Should I quit my Erasmus job? – On failure, scrutiny and starting again

Nobody likes to admit failure. Especially not when seemingly every move you make is pored over by friends and family back home who are bursting with pride at brave old you being abroad. As I’ve discussed in a previous post, the year abroad is now even more nerve-wracking than before given that there is either an implied or an actual obligation to publish everything you do online. (My course, for example, requires its German students to write a blog, presumably to keep the Faculty entertained.) Meaning that throwing in the towel after the first few months of what was supposed to be a fabulous year-long placement will be something you can’t possibly hide, and the thought of what others will think can be quite a scary one.

Now, if you’re one of those fortunate people who can lightly scoff and say, “Well, who cares about what others think? Other people’s opinions don’t affect me in the slightest! Perhaps you should get a life outside of social media!” et cetera, then please feel free to close this tab. When you’re young and may lack work experience, quitting a job can feel like the most terrifying thing in the world. But I’ll be disappointing everyone! What if they say no? What if they hate me? What if I don’t find anything else? What if my CV now screams incompetence?? What if I run out of money and have to live under my best friend’s kitchen table? What if I run out of food and DIE???

I’ve definitely had those thoughts before. And yet I’m still alive, having survived not just one but two year abroad jobs gone wrong. Please do not feel like a failure. Especially for very bright successful people, when something like this falls apart it can feel like a personal blow. If it’s because your employer sucks, you might be berating yourself for being sucked in by the advert. Or you might feel pathetic for letting yourself be used solely for photocopying and coffee. Try not to beat yourself up – everyone at some point ends up in a totally underwhelming job, where the supposed perks and challenges are nowhere to be seen, and you instead feel slightly dead inside at the thought of turning up each day. It’s not your fault – job adverts are written to entice people to apply and frequently take a lot of liberties, so don’t feel silly for raving about how great it looked to your friends when it in fact turned out to be a dud. That’s life. If the people around you truly care about you, they won’t mock you for making a mistake, but will support you through whatever decision you choose to make, so don’t worry about what people will think.

If it’s fallen apart because you suck at the job, for whatever reason – that’s also okay! Newsflash – you don’t (and can’t possibly) be good at everything all the time. This sounds simple, but it was only when I really experienced this over my year abroad, rather than nodding at people lecturing me about it, that I truly understood. I’m a chronic high-achiever and don’t take failure particularly well, so properly learning that sometimes I have to suck was amazingly liberating. Not because I was trying to absolve myself of responsibility for failing at something, but because it’s essential to recognise your strengths and weaknesses if you don’t want to burn out by trying to be good at everything. By strengths and weaknesses I don’t only mean CV-jargon traits, like punctuality (nope) and team work (hate it), but also concrete things like ironing (I am literally the worst at it and have already vetoed it from my chores list for the rest of my life) and generally noticing when things need to be cleaned. Whatever your list of weaknesses – and the most genuine list will only arise when you don’t try and write it down in one go, but actively notice your small failures when they happen, like when you spend half an hour trying to iron one shirt – you are not a failure and you don’t need to feel bad. Some are important to improve (such as a quick temper, or a tendency to lie) while others you don’t really need to worry about (like the fact I can’t make poached eggs). It’s important to strike a balance between being so arrogant you can’t possibly bear the thought of self-improvement, and frantically trying to work on everything about yourself because the prospect of having any weaknesses at all is bad.

Like I said, you only truly learn what your weaknesses are through real life, and sometimes that will include actual real life jobs, too. No one likes to be told that they’re just not good enough at the thing to be paid for it any longer, and in an ideal world everyone would do what they’re naturally talented at, and everything would be fine. Inevitably, though, the nature of Erasmus jobs mean that bright students interested in literary analysis, photography, fashion, or Baroque art will find themselves in an office collecting data, or cold-calling people, or teaching English, or working at a bar. Sometimes, this can really work, and sometimes it’s a disaster. Most people stick it out long enough to get their final paycheck and hop on a flight back to Heathrow, but for others it just doesn’t work. If that’s you, there are definitely some important things to consider.

Obviously the most natural question to ask yourself is whether you enjoy the job and are fulfilled by it, but it’s not always as easy as a simple “yes” or “no” answer. Sometimes the other aspects of a job can outweigh sheer enjoyment, and not all of us can afford to remain in a post simply because it’s fun. In my case, I started out working at a school and truly enjoyed it: I was hugely invested in the children, who were fantastic, and I loved the responsibilities I had as a stage technician alongside my usual duties. Unfortunately, the draining commute, long hours and unworkable leave policy (if I wanted a day off, I’d somehow have to make up the hours, despite working full-time anyway) began to cancel out the joy I took from my job, and the salary wasn’t equal to the demands on me. I really valued the organisation of the school, but I grew dissatisfied with how I was being treated like a teacher (even being asked to cover entire lessons) but without the corresponding pay. The year abroad may not have been an uninterrupted travel-fest for me, but I did want the freedom to be able to organise my own schedule if I felt like exploring Spain or visiting the UK, while still having enough time to rest and recover, which I wouldn’t have had if I had worked all week and travelled all weekend. I thought long and hard about leaving, as I was now very attached to the school and had expected to remain there for the whole year, but the real motivation to resign came when I was asked to work some unpaid overtime as a “favour”, which has always been a red flag for me in terms of employment. It was difficult, but in the end I was relieved I left, as my year abroad experience improved significantly after that.

Earlier I mentioned how year abroad students end up in a wide variety of placements: I do wish to point out that it isn’t necessary, contrary to popular belief, for your year abroad job to neatly align with your career plans. You may want to work in print journalism but can’t see yourself taking the unpaid newspaper internship, yet feel guilty because this could be The Thing to help you get a foot in the door. Please do not feel bad for turning down unpaid gigs if you can’t afford it: you can always look for a paid job and keep writing on the side. At Oxford, there are a lot of people who can easily afford to work for nothing, and this can create a sense of pressure to do the same if it’s in exchange for a more prestigious internship than simply teaching English, but you should not feel bad if you can’t afford to. Turning down one opportunity probably won’t kill your entire career dead, especially when you haven’t even graduated yet.

It’s also important to think outside the box and be open to unusual possibilities. When I was job-hunting in Madrid, my insistence on finding a single full-time position was hampering my search. Once I warmed up to the idea of working part-time and freelancing part-time, it became far easier to construct a working week that would both pay well and leave me with enough free time to pursue my own hobbies. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having certain goals and holding out for something that truly makes you happy, as long as you’re not completely rigid and unwilling to consider new options. In my case, I would have been truly miserable if I had stuck to my original wish to never teach English, as that’s really the only steady source of work for an unqualified foreigner in Madrid.

I plan to discuss my job in Germany in a separate post, so do keep your eyes peeled! For now, though, I wanted to include some vital questions to ask yourself before making the leap and quitting your placement, as it’s quite easy to resign out of pure frustration without considering some important logistical factors.

  1. How will quitting affect your Erasmus grant? Think about:
    1. Whether you’ve exceeded the amount of time required to keep your Erasmus grant (usually three months)
    2. Whether moving to another placement would reduce your Erasmus grant – you’re usually only entitled to two placements for the grant. If you’re planning to do one for six months and another for four months, but then want to quit and take on a different placement after the first three months (so making it three placements in total), you won’t receive anything for the final placement, so think about it carefully. In my case, I lost out on the final instalment of my grant.
  2. Is your university is okay with it, or will it screw up your credits? Oxford is incredibly flexible and doesn’t really care what you’re doing, as long as you’re speaking your target language, but other universities may not be so relaxed. It’s best to check – perhaps with an older student if you’re worried about contacting your faculty – before making any decisions.
  3. Are you financially secure? Will you still be able to pay your rent and other living expenses while you look for a new job?
  4. What are your chances of finding a new job? In Madrid, for example, any English speaker is spoilt for choice, and it’s relatively straightforward to find a new host family if you’re an au pair, but others may not be so lucky.
  5. More specifically, can you look for a job while remaining in your current place of work? When I was about to leave my first placement, everyone I knew strongly advised against quitting before I had something concrete lined up, darkly warning I would suffer starvation and poverty if I did so. However, I quickly realised that it was impossible to find a job while working full-time in Madrid, as all my interviews were scheduled during the work day. I took a risk and quit before going home for Christmas, and I interviewed for and was offered a job on the second day I was back in January.
  6. Most importantly, what does your gut instinct say? If, deep down, you know that your job isn’t too bad and you could easily stick it out until the summer, but your friends’ constant talk about their high-powered internships is what’s making you restless, then it may be better to stay put. However, if everyone is persuading you that your job isn’t too bad and you may never find anything better, but your intuition is telling you to take the leap, then by all means give it a try. Just make sure you have a safety net in case something doesn’t come up for a while.

As always, please feel free to email or comment with any questions you may have. Good luck!


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