Recent graduates Jeff Shepherd and Ruth Bailey.

From lecture hall to workplace

Employment experts offer their advice on making the transition from the safety of university to the uncharted territory of work.

Jeff Shepherd and Ruth Bailey met at Plymouth University while he was studying ocean science and she ocean science and geology. Now armed with a 1st and a 2:1 respectively, they are about to embark on the road to employment. One of their first hurdles is how to decide on which career path to follow - currently Jeff is looking at climatology or renewable energy and Ruth coastal management, renewable energy or a geology role.

Do your research

“We’ve signed up for email alerts with job sites and from our tutors – and we’ve been advised to look at recruitment agencies to ascertain the range of jobs out there,” says Jeff. “And maybe contacting relevant companies for information about future projections in our field, rather than specific jobs, would be good as it also serves to increase our exposure.”  

“I get a lot of students who contact me on social networking sites asking for advice as to where they should be looking,” says Dan Dutton, managing director of specialist engineering consultancy Cubiq Recruitment.

“I ask them to send me an overview so I can understand their motivation and then recommend certain companies. Doing proper research rather than entering the market blind is really the best thing to do. Many graduates jump into a job not knowing where they want to go – and employers are increasingly aware of this. We grill candidates hard to ensure that the job they’re applying for is something they really want to do – partly because employers don’t like investing lots of money in training somebody only for them to leave after six months.”

Location, location, location

While considering jobs Ruth and Jeff also have to factor in issues like relocation and that the similarity of their specialist subjects could prove a tad awkward.

“We’re hoping to get jobs in the same area and share accommodation – so we can combine our wages,” explains Ruth.  “But as we’re interested in a similar field – we could effectively be competing for jobs. Then we have to consider what happens if only one of us gets an offer or if we end up with dream roles - at different ends the country.”

Craig Barrie from Stirling, Scotland graduated from Glasgow University in July 2013. He now works at Cubiq Recruitment in Manchester.

“When it was time to look for a job I sat down and researched what I wanted to do,” Barrie says. “I looked at a few positions in Scotland, London and Manchester, and also did background research on all the companies. Throughout university I’d kept in the back of my mind that relocating depended on the company itself and what it had to offer, and this ethic played a key part in going for a job at Cubiq.”

“I settled in well partly because it’s a good company with nice people – which is important when you arrive in a new town and realise that you’ve got no mates! I have a lot of friends who stayed back home doing jobs that they’re not really happy in – because they’re not prepared to relocate to find something else.”

The importance of gaining work experience while at university

The jump from university to the workplace can be pretty traumatic but having some work experience can ease the transition enormously. While aware of this, Jeff and Ruth are worried that they don’t have enough experience or that it may not be relevant.

“I did a stint in the Officer Training Corps that develops leadership skills of officer cadets via military and adventure training, and Jeff worked as a lifeguard with the RNLI for three summers,” says Ruth. “Now as it’s already June we would like to get unpaid summer jobs within our fields but we’re not sure if it’s too late.”

“While you’re at university it’s very useful to do some work experience either formal or informal – and it’s never too late,” says Mike Hill, ceo of graduate careers website Prospects. “By formal I mean getting a placement in your second or third year or during the holidays work shadowing and helping out.  Informally - like in a bar, café or clerical job. No matter how irrelevant you think these jobs are – if you’ve had any experience of working in a team where you can show leadership qualities or with the public where you can demonstrate customer skills you’ll have a head start.”

“School is a very structured environment, then at university lectures are scattered across the week and the routine is looser. Work is a mixture of these elements – it’s structured in that you turn up at 9am but very often there are jobs that require a flurry of motivation by yourself or in teams to finish a task by the end of the day. There are also dress codes and ways of speaking to colleagues who are older and more experienced than you. All of these ‘skills’ you can acquire through work experience.”

However, not being versed in full-time employment etiquette isn’t necessarily a disaster. As Craig Barrie can attest:

“The big thing that I wasn’t really prepared for because I was pretty much left to my own devices at university, is getting used to a position of responsibility and the workload. You might think that there is going to be a particular turning point where you go from a student to a worker but it doesn’t quite happen like that. It takes time, which is where a good company comes in by being aware that this is your first step and offering you support. It makes all the difference to your progress.”

First job salaries

While financial return should not be the only consideration, for Jeff and Ruth it is certainly an increasingly important one.

“Salaries are a difficult one to wrestle with because graduate starting wages can range from between 18k – 25k,” says Jeff. “Eighteen grand is considerably more than our student loan but when you factor in paying our loans back, tax, rent, and all the other general living costs – it’s not actually very much. Obviously we’re looking at the higher end of the scale – but if we take something on the lower side – will we be stuck there for years or will we quickly climb the ladder?”

According to Dan Dutton and Mike Hill one’s progress up the pay scale has a lot to do with attitude.

“We recently placed 12 grads and the money they were being paid wasn’t that great,” says Dutton. “But we got them to look at the opportunity and where they could be in a month, six months and a year’s time. They were in there with lots of other graduate engineers going through the same process - gaining loads of training and experience, and building an extensive network which enabled them to progress their careers. When we went back to check after 12 months no one had left.”

How to make an impact in your first job

“Showing keenness is key to climbing the career ladder,” states Hill. “Apply for any training opportunities there are. You might not think that learning about Excel spreadsheets is important – but it might be in two years time. If your boss wants to send you on a sales course but you’re not a salesperson – go on it.”

“And there are also informal ways of learning and making a good impression,” Hill continues. “Make sure you always turn up a bit before 9am, come back from lunch five minutes early and leave a little bit late. Volunteer for things and get involved. If you spot a weakness in the company – like they have no social media platform or Twitter account then you could volunteer to do that for them. To move on up you need to be able to say you’ve done all these things - so don’t be backwards in coming forwards.”

Some final words of wisdom…

Whatever Jeff and Ruth decide to do Craig Barrie has these final words of advice:

“In terms of advice I would say pick a focus, stick to the decision and give it time. A lot of people expect fireworks – ‘I’ve got my degree now, I’m going to get this job and be absolutely fantastic’. Don’t expect it to be all plain sailing - it is tough and challenging - but if you put in a bit of graft it will be fantastic!”

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