Why your entry-level job feels like a glitch in the matrix
By Summer Taylor
If it was so competitive to land, why do we feel so unfulfilled? Summer unpacks a few of the myths about entry-level jobs.
If you’re reading this, it’s probably because you’ve found yourself in a similar position to the one I found myself in shortly after starting work. It’s an utterly dizzying experience, transitioning from the intellectual pomp and ceremony of the university bubble into the “real” world of an adult office job. And a consequence of this disorientation is that it’s hard to put your finger on what exactly isn’t right. But somewhere, for certain, there’s a glitch in the matrix.
All you know is that, whatever you thought your adult job would be like, yours isn’t quite that. You feel bad for thinking this, because your grad job was tremendously competitive. Hundreds of other hungry young graduates would have killed for it. You’re one of the “chosen ones”, or at least that’s what everyone keeps telling you. But you can’t quite escape the feeling that you’ve been a little cheated.
If you do feel this way, rest assured you’re not alone.
We’ve forgotten what ‘entry-level’ means
I think this happens because we’ve all (I certainly include myself in this), forgotten what an entry level job entails.
Historically, these jobs have been the “so I made the best damned cup of tea I could” stories of our parents’ generation. Somewhere along the way, we got ahead of ourselves and lost the expectation that we’d be the ones putting the kettle on.
An entry-level job should be what it says on the tin; your debut into a particular career. A foot in the door. The thing is, these tins have been polished and polished, until they’ve become unrecognisable veneers of the jobs they’re supposed to be.
On a day-to-day basis, the work we do isn’t remotely like the job description on the company website, nor what the shiny alumnus at the equally shiny stall proffered during the careers fair, and nor does it bear any resemblance to the work we had to do to get the job in the first place.
Our expectations are so unrealistically high for two reasons.
Firstly, increased competition for graduate jobs has led us to expect that doing these jobs will be immediately worth the arduous task of landing them. Worth filling out those 50,000 applications when we should have been focusing on our finals. Worth the onslaught of interview preparations. Worth the crushing defeat of rejection after rejection.
As with most, my first job involved an exhausting application process; first a written round, then two sets of interviews, and finally a 12-hour assessment day with individual presentations, one-minute speed-date-style interviews, and group pitches to the company’s most senior members of staff. It was so intense it felt more like they were hunting for their next CEO, not their next graduate who could brew a nice cuppa.
And from what I’ve heard from my friends, I got off relatively lightly.
Because of these ludicrously challenging recruitment processes, we’ve come to expect that we’ll be calling the shots in the office from week one. Is it really any wonder that two in three British, French and German students feel overqualified for their entry level jobs?
The second reason why our expectations are so out of whack with reality is that we’ve been led to believe hundreds of jobs exist, all just waiting for us, which are possibly better options than our current ones. There’s a school of thought that says we find looking for romantic partners way harder now than we did 50 years ago. And the reason for this is simple. Our expectations are higher. We don’t just want someone who looked cute in our Year 14 French class. Thanks to countless unrealistic rom-com plots and the apparently endless potential matches offered by online dating apps, we want someone who’s our soulmate, and we think there are enough fish in the sea that we should hold out for perfection. Back in the 1950s, you were far more likely to marry someone in the same square mile. Nowadays, this simplicity has been exploded.
Similarly, LinkedIn has transformed the job marketplace. Everyday I’m bombarded not only with jobs I’d be a ‘top applicant’ for (based on nothing but the skills I’ve dubiously hash-tagged at the bottom of my profile), but I also see what my friends, friends-of-friends, people-I-met-in-a-club-one-time, and people-I-have-honestly-never-met-before-but-their-LinkedIn-tells-me-we-went-to-the-same-uni are doing. I’m not even a particularly competitive person, but I often feel the need to reassess my own self-worth against the standards of these swathes of people I barely know.
Doubting you’re qualified to actually do your job is natural
There was no way I needed a depressingly expensive History degree (including a notoriously pretentious module in post-structuralist theory thankyouverymuch) to do my job. In fact, I was sure there were people far more organised than me who perhaps hadn’t gone to university, who could do a much better job than I could. It appeared that a flawless knowledge of the body politic under Elizabeth I hadn’t prepared me for life’s more practical concerns.
As far as I was concerned my "transferable skills" from my degree seemed to have become quite lost in the expansive woods that were my new job. I’d spent all my days at university reading about time in the past, not making budget forecasts and timing plans for the future. I was utterly out of my depth. I was also sad because I wasn’t doing things I’d (naively) considered to be clever, like grappling with hard-to-pronounce theories or writing prose full of words like "eschew", "obfuscate" and "dystopian".
In a nutshell I found myself in the bizarre position of experiencing a simultaneous superiority and inferiority complex. I felt I was too smart for my job (and yes, I loathe myself for saying that), but I was also under no illusions that I was particularly good at it.
Intellectual challenge continues after academia (it just looks a bit different)
It turns out life is really just one great big symphony of logistical considerations. Work seems to be educating me in these matters in ways I hadn’t expected, showing me there’s more to mental stimulation than academia alone. You will continue to learn and grow through the relationships you forge and the tricky situations you negotiate. Ultimately, you have agency over how much interest you derive from your job, as long you’re willing to learn.
So what I say to you upon entering the workforce is to go in with your head held high. You did well to get the job after all. But don’t have a chip on your shoulder. Don’t think you’re too clever for the work you’re doing. Because if you are, then so is everyone else under that roof.
Don’t ever let the reality of work grind you down. Sometimes it will be stupid. And people will continue to say and do more stupid things. I think it’s on us to learn as much as we can from these challenges, whether it’s how to make frustration funny, or the mundane interesting, or even if it’s just how to take the rough with the smooth. I just wish someone had told me that my education wasn’t really ending at university, but rather taking on a whole new life at work.
Image: Ana Yael