You say over-qualified, I say under-qualified… let’s call the whole thing off
When I arrived back in theUKlast summer I had a peculiar problem. I was ridiculously over-qualified, on paper, for most ‘normal’ jobs (with a PhD and postdoctoral research in history of art). I am, however, under-qualified for academic lectureships or research positions, because I haven’t published enough peer-reviewed academic papers, and I don’t have lecturing experience.
Because I did my PhD while living half in the UK and half abroad, I wasn’t ever in one place long enough to gain any experience teaching undergraduate students, and because I had children around the same time (one during the PhD, and one eighteen months after it finished) my publication record fell by the wayside due to family commitments.
Now, the children are 3 and 7 and I am in a position to work again, but pitching my job search has been tricky. I’ve blogged before about the strange feeling of being a ‘grad’ aged 32. But because I don’t fit the profile, or indeed any profile, I don’t seem to fit the mould of what the typical ‘graduate’ employers are looking for.
So I set out last summer determined to become a reasonable proposition for an employer. Being a single mum, I’m entitled to income support and housing benefit and while money is painfully tight, I’ve found paradoxically that living on benefits has bought me time to build my CV by doing voluntary work while looking for a job.
I always knew I didn’t want to stay on income support until my daughter turns five (technically, I am not obliged to look for work till then, and even then I am only required to look for jobs during school hours). But I’ve always felt I needed to work and earn my own money for my own self-respect, to keep active and busy, and to keep my CV full of useful and interesting things. Of course, motherhood is useful and interesting, and I think there are enlightened employers who do consider it as valuable experience in a candidate, but I know I need to have my own, ‘adult’ projects alongside my parenting role.
So I started by looking for voluntary jobs in the arts and heritage sector. I found a wonderful and fulfilling role with the National Trust, doing communications, press releases, web content and social media. It’s a role that has been getting more and more interesting and stimulating, the website is starting to take shape, the Twitter feed which I run is tremendously successful, and it’s fun working with lovely colleagues in a beautiful setting.
I also took on voluntary writing projects. Knowing that writing will inevitably form a large part of whatever work I end up doing, I started blogging on my personal website (which also provided a waffling outlet, rather than subjecting long-suffering friends to my wordy reflections on various things). I decided to try to gain experience in different writing styles and writing roles, so I volunteered to be a regional ‘Newshound’ for the organisation Making Music. I have enjoyed the journalistic side of this work – finding stories, sourcing interviews, and researching regional music making in all its forms. When that role almost naturally expanded into social media, it cemented the impression I had been getting that social media consultancy should be an area to seriously consider for my freelance work.
I started blogging for Grads.co.uk (which I’ve found to be a good way for my reflective waffling to reach a wider audience, and for it to serve a more practical purpose!) and then took on another different kind of project, editing the newsletter of the Friends of the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. While the first issue, with short deadlines and a steep learning curve, was rather a challenge to get out in time, I’m looking forward to the spring issue to look at developing it more carefully and being more proactive in helping to commission and write content.
All this experience, of course, is very much like the experience gained doing paid work, and while my odd-looking CV this time last year wasn’t conducive to getting paid employment, I was a very interesting prospect for the recruiters of volunteers. Now, the experience may have paid off. I’ve recently got a part-time job in a library, and I think that the fact that I’ve demonstrated my commitment to the written word as well as to the local area has definitely helped me be accepted for the role. The majority of my volunteer work is based in local tourism and heritage, and in the same community where the library is positioned to be something of a local cultural ‘hub’.
‘Over-qualified’ may be a bit of a misnomer. I may have a PhD, which means that in terms of actual, countable number of degrees, makes me leapfrog many other candidates. But in reality, it’s the skills the PhD gave me which will be useful to employers. It proves that I could commit to a long project, and use my own initiative and self-discipline to complete it. It proves a natural cultural and academic curiosity, and a good, accurate standard of written English.
It seems that what I needed to do in order to become an employable candidate was to demonstrate that those skills could be applicable in a real ‘workplace’. And as for ‘under-qualified’, well I still have academic curiosity in spades. I’m mulling over the possibility of writing a book, and if I have time, there are several academic papers to be extracted from my thesis for publication. If I manage to achieve this in the next few years, I think it would feel like coming full circle. Maybe, in the end, I’ll end up neither over- nor under-qualified, and life will settle somewhere in the middle: just right.