SIX commandants of staying happy in your graduate job
By Jess Livey
Jess shares her hard-won advice on how to keep positive in your first (slightly crap) job after leaving full-time education.
You’ve made it. Or at least, that’s what everyone keeps telling you. You’re finally doing the graduate job you spent countless hours applying for in your damp university bedroom. But you can’t shake that nagging feeling that it doesn’t live up to the hype. You’re bottom of the work food-chain, you get talked down to on an hourly basis and the best noun to describe your work-life balance is ‘disparity’. If you dare show frustration with your situation, you're told wait your turn: “you’ve only been here a year, you’re young – enjoy it!”. It’s perhaps no surprise that graduates are increasingly willing to ditch their first-time employers at the earliest opportunity . Sometimes, the deferred gratification of seniority feels all too far away.
It’s a tale as old as time that junior staff sometimes get the shitty end of the stick. If you try to fight it, you risk dissolution and burnout. If you conform to people’s menial expectations of your abilities, you risk becoming a shell of your vivacious self. That’s when I realised: it’s not about the hand you’re dealt, it’s about how you play it.
What follows are the hard-won realisations and practical coping strategies I have used to survive my first year in full-time employment.
1. Your time is just as important as anyone else’s.
No one is ever going to thank you for cancelling on your friends to spend a few extra hours finessing that presentation. Obviously, you have to fulfil commitments and show willing, but you’re never going to get a gold star for spending countless hours of your free time tweaking internal documents. They might not even be downloaded from that WeTransfer folder you painstakingly uploaded and shared with “the team”. Set your own boundaries; sometimes you’ll have to work late but don’t make a habit of doing work people don’t appreciate without making a point you’ve done it - people will expect the same output from you or even more in the future. Take that leftover annual leave, go to those birthday drinks and have a night off from everything when you need it. You will be able to think more clearly and be more productive then when it is time to work.
2. Burnout is real – talk to people when it’s getting a bit much.
When you’re junior, it can be tempting to play “good student”; to closet yourself away to work on a task because you think asking for help or checking you’ve properly understood the task will make you look incompetent. I’ve learnt the hard way that those stringent expectations are totally self-invented and self-inflicted. No one expects you to know exactly what you’re doing and to do it perfectly first time. You’re straight out of university, you’ve probably spent three years studying something totally irrelevant to your job and you’re not going to “get it” as quickly as those more senior than you. It’s fine. Let your manager know if they’ve scoped too many projects for you, reach out to the interns to see if they have time to support you if you need it, and be honest if project timelines are unrealistic. The classic corporate get-out, “I will need more time to give this the attention it deserves”, never goes amiss. Otherwise, you risk joining the 51 per cent of full-time working people in the UK who have anxiety or burnout because of their jobs (YouGov Survey).
3. People will treat you as badly as you let them.
Have the self-belief to recognise when someone is being unreasonable with you because they are under pressure and not because you’re at fault. Sadly, people talk down to junior staff in a way they would never talk to their seniors. You can end up feeling a like punching bag for their worries and frustrations. Have the confidence in yourself to know that it’s not personal, you’re doing great and you have no idea what that other person is dealing with. But you probably will one day and you’ll thank your juniors for giving you slack. Don’t get upset or let apathy set in. Be polite but firm and take the high-ground when the mud starts slinging. As Joan Didion so eloquently writes, “at the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the necessity of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us”.
4. Job titles are just semantics; everyone is winging it.
When I was given the opportunity to work closely with a senior member of staff on an exciting new project, I was thrilled. I was going to be exposed to their expertise and learn from their wealth of experience. This proved partly true: I did get to witness their superior confidence presenting and their (learned) ability to construct strategic frameworks. But I also observed the ease with which they delegated tasks to others and the roughness of their workings. Then it dawned on me. Even with ten years’ experience on me, they didn’t really know what they were doing. What a relief!
For those of you yet to glimpse the chink in the armour of those you work with, you can find comfort in the reddit thread, “What it the most embarrassing thing you should be able to do, but can’t?”. It’s further evidence that nobody has much of a clue what they're doing:
“Basic arithmetic. Really embarrassing at work when I panic and struggle to add up two small numbers :(
I'm nearly 30 years old and don't know how to tie my shoes in the normal fashion. Instead I can only do it bunny ears-style.
Swim, ride a bike, drive a car.
I am really bad at telling time on an analog [sic] clock, I know how it works and I can get there but I can't just glance at the clock and know the time.”
Turns out, we don’t always get smarter. Sometimes, we just get better at faking it.
5. Say at least one meaningful thing in each meeting.
When you’re painfully aware that you’re the least experienced person in the room, it’s easy to convince yourself that your opinion is valid or less needed. Don’t fall into that trap. Of course, not everything you say is going to be a pearl of wisdom, but saying at least one meaningful thing during each meaning will show that you are engaged, curious and invested in the task at hand. If you sit back and observe, you risk becoming wallpaper. No one wants to be asked “were you in that meeting?” the next day. Speak up, share your thoughts, even if you feel a bit precocious doing so.
6. Enjoy fulfilment wherever you find it.
The saying goes that “when you love your work, you never work a day in your life”. That’s utter bollocks. There are boring parts of every job. Even if you’re a stand-up comic or a SCUBA instructor, there will be tedious admin and pointless form-filling. However, if you find that your job is over-indexing on the boring bits, mainly because you’re doing the donkey work that gets palmed-off on younger staff, then find yourself a “side hustle” to redress the balance. Use the financial security of your day job to unlock more passionate and fulfilling streams of work. That might mean writing a book, starting a blog or finally giving time to that photography project you’ve been meaning to do. Whatever it is, make time for it – you’ll be happier for it.
Image by Caitlin Quigley