A 30 year old master graduate on the Belgian job market

by Despoina

When I was close to graduating from the VUB in 2013, I was fairly confident that I would easily find a job in Brussels. My knowledge on the domain I wanted to work in was significantly improved and after all I was in the centre of Europe where plenty of international companies reside. Not to mention that Brussels is the home of the European Commission; a place full of opportunities! 

I believed that speaking English, having a master’s degree and a fair work experience would be enough to land the job of my dreams or to be more pragmatic, the job I wanted to do. As it turns out I was wrong and that changed almost everything. 

In the beginning, I had my reasons to be confident. You see, before deciding to move to Brussels for my studies, I have worked in job positions I enjoyed and on top of that I had other work proposals  without really putting in too much effort for it. I was convinced that the same will keep on happening despite the fact of moving to another country because now I had a fancier degree which I considered to be a huge advantage.

Well not really, it isn’t.  Probably because I am not pursuing an academic career. But still, it should count for something in my not so humble opinion.

So here I was, in my 30’s with a master’s in Computer Science – yes I will keep on repeating the master’s thing-, with a fair professional experience as I said, confident, willing and motivated to find a job as a UX designer at a time where the industry did not care at all for profiles like mine. And I basically hit a wall. A rock wall. Hard.

I started to feel less and less confident and soon my spirit was broken. I was going to interviews and had no useful return, I was struggling. I kept on receiving these automated turn down responses that gave me nothing to work with, literally ! I had no idea how to keep on going, what was I doing wrong, what was I missing, what did I need to do in order to keep up and finally get a way in?  

See, there are things that you can change if necessary. Learn a new language because you need to communicate with your colleagues and clients, learn a new software program that the company you want to work for uses but then there are things you cannot change. You cannot and will probably not want to change your nationality or your gender and you cannot change your age. So you will soon realise that…

Job hunting is a tough job 

Looking for a job is a job itself, one that you need to be skilled for and have the courage to do; no doubt about that. You must be prepared when looking for a job. It is basically like running your own micro political campaign. Shake hands, smile, dress well – or dress to impress however you want to call it-  tell the occasional little white lie to convince people that you are their man. 

You must also be very courageous, confident but humble and leave no room for anxiety. At the beginning, you will send out your clean and attractive resume, put together a cover letter that is original and a portfolio of your work that will catch the eye and then you will wait for the email answer. Well most likely an automated message of sorts:

Thank you for your interest in our company, unfortunately your profile does not match the position because our bots did not find more than three of the provided keywords in your CV you know the one we did not bother reading”


Thank you for your interest in our company, unfortunately you are not selected for the second round of interviews. But do still apply in the future because we don’t wanna seem like total dicks to you as we might contact you in the future if we run out of candidates or when we fire the person that was a 98% match according to the system”

Thank you for your interest in our company, we are currently (not) reviewing your application. This will take some time because we use bots and we got a lot of applications since we are huge but in the meantime boil in anxiety on wether we will call you back”  

Aaaaaand this is why now I have four different email accounts. I was too stressed and disappointed by the very fact of checking my emails that I could not even login to my account without being annoyed or  filled with fear anymore. I created a work email that I could open when I had the appropriate mood and now, I have four different emails each for a different function, one for work, one for FaceBook and spam mails, one personal and one for subscribe here to get this for free email account…

The interview challenge 

Then the moment comes and you land the phone or Skype interview and probably the second interview. I remember having to go to impossible locations for the second part of interviews  -I have basically seen the entire flemish countryside- I had to pay for my own transportation to and from the interview, I had to be ready to present my work and myself,  of course study a bit about the company I am about to visit, spend hours there, possibly take some qualification tests and on occasion handle sexist and racists remarks with the risk that all that this will all lead to absolutely nothing.

Not even a constructive return on my profile so I can improve myself, the least a company can do after I have invested my time to talk to them. Yes, my time is very valuable just like yours and the worst part is my time  is not billable!

There were cases where I had radio silence treatment after what I thought to be a rather good interview… I am looking at you Collibra! But soon came some opportunities and after a couple of projects here and there and a couple of short term missions, I began to have a better understanding of what was necessary for me to start my professional path in the belgian job market. And I did not necessarily liked what I realised. To explain this I created a sort of flowchart, I guess  it was the analyst in me that wanted to do this:


yet there were people that could get exactly what they wanted with their terms, learn a software program on the job instead of it being the requirement to be hired, a contract with no end date from day one,  no extra language skills, not even an impressive experience which made me wonder:

Why not me?

After my first professional experiences and after listening to people who got where I wanted to go but couldn’t,  I started to realise that what I saw as advantages and qualities in me, those were the very same elements employers considered undesirable or maybe also too risky.

because I am outspoken and I want to constantly evolve

For one I am outspoken, which means I will call out bullshit when I see it. People do not like that. They get shocked and offended when employees are not quiet and agreeable to everything.  The marketing way to say this is challenging the business which people will only encourage in theory and never in practise. Let me clarify, I am in no way rude I am just honest.

I also want to constantly evolve in my domain. I know what you are thinking this is good right?  However I got there on my own. I learned how to use the Adobe Suite, I learned Bootstrap, WordPress and CSS on my own because I needed to use them for my first projects here in Brussels. I am now learning Sketch by making fake website mock-ups for my cat for example. Employers do not like to hear that you can learn things on your own. It makes them feel insecure makes them feel like they would need to train you more and they do not want that because in their eyes this means you will not be productive from day one and that they will have to pay for training.

Then again,  I evolve in my domain but not necessarily in the traditional way. For example, I took up the challenge to design a social media campaign from A to Z. This way, I am expanding my knowledge in other areas related to aspects of my work as I will be designing the ad that will be used for the campaign but I will also learn what is involved and necessary for the entire cycle of an online campaign and get very useful insights from other professionals. 


Social Media Campaign For CrossFit1815- Waterloo for Christmas and New year’s Promotion

I am polyvalent

The truth is that most companies are interested into people who know only that one system, that one interface, that one programming language, that one way to design in other words that one thing to do. People like this will most likely be selected and trusted easier and faster. Then strangely enough, I see that even though companies prefer to recruit people specialised in one system or product they will soon assign them to do things outside of their knowledge base and that is because the need will eventually be there. So here is my question:

Why not hire a person who can combine everything from the start?

I vividly remember a project manager at Deloitte telling me “You have to make a decision, you cannot do everything! ” that was his entire argument seriously and I was obviously not convinced. I expressed to him my interest in design and UX while at the same time I can code in HTML and CSS and I know how to use various CMS but apparently that made him confused. 

I always considered my varied professional experience to be a huge plus. I have worked as a manager assistant, as a content administrator, as a recruiter, as a UX Specialist but also as a sales assistant at Marcolini. I am proud of each one of the jobs I had -no matter the conditions- because they all helped me become the professional that I am today.

I also learned something different from each one of these job positions I held and I drew useful inspiration for my design projects from them. You’d be surprised how selling chocolate can help with understanding design, not to mention the great help with design and customer interaction in general. I was working at the top of the top chocolate companies in Belgium where product design and design in general is important, I could see first hand how people interacted with this how it made them feel, what intrigued them in the product but also how much they were willing to pay for it!

It is not surprising that in interviews people judge my less attractive job position as a sale assistant and take it as an indication that I am not serious about my job or that I took a break from my objective. This is such a narrow minded view! Yes, it is not the job I would like to do forever but it was a job that was supporting me financially and I rather work than be unemployed, always! Also while I was working at Marcolini, for 6 months, I designed two websites and a visual communication campaign. FYI 

By the way, you know how famous figures glow about the fact that they used to work in less attractive or unrelated to their domain positions and they are been hugely admired for that ? Well it is only until you make it big I guess…

Am I too old, or too much of a woman for the job?

Of course I would not go on without mentioning how the fact that I am a foreigner and a woman in her 30s influenced my job search. Yes, it changes everything !

I have worked as a recruiter for nearly a year and I know for a fact that companies are less motivated to call people in their 30s for an interview. As an experiment,  I did not include my age at a version of my CV that I sent out and I did notice that I was suddenly receiving more calls! Obviously the first thing asked on the phone and in some cases in the tête-à-tête interview was how old I am. Let me tell you, I could feel the awkwardness almost every time when I gave my answer. “You look so young !” is what was  said 99% of the times. Fun.

Being in your 30s with experience makes you a more difficult candidate for a job position. I have identified that most of the times this is  because being in this category means that a company will have to pay you more than a 24 year old employee who is just starting and who -no matter how much you will hope for it, employers- will not have the desired experience.

 It also means that the company that will hire you will have to give back to you in terms of your professional evolution. That can be paying for that conference you want to attend or that class you wish to follow to better yourself but that rarely happens. Employers rather lose time training someone young and cheap because they will do it internally and for free instead of choosing someone more experienced and also invest in that person. Unless if you are cheap -aka ask for a low salary- then just maybe.

Then there is the sex situation. If you believe that companies are not gender biased you are fooling yourselves! Because I am a woman, there is the risk that I will go and get pregnant. For the company that will hire me that means that I will be entitled to paid holidays. This is how bringing a new person to the world is viewed, as holidays…..as in the days you will not be productive for a company. I had plenty of interviews were the interviewer would directly or indirectly ask me if I plan to have kids or whether I would consider moving back to my homeland once I have kids. God, I am not even hired or offered the job but I am questioned on my commitment to the company and on my personal choices ! It is somewhat extraordinary!

My conclusion

I guess that my conclusion after all this is that depending on the situation you are in, you must be strong to get through the period of job hunting. I can now say from a safe position since I am working, that you should try and remember that sadly  it does not really matter. The age, the experience, the degrees. Yes, I say it and I believe it: They do not matter. Sure they might get you the interview but in the end it is all about human interaction. It is about wether the person who sits across from you is having a good day, or he has empathy towards you , understands you, is willing to listen to your experience instead of ticking checkboxes in a template.

It is also about you as a candidate, how willing you are do do the job, what are your priorities and your ambitions. If you are struggling with this today, keep your head up, be always positive and believe in yourselfDo not be afraid to choose your next step towards your professional growth!  Based on your current skills, your personality, your passions, and your past work experiences you will know where to go next, trust your gut not the trend. But above all, wether you are a candidate, an employer or a recruiter, please just:

EDIT: I cannot believe I did not mention the “you do not have enough experience” bullshit response!!! Okay, ideally everyone would be already experienced and young and in no need of a good salary. But guess what, if you do not get the opportunity to show what you got  how are you supposed to gain experience ? If you are not paid well enough how long will you last in a job, if you do not find the right match right after college will you force your genes to stay 24??? There is only so much a person can do on their own. It is better to say you do not like the person or their work, trust me!


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