The Entry-Level Paradox: Stella Meyer on the pitfalls of post-grad job searching

Interview by Leonie Glaser

Stella Meyer is a German Euroculture alumna from the 2019-2021 cohort, having studied in Uppsala, Göttingen, and Bilbao. In the following article, Stella tells us about her life as a recent Euroculture graduate. Entering the job market, even with a MA, is not that easy.   

I am an inherently indecisive person. On bad days, it takes ages for me to make a simple decision. As simple as do I want to have an apple or a banana for a snack. I know it doesn’t really matter and is an incredibly unimportant question to dwell on. Yet, it is a classic example of me being absolutely lost and unable to make a very basic decision. Now, the prospect of having to actively choose a career path is downright terrifying for me. I am aware that nothing is set in stone and career changes are not only possible, but normal – if not recommended. Yet, it still feels like a pretty big decision to me. Where do I want to go? What do I want to do? Who do I want to be? And then there are the more practical questions concerning work-life balance, salary, benefits, potential career opportunities and so on. As it turns out, indecisiveness in light of the sheer number of options is not my only hurdle. The industry I am looking to work in comes with its own set of challenges: sky-high expectations and little to give in return. That does not pair well with my own – admittedly also high – expectations and career ambivalences.

In my undergrad, I studied German as a Foreign Language, which is a rather broad programme focusing on linguistics, culture, literature, and language acquisition. I loved my BA but felt I needed to narrow down my area of expertise. Joke’s on me, as Euroculture did little to narrow down anything. By now, however, I have come to see that as a strength and not a weakness. I am knowledgeable in a wide range of subjects. My skills are highly transferable and applicable to a variety of fields. Even though I have come to appreciate the versatility of my skills, it doesn’t exactly help me figure out where to channel my energy. I have gathered experience in cultural diplomacy, policymaking, international relations, online disinformation and open-source investigation, and I am passionate about all of those fields. But, it is particularly hard to stay focused on me and my strengths, and not get distracted by all the brilliant things my peers are doing: internships with the EU, volunteering abroad, working and volunteering, managing youth projects… While I admire them deeply, I am also afraid of doing something just because everybody else does it or because it is expected of me. Yes, I studied Euroculture and an internship at the Commission would be fantastic but is that really what I want?

To make sure that I make my own decision based on what I am passionate about and good at, I decided to lay low and take a few months off after handing in my thesis. A few weeks ago, I figured it was time to get the ball rolling. I sat myself down and started searching for open positions at institutions I’ve long had my eyes on. I browsed through popular job portals and LinkedIn. Over time, my terror of having to make a decision slowly turned into anger. Here I am, a highly educated individual with tons of experience volunteering, interning, and working abroad – all of which I have done during and on top of my two degrees, and yet, none of that experience is considered experience by most employers. It turns out, I can’t find a job because I don’t have work experience because I can’t find a job because I don’t have work experience because… I was aware of this conundrum but hadn’t realized the extent of it before starting my job hunt. Expectations for internships are already ridiculously high. Mind you, it is an internship. If I was an expert at everything already, I certainly wouldn’t be doing an internship, would I? Reading through job ads is even more ridiculous these days. Here’s an example of what a typical job posting looks like:

What we are looking for:

  • Recent university graduate with at least an MA, preferably a PhD
  • 3 to 4 years of relevant work experience
  • Expert at using Microsoft 365, Photoshop, WordPress, experience in podcasting and video editing is considered an asset
  • Experience in event and social media management, moderating and hosting panel discussions
  • Excellent writing and copy-editing skills
  • Sociable, easy-going, attention to detail, team player, reliable, quick study, able to take on responsibility and work independently
  • Fluent in at least two languages, one of which must be a working language of the EU, Chinese is considered an asset
  • Must be willing to work night shifts and on weekends, business trips are to be expected

What we offer:

  • A modern office space with windows and complimentary water
  • A chance to work in a young, dynamic team with flat hierarchies

Salary: 2100 gross

To borrow Greta’s words: How dare you?

I have done four internships, two of which were abroad. Three of the four were unpaid (don’t get me started on that). I have had side jobs and working student positions since the age of 14, receiving ace letters of recommendations throughout. I have studied in four different countries and lived in six. No, I am not willing to do yet another unpaid internship – for most of which you need to be a student by the way. It’s cheap labour for them with the sliver of a chance to be taken on permanently for me. No, thank you. I would like to get paid for the work I do and I need a salary that pays for more than just my outrageous capital city rent.

What I describe here is merely a mild exaggeration of what is brutal reality. More importantly, it is not a singular experience but that of many of my, of our, peers in the humanities and social sciences. A friend of mine, for instance, with a similar background and treasure trove of experience, wrote a whopping 120 applications before landing a job. To half of those applications, they didn’t even get a response. This isn’t a ‘me’-problem, it is a ‘you’-problem, and the problem lies in how the industry defines experience – especially for entry-level jobs. They are, after all, entry-level which should mean you don’t have to be highly skilled experts just yet. It is the same as for internships: if I ticked all the boxes already, I wouldn’t be applying for entry-level positions.

I am in the thick of my job search, figuring out what is right for me, dealing with a roller-coaster of emotions. Maybe you find yourself in a similar position or are soon embarking on this journey as well. Here’s what I have learnt so far. Searching for a job, especially your first “real” job, can feel overwhelming at times and that is absolutely normal. Moreover, I am not alone. Unfortunately, people rarely talk about their struggles and certainly not publicly. An issue that is exacerbated by social media where seemingly everyone graduated top of their class and immediately landed their dream job. Usually, that is not the full picture. It’s easy to forget that when you yourself are not quite there yet. I find that taking days off social media or limiting the time I spend using certain platforms helps me a lot to stay grounded. I also try to talk to people about their journey because it puts things into perspective, and I can learn from their experiences. The friend I mentioned before, who wrote 120 applications, didn’t share the 119 unsuccessful applications but the 1 successful one. I had to ask about their experience and was glad they shared it with me because it put my mind at ease. Every story I hear lessens the blow of each generic rejection letter landing in my inbox. While I don’t think I’ll ever have an epiphany and know exactly what to do and where to go, I am certain that things will fall into place. Maybe I don’t even have to actively decide but simply preselect and fate will do the rest – here’s hoping.  

One last thing: I am aware that having a choice is a luxury and a privilege. From talking to my Euroculture colleagues, I also know of the visa issues that many face if they want to stay and work in the EU as non-European citizens. For them, (almost) any job offer is good enough so long as it means you can stay. I hear you and I feel for you. Nonetheless, I think for those of us who do have a choice, it is important to stand our ground as highly educated graduates. Don’t sell yourselves short. Because if you do, we can never change a system that so desperately needs changing, redefine what experience really means and what entry-level is supposed to mean. And please, share your experiences about your job search with others, openly and honestly: the good, the bad, and the ugly.


Picture Credit: Stella Meyer

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