What thoughts come to mind when you reflect on your time at University? If you could go back in time and start out again, would you do anything differently? For students currently in Higher Education, have you ever thought about what you want to take away from your time at University?
The answers to the questions posed above are quite revealing. Recent graduates says things like ‘I wish I had focused on identifying and developing, skills, attributes and more importantly, relationships that were necessary to succeed after University.‘ Interestingly, for the most part, current students tell us that they want to finish with a good degree (2:1) and have some fun while doing it. There is nothing wrong with having a good time at Uni, in fact, it is advisable you do! This article is about thinking of ways to make the most of the relatively short time you spend in Higher Education.
Begin with the end in mind – While graduation may seem a long way off in your first year, sooner or later your course will come to an end. Apart from a degree certificate, what else are you going to leave with? ‘Beginning with the end in mind’ is a concept that was first described by Stephen Covey in his best selling book, ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.’ This is about reflecting on where you want to be at the end of an endeavour before you start out. In other words, throughout your time at Uni, think about what you want to leave with. This allows you to modify your thinking and actions towards SMART goals to get you there. This enables you recognise and maximise resources at your disposal. How do you want your CV to look on the day you graduate? Start working on it from Day 1!
Experience, experience, experience – If you do not do anything else while at University, try and get some relevant experience. The key word being relevant. If you are studying for a degree in Biomedical Science today in the UK, it will be near on impossible to get into a graduate training position without some laboratory experience. Having a part time job in a bar may provide some much needed funds but just won’t cut it for the type of job you are after. This is because Universities are churning out graduates by the thousands each year and there are just so many jobs. Even if it is an unpaid internship, see it as an investment in your future. Another benefit besides making yourself more employable is that you can decide if that profession is for you or not. Believe us, you do not want to get stuck in a career that you derive no satisfaction from.
Get involved! – You’ve committed the next 3-4 years of your life to your University, you might as well get more out of it than a degree certificate. Join a Society or start one. Become a Peer Mentor, a Student representative for your course or run for the Student Union. Organise a student conference or plan a study trip that can help take your learning outside the classroom. Become a student ambassador and engage with prospective students on Open Days. If you’re that way inclined, sign up for University Challenge! Do something that shows you are able to take initiative and are innovative. Do not just go through your University, allow your University go through you too.
Use your University’s Careers service – We are constantly surprised at the number of students that pass through a University and never speak to a single Careers Adviser! These are specially trained individuals who can provide advice and help you with creating a CV, personal statement, filling in application forms, interview preparation and so much more. Most importantly, the service is free! A number of Universities now organise Career fairs and events, providing opportunities to network with prospective employers. We advise making an appointment with a Careers advisor at least once each academic year. This allows you review what you have done in the past year and identify skill gaps. You can then set goals to fill in any ‘gaps’ for the next year. It can sometimes be difficult to see the link between work experience and skills developed. A good Careers Advisor can help with that and help you enhance your CV.
Join a relevant professional body or Learned Society – Most disciplines are associated with a professional body. If you are in your 2nd or 3rd year at University and do not know which body is relevant to your discipline…there are no words! There are many advantages to joining a professional body including – careers advice tailored to your discipline, information about conferences which provide networking opportunities, grants to support you attending a conference etc. Many of these organisations offer reduced rates for students (sorry not free) but are definitely value for money.
Develop key horizontal and vertical relationships – So you want to be a lawyer, accountant or dietitian? How many professionals in your field do you know? Is it possible to ask one of them to mentor you? Mentoring (vertical upwards) relationships are very powerful in opening doors and getting a leg in. You can only get so much information online. Mentors come with a breadth and depth of experience that cannot be obtained from lectures or textbooks. What about you? You can develop mentoring relationships (vertical downwards) with students just starting out. Tell them what you wish someone had told you when you were starting out. Maintain a good relationship with your peers (horizontal). They are the future of your profession and you never know when you will need their skills and expertise.
Do your homework – What do you want to do when you finish? Get a job, start your own business, maybe both, maybe neither? Know what is required for your next step. Will professional certifications put you at an advantage? What are the main skills and attributes employers are looking for in your sector? Where are you now and what do you need to get where you want to be?
This is by no means an exhaustive list and we may do a follow up post soon. We would love to hear your thoughts too so please join the conversation by clicking the comments button.
About our writer – After completing a PhD in Microbiology, Amara is building her career in academia, teaching and supporting a new generation of scientists as well as undertaking research. Amara believes in the combined power of education and developing productive relationships as essential tools for building successful careers. She tweets @amaratweets.
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