wider context and a longer course of 9 months. The huge costs, far as I know, range from around £4500 (Sheffield) to £8500 (City).

    Sorry to bore everyone else! If you need more info, give me an email or something.

  • zaki said:

    I wouldn’t worry about it. It takes at least a couple of years for things to settle down after university. Go with the flow and see where it takes you. I’ve come to the conclusion that we go to university and graduate too young, expecting to enter a career at 21 or 22. I did plenty of theatre and journalism at Durham and thought I might go into one of these areas, which doesn’t explain how I ended up on the NHS grad scheme. Mental health is full of people who did arts degrees and then went into nursing much later, and I bet the same is true of quite a few professions (teaching?). Even medicine loses its mystique when world-expert consultants tell you your late-20s is by no means too late to start training as a pathologist…none of this would’ve been obvious during the final year madness of applying for graduate schemes and PANICKING!!!! about what to do next. The real world changes your priorities from what seems important in the Durham bubble.

  • Tom said:

    Excellent article. Very well written, entertaining and a refreshing side from the common consensus I come across. I’m a particular fan of the very last paragraph of the article

  • Jack said:

    Law can be the best option if you can get a firm to pay for both your conversion (GDL) and LPC. The majority of large national and international firms will do this. Of course competition is high and they may be taking fewer grads at the moment, but if you can get a training contract, they pay your fees and often also give you a grant on top of that. After the LPC you then go into a 2-year training contract and start on one of the best graduate salaries around, which increases hugely on qualification.

  • Mei said:

    Very nice final paragraph. :)

  • Mike (author) said:

    Hi all – thanks for your feedback. I have to admit, I did enjoy the last paragraph… its sad, but true. And to anyone else reading, zaki’s absolutely right – priorities do shift after durham and you start to realise that the world is a lot larger than the bubble. It’s important not to be swayed by what you feel you ‘should’ be doing and start to think what you ‘want’ to do!

    Also Dan, cheers for the journalism knowledge – I’m looking into it!

  • Maxine said:

    I’m late in on this but I thought I’d join Dan in imparting some journalism knowledge, assuming there a lot of aspiring ones reading this. I graduated from Durham in 2006 and from Cardiff’s postgraduate diploma in journalism (the magazine pathway) the following year.

    If you like the sound of journalism then by all means, go for it and do a postgraduate journalism course. It gives you contacts, makes you eligable for a heap of graduate schemes and internships with big guys (Guardian, Telegraph, BBC Magazines, CMPI, Bloomberg), and also includes a work placement period which will add well to the work experience you’ve already got. But for the love of God, get experience outside of media as well. If, like me, you narrowly miss out on a prestigious graduate scheme with BBC Magazines, don’t do what I did and spend two years working 12-hour days in a subbing/glorified admin job for a media company while looking for staff writing jobs that are not there, or hoping the job will somehow give you a break into writing. It won’t.

    To put it more bluntly, there are basically two ways into being a print journalist. One: a graduate scheme or internship. Very competitive but if you get it, you’re made (two of my year got these and are now staff writers on national papers). Two: Freelancing, which means getting a part-time job in another sector flexible enough to fit around your writing (that’s where – “get other experience outside media as well” comes in). Having freelanced in dribs and drabs I’m about to start doing it seriously, while working part-time as a Learning Support Assistant to a child with Special Educational Needs. The pay is hideous but once I formally qualify I’ll earn more and it’s a heck of a lot more rewarding than writing synopses for cartoons on cable TV. I am dyspraxic which affects the type of work I can do in general, but that’s a whole other story…

    Hope this helps.

  • Maxine said:

    To add to above: When I say there are *no* staff jobs that’s not entirely true…there are some, mainly in the specialist trade press, which is great if you are of a scientific/technical/financial bent, not so great otherwise.