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Monday, August 12, 2013

The phantom student

On my way into work this morning I was chatting with a friend about our university friends’ summers, and what everyone was up to.

Number one is on an internship with a Magic Circle law firm, hoping to gain a training contract.
Number two is lining up for a three-week placement in investment banking.
Number three is at an internship with a TV news network.
Numbers four, five and six are on sponsored internships at university doing research projects.
Number seven had a couple of weeks’ placement at an advertising company.
The gent who was in the car next to me is just finishing a week-long placement at NME, having spent a fortnight at Prospect magazine.

This list goes on, I’m sure, but my memory isn’t good this early in the morning. The point is that everyone seems to be doing something that will increase their chances of employment, one way or another. If you asked any of them today, however, how confident they feel about getting a job after graduation next June, not one would give you an answer that belied any semblance of surety. Why? We are all haunted by the fear of the imaginary ‘Other’, the phantom student that we all know is out there, somewhere, pulling 70-hour-weeks in the library, captaining the University’s First XV, acting as Treasurer for an impossibly successful student society, and devoting every university-free moment to developing contacts within a chosen industry. He or she will graduate summa cum laude at exactly the same time as us, walk into the company we liked most, take the job we wanted, and sit there, leering at us, smug as a cat who’s had the cream, the goldfish out of the tank and a sizeable pinch of cat-nip as well for good measure.

As a result of this fear, things start to get crazy in terms of extra-curricular activities at university. Number one is captaining the University’s First XI this year. Number two is the chemistry school president. I’m not sure about numbers four and five, but numbers three, six and seven all hold senior positions in strong student societies. The aforementioned gent is the editor of an online student publication. I have a school friend who started his own record label and another who is a published author, not even touching upon the ones that are going to be lawyers.

The question then becomes, ‘how do you deal with this?’ How do you watch your school friends and university friends succeeding without breaking into a nervous sweat about your own inadequacy every time you measure yourself against them?

It all comes down to planning ahead. Have a goal: a career or even a broad sector that you think you will enjoy working in after graduation. Once you have that goal, start working out what you can do to make yourself irresistible to the graduate recruiters you will one day be sat across the table from. Get involved with a relevant student society or two at an early stage and start working out how you will get to the top. Develop your soft skills through socialising and team-work. Mine the TARGETjobs website for every last scrap of useful information (there’s loads). Apply for work experience placements and internships in the summer, even if you’re planning on going travelling or on holiday; a week’s work experience placement won’t be too hard to squeeze in somewhere during a university break.

As well as the planning, there will inevitably be some things that fall unequivocally down to the hand of fate: a chance encounter, a momentary flash of inspiration or a sudden opportunity. During the address at a prize-giving ceremony at school years ago, the speaker explained her success – how she had risen so far in her field. “Take every opportunity that presents itself to you; grab it with both hands, whatever it is…you can work out what to do with it later.” The gist of this sentence wasn’t tricky to understand. Carpe diem, in the words of Horace, which now, thanks to a depressed cat that’s finally had a breakdown and is now convinced he’s a dog, will forever be translated as ‘grab the frisbee’.

However, this frisbee-grabbing, car-chasing, water-loving, broken cat (unfortunately) epitomises what I’m saying. If you know what you want, go and get it. When you do, and you stand again next to the yardstick of your peers, you won’t be disappointed with how you measure up. Here’s your soundtrack: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m9kCCLwEga8

Go on, be more dog.