Burrowing away in a careers wonderland

November 29, 2002

In the last of our series All in a Day's Work , Harriet Swain descends the rabbit hole to meet Marianne Bhavsar as she organises events to get students on the right job path.

Marianne Bhavsar

Post: Personal assistant to the director of the careers service and events coordinator at the University of East Anglia

Salary : £16,000

Loves : The variety of the work and the contact with employers and students; always meeting new people.

Hates : Getting numerous circulars out to students at the beginning of term.

Reaching Marianne Bhavsar's office from one of the concrete walkways criss-crossing the University of East Anglia is like descending a rabbit hole. Seemingly endless spiral staircases eventually open out into a kind of burrow, containing a kitchen, fax machine and three small offices, one of which is Bhavsar's. Although tiny, with room for just a desk, chair, an overloaded shelf of files and a couple of noticeboards, it has a stupendous view overlooking landscaped grounds to a lake. The careers service building used to be the university squash courts, which accounts for its strange shape.

Bhavsar's first task is to check the post and emails and look through the diary of the careers service director, Ian McGilvray. She will also meet with him to discuss tasks for the day, such as travel arrangements, letters to write and meetings to minute.

She discusses with other staff a leaflet advertising Explore, a one-day intensive course designed to help students identify and practise the skills they will need in employment. Are students less likely to throw it away if it is in an envelope? Bhavsar decides they are and sets up a stack of envelopes and address stickers for the temp, Anna Seaton, to deal with in the afternoon.

As well as the Explore day, Bhavsar is arranging a mature student information day, taking place at the end of the month and involving a discussion group and CV-writing workshop. It was also to include an afternoon networking session but this had to be cancelled because of a lack of interest from students. It is Bhavsar's task to notify the firms and the students that the session is off. She is embarrassed about it.

"The problem with mature students is that they have so many claims on their time," she says. "The women, particularly, often say they can't make things because they have childcare commitments."

Bhavsar replies to emails from students saying they want to attend today's presentation by Norwich Union.

She rings the employers who agreed to attend the networking session, beginning with the National Health Service training scheme. She asks if it is OK to encourage students to get in contact and is assured that it is.

Bhavsar rings the temp standing in for the information manager to ask her to organise a poster saying that the workshop has been cancelled and will be incorporated into the earlier session. She asks her to ensure that the information also goes up on the website and agrees to write out the details.

An email arrives from someone agreeing to lead the morning discussion session of the mature student day.

Bhavsar emails every student who signed up for the networking session to explain what has happened, but many emails bounce back. Eventually, she decides to send letters.

McGilvray comes in with returned application forms for a new careers adviser post. An employer calls back about the workshop cancellation. Bhavsar is again apologetic.

She starts stuffing envelopes with letters about the workshop cancellation. The information temp comes in with a form and asks her to fill in the details of how the Explore leaflets are to be printed and folded and when and where they need to be delivered.

Seaton, a former UEA literature student, who is considering studying for an MA but is worried about the cost, arrives to find out what jobs she has to do. She has taken on various temping jobs around the university while she decides what to do next.

An email expressing interest in a new law mentoring scheme comes in from a potential participant, which Bhavsar notes.

A quick break for bean and vegetable bake and a glass of water in one of the campus cafes. Bhavsar is originally from Holland, where she was a medical secretary. She settled in Norwich after getting married and used to work in what was then the languages and modern history department as a departmental secretary. She took a break when she had her son and went on the temping register before joining the careers department.

Her present job gives her more autonomy than she had as a departmental secretary, when up to a dozen people could be demanding work from her at the same time, but she also has more responsibility. She couldn't imagine working anywhere else, she says. She likes the busyness of work in a university, the contact with students and all the events on campus.

Bhavsar goes to the room where the lunchtime presentation by Norwich Union is to take place. Today's presentation will be relatively straightforward: the room is already well supplied with equipment. The refreshments will be tea and biscuits.

As soon as Bhavsar enters the room and greets the Norwich Union representatives she starts worrying that the catering has not arrived and that the students will not turn up.

All sorts of things can go wrong at these events, she says. Often the speakers decide at the last minute that they need videos or projectors that she has to find and set up. Sometimes there is a last-minute rush of students and she has to find a bigger room.

A student arrives, dressed in a suit, shakes hands with the speakers and launches into a long discussion about his various interests.

The trolley with the tea things arrives and Bhavsar starts setting everything out. Another student wanders in looking nervous and sits at the back.

A few more students come in but still far fewer than have signed up. Bhavsar explains that students will still be finishing seminars, but will arrive shortly.

About 18 students have now arrived and the presentation starts.

The talk finishes and Bhavsar starts clearing away the refreshments. She also has to ensure that the speakers have a taxi booked to pick them up, that they can manage their equipment and that they are clear about arrangements for the presentation in the evening.

Bhavsar arrives back in the office to find that the temp has stuck labels on the wrong envelopes but has luckily noticed her mistake in time.

There is also a sick note to process, together with replies to the occupational and physiotherapy fair in February. Her emails include one from a large solicitors firm suggesting a drop-in day for UEA students. She rings for more details and discusses the recent law fair and the students' current enthusiasm for law.

Such fairs are major undertakings, Bhavsar says. She has to approach participants, chase them up if they fail to reply, arrange the furniture, stands and other equipment in the room, draw up a floor plan, book someone to help move equipment around, sort out parking and catering, including finding out about any dietary requirements and arranging publicity. As a result of all the administration involved, participants are charged a fee, which Bhavsar also has to administer.

Emails come in from people signing up to attend the PriceWaterhouseCoopers presentation later in the week. Bhavsar checks the attendance figures and lets PriceWaterhouseCoopers know.

Bhavsar deals with problems about the addresses of a couple of mature students.

She begins a letter to a former UEA mature student, inviting her to attend the mature student day and then has a tea break.

Bhavsar begins writing thank-you letters to companies that participated in the law fair, reminding them of the date of next year's fair, and referring to her file so that she can respond to points raised by individuals in feedback forms. She sets up a database of the firms that attended.

Bhavsar makes sure everything is switched off, including the lift, and locks up. About once or twice a week she has to stay late for a presentation, but since she has already listened to Norwich Union once today, she has asked a colleague to go to tonight's event instead.

She is out of the burrow and starts her walk across the park home.

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