The Great Underpaid – Essential Advice for 2021 Graduates

woman throwing confetti

Let’s start with a song. Frank Sinatra take it away please:

“I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet

A pawn and a king

I’ve been up and down and over and out

And I know one thing”

I could not sum up my experience of job hunting more accurately if I tried. 

Except my anthem might sound like this:

“I’ve been unemployed, 

Job searching for hours, 

Oh, the bane of it. 

Worked in a call centre, 

selling old people raised toilet seats, 

Listening to their qualms,

About Covid”. 

It doesn’t quite resonate in the same way, does it?

Throughout the pandemic, I was determined to find work, despite the financial shortcomings of businesses in every UK sector. Needless to say, being unemployed is already a huge knock on your confidence, and when combined with the hours spent filling out online applications, it can appear demotivating to say the least. 

As I write this, things are certainly looking up. 

Now that the job market is opening up again, it’s time to share everything I wish I had known when I began my year-long search. 

The Problem with Graduate Schemes

Graduate schemes – what a wonderful invention. When I witnessed the extensive marketing strategies targeting young, budding graduates, I thought so too.

I applied to Frontline, Charity Works, Teach First, IPSOS Mori, The Civil Service – to name a few – with varying levels of success. Nevertheless, I felt eager to start a rigorous, tailored programme. But when I started to get my foot in the door regarding the recruitment process, I realised just how long it was – most often a six month to a year wait before you start your first day. 

Are they all this long? I wondered. 

After initial interviews, application forms, role plays, more interviews, and psychometric tests, my enthusiasm – along with my will to live – dwindled.

Finally, I reached the ultimate stages of Frontline’s tests but was rejected a week later. Honestly, graduate schemes had severely tested my patience and I resigned from applying altogether. 


  • Graduate schemes are akin to The Hunger Games of UK universities. It’s highly competitive and the probability of you not landing one is more common than securing one. 
  • Be selective about the schemes you apply for since the process could take up to a year. Give yourself time to research the company culture, values, and career development programmes. 
  • Rejection from a graduate scheme is less of a personal attack, and more a manifestation of abundant graduate talent, with a lack of suitable positions available. 

“Entry-Level” Jobs

After saying a firm “no” to graduate schemes. I began my search for standard full-time jobs, as a streamlined route into my desired company. I was confident that my degree and graduation from a “top ten university” was a sure-fire foundation for career success.

LinkedIn became my playground.

Below is a real LinkedIn example I found in my search today of the key competencies required for an entry-level position as a researcher.

I have experience in researching climate change, human migration behaviour, and identity, but somewhere along the way, I forgot to apply myself to learning Python.

Frankly, I had undergone research for the past three years, even maintained my use of foreign languages but now I had to learn programming languages too!


  • Apply for jobs, even if you don’t completely fit the description. Maybe you don’t claim to be a programming genius, but there’s no harm in stating that you are “developing [your] competency in Python through an online course”. 
  • Utilise the Apply Easily feature on Linkedin, to save time while tackling the job hunt. Applying to 20 jobs a day, rather than two has significantly increased my response rate from recruiters. Whether the response is detailed feedback or outright rejection, you are furthering your knowledge of the roles in the sector you are applying for. 

The Unpaid Internship 

With no luck securing a “proper” job, I resigned myself to the idea that yes, I was in need of some relevant, holistic, industry experience. Despite my extensive writing experience, I would have to secure an unpaid position at a reputable company.

It is true that within the writing industry, evidence of your craft is the writing itself, rather than your claims of being the next Steven King

Recently, I’ve received great interest from companies offering unpaid internship positions, the idea being that graduates eager to prove themselves produce high-quality content in exchange for training and a platform to showcase their work. In my head, this is an excellent proposition, but there’s still one problem – how am I going to pay for my coffee?

Not only was I shocked at the concept, but I found that it was the norm. In fact, the world’s most recognised inter-governmental organization, The United Nations, explicitly promotes a model of unpaid internships, just for the privilege of working under their name.

Although, that still doesn’t solve the issue of how I would pay for my coffee – or any of the necessities that support a basic level of human existence. 

Why is unpaid student labour the norm when students have completed at least three years of high-quality tuition and proven their drive throughout the duration of their degree?

Is it because we still believe that students live on baked beans, coffee, and other substances, that their labour is under-valued and unrecognised?


  • As a student, companies will expect you to work for little pay or even for free. While this can be a fantastic method of gaining experience in a specialised field, keep sending out applications for paid positions on the side. 
  • Just because you are inexperienced, your time, efforts and labour is still of value to a company, so make sure there are incentives to the internship: letters of recommendation, credit for your work, or cover for your travel. 

Final Thoughts 

Granted, you may yourself in the sea of internships, temporary jobs and freelance work very soon, but don’t lose yourself there. 

Take a moment to be proud of your achievement: you have a degree, you earned a degree. 

When applying for positions, it’s almost impossible to measure progress, so make sure that you allow yourself to succeed in other areas of your life. 

The idea of getting ahead of the game, or falling behind others is an illusion. Opportunities will arise and you will apply yourself to them, with the resources you have available to you at the time. 

Stay motivated and take care – let the process continue

2 responses to “The Great Underpaid – Essential Advice for 2021 Graduates”

  1. Love this lil post! Love the comparison to The Hunger Games too😂 It can be so demotivating searching for work after graduating, on top of a pandemic going on and family members constantly asking ‘what are you doing now?!’

    I was lucky enough to recently land an internship (albeit unpaid…) and after the 8 weeks they wanted to keep me on full time! Still not sure what I want to do with my life😅 but learning to take each day as it comes, trust the timing of the universe and not to give up hope! ✨

  2. Thank you 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the article – I definitely enjoyed writing it!

    I think the pressure to move onto post-degree study is immense these days, and I opted for job-hunting instead of a Masters study, which was definitely a financially guided decision.
    While internships are a great “foot-in-the-door” method of finding work, I think large-scale companies have to recognise the value of grads, who have already demonstrated 3+ years of dedication and talent.

    I must admit, I’m also not sure about the exact direction to take in life but am learning to enjoy the process so far 🙂 Congratulations on the full-time offer! I’m sure it will lead to awesome things!

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