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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  1. I started out working on a degree in Chemistry with a minor in Physics. The path I followed went in an entirely different direction and I am very happy the way it turned out. I look forward to following you.

  2. I agree, school careers advice is pretty useless. I'm lucky that my degree subject (also Maths), chosen from interest in the subject itself rather than with any idea of where it might lead, actually turned out to be a great way into where I was interested in going, when I finally worked out where that was many years later. Certainly none of my teachers ever suggested my maths degree could pave the way to a career as a social scientist... I could so easily have ended up finding like you that my degree didn't allow me to do what I wanted.

    Good luck with the career change, especially in the current climate; if nothing else making the switch at this time should provide plenty of extra drama for us your avid readers! :)

  3. Thanks for your comments guys! Becky - I completely agree with you that school careers advice in the UK isn't great. And you're right - I'd never have guessed Maths would lead to a career in social science! Good that you're in a job you love.

    SquirrelQueen - thanks for the encouragement! Feel free to share any tips on how you ended up taking a different path to your degree subject! Am interested in a US input on things too, so anything you want to share would be very much appreciated :-)

  4. Hi Becky
    Very interesting to read your 'path' to date. I started non-profit Growing Ambitions to benefit my teenaged son and other young people - like you were - early on in secondary schools and upwards. We introduce career speakers from all kinds of workplaces UK-wide to schools, colleges and universities to tell young people about their jobs and careers. 'Real' career info from 'real' people. This helps them make the right choice for them. I'd love you to take a look at our website at and send me a short quote I can include on our 'What people say' page. thank you. Looking forward to your next installment!
    Sally Davis, MD, Growing Ambitions

  5. That was a very interesting read. I really do sympathize with you, and I think a career change at this time must have taken a lot of boldness. I sincerely think that you are taking the right step to pursue a career that you will enjoy. I strongly believe that no matter when one starts - as long as they pursue a career which they like and have a passion for - they will always be a lot more successful at it.

    Either way, the time you spent reaching this point was an experience for you and from what I read, I believe you came out a smarter and stronger person. I wish you success.

  6. Thank you very much for those encouraging words, Zain. Hopefully things will work out!

    Also, thank you Sally for your comment - and I will be checking out the Growing Ambitions website and leaving a comment - many thanks for pointing me in its direction.