Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Quitting your job???? Don't you know there's a recession on????

I swear, if I could have a pound every time I've heard a version of the above question I'd be a seriously rich girl by now. One of the first things you realise - when you first announce your intention to change career - is that not everyone agrees that it's a good idea. I reckon it's fair to say that once you've made that decision, you need a mind of steel to resist some of the doubt and incredulity that comes your way. As if making the decision to do it wasn't hard enough!

Obviously I'm not referring to my closest friends, boyfriend or family; they were relieved as it meant they didn't have to hear me moaning about my job anymore. Well, my mum isn't totally comfortable, bless her, as I explained in my previous post ("Back To The Beginning") but I'm sure she'd want the best for me.

No, the people I'm referring to here were my accountancy colleagues, or friends that had been colleagues, even the ones who'd proclaim (either in the office or at Friday drinks) that they didn't like their jobs either. Many of them thought I was mad. I remember when I handed in my notice last summer at the accountancy firm I worked at: I'm sure my boss just thought I had a bad case of PMT. It took some time for me to convince him I was absolutely serious. "But... but... but..." he spluttered, "don't you know there's a recession on? You won't find another job! Accountancy firms aren't hiring that much at the moment, you know, it's not like two years ago!"

By that stage, I wasn't quite so fussed. I'd been planning this for a good few months, since about Christmas 2007 in fact. Even if I didn't know what career I wanted to change to at that stage, knowing back then that I definitely wanted to change career was enough to galvanise me into taking my first action: sorting out my finances.

What? I hear you cry. You mean like budgets and savings? But that's boring! And you'd be right. It is. But necessary. Who was it who said "when the going gets tough, the tough have cash"? Making a career change isn't always smooth sailing. So, you have to be prepared. That means financially as well as emotionally - the last thing you want to be thinking when you're worried about whether your career change will work or not is "Shit - I'm flat broke!"

After doing some research, I was shocked to discover that I was being vastly underpaid; the market rate for someone of my skills and experience was about 10-15% more than what I was being paid. I asked my boss for a pay rise. He refused. I realised then that I had to leave.

The other factor in my decision to leave was that around this time I started to get sharp pains in my chest, like searing hot knives, on a permanent basis. I was only 26 and in good health. The doctor was convinced it was stress; while I was doubtful of his diagnosis for a while I did notice that as soon as I handed in my resignation notice, the pains magically disappeared. 'Twas a miracle, I tell thee!

Before I handed in my notice, I contacted a recruitment consultant to sound out the job market, and in particular, the market for temporary and contract jobs. In summer 2008, the job market was certainly a lot better than now, so I was able to get a temporary job in commerce rather than an accountancy firm. I figured that, while I had enough savings to last me a few months without work, it wasn't enough to give up accountancy completely. In fact, with a mortgage to pay, it may well take quite a while before I am able to give up accountancy completely. But I'm on the way to doing so, rest assured.

The temp job paid pretty well, which was good as it enabled me to to save more money into the "emergency cash fund". (Also known as "career change fund" or "my boss can shove this job up his arse fund" - take your pick). It was so hard trying not to spend the extra cash I was earning - why is it that the moment you go on a budget, suddenly you are surrounded with so much temptation? I think the only thing that kept me from splurging during this time was the knowledge that the less money I had saved for the career change, the longer I'd have to stay being an accountant!

While I still don't have the financial resources right now to quit accountancy completely, I've had time to read books on changing careers and think about what I want to do. I can't quite sit down and say "OK, I want to do X, and I definitely know that's what I want to do," so what I've decided to do is follow what I'm interested in and actually try it out. My temp contract finished last month, so I'm looking for another accountancy job to continue funding the career change, but in the meantime I have started that English Literature A-Level I wanted to do 10 years ago. I found a place that does distance-learning qualifications - it's called the National Extension College and for those of you in the UK, the website is http://www.nec.ac.uk/. I spent ages looking for a reputable distance-learning company as there's some real scams out there on the Internet, and I found this one on a UK government advice website.

In addition to that English Literature A-Level that I've finally got round to doing, I'm also doing an A-Level in Sociology (opted not to go for Psychology in the end), also by distance-learning with the National Extension College. I had to use some of my savings to pay for all of them, but hopefully it'll be worth it.... when I actually get started on the courses! The good thing about doing it this way is that I get to try out whether it does suit me or not; and if it doesn't, then I suppose I shall retreat back to my accountancy stepping-stone and think again.

So.... that's a potted history of how I started my career change, and where I am at the moment. Obviously it's very much a work in progress and there are topics I've touched on, like personal finance issues and first steps, that I want to go into more detail and share my tips and advice on. Probably the next time I take an afternoon tea break.
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Monday, 30 March 2009

Back to the Beginning

Now that the blog appears to be up and running - and now that I've figured out how to work it - I suppose I should explain a little bit about me and how I came to be where I am now. The story starts ten years ago - when I was 17 years old....

....and choosing my A-Levels. For any readers from the US, I am not sure what the equivalent is (I think some countries do the International Baccalaureate which is supposed to be the equivalent), but in the United Kingdom, if you want to go to university, you spend the two years between the ages of 16 to 18 at school or a further education college studying for your A-Level exams. These determine which course you study at university - and indeed, which university you study at - which in turn determines the job you do. So when you're about 16 or 17, there's a lot of pressure on you to perform in the chosen three or four subjects that are supposedly going to map out your entire future from now to eternity.

I had a hard time choosing which subjects I wanted to do, truth be told. There wasn't anything that I particularly wanted to do with my life at that stage; although I liked the idea of studying for A-Levels and going to university (and experiencing student life of course). All I knew is that I loved writing, reading fiction and psychology books, but I was also good at sciences and maths. So in this confused state of mind, when my parents plotted that I study for an Economics degree and go into the world of finance - "because humanities subjects lead nowhere and finance pays so well!" - I didn't object, despite having no prior knowledge or interest in Economics. So it was determined that I do Economics (parents' choice), Maths (my choice, but one that would please the parents), Further Maths (ditto) and Physics (recommended by some idiot careers advisor because "it complements Further Maths and universities look highly on it").

In hindsight, I should not have listened to any of them: for starters, it turned out that university admissions tutors really didn't care whether I'd done Physics or not. I was hopeless at Economics, barely managing to scrape a pass in all the tests I was set even with my best efforts. I had no interest in the subject and simply couldn't get my head round any of it. I spent a year arguing with my parents, who felt I wasn't trying hard enough, and arguing with everyone else, which left me feeling miserable and useless. After a year, I managed to persuade the deputy headmaster that I wanted to give it up. I missed writing and reading and wanted to take English Literature instead. Unfortunately, after a year, it was too late to change A-Levels, so I had to just drop Economics without replacing it. To say my parents were disappointed was an understatement.

There aren't many degree subjects you can study with A-Levels of Physics, Maths and Further Maths; so I applied to study Maths at degree level. Within a few weeks of starting the course, I was in a panic: I didn't like the course, but what the hell can you change to when you have Physics and Double Maths as your A-Level subjects? Apart from Physics, which I found worse than Maths, so that was out. Some people had other A-Levels, such as art or geography, which they had good grades in and thus could change to; but for me, it was either finish the Maths degree or drop out of university. Horror stories abounded (at the time) of people who dropped out of university: with no degree, they were condemned to poorly-paid jobs with no hope of career progression or personal advancement. In addition my parents were only prepared to fund one three-year degree as they weren't exactly rich, which was fair enough. After being reassured that Maths was a useful degree which led to a wide array of jobs, I decided to grit my teeth, swallow my pain and finish it.

Which I did, and despite flirting heavily with student journalism and volunteer radio, in 2003, I graduated with a good, solid BSc Mathematics degree. But then what? The careers advisors who told me that "Maths was a useful degree which led to a wide array of jobs" were sought as I asked them what I could do. "You could teach?" one suggested. Er, no, don't fancy it. "You could become a statistician?" Sorry, I didn't like the statistics module. "You could go into finance?" I don't have any interest there, I'm afraid. "Ah, well, then you're stuffed. There's nothing else you can do, sorry." Another asked me, "what do you want to do, then?" Actually, I replied, I want to write for a living. "Ah, well, you've done the wrong degree. Nobody's going to want to take you on to write with a Maths degree. Sorry."

I decided to take a year out to travel, but having no money (and not having parents who were able to fund me) I decided the best way to pay for my travels would be to work as an English teacher, so after getting a TEFL (teaching English as a Foreign Language) qualification, I decided to spend most of 2004 in China, teaching English to adults and children and earning enough money to fund my travels. I loved it, and loved living in China, but didn't fancy the idea of teaching in the UK. So when my contract finished I returned to the UK but still had no idea what to do. My parents, though disappointed that I hadn't done an Economics degree, hadn't quite given up on the idea of me working in finance. Not wanting to disappoint them further, I applied to train as a chartered accountant, and with my Maths degree and grades, I had no problem being accepted for a training contract.

I make it sound a little bit as if my parents are to blame, but sitting here writing this, I don't think they entirely were. They had had to struggle all their lives; they hadn't been to university themselves and spent most of their adult lives working very hard for very little money, and clearly wanted the best for me. They simply didn't want me to struggle as they had done, and didn't want me to spend all my adult life worrying about money or living on a tight budget, as they had done. I can't blame them for that; and the fear of their children experiencing the same poverty and hopelessness they had once experienced must have been ever-present in their minds when urging me to do A-Levels and a degree which I may have hated, but would have - in their minds - secured my financial future for ever. I can't fault their intentions, but the guilt I felt at "failing" them or "letting them down" was the reason I chose the path I did, even if I didn't enjoy it or wasn't naturally good at it.

I wanted to quit accountancy so many times though; this was even worse than the Maths degree. I hated every minute of it and frequently cried myself to sleep. I hated the work, which was boring and repetitive, and hated most of my colleagues who were equally boring and repetitive - not to mention arrogant, spoiled, pretentious, chauvinistic and narrow-minded. Yuck. My mum hated seeing me unhappy; but at the same time didn't want me to give up. She didn't want me to miss out on the large salaries that many qualified accountants were supposedly receiving, and urged me not to quit the chartered accountancy training contract; these were just teething problems from a graduate unused to working life, she promised - you'll feel differently when you qualify in three years. I think she desperately wanted to believe that, but three years later I didn't feel any different; in fact I knew, more certainly at that point than any other, that I had been following the wrong path in my life for the last ten years.

And that, readers, is what kicked off the reassessment which led me to decide to change career. I'll pen off here, I think - you must be exhausted after reading this! I shall have to make future blogs shorter I reckon.
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Ready... Get Set...

I must admit, I'm a little nervous setting up this blog. I can't help wondering if blogging is old hat now - everyone's got one, everyone feels they've got something to say to the world, so what makes this one any different? I suppose the only answer I can give in response to that question is that there are so many people unhappy and unfulfilled in their jobs or career paths that it really is quite saddening to see. Many people want to change something, but don't know how; others have an idea what they'd like to do, but hesitate to make the first step. Lots of people are fearful or unsure, and just when they plucked up the courage to make even the tiniest first step, the recession arrived like a hurricane and demolished the hopes and dreams of many who now feel that, given the state of the economy and the uncertainties in the job market, they would be foolish, perhaps even selfish, to pursue the career that really is right for them. I don't agree. 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.

So, this is a web diary of my attempt to change career, and most unfortunately my only opportunity to date for doing so came when the credit crunch was in full swing. But if I manage to persuade one person that tough economic circumstances are no bar to changing career, then I will have achieved something.
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