By Phoebe Young
Most of my friends from the UK took sensible, vocational degrees that guided them straight to the safe and sturdy rungs of the London job ladder. I set off in a similar direction, and spent my student loan on studying English Literature at the University of Sheffield. I absolutely loved my course, which had many overlaps with art movements, theories and history. During my final year, I forlornly realized that I had no aching desire to rush into marketing or teaching. I actually wanted to be, ahem, an artist.
After graduating, I floundered in indecision over whether I should write off an art career as a pipe dream, bite the bullet and do something with my English degree – or pursue an entirely different vocation. I flitted between jobs, working for my parents’ small pottery business, the outreach sector of a film company and numerous cafes and bars. I attended life drawing and painting classes whenever I could, alongside volunteering with art projects and festivals too.
Whilst working behind a bar in Newcastle, I was lectured, by an intoxicated customer, on the possibility of studying in Europe for a fraction of the UK fees. I suspected their drunken ramblings to be nonsense but, after a little googling, discovered that this amazing opportunity did exist. Moreover, when the Brexit bombshell was dropped I realized its extinction was imminent. So, I cobbled up a portfolio and applied to the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. To my consternation, an acceptance letter arrived just weeks before term was due to start. I quit my job, scrabbled my savings together, crammed my essentials into a backpack and boarded a plane to the Netherlands.
Hedonistic as this sounds, I did try to be responsible. I was determined to avoid graduating in my late 20s, and entering the perilous art world, with no savings or stable occupation to lean or fall back on. I planned to use my English degree to get a ‘real’ part-time job, gain valuable experience and earn enough money to keep myself afloat. With a concrete plan like this, what could possibly go wrong?
In a nutshell: a lot. Studying art was exhilarating, challenging and eye-opening. I met fantastic people and regret nothing. However, the ‘part-time’ course I had opted for was an intense commitment that made it very hard to find suitable English-speaking work that fitted in with my hectic schedule. Moreover, whilst I had just about budgeted for (very minimal) living expenses, I had underestimated the cost of decent quality paints, canvases, brushes, clay, etc., etc. Burning through, as opposed to building up, my savings for a qualification that would provide no future job security became a huge weight on my shoulders. At the end of the year, I left the academy.
Having accumulated contacts in The Hague, I remained here to look for work. Initially, my method was to trawl through expat employment websites. I also followed their advice about tailoring my CV and cover letter to each role I applied for. Frustratingly, most paid jobs require candidates to have several years of work experience in a ‘relevant field’ before they are considered for interview. My mishmash of past employment did not quite fit the bill and, whilst internships are a great way of amassing this experience, they are often unpaid. Consequently, I changed tack and sent out some speculative applications to companies I was interested in. I made these e-mails much more informal and was more specific and honest about what I had to offer.
Two positive replies arrived at around the same time. One was an invitation to interview for a teaching assistant position, which I had applied for through an employment site. The other was an informal meeting about doing some editing for a media company, which I had enquired about via speculative e-mail.
I was very flattered to be offered the TA position, despite having no official experience. It was the safe, sensible antidote to being a hungry art student. However, teaching was not what I wanted to go into in the long term and the idea of going back to school every day sent shivers down my spine… Most importantly perhaps, the offer demonstrated that finding work without years of expertise was not impossible. So, I turned down the position.
My timing with the media company was very lucky too. They were re-writing some of their website content when I got in touch, and asked me to compose a few pieces for them. Once they had endorsed my writing, I was offered more work. I am executing it right now, whilst learning how to use WordPress and improve SEO.
Since starting to develop these skills, I have been on the look-out for other similar projects to take on when this one reaches completion. I am very fortunate to have been offered another (paid) internship, helping to re-write web content for an NGO in Amsterdam. The company appreciated that I had made the effort to find and approach them myself. They were consequently extremely understanding and willing to compromise on the start date, hours and role. This means it should be feasible to continue with, or pick up, other freelance projects. Maybe I can even make some artwork. I am also excited to, hopefully, play a minuscule part in helping facilitate the positive societal change they aim to achieve.
I cannot emphasize enough that I am not advising anyone to follow my muddled example. I am still at the absolute beginning of my ‘career’ and shamefully behind my peers! Nonetheless, I feel that trial, error and seeking out specific work more actively has finally got me facing in a direction I could be suited to. Does your search for career satisfaction feel like an uphill battle? Persevere, try to enjoy the views and you might glimpse the summit eventually. If you don’t, you can always try another hill.
Phoebe Young is the Content Editor at XPAT.NL