For students who choose what are considered not-so-serious undergraduate programs to study – often anything that doesn’t fall under the sciences, business or engineering – the thought of getting a career in your chosen field after graduation can seem like the equivalent to wanting to be a rock star.
Or the next Shakespeare, Monet, Barbara Walters or Steven Spielberg.
Competition for jobs is fierce. You must compete against your peers for the most desirable opportunities, and more often than not, how you snag those opportunities has absolutely nothing with your attendance, your grades or, ultimately, your degree. It’s all about what you’ve done, who you know, and what they’ll say about you.
Employers will expect you – and everyone else who has recently graduated from your program – to have a degree in a related field when you apply for a role at their company. However, you can surprise and impress them – and set yourself apart from your peers – by keeping an arsenal of skills you learned outside the walls of your alma mater, as well as a thick portfolio of your work, ready to go in your back pocket.
Your experience and industry connections will come from the work you do outside of the classroom. Unfortunately, the long hours you put in will probably be unpaid and the opposite of glamorous, but those experiences are the ones employers will be looking for when you apply for summer jobs, internships and after-grad opportunities.
As a journalism student at Ryerson University, I received a lot of great basic knowledge and training from my classes. It didn’t take long before I was producing good enough work to warrant A’s from almost all my profs, many of whom are still working journalists. However, in journalism, it’s not about how academically good your work is, it’s all about whether someone thinks it’s interesting enough to publish or not. And when it’s time to apply for a job, wannabe journalists need only apply with two things: well-developed writing skills and a big, fat folder of published clippings.
Knowing that, I contacted Ryerson’s student newspapers and started reporting, writing and taking photographs for them. I also got involved with some small local newsletters, writing and editing for them. None of the stories I wrote would have ever made the front page of any daily newspaper, but what’s important is that my name has been printed in black and white between the headlines and the stories I’ve written.
Keep it simple and start close to home: check out your school’s website or head over to the student centre to see what groups, clubs and organizations work right on campus. Depending on your skills and interests, you can do some (really free) freelance graphic design, writing, editing, photography, website maintenance or event organization for them. Keep track of all the work you do in a portfolio or a diary so you can present everything to your future employer in an interview setting.
Once you have some basic experience under your belt, try volunteering or completing an unpaid internship at a private company. Although you can and should try to get in at the biggest and best companies in your field, some of the most rewarding opportunities often lie with smaller companies who could use an extra body around the office for a few hours once or twice a week but can’t afford to pay someone.
At smaller companies, the chances of you actually doing work related to your degree and future career – instead of just getting coffee or answering phones – are greater. The people you work with will be much more appreciative of your contribution because they do not have the resources that large companies have access to. The opportunity to take on greater responsibilities often presents itself much earlier, so you get to play a role in important projects and assignments.
Upon graduation, when you’re frantically trying to find a “real” job (meaning one that actually pays money), you can be confident that you have the two or three or four years of experience required, as well as a ton of references and physical evidence – whether it’s published work or completed projects – to back you up.