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Grads & postgrads: Six simple ways to increase your chances in a job search

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There are lot of graduate career advice columns so I’ll begin by telling you exactly what you’re going to get in this blog so you can decide up front whether it’s worth your time.

And that’s the point, really. Your time and energy is precious. You’ve spent a lot of it, not to mention expense, on a solid education. Now you need to channel your time and energy and ensure you don’t waste any of it in your search for a job.

This blog, then, is about helping you to achieve focus in your search for your first role after further education, by highlighting six simple activities that just might help you increase your chances of success.

My experience tends to be with engineering graduates and postgraduates, so I have written this with them in mind and will make some engineering-specific references, but this advice will hold good for most jobseekers who are entering the job market after further education.

1. Identify what you like about engineering (or your chosen career path)

In skilled but broad professions such as engineering, there are many possible and very differing career paths, so it’s a good idea to pay heed to what you enjoy and don’t enjoy when you engage with the subject as a student (especially on work placements).

The whole OEM process is convoluted and very fragmented, with many different suppliers being involved in the production of a finished product. You might join a firm wanting to get involved in product design, only to learn that it’s another part of the supply chain that does this. So think about it: do you enjoy design? Manufacture? Testing? You can really start to get a sense of this during your engineering degree or postgraduate degree, so it’s helpful to understand what part of engineering it is that calls to you.

So clarify this before you start applying. It’s better to have five good interviews for work you’ll enjoy, than fifteen that you’ve created with a scattergun approach.

2. Get your CV right

Even if your professional experience is limited (as it will likely be if you’re a student) you can still structure a CV so that it is highly relevant, with the emphasis on your academic achievements and relevant work experience gained in a sandwich course or placement year.

Retail experience gained during summer breaks or alongside study might add value if you can write about it in a way that shows the transferable skills you’ve gained - but you don’t need to spend too much space on this. A CV’s job is to open a door so that you can sell yourself to a prospective employer, so the most valuable currency a CV can offer is your fitness for the role in hand.

A short, punchy opening statement is a must. It should provide a snapshot of who you are, your (relevant, skills-related) background and abilities and what you’re looking to achieve or specialise in.

Detail your education history – the courses you’ve taken and classification of degree or Masters you expect to finish with. List key modules and detail any relevant projects and successes. Make sure your CV is tailored specifically for the role and sector you are pursuing.

If you can show that your hobbies speak directly to your chosen career path, then by all means feature them. Most people will like to see that you enjoy what you do. I will always remember a candidate who wrote in their CV that they gained their love of engineering through a childhood obsession with Meccano. They loved it so much that they could see a career in design was for them, so they decided to focus on maths and science at school. Narratives like this are compelling; you can build them into your career profile and how you talk about your career choices in an interview. (More on that shortly!)

3. Be smart about how you apply

A lot of graduates start applying for roles only after they’ve come out the other side of the summer madness – the fixture pile-up of exams, assignments and so on. But applying for a job earlier in the year can bring rewards. If at all possible, apply ahead of schedule and beat the rush.

Furthermore, try treating your application process as a project. You can gain a distinct advantage by applying bit of spreadsheet magic to help you track which roles you have applied for, when you applied and when you followed your application up if you didn’t hear back. If you’re working with recruiters, be sure to keep a record of who submits you for which role – it can be really confusing if you work with a lot of recruiters in the same sector.

4. Learn how to pitch yourself

There’s often a moment in an interview where you’ll be asked to summarise your experience so far. This is something you can prepare for so your answer is polished and shows some clear thinking, regardless of how much professional experience you have (or don’t have).

So practise telling the story of your career to date, including your academic history and any relevant placements or work experience, and turn it into a seamless narrative that paints a picture of you.

It’s important to be honest of course: if you’ve experienced any career “blind alleys” or tried something that wasn’t for you, you can acknowledge this whilst still creating value from it by showing that you understand what it taught you and how this helped in turn to further shape your career or ambitions.

I recommend practising a brief (three or four minute) overview of your career. Remember the Meccano-loving candidate? That’s a perfect example of someone who has done this. They put it in their CV profile but it would also have made a great introduction to their career narrative in an interview.           

5. Approach interviews as an opportunity to learn…

…and you’ll have given yourself an advantage over 50% of candidates who forget that interviews are a two-way experience.

Research the company and, if possible, your interviewer. Make sure you’re armed with some questions about the business and the role; take a pad with your questions on - you may well forget them in the heat of the moment - and write down the answers. You could well forget them if you don’t!

At this stage, it might help to think back to the first point I made in this blog, about clarifying what part of engineering you really like. Here is why it’s a really good idea to ask a lot of questions in an interview:

A lot of graduates in particular are attracted to a role because of the brand. They know a brand and its products, but they don’t know what a company does behind the scenes. Interviews are a great opportunity to discover whether a brand’s external appeal bears any resemblance to the culture of the organisation, and what a company actually does in order to produce the product that you know so well.

For example, OEMs may give a lot of their technical content to third party suppliers who are the real experts. Depending on the company, if you join an OEM, you might not get the opportunity you were hoping for to get really down and dirty with product; instead you might end up project managing companies within your supply chain who are the ones doing the nitty gritty you crave.

So ask a company what they create and whether you’ll get to see it and play a part in its creation, or whether it will just go off to a supplier. It’s important to understand what you’re looking for so you can ask the right questions.

Quite aside from the fact that you’ll probably impress your interviewer if you have some great questions, you simply won’t get a better opportunity to decide whether a company is the right one for you.

6. Manage your offers by understanding your priorities

Clarify your parameters. What are your non-negotiable requirements from a job and where are you prepared to compromise? Knowing this will help you to manage the nice problem of multiple job offers, should you be so lucky.

A job might require you to relocate, but offer great prospects or training. It might pay less, but provide an environment that cherishes graduate development or offers a fast-track to management. If you know what’s important you – environment, prospects, training, a good team, perks, pay or whatever – you can make smart choices.

Don’t go for the money. Or at least, not only for the money. There are a lot of roles, particularly contract roles that, on the surface, seem lucrative. But some of those roles offer little in terms of future, or solid content that will add to your skillset and help you to further your career.

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These are just a few of the points I have discussed with graduate and postgraduate students entering engineering for the first time. I hope they help. Feel free to get in touch with the G&H team if you have any further questions about any of these points – and good luck!