Thursday, 31 December 2009

So 2009 finishes... and thank you to everyone who's followed this blog this year

I can't believe 2009 is nearly over - in around two hours from now, in fact. It's been a rollercoaster of a year for me, feel free to let me know what it's been like for all you guys!

Thinking back to the start of the year, I can't believe how different my life was back in January to what it is now:
  • I was an accountant in a reasonably well-paid (but temporary) job working in a bank
  • I was totally bored in my job
  • Actually, I hated my job
  • ...and possibly feeling slightly bitter about having ended up as a chartered accountant when I'd never really wanted to be one
  • Didn't really "fit in" with many of my accountancy colleagues (at any of the places I worked at, come to think of it)
  • I hadn't had any writing published since 2002 when I wrote for my university's student magazine
  • I knew that I wanted to change career, but had no definite plans of how to do it.
Actually that last bit is probably slightly inaccurate: I was saving money from my job every month "for the day I change career", but I had no idea when and if that day was going to happen. I had vague ideas about maybe being a journalist, and vague ideas about needing money in savings to retrain as a journalist, possibly even getting a second degree, and funding myself through the low-paid journalism employment every school and university careers book says you must do before actually being able to earn a living from being a newspaper or magazine employee.

Then from February onwards, things changed. I lost my job.

As you all know, I figured that I'd soon get another one, so that I could keep saving up for the "big day" that I finally changed career. To pass the time while I was jobless, I decided to do some distance learning courses in English Literature and Sociology; partly because I'd always wanted to do them, and partly because I figured they'd come in useful for "the day I do a journalism-related degree".

I also started this blog in March, just for a bit of fun. Even though I don't post here very often (I know, I know...) I underestimated just how much effect simply writing this blog would have on my life.

I think I can honestly credit you guys, all of you who have followed this blog, left comments, and given me your time and support, for the direction my life took after that - because without it all, I think I would still be stuck moaning about hating being a chartered accountant!

You guys encouraged me to take a chance. You guys encouraged me to overcome my fears and just go for it. You guys did your best to keep my spirits up when I hit roadblocks in my initial job hunting. And your feedback made me realise I needed to stop wishing for a change and come up with a definite, concrete plan on making it happen. Sometimes I wonder why the hell I didn't do this sooner - I'd already quit my job once before, only to take up the same job but in a different organisation (i.e. the temp job in the bank until this February).

I think I can honestly say that, once I'd taken stock and decided to pursue the journalism idea, I might not have got the confidence to approach a national newspaper for an unpaid two-week work experience placement in June if I hadn't had so many of you rooting for me in your blog comments.

It also encouraged me to get my arse in gear and do something about this flippin' career change - after all, what would be the point of any of you reading about my career change if I wasn't actually doing it?

By the end of my two-week work placement in June, I was still jobless and with no hope of getting a job either in the dreaded accountancy profession or any of the newspapers in this recession, it was suggested that I try going freelance, and breaking into journalism that way.

After some research (well, mainly reading "The Freelance Writer's Handbook: How to Make Money and Enjoy Your Life" by Andrew Crofts - which I thoroughly recommend for UK readers, by the way, though there are some really good US books too that I'll go into another time) not only did I realise that it WAS possible to make a living as a freelance writer, but also no extra qualifications were required as long as I was prepared to be persistent, professional, imaginative and able to market my current knowledge and skills - nope, I didn't even NEED a journalism (or English) degree! I couldn't help thinking back to my rant on the value of education on learning this!

So here's where my life stands now, in December 2009:
  • Four articles published in a national newspaper during the work experience in June
  • My first paying client - an accountancy magazine who were happy to take on a former chartered accountant with a small portfolio of published writing for a two-day paid trial in their offices in July
  • Being commissioned again and again by that accountancy magazine as well as pitching an article to them that I wanted to write at home
  • Being self-employed, as opposed to being employed - and having to be completely responsible for EVERYTHING now, rather than my employer being responsible for everything
  • Actually GETTING PAID to write - the joy! I'm actually a writer now!
  • Winning my second and third paying client this month, in quick succession. And looking forward to payment for my articles for those publications in January.
The second publication was a tax-related magazine that I pitched an article to, where they only pay on publication (fortunately they published my article in December) and with much more favourable contract terms, meaning that I get to keep the copyright in my work and can re-sell it on to other publications if I wish, as long as they get First British Serial Rights (i.e. the right to publish that article first in the UK before any other publication, usually for a limited amount of time, after which it can be reprinted elsewhere. Like how First North American Serial Rights works for articles published in North America).

The third publication was the sister publication of the accountancy magazine - a monthly magazine which will publish my article at the beginning of January 2010 - and came about because the editor of the accountancy magazine recommended me. Hooray!

I really couldn't have done it without knowing you were all rooting for me every step of the way. Of course I have the support (and grocery money!) of Lovely Boyfriend to be grateful for too, but I honestly, actually don't think I would have achieved any of the things I have this year if I hadn't had this blog to focus me on my goal, and all of you to sympathise, joke, encourage and give me the occasional kick up the arse along the way.

So for that reason alone, I hope you all have a brilliant New Year's Eve and an absolutely bloody fantastic 2010 in which all your hopes and dreams come true. Thank you again xxx
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Monday, 2 November 2009

Back after a 3-month absence... and how things have changed!

Oh my God, is it November already???? And did I really last post on this blog in July????

I really can't believe I've been away from the blogosphere for so long - I've not even logged into my Blogger account since August. Again, many many apologies, and perhaps it's just better for me to say I'm only going to post sporadically from now on... sorry guys... but I will take the time to check all your blogs and catch up with what I've missed from the last couple of months - starting from after I finish this blog post.

So many things have happened since I last posted here that this is going to be one long blog post I'm afraid! I turned 28 just over a month ago, and the days in the run-up to any birthday are always a time for reflection on what you've achieved in the year. At least, they are for me, anyway.

In my final days - well, final months, really - of being 27 years of age, I actually started to feel a little depressed. That was partly the reason why I didn't post on this blog during August and September - I just kind of felt that I was fast approaching 30 with not much to show for my life career-wise, and I'd always imagined that in my late 20s I'd be hugely successful and fast climbing the professional ladder in a high-powered career.

The reality, of course, was completely different. I still hadn't got a job, and it didn't look like I had any hope of getting one - despite hating accountancy, I was still applying for those jobs just so that I'd have an income to pay off the mortgage and bills. It sounds crazy, doesn't it - why the hell would I still be applying for jobs in a profession I was so desperate to leave to begin with? To my great shame, the only answer I can give you is that it was what was familiar, and the habits in my brain were telling me to go back to what was familiar rather than risk trying something new and unknown. I think most of us do that to some extent, even when we're consciously in the process of changing things for the better!

Thanks to the ongoing credit crunch, I still couldn't get an accountancy job. Ever more accountants were being made redundant, yet I still foolishly kept trying to get an accountancy job. What made it even worse was that I'd already been commissioned for a two-day reporting stint at a magazine in late July. I think I mentioned a little bit in my last blog post. So it's not as if I was totally failing at the freelance journalism thing at that point. There was another reason too, for why I felt a bit down, which I shall go into later in this post.

But it's not all doom and gloom. The other reason I didn't post in August was simply because I was out of the country (on a dead-cheap European holiday) for some of it, which was pretty nice.

And getting my first commission was a pretty pleasing result. As mentioned, I used the four articles from my work experience stint on a national newspaper for my portfolio, bought a copy of The Writers' Handbook 2010 (it was on sale at half the price, otherwise I wouldn't have bothered) and worked my way through it. I decided to target magazines specialising in accountancy and finance to start with, on the grounds that I used to be an accountant and therefore would be able to draw on my knowledge and training in writing about it.

I cold-called a few of the editors, and most of them simply asked me to send them my CV and a sample of clips from my portfolio. However, one of them, on hearing I used to actually be an accountant - qualified and everything - asked me to come into their offices in London for coffee and a chat. I dragged my portfolio along with me and he gave me the most gruelling "chat" ever. It turned out he was being so tough simply because he was treating it as a job interview - unbeknownst to me, he was thinking of hiring me for a reporter role and just wanted to see how I interviewed under a pressured situation! I saw the funny side though, and he did apologise for putting me on the spot like that!

As a result of our interview "chat" he decided to give me a two-day trial at the end of July to see how I got on, knowing that I had very little journalism experience and even less news-reporting experience. He offered to pay me the usual daily rate for reporters.

So that's where I left off from my last post. I was so proud to send my very first invoice, for quite a nice amount too. However, it turned out I had to sign their Freelancer Terms & Conditions.

I was very unhappy with some of the clauses - especially the ones where the freelancer had to agree to take all responsibility for any legal action brought against the publication - and tried to suggest an alternative contract, which I don't think the editor was too happy about, especially as it had to be sent through their legal team. As the weeks wore on, the contract remained unagreed, and I still hadn't been paid, I began to feel very very unhappy. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ), who usually advise freelancers not to sign contracts like this, refused to help me as I wasn't an NUJ member but I couldn't become an NUJ member until I'd been paid. As a result I didn't blog or even do anything to further my budding freelance journalism career during August or September, that's how unhappy it made me.

By mid-September, it was clear that the contract was never going to be changed, and until I signed it, I wouldn't get paid. I still had no other clients, so I decided to just swallow my pride and sign it. After all, as a brand-new freelancer without a name for herself, it was hardly likely I'd have much negotiating clout in these matters anyway. I decided that if I signed it, I'd simply have to be careful what I wrote about (to minimise any chance of court action) and look into getting professional indemnity insurance. Funnily enough, even though I wasn't totally happy about signing such a contract, once I had signed it the depression lifted and I was soon buzzing with writing ideas.

The moral of the tale here is: agree on a contract first before agreeing to do any work for anyone - it really was my own fault for blindly going into something without first making sure I knew exactly what I was getting into!

So I rang up the editor at the end of September, told them I was signing and sending back the contract (so that I could actually be paid for July's work) and while I was at it, pitched a new idea to them. The editor agreed to commission the article from me, and gave me a week to do a 1,000-word article which they featured as a three-page spread in the centre of the magazine. Nice!

Due to a hiring freeze, I didn't get the reporter role that he initially wanted to hire me for (even after making me do a screen test to see how I coped on TV - they have their own web TV channel for topical interviews), but fortunately that editor was so happy with the work I've done for them so far they've agreed to commission me as a freelancer anyway. I've signed off Job-Seeker's Allowance as a result - which is great, because fortnightly trips to the Jobcentre were really doing my head in!

So to conclude my story, I spent a total of seven days in October covering on the newsdesk in their offices whenever any of the reporters were away, and contributing a lot of articles to both their website and their printed paper publication. My portfolio is now considerably larger and I actually feel like I've established myself as a freelance journalist - even though I currently only have one client!

About a week ago - yes, near the end of October - I finally received payment for July's outstanding invoice (really need to do better at credit control and cashflow in future) and have sent two more invoices to that publication, establishing a 30-day term for payment so that I don't have to wait so long for payment again (though I admit I had a lot to do with the hold-up for not agreeing the contract). I registered myself with the tax authorities as self-employed - a scary but necessary step - and am now looking for my next client and next article commission.

Funnily enough I am STILL registered with recruitment agencies for accountancy jobs and have had my CV forwarded to employers even now, but the lack of success and/or response is no longer bothering me. I'm hoping that my freelance journalism career will soon be so well-established, and paying me so well, that I'll never need to be bothered about accountancy jobs ever again.
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Friday, 31 July 2009

A flurry of activity

I am so sorry for being absolutely useless; it really has been a month since I last posted! I won't be able to post much from now on but I will attempt to be better than what I have been right now!

The main reason for me being away is that I thought I should finally get down to this sodding career change once and for all - after hearing that another 300 accountants in my area of expertise have been made redundant (so that's another 300 people chasing after increasingly scarce jobs in my field), I realised that frankly, the accountancy thing just ain't gonna happen. Or at least, not for another couple of months. So I decided to simply take the plunge and change career once and for all. Sod it, it's not like I'm getting anywhere with my main profession (the one I'm trying to leave anyway), so why not?

So that's what I've been doing for the whole month of July. I have a small portfolio of articles (4 articles in a national newspaper) and I've been trying to use that as a selling tactic when advertising myself as a freelance journalist. Most of my days this month have been spent as follows:
  • cold-calling accountancy firms offering copywriting services ("I'm a freelance journalist who's recently been published in a famous daily newspaper and I used to be an accountant..." etc)
  • cold-calling the PR firms the accountancy firms use ("Accountancy firm X have referred me to you, and I'm a freelance..." blah blah blah),
  • cold-calling the PR firms I used to write one of my articles on my two-week work experience in June
  • being sneered at
  • being hung up on
  • being on the receiving end of someone's annoyance
  • being on the receiving end of someone's sympathy
  • cold-calling magazine editors (after weeks of the above)

And that's not to mention the following things I spent my days doing (when I wasn't annoying strangers on the telephone):

  • keeping meticulous records (in Excel - yeah I know it's sad, but I did use to work in Finance) of who I contacted, when, and what was the outcome,
  • extensive reading of freelance writing, working for yourself, and buying writers' handbooks,
  • attending free journalism workshops
  • doing my accounts to keep track of my (tax-deductible) spending,
  • trips to the local library to get scans into PDF format of my rather small portfolio,
  • planning who to pester - sorry, advertise my writing skills to - next
  • researching into copyright and setting fees, and coming up with my own set of fees to charge corporate clients (haven't had this tested yet)
  • drinking numerous cups of tea to calm the stress.

As I write this, I have just finished completing my accounts for the month of July and now need to get ready to go out - got someone's leaving drinks to attend. This week has been particularly busy as I (accidentally) managed to land my first commission, which I shall talk about in a later post.

I shall try to post again as soon as possible and in the meantime, thanks to all of you for your support and comments xxxxx

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Friday, 26 June 2009

R.I.P. Michael Jackson 1958-2009

I first heard the news last night, just before I was to shut down the computer and head to bed. Words can't really express how shocked and gutted I felt - bad enough hearing Farrah Fawcett (of Charlie's Angels fame in the Seventies) had passed away, without this as well. A lot of my friends had got tickets for his comeback concerts in London next month, and this was the last thing we were all expecting. I must confess part of me thought it was a weird hoax until it was definitively confirmed a few minutes later.

Laura Reviews: How Michael Jackson Changed The World Of Words

Michael Jackson was as troubled as he was talented, but whatever one's opinions on his private life or his music, there is no denying that he probably made the biggest contribution and impact on popular music and popular culture. His songs inspired and touched millions, young and old, black and white, rich and poor, country to country, and today the world seems united in grief for the tragic loss of this incredibly gifted performer.

I'm not sure if there's any images I can use for free so I thought I'd round off this post with a video of one of his songs from my childhood that I really like - "Heal The World". Rest in peace, Michael.
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Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Final article published today

I cheered up considerably this morning on learning that my "Ten of the Best..." article had finally been published in today's newspaper. It actually managed to distract from the fact that I've been rejected for so many accountancy jobs, including the ones I visited for a job interview. I immediately sat up in bed using my iPhone to email all the PR departments of the companies I contacted to use pictures and details of their products for my "Ten of the Best..." article; within an hour they had all kindly emailed me back saying they'd seen it in the paper and thanked me for my work.

So that was the final result of my fortnight's newspaper work experience: wrote 5 articles, had 4 published (the fifth one was subsumed into my editor's much longer - and more interesting - article), edited about 10+ freelancers' articles, and typed up 2 interview transcripts, not to mention the hours of research for some of the articles I wrote or had to edit. Think I did pretty well.

Changing career for anyone isn't exactly a bed of roses, more so in a recession; but hopefully now I can build on what I've done.

(I just wanted to include this picture of a bed of roses to be honest. Sorry!)
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Monday, 22 June 2009

Newspaper journalism work experience - Days 9 & 10

OK, I'm more than a week late... sorry about that!

Day 10 was my last day of my two-week work experience stint, and seeing as I was out for the whole of that weekend (i.e. 13th and 14th June) I actually meant to blog about days 9 and 10 last Monday. However, Friday saw me sending emails back and forth between recruitment consultants as I suddenly had a flurry of job interviews. This is the reason for me staying away for the whole of last week - I had loads. It was like waiting for buses: you wait ages for one and then 3 come along at once.

Unfortunately for me, I didn't actually get any of the accountancy jobs that I went for interiew for. Once again I got told that I interviewed really well, but lost out to someone who was more qualified and experienced than me. This is getting quite disheartening now!

Day 9 - the Thursday - was spent on three things: the first was struggling to get into the office on time with all the Tube strikes (which were over by the Friday of that week, thank God). The others were writing up that 800-word personal finance article that my friend had agreed to do, with 3 more financial advisers giving their advice. As Thursday was the deadline, I submitted it in the afternoon for possible publication on Saturday 20th June. I was told that the first of these articles I'd done the week before was to be published on Saturday 13th June with my byline - the editor even showed me how the page looked in Quark on his computer, and it looked really good, so I was quite excited.

True to his word, that article was indeed published on Saturday 13th June in the Money section, with my second of those articles published in the newspaper on Saturday 20th June. It was so great to finally see my name in print. Needless to say, I was so excited I bought 3 copies of the paper on both days!

The rest of Thursday was spent ringing up the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in the UK and Eurocontrol in Brussels for airline punctuality statistics. Was chuffed to get an embargoed press release from the CAA, on the condition that we didn't publish our article before Monday 15th June (the date until which the press release was embargoed).

My final day on Friday wasn't spent doing much - my editor asked me to do an 800-word piece involving the flight puncuality statistics I'd collected, but trying to convert a wall of numbers into an interesting 800-word article was really difficult. The worst part was trying to pad it out - especially as I didn't have any quotes or other news to report in the article. I submitted the article (798 words of drivel in the end) by close of play on Friday, but wasn't surprised when they decided not to publish that article - in the end, the editor published part of my article in his own, subsuming the more interesting and relevant statistics into his 1000+word column.

So, all in all, out of the 5 articles I wrote, two were published with my byline on Saturday 13th June (one in the Travel section - the article on South Africa - and one in the Money section), one was published with my byline on Saturday 20th June, one won't be published as it's been subsumed into another person's article (I don't blame him, 800 words of statistics isn't the most exciting read) and my "Ten of the Best..." article is yet to be published. Having my name in print has definitely boosted my confidence and made me more optimistic about seriously taking up writing.

I was quite sad to end my two-week work experience. I think it's fair to say I enjoyed every minute of it, even when it got really stressful and busy. I even enjoyed the subsidised canteen and the chatty coffee shop barista who kept laughing good-naturedly at my incompetence with a cup of tea (I was always spilling it). The canteen food was really cheap and gorgeous to the taste, and I really felt that journalists working on that newspaper are bloody lucky to be in the jobs they are!

However, when I tried asking if there were any jobs at the newspaper going, I was told that there weren't any - in fact, half the journalists there had been made redundant and the only work that was being commissioned at the moment was from freelancers. One lady even advised me: "If you want to break into journalism at the moment, perhaps the best thing to do is to try freelancing. You've made lots of contacts here and they like your work, so that'll make it easier to break into it." Could be worth giving it a go...
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Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Newspaper journalism work experience - Days 7 & 8

Struck by Tube strikes

I am tempted to vent my rage on the page with this post; it's an understatement to say I am truly pissed off and livid with those bloody London Underground workers who have decided to go on strike - for yet another piss-poor reason - and are the reason I have spent FIVE HOURS (instead of two) commuting to and from the office today.

Normally Tube strikes aren't a problem as I hate the Tube with a passion (it's sooty, smelly, hot, over-crowded and brings out the worst in people) and therefore prefer to walk or get the bus, but unfortunately the location of the newspaper offices in relation to my home means that the only viable method of transport is the Tube. I'm prepared to do a 40-minute walk through London to work - and have done it many times before - but walking for 1½ hours from the rail station to the office simply isn't feasible. Especially as I'd already have got the overground train into the city centre from South London, an area which is thankfully devoid of Tube trains.

So, I took more than two hours in the pouring rain this morning to get into the office - waiting 45 minutes for a packed bus - and came in at 11:30AM, and I spent more than two hours getting home (one hour on a bus that hardly moved) this evening and have actually only just got in through the door of my flat, and it's 10 o'clock. And I wanted to use this evening to blog and prepare for a job interview that I've got tomorrow; thanks to those greedy RMT idiots who are going on strike because they haven't been given guarantees that they'll keep their 5% payrises AND their jobs this recession (yeah guys, I wish we could ALL have guarantees that we'll keep our jobs this recession) I have lost most of my evening and haven't done everything I planned this evening. AAAAAAAARGH!!!!

Anyway... rant over. Lovely Boyfriend has come to the rescue with a large mug of hot Cup-a-Soup (he was home far earlier than me as he was easily able to walk to the rail station from his workplace) so it's time to settle in with a post about my latest journalism work experience antics...

...but not before I share this YouTube jingle from someone who hates London Underground as much as I do right now. Do excuse the swearing and terrible spelling, but - sung to the tune of "Going Underground" by The Jam - it's still pretty funny (and accurate too)...

Yesterday (Tuesday) was day 7 of my work experience week at the newspaper... and from death statistics, I'd progressed to airline statistics. This involved making a lot of phone calls the press offices of various airlines, the Civil Aviation Authority in the UK, the Association of European Airlines, and Eurocontrol's Air Traffic reporting department. The statistics are for an article that I initially thought my editor was doing, but it seems I might actually be doing it instead...

As there are no spare desks for work experience temps - and all the people on the Arts desk who were away last week are back in the office - I am currently sitting on the Sports desk, even though I'm not working on anything sport-related. (Just as last week I sat on the Arts desk even though I wasn't working on anything Arts-related). The Sports guys work slightly different hours to everyone else: coming in at midday, they stay as long as needed to get the required sports story - which frequently means finishing up at nine or ten o'clock for evening matches and so on.

I am also due for writing another article for the Business & Finance department - the same type as last week, and another friend kindly agreed to help me out - but generally, Tuesday was less busy than previous days, though rest assured I didn't have time to twiddle my thumbs or anything like that. The great thing about journalism is that it's one of the few jobs where your boss won't mind you randomly surfing the Internet - it's all in the name of research.

Today was a bit more frantic - the Travel department had seven articles they wanted me to perform fact-checking exercises on, which I spent all afternoon doing (I hardly had a morning due to the delayed commute, as mentioned earlier). One of my recruitment consultants had arranged an accountancy job interview for me for tomorrow (Thursday), so emails were flying back and forth about the interview (which, I'm ashamed to admit, I'd forgotten about amidst all the journalistic deadlines and excitement).

The 3 financial advisors who had looked at my friend's personal finance questionnaire got back to me round about midday today, but I'm not able to write up their advice in an 800-word article until tomorrow as the fact-checking exercises that my editor gave me to do were quite urgent. In addition to this I was also fielding emails from the press offices of the companies I spoke to last week asking for pictures for my "Ten of the Best..." article, as they were very keen to find out when the article (featuring their products) was going to be published. All I could tell them was that it hadn't been published yet, but I'd let them know when it was so they could buy themselves a copy. They replied to say they couldn't wait and hoped it would be published soon. Frankly, so did I.

Let's hope the rest of the week is less stressful. And that the accountancy job interview (for a media company, believe it or not) goes well.
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Monday, 8 June 2009

Newspaper journalism work experience - Days 5 & 6

In which the British Government have a morbid Friday and I have a morbid Monday

Day 5 at the office was actually Friday - last week - and I would have posted if I had not been out all this weekend. By Sunday I was absolutely shattered. Maybe there really is no rest for the wicked!

After the stress and adrenaline rush of Thursday, I was feeling considerably more relaxed on Friday. I don't normally take Tube trains in London as I don't like London Underground - it's dirty and smelly and crowded and puts me in a terrible mood. Unfortunately for me, it's the best way to get to the newspaper offices, so I have no choice but to use it. I was feeling so relaxed, however, that it genuinely didn't bother me. And not having to be at the office until ten or half-ten means that I avoid the rush-hour crowds by the time I have to get on a Tube train.

Plus, I was musically entertained by these guys - who played a lively foot-stomping Irish jig to the whole carriage:
...they didn't seem to mind me blatantly taking photos of them as they believed (in their words) that they were very photogenic! Hmmm...

Thanks to my two big deadlines being out of the way, I was able to finish fact-checking that Andorra travel article written by a freelancer... only to find that the editor had checked it as the deadline for submission (for publication) had actually been Thursday. So I was a day late, and I didn't even know as I hadn't been told. Oops.

Aside from another article for the Travel department I was given to fact-check (fortunately this one had fewer errors to correct than the Andorra article, so it was much easier) the editor asked me to do some research for his column - about fatality statistics. I had to find out total figures, from the last 20 years(!) of deaths on Britain's roads by different vehicles, deaths on Britain's railways, and deaths by terrorist attacks both inside and outside the UK. Surely this should be an easy task, I thought - our government will publish these on the Office of National Statistics website, right?

Unfortunately for our government, they were having a bad day right inside of our very eyes. As I'm sure most of you know, the European elections were on Thursday 4th June (yes, I voted, in case you ask) and while London wasn't holding local council elections (because we did that last year), other parts of the country were. For non-UK readers, the local council elections aren't the same as our General Election - which is our big election equivalent of the Presidential Elections in the US last year - but the local council elections are considered a barometer of the public mood if there was a General Election to be held. Seat after seat fell from the current Labour government to the other political parties, blaring out from the large plasma TV screens all around the office. It was quite exciting to be in the thick of it as the news came in.

Even more surprising was the flurry of high-profile government resignations before the full results had been announced. The "BREAKING NEWS" banner on the TV screen usually just revolves the same two or three news stories for the whole day, but on Friday there were so many resignations flooding in that the "BREAKING NEWS" banner hardly stayed still.

The office was abuzz with excitement. Later in the afternoon Prime Minister Gordon Brown called a press conference and made a speech live on TV, and so shocked was everyone at the surprise government resignations that people actually stopped what they were working on, turned up the volume on the TV screens and listened in silence to what Gordon Brown had to say about it all.

"There's gonna be no-one left in the Cabinet at this rate!" said one of the staff excitedly. Gordon Brown was in a defiant mood though: despite the clamour of the journalists at the press conference to step aside, he refused, even after the fall of some of his biggest generals. To say he - and the Labour party - had a bad Friday is an understatement.

And now, on to Day 6.

My Monday - today - was morbid in a different way. Yes, I was still looking up those death statistics. I actually spent the whole day sifting through various mortality documents from the Government's official statistics body. There were so many documents about road deaths that I ended up simply phoning up the press office at the relevant government body (working at the newspaper means that nobody will speak to me unless they're from their organisation's press office). It took several phone calls before I got through to the correct people, but I was directed to the correct report for road deaths which, fortunately for me, contained more than the 20 years of data I wanted. They were slightly suspicious though, simply because I said I was from the media: they wanted to know who was writing the article, what it was about, when it was due to be published, and for which publication.

Rail death figures were slightly more tricky. The relevant data was spread over four separate reports, so I had to collate all of it in a collection of Excel spreadsheets. This is where my accountancy training came in useful: everyone who has ever worked in any Finance job becomes an Excel spreadsheets whizz-kid sooner or later as you use the damn thing so much. Sorting out a jumble of statistics in an Excel workbook was therefore something I was quite used to doing...

And then I came undone. After plenty of ringing around, some bloke at the Home Office told me they don't keep statistics on deaths by terrorism. WHAT?!?!? How can that be true? What about all those newspaper articles with all the terrorism statistics and so on? Isn't ANYONE keeping a record every time it gets reported in the papers? Doesn't sound right, does it?

I sifted through an entire 400-page report on "Causes of Death in the UK 2007/2008", but that didn't help. Not to mention that I really didn't know there are so many ways to die. I swear it - the causes of mortality ran into the thousands. It was really quite discomforting. Even more discomforting was finishing the report without the information I wanted. It had seemed so promising, only to come to nothing about an hour later.

Quite by accident - and contrary to what that bloke at the Home Office said - I discovered that the number of deaths in the UK due to terrorist activity IS in one of their reports: it's actually a very tiny statistic in one of the crime reports - an appendix called "Homicide in England and Wales" or something equally unpleasant.

Finding deaths due to terrorist activity outside the UK was virtually impossible. I'm SURE there must be a report with the stats available somewhere: I refuse to believe that no-one in the Government's statistics department is keeping a record of these things. However, I couldn't find one, so I had to do what that guy in the Press Office of the Home Office suggested: rely on Google and look up newspaper articles on the web. Yeah, thanks mate(!)

I think this was even more unpleasant than reading the homicide and mortality reports. I'm not going to go into some of the things I read about Brits being killed as a result of terrorism abroad. I gave up after a while as you can't possibly find every single article ever published in the last 20 years about Brits dying in horrible ways abroad and determine whether it was a terrorist act or not - and I'm not sure I'd want to, either. By the time I finished up at the office today (8pm) I was so sick of reading about death and dying I swear I never want to look at another fatality statistic ever again.

On a lighter note though (because I don't want to finish on something so morbid) in the shiny marble-floored atrium just outside our newspaper's office workspace, there was an exhibition being held for London's artists to see which ones could do the most creative things with old, used newspapers. I couldn't take pictures of all of them without it being obvious what I was doing, so here is one that I quite liked - a stool made entirely out of old newspapers. There were other works exhibited too, most notably newspaper jewellery and statues. The most impressive piece was an actual ballgown made from used newspapers, but unfortunately I don't have a picture of it. So I thought I'd share this one instead.

Thanks for all your comments and support, it's been a real pleasure receiving them even if I don't always have time to respond to them - I will definitely reply when I can, so do keep 'em coming!
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Thursday, 4 June 2009

Newspaper journalism work experience - Days 3 & 4

Yesterday (Wednesday) I slunk into the office at 10:30AM, feeling rather guilty about turning up so late... only to realise I had no reason to. People turn up between 10 and 10:30 in the morning, and unlike my previous workplaces, no-one bats an eyelid. I discovered this on turning up this morning at 9:55 at a virtually empty office. If' I'd ever done that at the accountancy firms or bank I previously worked for, I'd probably be shot.

People start to drift off home around 6PM (some head out at 5:30PM, but they're a very rare breed) but it's not unheard of to keep working until 7:30, or even later. Around this time, the "evening shift" workers come in, manning the newsdesk for any stories that come in in the evening. I wonder if anyone ever stays overnight watching for stories coming in?

So as you can tell, it's a completely different environment to what I've worked in previously. Large plasma TV screens are everywhere, displaying Sky News and live news updates, and occasionally people stop to watch and jeer when any member of the Government come on screen. People turn up wearing whatever they feel like, whether that's smart suits or more casual clothes. I was amazed to see most of the girls wandering around in mini-skirts and shorts all week, and no-one batted an eyelid: in one of my previous workplaces that was tantamount to inviting the more socially-inept among your male colleagues to sexually harass you.

Don't get me wrong, I'm actually all FOR girls having the right to wear mini-skirts and shorts to work (especially when it's been as hot as this week has been) but I remember the last time I wore a skirt that was only marginally above the knee was in my first accountancy job: one of the directors actually got on his hands and knees and attempted to look up my skirt. This "happily married man" didn't even try to disguise what he was doing and saying - and my skirt wasn't even that short. Yuck. I avoided him like the plague after that. So much for being "happily married". Anyway, my point is that until now, I simply couldn't conceive that it was possible for a girl to wear whatever she liked to work and not be made to feel uncomfortable for it. Either it's amazing, or I'm amazingly blinkered and naive.

I had two big (well, big for me the work experience temp, that is) article deadlines today. The first one was that personal finance article I mentioned yesterday - the three financial advisors giving advice on a person's situation. As the deadline was today, I had originally intended to work on it yesterday when the financial advisors got back to me, but of course things didn't quite pan out like that. The financial advisors got back to me with their advice fine; I was drowning in other stuff.

The South Africa article was being edited and scheduled for publication next week with my byline (yes! They're ACTUALLY agreeing to put my name on something in a national newspaper! I'm so excited!) so yesterday, emails were being fired back and forth between the Travel Section editor and myself with all the edits. In addition to that, I was fact-checking a freelancer's article again: another travel article, this time about Andorra, and information about Andorra isn't that easy to find, even with the godsend of the Google search engine. Around midday yesterday, I decided to start on my second Thursday deadline article: a "Ten of the Best..." article, complete with good-quality legally-obtained images of each item. As mentioned, the deadline for this one was by close of play today, so I started it yesterday lunchtime, thinking it'd be a walk in the park and I'd knock it out within a couple of hours at most. How wrong I was.

For a start, I knew absolutely nothing about the "ten best" items I was writing about, so it required some careful research before I could even produce the required 40 words for each of the ten featured products. It was hard to concentrate with the phone constantly ringing, as again I was supposed to be manning the phones:
Caller: "Hello, can I speak to the Arts Editor?"
Me: "I'm afraid he's on a business trip and won't be back till next week. Can I take a message?"
Caller: "Is there anyone else on the Arts desk I can speak to?"
Me (as colleagues gesture madly that they're busy and stressed): "I'm afraid there isn't, sorry."
Caller (annoyed/deflated/confused/hopeful - delete as appropriate): "Oh well, it's just that there's an exhibition on at such-and-such art gallery and I was wondering if there was a newspaper correspondent who could come and do a piece..."
Me (giving standard response to all non-urgent questions): "Ah, I see. The best thing for you to do is to email us at and one of our correspondents will pick it up from there. Thanks very much. Bye."

Yeah, I admit it's not great, but I don't know anyone there, I don't know anyone's telephone extension numbers, and I don't know how to operate the telephone in the first place. And of course, you can't really admit that to the caller, either.

So... in between answering the almost-constantly ringing phone, I had to do some constant ringing of my own: phoning companies' PR departments to ask them to email me high-quality images of the products I wanted to feature in my "Ten of the Best..." article. The newspaper have very strict guidelines on the images: most of the images on the internet can't be used so we have to ask for 300dpi, hi-res images over 100KB, which must be on a white background. Phoning the correct people isn't quite so simple: as with any telephone service in this country, you end up speaking to at least ten people before you get through to someone who can help you (and sometimes you're not even that fortunate). Needless to say, the "Ten of the Best..." article didn't get finished by the end of yesterday (Wednesday), and the personal finance one didn't even get started. I was so busy I didn't take my lunch hour till 4 o'clock, and that was only for ten minutes. I spent the whole of last night at home stressed and worried that I was going to miss both article deadlines.

I resolved to get in early this morning and work on them solidly, hence that I got in to an almost-empty office at 9:55AM. Refused to answer the phone, refused to talk to anyone, and to my shock and relief finished both by close of play today. I even managed to get all ten product images for the "Ten of the Best..." article, after much persistent and swift ringing round, and submitted everything at 6 o'clock. By this point I felt like a victorious boxer: slightly punch-drunk and totally exhausted, but swaggering out of the office with euphoric pride. I don't know why, and it sounds ridiculous, but I really felt like I'd achieved something massive.

Was late going home again though, as the Business & Finance editor called me over to discuss my article and ask me about myself. I don't mind a bit of constructive criticism, so he tried to offer some - except that he ended up being so complimentary I'm not sure he actually did. He was surprised to learn I was a chartered accountant. "Why would you want to give up a career like accountancy?" he wondered incredulously. "Because I don't like it," I fired back. Touché.
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Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Newspaper journalism work experience - Days 1 & 2

I was actually supposed to do an update yesterday after my first day, but as you can see, I failed in that task! So I've resolved today that I will post to this blog despite not actually leaving the office to go home until 8pm this evening.

I'd always imagined the office of one of the UK's most prominent national daily newspapers to be much like the stock-market trading floor: lots of yelling and shouting, dashing around, sweating and swearing over computer screens while the adrenaline and stress rushes round the room. Turns out that the office of one of the dailies isn't quite so noisy - but everyone IS definitely busy and stressed.

Yesterday (Monday) I turned up at their offices at 11AM as requested, only to be given the unfortunate desk of the person who answers the phones for the Arts department. The phone was literally ringing every five minutes and being the only person sitting in the Arts department who could man the phones (the others were all stressing over article deadlines), I had to handle all these calls from various people and sound like I knew what I was doing. Oh dear.

I got some pretty interesting work though. One was a recorded interview with a famous personality, which I had to listen to and type out the transcript of. Now, that was pretty revealing, in more ways than one: as well getting to listen to that famous individual's thoughts and opinions on his industry, I was surprised at actually hearing him talk and express himself - it was completely different to how I imagined him sound like in my head every time I read one of his interviews.

Transcribing a 15-minute interview seemed to take forever: I have never, in my life, been put in a situation where I have had to listen to two people talk and type up what they are saying as they go along. I'm sure it's a skill that can be easily learned - after all, secretaries and PAs seem do it effortlessly - but doing it for the first time in my 27 years of being on this planet, was certainly challenging at first.

The other pieces of work I was given yesterday included checking the facts that had been included in a piece of travel-writing journalism submitted by a freelancer - researching extensively on Google confirmed that the article only had one very slight error in it - and an article I've provisionally agreed to do for the Business & Finance department: finding an individual who was prepared to be interviewed about his or her financial circumstances, and writing an article including advice from three financial experts.

This kind of feature appears regularly in a lot of newspapers, but I never realised how much work actually goes into it: the Business & Finance editor wanted to know by the end of Monday whether the article was going ahead or not, so I immediately had to beg, badger and pester everyone in my iPhone contacts list (most of whom unsurprisingly said no to advertising their finances to all and sundry in the national papers. Can't say I could blame them, but the article still needed to be done!).

Fortunately I found one person out of the numerous people I pestered who was happy to fill out the financial questionnaire and send me a picture of himself for the newspaper - I really owe him one after this - but even after he completed it last night at my insistence, I submitted it to the financial experts and they will not get back to me with their advice till tomorrow (Wednesday). As the article needs to be submitted to the editor by Thursday that doesn't give me much time to write it up, but I don't think that can be helped! It sounds quite typical for an article deadline, anyway, so I won't complain.

Today was a similar sort of day. Every day various newspapers and magazine publications are placed on each and every staff member's desk, so they're quite good for flicking through to see what rivals are publishing, or even just to read different angles on the same story. It was handy to have these to flick through in my quieter moments, but I didn't get many of those (as proved by the fact that I didn't get home till 9pm). I did another interview transcription, this time of an interview with the chief financial officer of a company that has recently published its financial results - and I was much quicker this time. I'm also getting better at manning the phones - most of the calls simply want to send press releases in or advertise their client actor/theatre/rock band/author etc, and they were the easier calls to handle. Occasionally I got people asking for a specific person or department, to which I had no idea and had to direct them back to the switchboard. One PR firm wanted to get in touch with one of our freelancers, so I had to let someone else handle that.

The one call I did have difficulty with today was when an irate PR officer for another well-known personality (who I sadly can't name) rang up on behalf of her client about a less-than-complimentary article that had been published about her client on the website a few days ago; on finding out that the article had also been published in the hard-copy newspaper for that day, she was even less pleased. My colleague and I were beginning to get worried that she was going to threaten legal action, but instead she asked to be sent a copy of the newspaper in question... at which point I advised her she needed the Circulation department and sent her back to the switchboard.

The rest of the day passed much the same as yesterday, work-wise, although I now have this Thursday as a deadline for two articles. This was the reason for me staying late - I was already working on an article about South Africa which I decided to finish tonight before I went home to leave tomorrow free to concentrate on writing up the two with Thursday deadlines. It's certainly been an interesting experience so far, and completely different to previous accountancy jobs I've had.
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Sunday, 31 May 2009

Not quite the result I hoped for...

This has been a very busy week for me, hence that I've stayed away from the blog for the last ten days (and can only post very briefly now as I'll have to be in bed soon). I haven't even been home very much - enjoyed the long weekend by the beach in sunny Cornwall, then spent the rest of the week meeting recruitment consultants, having a job interview and then having a sleepover at one of my female friend's apartments, which was quite fun (and of course, good for doing something different).

Unfortunately, I didn't get the job I mentioned in the previous post that I got the interview for. The feedback was that they liked me and thought I interviewed well, unfortunately for me another candidate had slightly more relevant experience. To say I was gutted was an understatement. So gutted that I didn't even want to post anything for the last few days, though fear not - I feel fine about it now. Rejection happens to all of us at some point. I suppose one positive thing I can take away from it is that my interview technique is good - now to actually get more job interviews.

On another subject, tomorrow I will be starting a fortnight of unpaid work experience on a national broadsheet newspaper (as mentioned in a previous post) and that should be good - very different to my previous accountancy roles though. I've been looking forward to it for months so I'm still quite excited, and have been trying to focus on that rather than the job rejection.

In the meantime, though, I guess I'll keep trying on the job front. Hopefully I'll be back later this week to tell you about the work experience role.
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Thursday, 21 May 2009

Job update

I'm feeling as if I should post another "practical advice"-type post, seeing as that had been part of the original plan for this blog. As you all know, so far the only time I've posted anything resembling advice were the two consecutive posts on finances - why one should sort out their finances before a career change, and of course, suggestions on how to do so.

However, that'll have to be for another day.

Today's been quite eventful on the job front, I have to say. No sooner had I started this post, straight after finding out that I'd been rejected for one of the banking roles I talked about earlier this week, I was interrupted again by the shrill ringing of my mobile phone. My usual recruitment consultant James was ringing me to tell me that the other accountancy role (again in the Finance Department of another bank) want to invite me for interview next week. Thank God, I thought, an interview at last instead of a straight rejection like the last hundred roles I've been rejected for!

It sounds naive of me to say it again, but I really didn't think the recession would be as tough as this. This is the first time in my working life that I've actually been out of work for so long: for the last four years I've never had a problem finding a job. Even when I decided to quit my job at the accountancy firm last summer without another job to go to, I was confident that I'd quickly find another, more suitable, job - and, of course, I did: the six-month temporary role in a bank that I had until the contract finished in February this year.

Obviously by no means have I actually got this other banking role yet, but being invited for an interview certainly is encouraging after three months of rejections. It'll be good practice for other interviews at the very least!

I am continuing to apply for other roles, just in case. It now looks like I can't start work until mid-June anyway, as for the first two weeks in June, as you'll all already know from an earlier post, I am doing unpaid work experience on a national newspaper, which is an experience I won't pass up for ANYTHING, paid job or not!

On another topic - the Spring Bank Holiday weekend is coming up (we get two Bank Holiday weekends in May in the UK), so I shall be out of London from tomorrow until Monday night - we are going to visit my boyfriend's family down in Cornwall (southwesterly tip of England, with its own flag and its own - virtually dead - language, Cornish) as that's where he originally hails from. I'm not looking forward to the 9-hour coach journey from London, or even the 6-hour train journey back to London, but I am looking forward to going: I would recommend any visitor to the UK to consider going down there, with its stunning beaches and wild moors and slightly warmer climate.

So, before I leave you all to pack, I just thought I'd rummage through my photos of Cornwall to see if there's any I can share - can't find any beach shots, but I found this one I took a few years ago of St Michael's Mount, a tiny island rock just off the south coast of Cornwall dominated entirely by a castle:

For those of you that ever read Enid Blyton's "Famous Five" series when you were kids - especially "Five On A Treasure Island" - this is always what I imagined the fictional Kirrin Island to look like (which incidentally was supposed to be in Cornwall, but I'm not sure was necessarily based on St Michael's Mount). I was really tempted to search the depths of the castle for secret underground passageways and treasure, just like the Famous Five did in the book, but that might have been my imagination taking me just a little too far!

I hope you all have a fantastic weekend and I shall post again when I get back to London next week.
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Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Taking a step backwards to go forwards?

This week has seemed a bit more positive. Two accountancy recruitment consultants rang me today to put my name forward for two new accountancy roles that have become available. One's a permanent role in an accountancy firm, the other's a permanent role in a film company. In addition, my usual recruitment consultant James rang me yesterday to put my name forward for a temporary role at another large bank, so hopefully something will come out of these three prospective roles.

Especially after I went to the Jobcentre today to sign on only to find out they'd lost part of my signing-on file - but the less said about that the better, I think!

For those of you wondering why I am looking for another role in accountancy when I am trying to leave the profession, fear not: it is actually all part of the plan.

Last summer the plan was to save money for the eventual career change from a temporary contract role or two. I chose to take up a temporary contract role in a global bank partly because it paid more money than a permanent accountancy role - meaning I could save more money - and for temp roles, you get paid for the exact number of hours you work, so if you worked more than your contracted seven hours in day you would be well-rewarded for it (unlike most permanent jobs). In my previous permanent job at an accountancy firm (i.e. my second-to-last job) it wasn't unusual for me to work so late I didn't get home until well past 9pm, by which point I was too tired for any career-changing planning or activity... and even when I got home it didn't stop, for I was expected to do further accountancy study and training, which would have been fine if I wasn't trying to find a way out of the profession!

Obviously I wasn't counting on the credit crunch to bite harder than it did, so when my temp role at the Bank ended in February this year, I was surprised to find the job market as quiet as it has been. I had been hoping to take on another temporary contract, but thanks to the lack of jobs in the supposedly recession-proof accountancy sector (it's not recession-proof at all by the way) I am having to be less fussy and take on any job which pays. Needs must, after all.

And that, of course, means that I can't necessarily escape from chartered accountancy just yet. It looks like I may need to take on another role for a while if only to ensure the bills get paid. I'm still applying for the TEFL summer jobs in case these three roles come to nothing; however, as with most career changes, the change may have to happen quite slowly, being planned for all the way.
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Thursday, 14 May 2009

Keeping one's spirits up

When my good friend Bec asked me if I wanted to go for a coffee and girly chat on Tuesday night, I jumped at the chance. After all, there's only so much a girl can take of staying at home, watching The Jeremy Kyle Show, applying for jobs on the internet, and getting rejected for all of them.

So we spent a very pleasant evening at Caffé Vergnano 1882, so called as they have been roasting coffee in London since 1882. This award-winning independent café has lived for many decades among the bookstores on Charing Cross Road, although they recently opened a branch on London's South Bank which is where we went (and I had the hot chocolate on the left). To be honest, our "girly chat" wasn't very girly as we both discussed our career plans and job situations, both of which have been affected by the credit crunch. Of course it was great to see Bec again, and it was great to have a reason to leave the flat. I have to say, it did me the world of good.

Nobody ever said that changing careers was easy, and nobody ever said looking for a new job was easy, recession or not. Sometimes it's a real effort to stay optimistic and it can feel as if you'll never get anywhere. This is where a supportive family and/or supportive friends often come in; their support and point of view can be invaluable. In the absence of either supportive friends or family, simply doing an activity that will take you away from, or out of, your current situation can help. If coffee with a friend isn't possible, then perhaps going for a run or reading your favourite book might help.

It's far too easy to feel down about one's situation, and sometimes unyielding optimism is neither natural or realistic. There really is no point forcing a positivity you simply don't - and can't - feel. However, spending too long in the dumps brings the danger of making you less motivated to do anything if you feel the world is unendingly crap and there's nothing you can do about it. When you start feeling like that, it is time to do something different - if only to give you something different to think about.

Often the only way out of any difficult circumstance is to just go through it, unfortunately. As Winston Churchill once said, "When going through hell, ... keep going."
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Sunday, 10 May 2009

The value of education

I don't watch an awful lot of TV, mainly because I wasn't really brought up with it. Being currently unemployed has meant that I now occasionally watch The Jeremy Kyle Show (there's a lovely picture of him with an explanation on an earlier post), but that's it during the day.

One programme that I always watch though is The Apprentice (UK version, on the BBC every Wednesday at 9pm between March and June). Perhaps my previous training as an accountant meant that a show about business appeals to me in some way, even if the "prize" at the end of it is to work for Sir Alan Sugar.

The candidates are often hailed as "Britain's brightest business brains". Some of them are so highly qualified it makes me embarrassed just to have a Batchelor of Science degree. Sir Alan isn't quite so intimidated. As everyone knows, he didn't even get near a degree: he left school at the age of 16 to sell car aerials out of a van. Many highly-educated candidates with a string of qualifications as long as one's arm have been bluntly cut down by Sir Alan's no-nonsense remarks. "These certificates and qualifications, all they tell any employer is that the person's got a brain," he once famously fumed. "It really doesn't matter whether someone comes to me with an MBA, an OBE, a KFC or a YMCA, as far as I'm concerned. You can't learn business practices out of a book."

Is he right? Just how important is education in the world of business - or even the world of work?

When you're at school, you're always taught that education is the key to success: if you don't work hard, you won't get good grades; and if you don't get good grades, you won't get a good degree; and if you don't get a good degree, you won't get a good job. It would seem that acquiring lots of good, solid educational qualifications is the only way to guarantee career success - or even business success. Sir Alan, it would seem, doesn't share that opinion: he once snapped at a Cambridge University-educated candidate on The Apprentice (after her disastrous attempt at running a pizza stall): "This is not some further education college, you know, where dummkopfs come to learn to make mistakes."

Clearly the lack of further education never held Sir Alan back from success. It didn't hold back a former schoolmate of mine who left school at 16: two years later he came to visit us all in the Sixth Form. There we were, at 18 years old, sweating over our A-Level revision and university application forms, and there he was - having worked his way up through his company over the previous two years - commanding a salary of £30,000 (the average starting salary for a university graduate now is about £23,000, but back in the year 2000 it was probably less than £20k).

One of the managers I worked under in my first accountancy job left school at 18, found her first job in a tiny accountancy firm on a tiny salary and persuaded them to train her for the chartered accountancy qualification. Once she qualified at the age of 21 she left them to join a bigger, world-famous firm. By the age of 25 she was already a manager on £50,000. By the age of 25 I was still struggling through my chartered accountancy qualification on a fraction of her salary. Not to mention £10,000 of student loan debt I'd incurred from getting my BSc Mathematics degree, which of course she didn't have. And I was nowhere near her seniority level.

The point I'm trying to make is, salaries aside, by the ages of 18 and 25, these people were far further along in their lives and their careers than I was at those ages. They got good enough GCSE and A-Level grades for their desired careers, then instead of going on to university (and they certainly could, if they wanted), tried to get their foot in the door of their chosen field by accepting a low-paid, low-skilled position and working their way up. Despite my top-class degree from a top-class university, at the age of 23 I still spent the first few months at the accountancy firm making tea and photocopying while I was "learning the ropes". I may have started on a higher salary than if I'd started at the age of 18, but I'd always be about 3 or 5 years behind in career progression.

Our former Prime Minister Tony Blair once pledged to have 50% of all young people in the UK in university education. Never mind that, frankly, some of these teenagers may not be suited to higher education, and as above, may not even need it. Entry to higher education certainly increased under his tenure, and so did the number of loans taken out by the Student Loan Company as a result. But, we were all promised, getting yourself into debt for a good university degree would all be worth it as you were guaranteed to get the best jobs as a result of spending an extra 3 to 5 years in a schooling environment. Try telling that to the class of 2009, who leave university in the middle of a recession only to find the "best" employers are not hiring any graduate recruits and the only jobs available are the low-skilled ones. Does one really need a degree to flip burgers in McDonalds?

There is also the issue that school and university life doesn't prepare you for the world of work. This has been a frequent complaint among a lot of graduates. At 21 I could tell you all about the Theory of Relativity and numbers on an imaginary plane, but I didn't have a clue about how to deal with office politics or the character transplant required to fit into work culture. I could tell you all about the Navier-Stokes equations for fluid dynamics, but I didn't have a clue why our office working methods were what they were.

I wasn't prepared for the fact that our office chat consisted of mindless gossip and conversations about TV programmes, instead of the debates about literature and world politics that I got used to with my university friends. I simply didn't have a clue that when your boss marches in, announcing that he's gone commando in the office because he's shit his pants and had to throw them away, you have to humour him instead of being horrified. Nothing could have prepared me for that!

So it would seem that academia doesn't prepare you either for real life or for the world of work. What worth does it have, then?

A couple of years ago I gave a talk at a local secondary school about what a career in accountancy would involve. As soon as their career advisor introduced me as an accountant I could see the whole room of 16-year-olds switch off like the lights had gone out. Only one seemed interested, and enthusiastically wrote down everything I said. There was one problem. He wanted to be an accountant, but he couldn't be bothered with his schoolwork. Particularly Maths. Now, while you don't have to be a Maths genius to be an accountant (in fact, it probably helps if you aren't!), you do need to be good at basic arithmetic. If you don't have a good GCSE and/or A-Level Maths grade by the age of 18, then forget it: no self-respecting firm is going to employ a trainee accountant who can't count.

It's not just accountancy: you'd be surprised how important basic mathematical skills are for day-to-day living. Particularly with financial matters: at best it stops you paying more than you necessarily need to; at worst it stops you being completely ripped off.

On The Apprentice a few weeks ago, Paula, a human resources manager, received the "You're Fired" treatment from Sir Alan and crashed out of the competition despite having come up with a brilliant body-care product and organising her team efficiently. The reason? A simple arithmetic error arising from mixing up two essential oils meaning she'd spent over £700 instead of the £5 she thought she'd spent. Paula's bleating that "I'm no good at numbers" was viewed dimly. It was basic maths that we all learned in school.

Other work and life skills build on school learning too: if you've never bothered to learn to spell or use grammar properly, you can't expect other people to understand what you've written. Business clients will think you are unprofessional and incompetent. When applying for a job, it could even annoy the person who is reviewing your application. Computer spell-checkers don't always pick up spelling or grammar mistakes, so it still means you have to learn these academic skills at some point.

Increasingly employers are demanding an ever-widening set of academic skills, such as foreign language skills and basic geographic knowledge. So ignoring your teachers may not be such a good idea after all.

Some professions actually need a relevant university degree: if you want to be a doctor you need to do a degree in medicine. My boyfriend works in IT but he has a Computer Science degree. Sir Alan's assertion that educational qualifications "only tell an employer that person's got a brain" is therefore not entirely true.

Personally, I don't regret the time I spent at university. I'd wanted to go since the age of 11, and being Little Miss Straight "A" Student without much effort meant that there was no way I wasn't going to go. If I had my time all over again, I'd still have gone to university, even if I might have picked a different subject. I loved my time at university. Not only did I get to be independent, I learned how to cook, how to live on a shoestring budget, how to interact with people from vastly different social backgrounds - and cultures - from me. I met great people and got to challenge my brain. I took advantage of all the opportunities I didn't get at school - student journalism, living with friends, martial arts classes and so on. I learned how other people lived, worked, and thought. I learned so many things that I never would have known if I never went to university.

I also learned that life is what you make it. The greatest education in life is that of life itself, but your academic education is of as much value as you make of it. And sometimes the uses you find for your education can be quite unexpected.
The writers of the musical Avenue Q have degrees in English Literature, commonly seen as a "useless" degree that doesn't lead to anything, career-wise... so they wrote a song in Avenue Q called "What Do You Do With a B.A. in English?" You can't argue that they didn't make use of that!
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Saturday, 9 May 2009

Update on the Jobcentre situation - and the job situation

This is a going to be a very quick post as it's my lovely boyfriend's 28th birthday today, so I will need to head off very soon for the birthday party I've been busy organising all week. Would you believe it, I completely forgot to buy him a card despite trying to organise the big day... how the hell did I manage to forget that???? After all, it's not as if I actually forgot his birthday (well, you'd hope not, seeing as I've spent the week organising it!) Ah well, hopefully all will be forgiven very soon!

The rest of the week has been spent battling a nearby wasps' nest - the little blighters keep mysteriously getting into our bathroom - and sorting out my application at the Jobcentre. I'm pleased to tell you that the interview went smoothly this time, so hopefully things will be sorted out soon.

The other thing that's kept me busy this week is writing an article for one of my favourite blogs, Laura Reviews at Quite aside from my article (about things for a bookworm to do when in London), I do urge you all to go and visit this intelligent, insightful and frankly wonderful blog, dedicated to reviewing the written word in all forms.

I still haven't managed to find an accountancy job, though, and dole money won't be enough. So what I'm considering now is other paid employment, specifically Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), which is what I did in China in 2004. While there aren't so many long-term TEFL opportunities in England, plenty of schools are recruiting for the summer months at the moment. OK, the salary's a fraction of what I got as an accountant working for a global bank in the City (London's version of Wall Street in New York), but it'll be just about enough for the mortgage and bills I think - and I don't mind living cheaply for a while. At the moment it's just more important that I have some sort of income coming in! Many people working in my field (particularly at the Bank I worked at till this February) tend to live very luxurious and expensive lives, but fortunately for me I cut out a lot of those things over the last year or so for the future career change, so I'm more used to it than most!

I've heard from my recruitment consultants that many newly-qualified accountants like me are struggling to find jobs as a result of the credit crunch, so a lot of them have either gone travelling for 6 months, found voluntary work, or are generally doing something completely different to keep them busy until the jobs market picks up. Personally I'm happy for the opportunity to do something different... and dare I confess it, secretly enjoying my time off...
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Sunday, 3 May 2009

Fear and loathing at the Jobcentre

Anyone watching Jeremy Kyle (Britain's answer to The Jerry Springer Show) would be forgiven for thinking that appearing on the show is a favourite pastime for anyone claiming unemployment benefits. The daytime TV show famously described by a judge as "the human form of bear-baiting" seems to take particular pleasure in featuring surly, inarticulate, under-educated dole-claimants whose sole ambition seems to be appearing on the show to air their personal lives on national television, shout at each other, and be shouted at by Jeremy Kyle himself.

While I'm not going to judge the circumstances under which people claim state benefits long-term, I do wonder how they can bear it. Quite aside from the vocal moral outrage of those like Kyle [left], the fact is you still have to get yourself to the Jobcentre to attend a "sign-on" meeting every 2 weeks in order to receive the dole money and let the staff suggest "suitable" available jobs to get you back in work. Personally I can't stand the Jobcentre. It's one of the most disorganised and chaotic institutions there is. Often the queues are so long and the staff are so stressed and confused that by some unhappy accident you seem to end up spending most of the day there waiting for someone to see you... only to be told that your name was mistakenly crossed off the list. When you finally get a meeting with a member of staff they ask you about your qualifications and skills to match you to suitable employment, then inform you that you're "far too qualified" for the long-distance truck-driver role that their computer database has somehow suggested as your ideal job. Fortunately the recession has meant that the staff no longer tell people like me that we're "too qualified" for the jobs they attempt to foist on us, as obviously a lot of formerly high-flying professionals have been walking through their doors.

But anyway... it would probably come as no surprise to any of you that, given my less-than-favourable impression of the Jobcentre, I forgot about my "sign-on" meeting. No problem, I was told; I could come in the next day (last Thursday) for a "late sign-on", but as my unemployment benefits claim still hasn't been processed yet, I wouldn't be paid yet. I turned up the next day, only to find that:
a) they'd forgotten to add my name to the list of "late sign-ons" that day
b) someone had come along and closed my unemployment benefits application without bothering to read the note on my file about the "late sign-on" meeting.

So it seems I have to go through the whole rigamarole again. Not that I was told this at first: after being advised one thing and then another by various Department for Work and Pensions people over the phone, I then found out I have to go through the whole applications process again "because I haven't received any dole money yet". All this in spite of the fact that my initial claim has yet to be processed! I know it's partly my fault for missing the meeting in the first place, but what a pain. I have no idea how long-term benefits claimants put up with the amount of hassle one has to go through.

Whilst in theory it's nice that countries like the UK have some sort of safety net to help those who are actively looking for work and might need a bit of support in the meantime, in practice it's complicated, cumbersome and unreliable. I'm not even sure the staff themselves know entirely what they're doing. Common advice on losing your job is that you shouldn't delay in claiming benefits, whatever your financial situation; but to be perfectly honest doing so can be a job in itself.

I'll certainly be glad when the application process (or re-application process in my case) is over next week and I can concentrate on doing the things I need to do to find gainful employment. Until then, I shall just enjoy the Bank Holiday weekend.
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Thursday, 30 April 2009

One month of blogging

Was so pleased to discover that I got my 400th visitor today - exactly one month after I started writing this blog. I'd like to say thanks to everyone who has visited and commented on this site in that month, and also thanks to those followers/subscribers who have come back for more - it's very much appreciated and I am actually quite shocked at the response to a project that was spontaneously set up on a whim during an afternoon tea break. Thanks to you all!

I shall return later with a relevant post.
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Wednesday, 29 April 2009

(Un)important Things

I'm actually secretly rather glad that Squirrel Queen, author of three lovely blogs called The Road To Here, Through Squirrel Eyes and The Chase For Baja, tagged me in her post of the same title as it made a welcome break from cleaning my apartment from top to bottom (I still haven't finished, that's how much there is to do!)

I actually deliberately stayed away from the computer from Monday night until now in order to get it done.... so I have no posts in mind for today and am actually very glad that Squirrel Queen has given me a ready-made post to put up! Unless you want to hear all about my cleaning exploits that is.... but of course I'm sure you don't.... (on the off-chance that anyone actually does.... sprinkling a liberal amount of bicarbonate of soda in my oven and scrubbing with a wet sponge scourer worked a treat. Ha! The green lobby are gonna love me!)

Here are the 3 rules:

A. Mention the person who tagged you.
Just did. See above.

B. List six unimportant things that make you happy.
Hmmm, that's not easy, there are so many. OK, here goes....

1. Cups of tea - obviously. With plenty of milk. Although hot chocolate is a good substitute. Actually, make that chocolate in general!
2. Sunshine and blue cloudless skies - like today! I'm not a great photographer but I took this photo on my iPhone today to share with you all:

3. Watching "The Apprentice" with boyfriend (UK version - haven't seen the US version). It's the only TV show I bother to watch.
4. The smell of parks and gardens just after the summer rain has fallen and the sun has come out.
5. Singing. And karaoke with friends (don't knock it till you've tried it!) I can't sing for toffee though, so that's not a potential career-change option.
6. Pressing or pushing buttons (just don't ask.... it'll take too long to explain)

C. Tag six blogs, state the rules and notify them with a comment on their blog.
Hmmmm, this is again a hard one. Can't I do what Squirrel Queen did and just tag everybody?

I'll try and nominate different blogs this time for people to visit....

1. The 1,000,000 Project (sorry, I know I've just nominated you for an award - I just thought you'd enjoy doing this one!)
2. accidentally, kle
3. Serendipitous Freelance Writer
4. Musing
5. RoRo Fusion
6. Live Write Dream

Right, I have to go, "The Apprentice" is on at 9pm so I've only got a couple of minutes.... Will post tomorrow, see you all!
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Monday, 27 April 2009

Recession and redundancy - disaster or opportunity?

My mate Steven's 26th birthday party was on Saturday night, so my boyfriend and I had the perfect excuse to spend the day - well, the whole weekend, really - wandering round in the glorious sunshine before heading over to Covent Garden where the party was. Despite a spate of redundancies at the City law firm he works for, Steven confided cheerfully that he wasn't worried.

"I've decided to take voluntary redundancy," he confessed over his pint of beer. "There's so many people losing their jobs, I'm not going to sit around and wait to see if I'm next."
"You're doing what?!?" I gasped. "I thought you liked your job?"
"Oh, I do like my job," he answered airily, "but I work such long hours all the time, I haven't had a break for years. So the opportunity's come up, and I've decided to take it. Besides which," he added, grinning, "I get a much bigger payoff this way."
"But, mate," I continued to protest. "Are you sure you know what you're doing?"
"Well, yeah," he said. "I mean, come on, this is an opportunity, innit? I can sit at home, have a rest, do nothing for a year, maybe I'll even travel a bit, then go back to work somewhere else..."

Now that's a response I haven't often heard this recession: "It's an opportunity". Open any newspaper or turn on any TV, and you'll hear a thousand and one doom-and-gloom articles about the failing economy and the ever-increasing queues outside jobcentres up and down the UK. In the past 18 months the BBC news website has featured stories of despair from people who have either been made redundant, or are under threat of being made redundant. People are worried sick, taking on more work, taking pay cuts, working longer hours, being nice to the boss, all in a desperate scramble to hold onto their jobs as tightly as possible, yet here's my mate Steven jumping at the chance to lose his job - hell, he's even asking his firm to let him go.

While the next few weeks will show if Steven actually meant it (or whether he'd simply drunk too much beer), I couldn't help wondering about both points of view. Clearly the media have painted the credit crunch as an unmitigated disaster, the worst financial crisis for a century; but there is a small crowd who feel that the recession has thrown up plenty of opportunity. In Steven's case, he's 26, single and has no domestic or financial commitments. He went straight into practising law after university, so unlike myself, he didn't have the chance to travel or try something else before embarking on a career. It's easy to see how he'd view this recession as a big opportunity for himself.

But it's not just him, though. Some businesses are taking that view as well. Budget supermarkets like Aldi and Lidl in the UK are apparently having a great time, as is any business marketed for "the credit crunch". Foyles Bookstore in London's Charing Cross Road put up posters listing their examples of businesses that had started in recessions:
  • Burger King
  • Disney
  • FedEx
  • Microsoft
  • CNN
  • General Electric
  • MTV
  • Sports Illustrated
  • Hewlett Packard
among others.
While I am not going to be one of those dismissive or unrealistically "optimistic" people who bray that this recession is nothing to worry about, or who belittle the hardship and distress of many going through tough circumstances, I do feel it's probably worth remembering that there are two sides to every story as with everything else.

Now I just have to sit down with a cup of tea and consider what opportunity my own redundancy has given me!
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Friday, 24 April 2009

Noblesse Oblige Award

I have been kindly presented with the Noblesse Oblige Award by fellow blogger When I Am Rich - thanks a bunch!

I first discovered When I Am Rich and her eponymous blog a few weeks ago completely by accident, like most of my best discoveries! Her blog is cute, thoughtful and light-hearted, and the posts are written on a very simple premise: what she will do when she is rich. What I liked about her blog is that there's no wistful regret and sighing; instead you are rewarded with quirky, optimistic insights which show you - along with some excellent photographs - that there are actually many great things in life you can still appreciate, for free (like moonlit starry nights and hot cross buns - complete with some very yummy pictures of course!)

Here's what the award is all about:

The recipient of this award is recognized for the following:

1) The Blogger manifests exemplary attitude, respecting the nuances that pervades amongst different cultures and beliefs.
2) The Blog contents inspire; strives to encourage and offers solutions.
3) There is a clear purpose at the Blog; one that fosters a better understanding on Social, Political, Economic, the Arts, Culture and Sciences and Beliefs.
4) The Blog is refreshing and creative.
5) The Blogger promotes friendship and positive thinking.

The Blogger who receives this award will need to perform the following steps:

1) Create a Post with a mention and link to the person who presented the Noblesse Oblige Award.
2) The Award Conditions must be displayed at the Post.
3) Write a short article about what the Blog has thus far achieved – preferably citing one or more older post to support.
4) The Blogger must present the Noblesse Oblige Award in concurrence with the Award conditions.
5) The Blogger must display the Award at any location at the Blog.

What my blog (Career Changing in the Credit Crunch) has achieved so far:
I started writing this blog about 3 or 4 weeks ago as a web diary of my attempt to change career, with the hope of helping anyone who is thinking of changing career but is not sure how to go about it. Every career changing resource I looked at offered small suggestions of advice but never actually offered a story of how someone did it, or how they dealt with any of the issues they went through. So I started this blog as a way of filling that gap: partly to offer practical advice based on my own experiences but also to share my story to those who need that little bit of encouragement to go for it.
As I wrote at the end of my very first post, back in March, "There is never a 'good' or 'right' time to change career for many people, but I don't agree that we must doom ourselves to unhappy or unfulfilling lives because of it ... if I manage to persuade one person that tough economic circumstances are no bar to changing career, then I will have achieved something."

While I think all the blogs I'm following are great (or I wouldn't be following them!), I am going to pass the Noblesse Oblige award to the following selection of blogs:
1) Paused in Peru:
Argentum Vulgaris has already won this award for one of his other blogs, but Paused in Peru is his latest blog about his travels through Peru, complete with some wonderful pictures and commentary.
2) Reduce Footprints:
Small Footprint's blog discusses ways for each of us to reduce our "footprint" on this earth and live in a greener, healthier way. Full of discussions about environmentally-friendly issues and tasty-looking vegan recipes (yeah, I know I'm a meat-eater, but still tempted to try these!)
3) England Rents, Rants & Raves:
Blog by an English expat living in America, aka The Prodigal Tourist, who occasionally returns to visit, taking some nice photographs and making observations about his homeland on the way.
4) Laura Reviews:
Intelligent, witty, insightful blog reviewing the written word - whether from books, news articles, or any other source. Includes interviews with authors of books Laura has reviewed.
5) The 1,000,000 Project:
This is a hilarious blog of projectmanager's attempts to be a millionaire by the age of 30. I still don't get why he/she wants to buy a cow, but it made me laugh anyway.
6) Greenback Savvy - You Can't B.S. the G.$:
US-based Greenback Savvy shares her sensible advice on how to manage your money in a highly readable way. As she says, "you can take her advice or leave it", but it's worth a thought if you need an idea of how to deal with your hard-earned US dollars.
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Wednesday, 22 April 2009

I read the news today, oh boy....

I apologise for bringing a very melancholy note into this blog, but I've just had the shock of my life reading the news about the family that was killed in a car crash on the M1 motorway on Saturday. It turns out that I knew the 27-year-old man who was killed alongside his sister, mother and uncle: he was in my class at secondary school 10 years ago. You never imagine these things will actually happen to someone you know, or someone who you once knew quite well.

While I was never really friends with the bloke and therefore wasn't in contact with him - I last spoke to him when I bumped into him on a train in 2002 or 2003 - words can't express the shock and horror I felt when my brother rang me up to tell me he'd read it in one of the London newspapers yesterday evening. This is the sort of tragedy you never wish on anyone, let alone someone you once saw at school every day.

I suppose because of yesterday's blog post (about letting fear hold you back in life) I was in a philosophical mood anyway, but it reminded me just how fragile life is. It reminded me how time really is precious, and you can't waste it because you simply don't know how short your time on this earth will be. It also made me think of a quote from one of my favourite speeches: Steve Jobs, the CEO of Apple Computers, said in his Stanford University commencement speech in 2005:
"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."
For those who want to see the full text of the speech (and it's a damn good speech, so I recommend it), click here, and for those who want to watch it see the bottom of this post.

Thanks for all your comments yesterday regarding fear and how to move past it. I think the news I've just talked about above pretty much follows on what I talked about yesterday, though obviously I wasn't originally planning on writing this post! Your thoughts and advice were all very much appreciated.

P.S. Happy Earth Day to all of you.
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