#UniAdvice – So you didn’t get a Desmond? How to ‘fail forward’

Are you a Damien, Billy, Desmond or Thora? Although I’m a Damien, I have friends, family and students who didn’t quite make a Desmond.  Now before you think I may have lost my marbles, I recently found out that these names are used to describe degree classifications based on rhyming slang of the surnames of some famous people. Are you a Damien (Hirst – 1st), Billy (Gunn – 2:1), Desmond (Tutu – 2:2) or a Thora (Thora Hird – 3rd)?  While preparing our previous article on graduate employment, we touched on the point of degree classification and would like to go into further detail here.

7-failureSo you didn’t make a Desmond. You’ve spent 3, 4 or more years at University working towards a degree and now you’ve finished not even with a 2nd lower (Let my people go…lol) but with a third class degree. Before the doom and gloom sets in, be encouraged that there can be success after a third. Not that there will be but that there can be. Whether it happens or not is really up to you. I worked very hard for my degree and I make no apologies for it. I recognised early in my studies that it would be important for me to excel academically to achieve the career goals I had set for myself and that was my motivation. I am mighty proud I did because it was and still is a tremendous achievement. However, for a number of reasons, not everyone does. As a teacher, I am disappointed to see some of my students finish with a third but I realise this this is far from the end of their story.

This article isn’t about sugarcoating the issue in ‘motivational speak.’ If you have finished with a third, it means you have in essence failed at Higher Education. You have failed to meet most of the assessment criteria set in the subjects you have studied. You cannot prove to have a good knowledge of a discipline you have been studying for a number of years. If you have studied in the UK, more often than not you are in debt to the tune of some thousands of pounds. What this article is saying is that while you may have failed at University, you haven’t failed at life.

Lewis Carrol, most famously known for penning ‘Alice in Wonderland’ was an English writer, mathematician and Anglican cleric. Carol Vorderman is a maths whizz and is best known for co-hosting popular programme ‘Countdown.’ Gani Fawehinmi was a human and civil rights lawyer who was also a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN). All three completed their first degrees with a 3rd. All three ‘failed forward’ from that and became very successful in their chosen careers.

Be honest with yourself – Why did you finish with a third? As University lecturers, we teach all types of students. We observe some students who genuinely struggle academically and may have made the wrong course choice. We note those who are just indifferent. University is just the next place to go after completing A Levels and it is sort of what is expected of them. These students just want to coast through the next few years until they have to make a decision on what to do with their lives. Some students have a life changing experience (death of a loved one, accident, mental health issue) occur during their studies that they never really recover from. Reflecting on your answer to the question of Why? can help you decide what to do next and will be useful for interview preparation because you may have to discuss this so be prepared. If you truly believe you have made the wrong course choice, spend time finding out what you are good at. Utilise the Careers Service in your University and if you don’t have one, find a professional in that area to discuss with.

How much does it matter? – It depends on what you want to do next. If you want to progress into a postgraduate degree, teach or get onto a graduate scheme at a top firm then yes it really does matter. If you want to write a best selling novel, work in art/design or create the next Facebook, then maybe not. What do you want to do next? Has University taught you that you don’t want to be an employee but an entrepreneur? Please read our article on identifying your skills and create a list of your skills and abilities. Compare your list with the skill set required in your preferred role(s) and identify where your skills come short. Identify the gaps and search for training opportunities to fill them e.g. professional exams. Remember that your transferable skills are marketable across sectors!

Be proactive – In today’s job market, a first or 2:1 is not an assurance of immediate employment. Beyond academic abilities, employers are looking for particular skills, competencies and attributes. While studies indicate that more employers now ask for a 2:1 as minimum, this is because more and more students are now finishing with 2:1’s. I have two friends who finished with firsts who could not get a graduate job for months after completing their degree. The first worked as a care assistant and the other as a waitress. They are both now in graduate employment. During her interview, my friend’s boss was so impressed that she hadn’t turned her nose down on waitressing because he too worked as a waiter when he finished Uni and was job hunting 30 years before! Do not be too proud to ‘stoop to conquer.’ In my experience, small and medium size companies are more willing to overlook degree classification than bigger companies.

It is always harder to climb the mountain when starting from the bottom but the view is the same when you get to the top, regardless of where you started.

A young friend of mine recently finished with a third and is now working in a small firm where he is getting hands on training and enjoying it. In two years time, he will be able to take professional exams and will be more marketable. A Financial Director of an asset management firm told me ‘When it comes down to it, I will always offer a job to the candidate who is most hungry for it.’ A third may start you off on the wrong foot but nothing stops you from re-balancing and putting your best foot forward. Failing forward means realising the difference between failing at something and being a failure. One is an event, the other is an attitude or way of life.

aa-headshotAbout 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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#UniAdvice – 5 Things you never get told about graduate employment!

5-job-applicationA common theme that arises in our conversations with ‘soon to graduate’ students is that of employment. Whilst graduation is undoubtedly something worth celebrating, that thought of ‘what happens next’ can evoke a range of emotions from excitement to panic! Things are beginning to look up after the global recession in 2008, however, a large proportion of graduates ‘churned’ out every year are now finding that the hardest job for a recent graduate is actually getting that first job. One of the many reasons we started this blog was to empower graduates with knowledge to navigate the often murky waters of graduate employment.

This article is for all graduates, regardless of level of education (A Levels, BTECs, Bachelors, Masters and PhD). In our experience, the more advanced your education, the more challenging it could be when job hunting. This is because while you are becoming more specialist in your knowledge base, you tend to be focusing in one particular area. It’s not all doom and gloom though, before you think of throwing in the towel, we hope this article will be able to provide some advice to help in your job search. These are things while seemingly obvious, we wish someone had told us at some point while studying.

Start early! – While you don’t need to start job hunting in Fresher’s week, how many of us actually thought about how our CV needed to look at graduation whilst undertaking our degree? How many opportunities to enhance our CVs do we miss because it seems like too much work at the time. Activities such as volunteering, being a student representative, starting or running a student society, joining a Learned Society, undertaking an internship, learning a new language, being a peer mentor, writing a blog or research article etc. Begin to stand out from the crowd!

Graduating is only the beginning! – Achieving your degree should be the beginning of your journey as an aspiring professional. As a friend got told after completing his doctoral studies ‘Well done, now it is time to go prove yourself’. I bet many who have gone through this stage would echo the same sentiments following their experiences. So, if you are coming to the end of your bachelors degree, masters, or even PhD, remember this is only just the beginning. So you’ve got a degree? Welcome to a club that includes millions of others…start thinking about what your unique selling points (USP) are!

How hard can it be? – Well, don’t get me wrong, some new graduates succeed in their first attempt at applying for a graduate job. This is not the norm though as most people apply for an incredible number of jobs before they get a reply or are considered for interview.  A point to mention here is that application for and seeking graduate job opportunities is very time consuming. This is something that takes many by surprise. To get a good job, you’ll have to invest a great amount of time and pay a great deal of attention to the job specification and requirements. Future posts will cover techniques to approach job applications such as filling in forms, preparing personal statements and conquering the interview.

But I don’t have a 2:1! – To many graduates, the degree classification is the end point. Well, sorry to burst your bubble. Some graduates believe their chances of a job are limited because they lack the ‘first class’ degrees or ‘distinctions’ at postgraduate level. We’ll do a post (so many things to write…) on ‘Success after a third class degree.’  Whilst educational qualifications are very important; depending on your discipline; they may not be the most important thing.  As a graduate, it is important you identify your unique selling point (USP) as this will determine how you approach prospective employers and job opportunities. Employers are looking for skills, not just what you know but what you can do. This is why getting experience in your field whilst studying is one of the best things that can boost your chances of getting a job when you finish.

 Your inability to articulate your ability can make you a liability

The scatter-gun approach to job application – For anyone reading this article, you might recognise this as your style of job hunting. If you are confused by what we mean by the scatter-gun approach then I’ll explain. Many graduates get frustrated applying for jobs and make the mistake of sending the same CV and covering letter to every job under the sun. It’s like chatting up every guy or girl at a bar using the same chat-up line. You wouldn’t do that would you?  If that is your approach, well, its 2015 so it’s a new year and we won’t judge you this time! On a serious note, it is lazy practice to use the scattergun approach hence the key advice here is to be innovative and adapt your CV, covering letter and profile to suit the specific job(s) you are applying for.

Yes, yes, it’s tough out there and we won’t attempt to suggest otherwise. However, not knowing what one is able to do is more limiting than the paucity of the job market. For example, a lot of biological or medical science graduates generally assume the only jobs available to them are laboratory or hospital based roles, teaching or lecturing or if fortunate within the scientific or pharmaceutical industry. As we addressed in our last article, the skills you have developed are key to your success in the job market and “your job market is only as big as the skills you possess” thus, as a science graduate, you could work in several environments such as media, financial institutions, politics, communications and so on (we will address these specific core areas in subsequent articles). When you identify your transferable skills, you realise that the world can really be your oyster.

It is important that whatever your field of employment, that you start making good contacts as early as possible and Networking. We’ve found that many opportunities come through recommendations, individual and group networks so whatever your current situation, start connecting with others using various media such as LinkedIn, Twitter to develop your professional network.

The time to plan your career is NOW. It is important that you always think about what you can offer rather than what can be offered to you

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#UniAdvice: How to create a winning CV!

Having recently organized a successful CV workshop at an international conference for early career scientists, we became aware of the need for an article on writing CVs. This article will highlight some of the key elements of what is important in a CV and also important tips to consider when designing your CV.

A key element of a job application process is the CV. So what exactly is a CV and why is it so important? Careerplanning.about.com describes a CV as ‘a written description of your work experience, educational background and skills.’ Whilst this is a good definition, I prefer to describe the CV in a more personal way as – ‘the reflection of your professional self on paper representing you in front of a potential employer’. Thus, what should be documented on your CV should be what you would be happy to show to a potential employer and also what you can objectively defend if necessary.

So what should be included in your CV? Firstly, generic identifiers such as your name, address, email and phone contact details. In some countries, other identifiers are usually found on the CV such as age, date of birth, state of origin and a photo. In the UK and other countries with strong employment and anti-discriminatory laws, identifiers such as age and place of origin are not required on the CV.

Next, write a short profile that clearly states the objective of your CV. An example of this could be ‘Highly numerate accounting and finance graduate with experience working in an international finance company. I am seeking a career in financial planning.” The profile section should be tailored to suit the job or company you are applying to.

#CareerChat – The ‘nuts’ and ‘bolts’ of transferable skills

3-skill-wordsPicture this. You get onto a bus and see a gentleman selling health supplements. In an effort to sell his wares, he sparks the interest of his target market by sounding knowledgeable and intelligent about the constituents of his products. His witty and humorous communication style engages the audience and by the time he mentions that he is selling at ‘a one day special reduced rate’, they no longer need convincing. Within a few minutes, he has convinced a bunch of strangers to part with their money.

Alongside ‘knowledge’ of his products (subject specific skills), the gentleman has demonstrated other skills such as: communication, research, literacy, self-awareness, presentation and confidence. A more introspective look at the mentioned skills and you will note that these skills are used in almost every job type or sector including; hospitality, academia, finance, management, media etc. These generic skills are known as transferable skills and differ from subject specialist skills which are specific to a particular profession. The clue in the name being that that these are skills you can ‘transfer’ from one professional field to another.

Transferable skills are skills and abilities that are relevant across different areas of life; professionally as well as socially.

Note that as important as the sales man’s knowledge about the product was, it was his ability to connect with the audience that enabled him succeed in selling his wares. Similarly, your transferable skills set can be the ‘extra’ that differentiates you from other candidates and enables you succeed in getting your dream job

The good news is that we all already have transferable skills because we start developing them as early as when we are in school. Were you a school prefect? You were already developing leadership and problem solving skills. Were you a part of the debating society? You were already developing communication, team work and research skills.

So what are these skills? The UK transferable skills framework provides the following list;

  • Communication
  • Teamwork
  • Self-management
  • Digital (IT)
  • Problem solving and decision making
  • Planning and organising
  • Research and analysing
  • Leadership and supervising
  • Resilience, adaptability and drive

Now let’s reflect. Which of these skills do you have? Where have you displayed these? Have you highlighted them in your CV?

If no, what are you waiting for?

An awareness and understanding of transferable skills enables one recognise and therefore take opportunities where these skills could be developed. Skill profiles are increasingly being used by employers to identify suitable employees. Graduates come a dime a dozen these days, so make yourself unique by developing an unmatched skills profile.

How can you develop transferable skills? First, identify the gaps between your skill set and what potential employers are looking for. Take every opportunity to utilise these skills both professionally and socially. We learn and develop by doing.   Remember this quote from Thomas Edison that ‘opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.’

Opportunities to develop key transferable skills.

Communication – Writing articles, reports, dissertations, and minutes of meetings. Giving presentations and lectures, participation in a debating society.

Team work – Membership of a sports team, committee responsible for organising an event, being part of the Student Union, any responsibility that requires team effort.

IT and digital skills – Proficient use of word processing, blogging, data analysis, presentation programmes and use of the internet.

It is essential to take the initiative and start developing transferable skills that you have recognised as being key in your chosen field.  Evidence showing how you have utilised transferable skills must be well articulated in your CVs, personal statements as well as in interviews. Experience doesn’t have to be everything!

Success is a process and not a destination so keep working at it. All the best!

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#CareerChat – How to identify and articulate your skills when preparing your CV!

Skill (noun) 1.special ability or expertise. 2. something requiring special training or expertise. (Collins English Dictionary).

‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ (Socrates)

SkillsTo succeed in any field of discipline, it is imperative that one identifies and develops relevant skills to excel in that specific area. More often than not, employers will choose a more skilful applicant over a more experienced one. Like my friend who is a Human Resources consultant said ‘there is a difference between experience and expertise, I am constantly seeking the latter.’ Developing one’s skills makes all the difference but that will be the subject of another post.

How you present your skills profile in your CV can be the difference between progressing to the next phase of a job application or not; regardless of your education or work experience. Identifying and communicating your skills will always set your apart from other applicants. However, you cannot communicate what you haven’t identified! Furthermore, the ability to identify all the skills you have can make you more aware of your different career options. It can also alert you to any skills or knowledge gaps that can be addressed with further training.

Skills by definition involves a special ability or expertise. Do not let the terms ‘special ability’ and ‘expertise’ throw you. We all have skills, whether they be generic transferable skills such as communication and teamwork or more specialist skills such as electron microscopy and credit control! Job skills are a broad term that are used to cover a wide range of abilities and skills that you have built up during your education and career.

So now we all agree that preparing your skills profile by making a complete and relevant list of your skills is a worthwhile task, how do we go about it? We move from ‘knowing’ our experience to ‘identifying’ our expertise via reflection.

First, look at your employment history and prepare a list of every single job you have done, it doesn’t matter if it is voluntary or paid employment, skills can be developed in either. If you have just graduated from school or University and are thinking about your first job, scrutinise what you have done over the last few years to achieve your degree award. Skills are not only developed in a work environment. Do you have any hobbies? Include them on the list too.

Next, for every job, hobby or training, identify and write down the tasks associated with each activity. Finally, note what you have learnt from carrying out these tasks. What abilities do you now have that you didn’t before? You’ll be surprised at how many skills you have developed over the years.

Undertaking tasks lead to experience, developing experience = developing skills in that area. For example, a final year student undertaking a research project in Microbiology is developing skills; in the subject area (techniques being used); IT (data analysis, preparing reports); organisational and project management (managing submission deadlines); communication (writing dissertation and defence/viva) etc.

Now that your skills profile is ready, the job application process becomes somewhat easier as you can compare the person specification in any job advertisement with your personal and unique skills list and choose the relevant items. You can also see what skills are important to employers in your area of expertise and fill in the gaps where necessary.

Identifying your skills is an ongoing process in the journey of personal development. As one advances along a career path, our capacity to improve our skill set increases. However, unless we are aware of and documenting our advancement, it can be difficult to communicate this progress to prospective employers.

Why take all the time to find and communicate your skills? The end result is something that sets you apart and makes you stand out. Remember that you don’t even have to be the most qualified and or experienced candidate, but by showcasing your skills you can grab the attention of the employer and demonstrate instantly how you will fit into the job role perfectly and add value to the company. So get started.

Good luck!

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