Getting the First Job After College in the Soviet Union

This is the last post related to the story of higher education in the Soviet Union: how graduates would land on their first jobs.

Since it was happening in the Soviet Union, all colleges and universities were state schools, and there was no concept of the private educational establishment. I’ve already mentioned that the cost of education was zero, which did not mean that students’ life was easy. But there was still a price student had to pay upon graduation. This price was called “a distribution of specialists” or simply “a distribution.”

The Soviet Union had a “planned economy.” That meant that the government planned ahead how much of everything had to be produced in any given year, including the number of graduates of all educational establishments. And all employers: manufacturing plants, research institutions, Department of Defence, schools, hospitals, etc. had to plan how many graduates they need to fill in their positions. Since the Soviet Union did not follow the same educational standards as the rest of the world, we did not have Bachelors’s and Masters’s; everybody had to study for five years (some professions – longer). And everybody would graduate as “specialist,” not B.S. or B.A. or M.S.

The graduates were called “young specialists,” and a couple of months before graduation, they had to be “distributed.” The organizations which wanted to hire somebody had to place their requests with an educational institution. In my case, it was the Leningrad State University. There were about 300 students who would graduate the same year as me from the Department of Mathematics and Mechanics. The University would accept about 300 requests for young specialists, including those who could continue their studies as post-grad students, and including those who will become TAs in the University. 

All students were ordered by class rank, and on the day when the distribution commission was held, they were called into the room in their rank order. 

Technically speaking, it was supposed to work like a slave market. Here is student A with the GPA 5.0 (the highest possible), who wants that student? And if there would be multiple potential employers, the matter would be decided based on the employer ranking. In reality, most of the decisions were negotiated in advance, at least for the higher ranked students. 

Which places of work were considered most desirable? The salary didn’t vary a lot; at the time of my graduation, it would range from 120 rubles a month to 135 rubles (all salaries were posted as monthly). In some very rare cases, it could be 140 rubles. The most important characteristics were location (nobody wanted to leave Leningrad) and the security clearance level. The big portion of positions was with the Ministry of Defence or with the Ministry of Defence Manufacturing. Accepting such a position meant that you wouldn’t be allowed to go abroad even in the very rare situations you could, you could not talk to foreigners, and in some cases, you even could not tell anybody where you work. Such workplaces were called “P.O. boxes,” and if you work in one of those you were supposed to reply about your place of work: in the box. Funny, but not funny. They would usually offer a little bit more money, but they were more strict about work hours and being to work on time.

Getting into the post-graduate studies was a separate deal. In addition to your advisor’s desire to continue working with you, you also had to have a clean record. I did not have one; I was politically unreliable, as I was told a year before graduation (see here), so I could not work in the University or be accepted into the post-graduate program. The funny thing which I learned years later: Boris asked the head of his chair to allow me into the post-graduate program, and the latter one told him, and it was not possible. Boris never told me about that, because he thought that I am “an official Jew,” and I should understand. He did not know that the reason was that I was politically unreliable. So for years, I thought that I was not good enough 🙂

Back to the distribution. You were guaranteed to have a job upon graduation, but that could be not the job you wanted. However, since everybody had to get a job, some female grads used it to their advantage. 

As I mentioned in that post, many of them facing three mandatory years of work in an undesirable place would opt to have a child shortly after graduation, collect their full pay for two months before and two months after birth, then go on extended maternity leave (one year 45 rubles a month, and another six months unpaid). And then – to have a second child and repeat :). If you make all your calculations correctly, you will only have 2 months of unpaid leave, then four months of full pay, then one year of 45 rubles a month, and then – you can start looking for a job you really want because your three years of mandatory work will end soon. In many cases, young mothers just wanted to get away fro the “box” and get a job with maybe less pay but with a more relaxed schedule. And the organization would start to look for a new young specialist :). 

Of course, that was not a rule. I wanted to work, even though my first workplace was so weird, I can’t tell what its mission was :). Although I worked for just two weeks before I went on my maternity leave, I returned to the part-time work when Igor was one year old. But that’s a different story, 

My historical posts are being published in random order. Please refer to the page Hettie’s timeline to find where exactly each post belongs, and what was before and after.

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