I can relate to the frustration in the email above. Getting into your first graduate job may feel like an uphill task especially in today’s employer’s market. Research published by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills in 2014 showed that 66% of the 18,000 recruiting employers surveyed rated relevant work experience as being a critical or significant factor looked for in candidates. Experience was deemed to be slightly more important than qualifications. Interestingly and disappointingly, only about 40% offered some form of work placement while only 20% engaged with schools, colleges and Universities to provide work-related opportunities! Candidates with relevant work experience on their CVs will be more attractive than those without, and this is a truth we must accept and live with.
If you are still at University – especially a final year student – ensure getting relevant work experience is a top priority. We usually advise undergraduates to undertake sandwich programmes – where a year of work placement is ‘sandwiched’ in between your studies – where appropriate. Beyond getting the much-needed experience under your belt, it can serve to demystify what the world of work is like. If you cannot afford a sandwich year, consider doing some work during the summer break. Most Universities offer some type of work placement module for 2nd or final year students, so be proactive! However, if you’ have just attended your graduation ceremony and haven’t done this, what should you do?
Evaluate – You will need to draw on your reflective thinking skills. You may not have relevant work experience but what do you have? We tend to underestimate the knowledge we have gained and attributes/skills we have developed during our time at University. Employers know you do not have tons of experience as a recent graduate applying for an entry level position but you must be able to translate what you have learnt during your degree into something that adds value to their organisation.Graduates who are able to articulate knowledge and skills gained from their higher education experience will always be ahead of the game. What have you been doing over the last three or four years at University? Have you included the research project you carried out in your final year on your CV? Emmanuel recalls this point as an important aspect of a job interview for a role in clinical research at a point where he had limited relevant work experience. His ability to discuss his project with clarity and enthusiasm impressed interviewers, so if you have not given your project much thought, perhaps this is the time to do so!.
Did you start a society or club? Were you the class representative on your course? Did you work in the student union? Working as a sales assistant in a supermarket can enable you develop customer service, numeracy, and time management skills. Identifying your skills may be able to help you in developing your skills profile as well as highlighting potential gaps. Talk to your career adviser, they can help you polish that CV! Compare your CV with the person specifications for the jobs you are applying for. Do they focus on experience or skills, or both?
Yep, they want experience, so what next?
Volunteer/Intern – Yes, I know you have student loans, bills, etc. but do see this period of unpaid work as an investment in your future. We do have to adapt to the world as it and not as we would like it to be, unfortunately, the truth is that no one is truly guaranteed a job – first class or not. Use volunteering or an internship as an opportunity to show your passion, develop your skills and network! With a first class undergraduate degree and a Ph.D., I still had to do some voluntary work in a research lab after graduation when I couldn’t find a job. This gave me the opportunity to learn new lab techniques and get some lab management and administrative experience under my belt. Eventually, I was able to get into a postdoc where I had to utilise the knowledge I had gained during volunteering. I know graduation may have seemed like the end of the ‘struggle’ but hang in there. A friend who also graduated with a first class degree in Biomedical Science worked in retail to make ends meet while volunteering in a lab. She was eventually offered a trainee Biomedical scientist role in the same organisation. Believe me, it is easier getting a job when you already have one than when you don’t. Beyond, the experience you gain, volunteering shows prospective employers that you have initiative – a valuable personal attribute.
Who do you know? Who knows you? – Networking will play an important role in your job search. Someone who knows your abilities is more likely to take a chance on you. Are you shy and introverted? No excuses, start by taking these baby steps. Cultivate a professional relationship with at least 2 expert recruiters for your discipline. They will share invaluable information and guess who will be contacted when opportunities arise? Do you have a LinkedIn account? Create a professional profile and start expanding your professional network. Will a prospective employer know you are actively searching for a job opportunity if they happen to come across your profile? This is no time to be shy! Start making connections with potential employers, join groups where jobs are advertised on LinkedIn. What about your lecturers? If you have developed a good relationship with them, they may be able to share some of their contacts with you. Are you a member of your discipline’s professional body? Most professional bodies will have a ‘Careers’ website with useful information and tips but most importantly will host a number of events where you can network with other people in your discipline.
Work hard and persevere – Focus on what you want to achieve and keep working at it until you reach your goal. Sometimes it may feel like you are going round in circles and not progressing, but keep at it anyway. Refuse to give up and use rejection as a tool for growth. Reflect on every failure and if you can do something better, please implement! Resist the urge to send the same copy of your CV to hundreds of prospective employers, always tailor it to the application at hand. Remember that the first job does not need to be the best one. It may not be perfect but are there opportunities for growth?