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Life After University: Searching for a Job

16th July 2015 Posted by: Kate Istead

HAVE you ever put your best effort into doing something, then done it a hundred more times? With each iteration you learn and improve your technique, honing your craft, convinced that you’re finally progressing to the outcome you want, only to find that you fail, each and every time? Welcome to life after university, and the more-than-likely painful search for a job.

After university, I spent more than 10 months looking for the right role and most of that time was either ignored or rejected by the very organisations I so deeply desired to contribute to. So I’m not going to give you advice on the best ways to get a job after university, because the truth is, I don’t know. What I think I can share is the story that many graduates are likely going to face, and a little bit of compassionate understanding for those in the mix right now.

When I graduated, I was filled with lofty visions of what my future would hold, and was highly ambitious about the types of jobs I could get. I had just received an MBA after all, so I left the cocoon of university confident that I would be a desirable asset to not just any organisation, but to all of them. I could see where I wanted to end up, and even though I had a fairly imprecise definition of what exact job would be the next step in the journey to get there, I started applying for a variety of managerial jobs in the charity sector.

Switching directions

It is interesting how in the process of searching for a job, with lots of concerted effort trying to persuade others that you are perfect for a certain role, that often the only person you end up convincing is yourself. I have spent hours expertly tailoring a single application, making an unquestionable case that I’m perfect for a particular job, only to receive a rejection letter in less than 20 minutes. Ouch. Rinse and repeat several times a day, for months on end. This makes rejection not only harsh, but worse, confusing. How can it be that with every passing day, your vision for what your next job should be can change, even slightly, to fit the current opportunity in front of you, only to find that the following day, you need to change it again?

First, I only applied for jobs with titles like Project Manager and Programme Officer, with of a few “Head of Department X”’s thrown in. When that yielded no results, I opened my search to fundraising, communications, and volunteer recruitment. With some transferable skills in these areas, I still had high hopes that I’d be able to move beyond the administrative and support roles I’d held in the past and into more strategic, managerial functions. Gradually, as time went on and my months of effort materialised nothing, my search expanded and I started applying for jobs like Executive Assistant and Personal Assistant, with a few internships thrown in. In order to remain relevant, I approached this by thinking of it not as an arduous exercise in CTRL C, CTRL V but rather an opportunity to use my imagination and re-invent myself in each new role, a new character in my repertoire of possible futures. 

Establish your must-haves

While this approach may seem like a progressive downgrade to some, it has taught me to be flexible on the small stuff, and ultimately, to stay true to the bigger picture. This means being willing to imagine myself in different job roles, at different levels, and finding value in a variety of different opportunities, while still ensuring that I keep focused on where I want to end up. With this in mind, I set a few requirements and made sure that potential job opportunities offered at least one of these three things:

  1. An experience that would give me knowledge and skills that I haven’t already obtained from a previous role held prior to my MBA;
  2. An opportunity that would allow me to network and make connections that might assist me in a future job search for the role after this one; or
  3. Sufficient money that I could provide myself a multitude of other meaningful opportunities outside of work and give me the means to support the activities I find valuable.

I decided that while my next step may not be my dream job, at least it would give me one of the things I need to take me in that direction eventually.

A marathon, not a sprint

In a LinkedIn Pulse article called The career advice I wish I had at 25, Shane Rodgers, the Queensland Editor at The Australian, states that you should think of your career as a marathon, rather than a sprint. His first advice is to “chill” and approach both life and the “careers we pursue to fill it and pay the bills” on a long-term basis. What the lengthy and self-esteem lowering process of job hunting has taught me is that Shane is right. I may not launch myself into my dream career straight out of university, but that’s ok. A career is a marathon, not a sprint. If I did get my dream job tomorrow, would it still be my dream job after 40 years of working at it? That isn’t likely. People aren’t like my dad anymore, working for the same company from the day he graduated until the day he retired. So take the advice of Shane, and “chill”, allow yourself to grow into your career, rather than seeking the pinnacle right out of the gate.  

Not enough and too much

One of the comments I’ve been hearing from many of my recently graduated friends all over the world is that they are constantly faced with the same line - “I’m sorry, you just don’t have enough experience.” It’s been the same for me. Only in the charity sector, where I am seeking work, I’ve found that I’m at an awkward stage of “not enough” and “too much” at the same time. It seems that the bulk of jobs being advertised in this field are either at the entry level or at senior executive experience. So after graduating from university, for the second time, not only am I too under-experienced for the senior roles, I’m also over-educated for the entry levels. This is a frustrating realisation for many - you are not alone.

Having been on the other side of the interview table, I can also empathise with employers. Hiring is a lengthy, tiresome and often disappointing process – there is nothing more frustrating than hiring a candidate, investing in training and then realising only months in that it just isn’t working. Hiring is one part due diligence and one part luck, so hiring managers aren’t really willing to gamble on the due diligence part and hope your actual abilities match your belief about your abilities.

The good news is, there are ways to get this experience – the old adage “I can’t get a job without experience and I can’t get experience without a job” isn’t exactly true. While governments are increasingly tightening their purse strings, public sector and charitable organisations are increasingly seeking skilled volunteers. Volunteers have an immense impact on the welfare of communities and the operations of organisations, and with an endless list of diverse opportunities available, volunteering also allows people to gain experience and learn new skills that might be relevant for their career search. It is also a great way to mitigate the inevitable routine, boredom and frustration that will come with the job hunt.

Never underestimate connections

Volunteering and internships also have one more positive advantage. They help you meet people. I may not know the secret to getting your dream job after graduating, but what I do know is that networking helps. A lot. Maybe more than anything else. It’s something I’ve always been reluctant to do, partly because I know a few people who do it so desperately and indiscriminately, that they’ve gained themselves a bit of a reputation as “serial-networkers,” which has been a major turn off for many potentially valuable contacts. I like meeting people because I’m interested in people, and their stories, not for the favours they might one day be able to do for me. And I don’t like the idea that we live in a world where who you know is more important than what you know, but the reality is, we probably do.

Looking back on my own career, I’ve probably gotten most of my jobs because someone I knew gave me a positive recommendation. There’s an important distinction though – I was given these recommendations because I built relationships with people I felt could teach me things, not give me things. I’ve also kept those jobs not because of my contacts, but because of my work ethic and the value I’ve provided to the organisations. So while you should never stop building your network, you should do it genuinely. Meet people because people are interesting, and value them for what they can teach you, not what they can give you.  

As you can see, if you’re looking for practical advice on how to actually get that dream job, you’ve obviously come to the wrong place. Like I said, I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m not alone. And neither are you.  

Related posts for Life After University:

6 Tips Before You Graduate

How to Stay Motivated Between School and Work


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