Resilience – the art of bouncing back


Jo Horton joined the university as a Careers Adviser in May 2019, having completed the Postgraduate Diploma in Guidance Studies the previous year. Prior to this, she worked in a diverse range of roles, including university administration, publishing and as an English Language Teacher in Japan.

It’s 2002 and I’m sitting in Leicester railway station, crying my eyes out on the phone to my mum. Earlier that day I’d had an interview for my dream job as a Research Assistant in the History Department at Leicester University. The interview had gone well but I’d just received a phone call to tell me that I hadn’t been successful. They liked me and would have given me the job, except one of the other candidates had a PhD while I only had an MA.

Over the next few weeks I spend a lot of time thinking things like ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘I’m never going to get a graduate job’, ‘What’s the point in applying for anything else?’, ‘Life is so hard – it’s not fair’. I briefly look into applying for PhDs but to get funding I’d have to teach undergraduates alongside my research, which I convince myself I am not capable of doing.  I drink a lot of wine and eat a giant bar of chocolate to console myself.  I stop searching for graduate roles and resign myself to a life of unfulfilling temp jobs.

Fast forward to 2018. I’m just completing my Postgraduate Diploma in Guidance Studies and have an interview at the University of Leeds for a Careers Adviser role. Once again I’m unsuccessful. Once again they tell me that they liked me, but on this occasion another candidate had slightly better knowledge of the graduate labour market.

This time, however, I don’t cry or take it personally. I don’t assume that I’m a useless Careers Adviser who will never get a job. (I do eat another giant bar of chocolate, but that’s mainly because I just really love chocolate.) Instead, I take on board the feedback I’ve been given and book myself on to a course on labour market information. I carry on searching for jobs and am invited to another interview the following month – it’s in a school rather than a university, so not exactly what I want, but when I’m offered the job I accept it.

Nine months later the University of Leeds are advertising for Careers Advisers again. I reapply and am offered another interview. Unlike last time I now have 9 months of relevant experience and have made sure that I’ve swotted up on the graduate labour market. This time I’m successful and I get the job.

So why did I respond so differently the second time? In a word: resilience. Put simply, resilience is the ability to bounce back, to recover quickly from difficulties. In the 16 years between these two experiences here’s what I learnt:

  • Unsuccessful job interviews were rarely a reflection of my own inadequacy, just bad luck that another candidate showed up with slightly more relevant experience.
  • To respond positively to feedback and that persistence does often pay off.
  • Sometimes you have to take a less than ideal job as a stepping stone to a better one.
  • If things aren’t working out, sometimes the only thing for it is to quit your job, do a TEFL course and go and live in Japan for a year, which in turn taught me that teaching was actually quite enjoyable and well within my capabilities.
  • Most importantly, I learned that there are very few situations that can’t be improved by a huge chocolate bar.

And the good news is that it doesn’t have to take 16 years to develop resilience – you’re already better at it than you realise. Chances are you’ve already survived stressful exams, been on a losing sports team and possibly failed a driving test (in my case more than once). You might have pushed yourself out of your comfort zone when travelling to an unfamiliar country, coped with relationship difficulties whilst away from home, trained to run a half marathon when a year earlier you couldn’t run for a bus without passing out. People are, by nature, resilient.

When I was at school in the 90s, careers guidance (if offered at all) was based on the premise that you could be matched to the perfect job and that was you sorted for life. My own experiences and those of numerous others I’ve encountered, however, have proved this to be utterly unrealistic.

Career success is as much about developing self-awareness, learning from setbacks, adapting to change and making the most of opportunities – in other words, developing resilience – as it is about finding that elusive perfect match.

Your career journey may well not be straightforward or linear, but where would the fun be in that? Building resilience will help you to cope with everything the job market throws at you. And who knows? You might even enjoy yourself along the way (and if not, there’s always chocolate).

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Filed under Advice, Interviews

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