Graduate insights: studying and searching for work during coronavirus

We caught up with three recent graduates who, perhaps against the odds, managed to finish their masters and find employment during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Back in March, we interviewed masters students to get an idea of how they were being impacted by social distancing. Seven months on and TARGETjobs has caught up with a few of them to discover how they managed to keep motivated while studying and gain their insights on how you can make the most of your university work or find a job at this time.

We spoke to:

  • Amandine Riche, who completed an MA in publishing at University College London and has started a job as an assistant literary agent at David Godwin Associates.
  • Anna Rickards, who finished a masters in character animation at the University of the Arts in London and is working as a part-time sales assistant at Hamleys while she focuses on her portfolio.
  • Hélène Rousset, who graduated with an MSc in computing at Imperial College London and is currently a machine learning engineering intern at a French start-up company.

Online support and YouTube celebrations

A common theme among the graduates was a feeling that they had missed out on opportunities to socialise and meet face-to-face with tutors and supervisors. Nonetheless, they still placed importance on building and maintaining relationships with tutors and other students virtually.

Hélène found the lack of face-to-face connection difficult: ‘My motivation grew weaker each month as it is hard to stay focused when you work alone, without ever meeting other students on similar projects or the supervisor.’ Similarly, both Amandine and Anna found that socialising – and, for Anna, celebrating graduation – with course mates was the thing they missed the most.

So, how can you stay connected? Seeking out ways to keep up interest in your subject, aside from simply focusing on your own exams, coursework or projects, might help to spur you on in your studies. It could provide a break from what you’ve been focusing on at the same time as reminding you of why you chose the subject in the first place. Anna, for example, went to several online seminars with prominent speakers in her field.

Virtual replacements for events and socialising/networking opportunities that would typically take place in person might sound like depressing alternatives, but it’s a good idea to push yourself to go along where possible. They may well be more useful and/or enjoyable than you expect. Anna and her fellow students organised a YouTube live screening to replace the much-anticipated end of term showing of the students’ films; even though the post-viewing party was cancelled, Anna enjoyed this shared celebration of everyone’s hard work.

Just how supportive your tutors and supervisor are is out of your control. Nonetheless, trying to build a positive relationship with them where possible and as early as possible – and, crucially, contacting them when you need support – may benefit you. Amandine’s tutors had to take mandatory holiday at different times due to the pandemic, which left many of her peers with less help in the weeks leading up to the dissertation hand-in date. However, she felt lucky: ‘I had such an involved tutor who was brilliant at answering all my emails.’

Tips for maintaining motivation

If you are finding it tough to maintain motivation when studying at home, hopefully these tips from Amandine, Anna and Hélène will help.

  • Get dressed. Maintaining a ‘normal’ routine – particularly at the beginning of the day – can improve your mood and focus. Amandine emphasises this: ‘I behaved like I was going to uni or work for the day – I got up at the same time every day and got dressed in real clothes (not gym gear or pyjamas).’
  • Separate university work from home life. Amandine also made sure she decided upon and stuck to a time to stop working, and changed locations when she did. This helped her to maintain a relaxing home life and a productive university life.
  • Exercise when you can. If you are used to going to a gym or sports club, lockdown or self-isolation might make it harder for you to benefit from the anxiety-reducing effects of exercise. Whether it’s yoga (as Amandine finds useful), running (as Hélène prefers) or any other form of exercise, try to carry out some physical activity. Doing this before or after studying can help you to maintain some pattern in your day.
  • Treat yourself. Use the time you would otherwise be spending socialising, commuting or working to do something you enjoy. Amandine and Hélène suggest treating yourself to tasty food.
  • Get organised. A common theme among the graduates we spoke to is the importance of balance: make realistic day-to-day goals, while avoiding putting too much pressure on yourself to be extra productive. Hélène also makes a useful point: ‘The hardest part for me at university was not knowing when it would end and being unsure where I would be in the next few weeks or months, so I found it helpful not to plan too far ahead.

A considered approach to the pandemic job hunt

‘I felt the pressure of finding a job during this unemployment boom,’ Amandine told us. Hélène and Anna found starting out on their search for work difficult, too, as they saw a jobs market growing increasingly competitive, and some internships and job offers being cancelled.

Aware that advertised positions were getting thousands of applications, Amandine sent out over 50 speculative job applications – and it worked: ‘I got one offer from the literary agency David Godwin Associates, which I took. I also secured half a dozen promises to contact me in later months with offers.’ If you also decide to take this approach, do make sure you still send strong applications that are tailored to both the position and the employer. TARGETjobs advises putting quality over quantity if you want to secure a position.

Anna decided that the best route for her would be to perfect her portfolio while undertaking a part-time job as a salesperson at Hamleys toy shop. By continuing to create (she will direct an animated film based on a short story she’s written next year) and network, she plans to eventually work as an illustrator and animator.

Hélène wanted either a job or an internship after graduation. As the pandemic made graduate jobs more scarce, she decided that she was more likely to gain an internship than a graduate job in the specific subject area that interested her. Finding success in the first opportunity she applied to, Hélène is now a machine learning engineering intern at a French start-up company that’s developing an app to detect fake medicine in Ivory Coast.

Gain more advice on job hunting during a recession and a pandemic.

Self-reflection is key

Considering what you’ve learned about yourself is important for any job as it enables you to discover the things you can put in place and the things you need from an employer in order to work effectively. As coronavirus has led people to face all kinds of difficulties in their personal, academic and working lives, now may be a good time to engage in some self-reflection.

So, what have our graduates learned about themselves? Adaptability is one of the most important skills Anna will take from her experience, as she had to keep altering her university work according to changes in circumstances.

Hélène may have discovered just how crucial human contact is for motivation, but her time as a masters student also improved her ability to work effectively without this: ‘Studying during the pandemic taught me to be resilient and work autonomously.’

Amandine, too, reflected on how this time brought out unexpected strengths; she found that she can work effectively without a formal structure to her days, often by adding that structure in herself.

Perhaps your time spent studying in your room has taught you that working from home would or would not suit you; take a look at our articles on why this can be good or bad for your career if you are planning to factor this into your career decisions.

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