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January 31, 2013

A first night, not a dress rehearsal: acting professionally during a graduate internship

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Stripy sock manCalling all students and grads: before you step into the workplace, think about your behaviour and the impression you want to create. In this post, Kimberley from our Placement Learning Unit, tackles the thorny issue of professionalism in the workplace...

Your first forays into a professional working environment as a graduate can be unnerving. Leaving full-time education, where you are increasingly encouraged to consider yourself a favourite customer, entitled to all sorts of services and facilities, can be a shock. Even during the holidays, when many students perform the same role as full-time, permanent staff, there can still be a sense for both parties that this is part of the student experience. It is only after graduation that the familiar sense of context falls away, removing all of your usual cues and references for expected attitudes and behaviour. Insecurities can set in: How do I act? Will I be treated like an adult, or the “new kid”? Am I allowed to ask for help?

What is professionalism?

Professionalism, as a set of behaviours and values alongside your key employability skills is your armour against these insecurities. Acting professionally in a work environment is vital in order to uphold your organisation’s standards and brand and avoid potential embarrassment. It's also your key to gaining the respect and support of your colleagues, with the sense of understanding and belonging that these bring. Longer-term, developing a reputation for professionalism can benefit your career; in an environment with high stress or conflict - or where discretion is highly prized - behaving in an appropriate and professional manner will get you noticed. For the right reasons!

Monster, the career management portal, lists ten ways to be professional at work adapted below. Perhaps you’ve learned these the hard way, but it's worth checking in now and again to make sure you embody - and reflect - positive working values:

1. Competence. You have the skills and knowledge that enable you to do your job well. As an intern, your job may be to learn first, then do!

2. Reliability. People can depend on you to show up, and submit work, on time.

3. Honesty. You tell the truth and are upfront about where things stand. Careful not to be outspoken or rude, and make sure you’re ready for any repercussions if offering criticism.

4. Integrity. You are known for your consistent principles.

5. Respect for Others. You treat everyone as if they matter. Grasping the preferred level of formality when speaking to your managers is a quick win.

6. 'Self-Upgrading'. Rather than letting your skills or knowledge become outdated, you seek out ways of staying current. As an intern, showing you are an eager, self-starting learner goes a long way.

7. Being Positive. Avoid pessimism. Having an upbeat attitude and trying to be a problem-solver makes a big difference

8. Supporting Others. You share the spotlight with colleagues and work well as part of your team.

9. Staying Work-Focused. Not letting your private life needlessly impact on your job.

10.Listening Carefully. You check understanding and give people a chance to be heard.

In reality, professionalism could be dictated by company policies (e.g. internet/social media/mobile phone use), by the examples made by senior members of staff (it could be important to sense-check whether you have chosen the right person to emulate!), or by the more intangible “culture” of your office or organisation (e.g. dress-code). It’s important that you bring yourself up to date immediately with any company policies, as failing to uphold these could result in dismissal – ask your line manager or HR department if you are not sure what applies to you, or where to find it. Your team’s notion of professionalism will be more subtle – notice when colleagues make disapproving comments or display negative body language in response to someone’s behaviour, particularly regarding personal boundaries, communication with customers, or teamwork.

Think before you act

When you are on an internship, it’s important to run through a quick internal checklist that will immediately put you in the best position:

  • Who is my direct “boss”? Who else has control of my workload/line management?
  • Who will I work closely with?
  • What policies are in place that I might need to read through?
  • What are other people wearing, and how are they behaving in their work areas? (check dress code and food/drink/lunch arrangements as a bare minimum)
  • When will I need to actively demonstrate my professionalism?
  • Who or what might tempt me to behave unprofessionally?

Behaviours to avoid

CV blogger Kate Seidametova, writing on US website Resumark, notes some of her top behaviours to avoid:

1. Arguing or engaging in an open conflict with a co-worker. Disagreeing is OK (and can sometimes produce a more informed decision) but do it respectfully and politely and don’t cross the line. Use good judgment and watch your manners.

2. Dressing “too casually”. If you come to work sloppily dressed your looks will portray an image of a disorganized and messy worker. Dress professionally, especially if you your boss is on a conservative side

3. Making comments or jokes that could be offensive to others. Always avoid references to anyone’s personal characteristics such as nationality, race, gender, appearance or religious beliefs at work. (Be careful not to be lulled by “office banter” – you’ll still be responsible for your own words, should you be overheard)

4. Raising your voice or acting on emotions. If you’re an emotional person, try to take a break and calm down before an important conversation. People often do and say things driven by a spur of the moment that they later regret.

5. Lying. Being deceitful or dishonest will tarnish your reputation for life if you get caught. It is just not worth it.

Over time, you will begin to define your own idea of what constitutes professionalism, based on the behaviours you have seen in yourself and others, good and bad. You will be influenced by the cultures that you have worked in, their level of formality and the specific challenges of those environments. Wherever you go, and wherever you end up, Kate’s final words on the subject make a mantra worth repeating:

Professional behaviour is never having a need to prove that you are superior to anyone else

January 08, 2013

Looking for something different? Try procurement…

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SamHeard the word procurement and switched off? It's certainly true to say that procurement has had something of an image problem amongst students. Well maybe it's time to think again and consider a career in procurement. But don't just listen to the recruiters - read what Sam Teasdale, a business studies student on an industrial placement with National Grid has to say...

I'm currently working for National Grid, taking a year out from my business studies degree. Getting a 2:1 in my first year helped me progress past the preliminary stages for placement applications, as generally placements expect minimum 2:1. I am currently working in procurement (think of it as developing purchasing strategies and then purchasing everything the company requires) and hope that this post will encourage other students to consider this field and also recognise the benefits of taking a 'year out' to acquire some professional work experience.

The assessment centre - not as scary as you think!

Personally I thought one of the daunting experiences in the application was going to be the assessment centre; however on reflection this wasn’t as bad as I had anticipated. National Grid’s assessment centre is a two day event whereby you attend a dinner with the other candidates on the evening of first day and then complete the assessment day on second day.

The structure of the assessment centre was split into 3 tasks; interview, presentation and group exercise each are designed to test your skills in the 4 competency areas; developing oneself, building relationships, planning to achieve and presentation skills. Ensure you have some relevant examples to back up any questions surrounding these competency areas but overall the process really wasn’t that scary! Honest!

Using the skills I've developed at University

My placement is situated within Global Procurement which is responsible for annual spend in the region of £4.3bn globally making this department a crucial function to National Grid, more specifically I work in Global Procurement Strategy (GPS) as a strategy analyst. During my 12 months here I will be spending time in each of the 4 teams that make up GPS; Market Intelligence & Sustainability, Data & Systems, Performance Management and Process. Currently situated in Market Intelligence I am responsible for using my research skills developed at University to create high quality reports for buyers regarding market analysis they may require, this includes who’s out there, regulations, key drivers and generic market information. I then collate this into a slide deck and present back to the buyer, this is a very popular method and the buyers really do use this critical information.

Working in areas I'm passionate sustainability

The second part of my current job lies with sustainability, looking at how National Grid Procurement can become more sustainable for the future, whether the answer is to source more sustainable products or to change the specifications we usually use to procure to include increased energy efficiency, reduced carbon output or reduce our water usage in the supply chain. This element of my placement is particularly exciting as sustainability is a key prority - not just for National Grid - but other large corporations. Being able to do things now that are going to impact National Grid for years to come is particularly rewarding.

Team work, communication, organisational skills? Welcome to the world of procurement

I believe the key skills required to be successful in procurement are excellent communication, you will regularly be talking with your internal team and external teams. Once you start project work you could be working with other areas of this vast business and key stakeholders. Additionally another vital skill is team working, everything we do here in National Grid will centre on working as a team, and whether this is daily tasks or project work you will need to be able to blend with others. You will also need to be highly organised and be able to prioritise tasks accordingly, organisation is key as you will need to organise your workload and you must be able to prioritise your workloads each week for what needs to be completed and what can be put on the backburner for a while.

Why National Grid?

The support umbrella here at National Grid is fantastic, my line manager and the team are really supportive of me and interested in my personal development and how to maximise my potential. If I have any issues I can usually resolve them with my manager or team however if I had an issue that couldn’t be resolved ‘in house’ I have a dedicated Business coordinator to speak to and a personal buddy, as you can see there are enough people to support you during 12 months here. Upon enrolment in National Grid you are asked to join Newnet which is a community of new starters, Newnet organises socials, talks, visits and networking events to really make your experience here at National Grid a good one. This is a great opportunity as the services they offer are invaluable as a networking tool; moreover site visits and talks enabled me to learn more about National Grid as a whole and accelerate your integration into the company. I have felt like a valued (permanent) employee rather than a placement student

Overall I believe procurement is a fantastic department to have a placement, the experience and knowledge gained is invaluable and will ensure you develop as a person ready to secure that graduate job.

* The graduate guide to procurement is worth a look if you're considering other opportunities within the sector.

January 02, 2013

New year, new perspective?

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New YearThe holiday season is coming to a close, and with it that transient state of denial when we defer our worries, spend what we want, eat even more and exist in a virtual bubble of seasonal goodwill. And then New Year comes knocking, forcing many of us into a period of uneasy contemplation, thinking about what we've achieved and what still lies ahead. For some, this is a time to translate thought into action, defining goals for the year ahead in a series of 'resolutions'. I've never managed to make any resolutions, much less commit to them but I can see the value in taking stock. I'm just not convinced it needs to be date stamped. By seeing the New Year as a 'before' and 'after', you're in danger of setting yourself up to fail. 'Should' is a word laden with high expectations and offers nothing but a one way guilt trip. “I should get a job by the time I graduate” is an oft-heard refrain. Well great if you do, but what if this doesn’t quite materialise? By all means keep this aim in mind, but if you truly want 2013 to be a year of career success, you may need to see it as part of a longer journey, not just a final destination.

Be realistic

If you're a final year student and haven't really thought much about your career until now, you may struggle to combine the pressures of academic work and job search. Concentrate on the former - without a good degree, you'll find it hard to compete for any graduate level job, much less the highly prized graduate schemes. This doesn't mean you should neglect your career development - far from it - but you need to be honest about what you can achieve over the next few months. Finding a job is pretty time consuming, and you don't want to cut corners and apply for something that isn't right for you. There are small practical steps you can take now that will give you a firm anchor until you're ready (and have the time) to commit to your job search.

  • Talk to a careers consultant. They can help you make sense of where you are now, and offer reassurance that you're not alone. It might feel like everyone else is sorted - they're not!
  • Get your CV and LinkedIn profile up to scratch. This is something tangible you can do now, and it's also a good way to see how 'job ready' you are. Ignorance is far from bliss. Pretending you don't have gaps in your skills or experience won't make them go away. Better to know and be able to take action (whether now or when you graduate) than leave it and hope for the best.
  • If you haven't got any work experience, start making plans to find some. Unless you’re a seriously good multi-tasker, you may find it hard to fit a work placement around your revision during the Easter vacation, so it might be wise to concentrate on summer opportunities. If you're looking for help and guidance with the process, then come along to our work experience advice drop-in.
  • Take advantage of the career development workshops available throughout the spring and summer terms. In summer 2012 we launched the Career Success Toolkit to help finalists work through their careers angst; we'll be doing the same this year, so keep an eye out for news, info and workshop dates.

By all means, set yourself some deadlines to keep you on track but make them realistic. If you set the bar too high, you'll simply lose confidence and motivation when you 'fail' to clear the height.

Be resilient

If you have been on the job search treadmill and simply feel like you’re standing still, or even going backwards, now is the time to dig deep. We’re all at the mercy of external factors and influences (the economy, just for starters) and despite your best intentions – and efforts - you may have to deviate off course, or adjust your timeframe. If you’re not prepared for this it can be disheartening. Last year I wrote an article for the Guardian trying to help students and graduates find a way to maintain a positive, resilient attitude. It’s not easy, but small changes in behaviour and outlook can yield surprising results. I don't think much has changed in a year since I wrote that piece and I would probably echo the same sentiments, but with one or two further suggestions:

  • Try to avoid repeating the same mistakes. If you’ve fired off 200 applications and not received a positive response, ask yourself: is my strategy working? And then seek out help. It may be that a few minor tweaks to your CV will do the trick, but what if you're heading down the wrong career path? It's easier to change direction now, than plough more time and energy into a long and fruitless job search.
  • Ask for feedback. What do your friends, peers, family, employers think of you? Self-perception may not be the most reliable barometer of your 'worth’. Take the good with the bad. Successful people know their limits and play to their strengths.
  • If you haven’t already, join the relevant professional body or association for your sector or industry. A great source of information, news and potential vacancies and a whole network of new contacts to help motivate, inspire and support you.

In a world that’s become seduced by instant gratification, we often lose sight of the long game. Career spans a lifetime, not just a few years - there's plenty of time to 'get it right'.

December 12, 2012

Start your career in an SME

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ForkIt's easy to see why so many students are drawn to the big graduate recruiters: prestige, salary, structured training and a fairly transparent (if sometimes rather lengthy) selection process. Competition for graduate schemes is intense, but the eye watering applicant to offer ratio doesn't seem to deter students - quite the opposite. And there's some powerful psychology at play: graduate schemes are synonymous with "success" - it takes a pretty confident and self-assured individual to resist their lure. Over the years I've seen scores of students who feel they should apply to big multinationals, and yet can't articulate a convincing reason why beyond a sense of expectation - it's what I'm supposed to do - or peer pressure - all my flatmates are applying.

Big graduate recruiters have a strong campus presence, which both reflects and sustains the relationship between students and recruiters. Companies wouldn't waste time and money on high profile promotional activities if they didn't work. Many of you will bag yourself a place on a grad scheme, but some won't and for a sizeable minority such opportunities may not be the best way to realise your career aspirations. It may just be time to broaden your horizons - and job search - and start thinking about SMEs...

Ok, so what are SMEs?

This is just a handy acronym for small and medium sized enterprises, defined as independent companies employing fewer than 250 employees. And here's an interesting fact: SMEs account for 99.9% of all private sector businesses in the UK and employ over 14 million people - pretty astonishing when you consider that SMEs are at best peripheral to, and at worst, completely absent from, many students' job search. We have seen increased SME engagement with our employer services over the past year and it's safe to say this is a becoming an important growth area for graduate recruitment. Not quite the same order of magnitude as the big corporates, but significant nonetheless. A quick search on myAdvantage today generated 38 immediate start vacancies, covering sectors as diverse as IT, marketing, media, finance and recruitment.

Perception v reality

A recent survey by, shed some light on student perceptions of SMEs and why there's a general reluctance to view SMEs as a viable alternative to the blue chips. Of the questions asked, the following three are the most illuminating:

  1. Over a pretend 12 month period do think you would learn more working for an SME or a large company? 76% said SME, with 25% voting for large company.
  2. Which would you consider more of a risk - working for an SME or working for a large company? 73% felt it was higher risk to work for an SME.
  3. Do you think it's more prestigious to work for an SME or a large company? 86% think it is more prestigious to work for a large company

It's hardly surprising that perception of risk (not without some foundation) precludes some of you from exploring the SME angle, but I can't help wondering if the response to question three is rather more telling? Are you wedded to the dream of a 'graduate job' because it confers status, and signals to the world that you've arrived...and succeeded? There's nothing wrong with that - we all like recognition, but in the current climate you may be artificially restricting your options if you concentrate your search exclusively on the big players. By waiting for that job offer (which may never come) you could miss out on the chance to get some real world experience and start building your career portfolio.

What are the benefits?

Now, I'm aware that anecdote doesn't equal evidence but I do have a personal story worth sharing. An acquaintance of mine who graduated last year (Russell Group; 2;1) spent a good few months post-graduation applying for any and every corporate finance scheme. Number of job offers: 0. As reality dawned he started to widen his job search and - his words - "lower my sights". He soon found a marketing job with a small digital media company. The salary and fringe benefits can't compare with the big graduate recruiters, but the experience certainly can: he's handling client accounts, organising corporate events and has played an active role at the negotiating table. Pretty impressive and guaranteed to wow future employers.

There are some real tangible benefits that come from working for an SME:

  • Smaller teams and a flatter organisational/management structure can create opportunities for you to shoulder early responsibility, manage projects and exercise greater influence over decision making.
  • Hands on experience. SMEs are not equipped to offer the same level of training and supervision as their larger rivals, so you may just have to get stuck in. A sure-fire way to become resourceful and resilient!
  • Roles in smaller organisations are often less rigid, so there's more chance for you to 'grow' your job and get involved with other tasks and functions.

If you can work with minimal supervision, are flexible, pragmatic and have a healthy dose of common sense then you may just find the SME route worth considering.

Where to find SME vacancies

SMEs are operating within much tighter budget constraints than big corporates, so try to minimise risk with recruitment and selection. They advertise 'as and when' and don't align with the graduate recruitment cycle. Don't expect a lengthy recruitment process: typically you would apply with a CV and covering letter and may be offered an interview (and job!) within a week or so. You'll need to be a little more resourceful and proactive in your job search, so make sure you:

  • Use myAdvantage vacancy search - you can set criteria by location, sector and start date.
  • Check the local and national press - keep your search area as broad as possible.
  • Use your networks - face to face and online (see this: social media core medium for SME recruitment).
  • Keep up to date with business/industry press - who's expanding, diversifying? Any new start-ups?
  • Are you near any science or business parks? Why not send some speculative applications?
  • Consider Step if you're looking for a shorter placement - this could be a good way in.

SMEs are keen to recruit bright, capable graduates who want to contribute from day one. You may initially lose out in the glamour and finance stakes, but you'll gain valuable knowledge and experience. What better way to drive your career forward?

December 02, 2012

A grad's eye view: managing your job search

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There's plenty of information out there to help you prepare for interviews, but it's often the experiences and insights of your peers that resonate most strongly. Esther, a recent Warwick MSc graduate, has taken time out to reflect on her experiences and share her top tips for a successful job search...

It is not easy to find a graduate level job in this economy, but it is possible. Overall, the people who get graduate-level jobs are not necessarily the most talented, but rather those who are the most ready. This is why you have to be meticulous in your job search strategy. So, here are some tips:

  • Start looking early: I was lucky to end up with two offers at the end of my Master’s degree, and therefore have the opportunity to choose. But I sent my first CV about a year before I signed my first contract and I sent my application to my current company in March, signing my contract in September. This is why you have to start looking while you are still at Uni.
  • Treat all interviews as good practice: An interview is like a one-man show. All the spotlights are on you, but the audience has yet to be won over. In order to have a great show, you need to have a lot of rehearsals. You may need a couple of interviews before it becomes routine and you know what questions to expect and what answers to give.
  • Be ambitious but realistic: You need to aim high, but do not cling to a dream job (or dream company) that you don’t have the capacities to get. You WANT your dream job but you NEED any job in your field. A bird in the hand is better than two in the bush. Aim to get a job in your field first; then you’ll be able to apply to your dream company once you have acquired real experience.
  • Use a list of key words that employers want to hear (e.g. hard working, team-oriented, ability to multitask, extensive knowledge of……., etc) and have a short story connected to previous experiences to illustrate each keyword : It is all about selling yourself. It is up to you to demonstrate that a couple of baby-sitting hours made you an expert in client relations, or that serving beer at a bar for a summer has sharpened your analytical skills. Acing an interview requires a lot of upstream preparation.
  • Do not put something on your resume that you could not talk about for at least 5 minutes. You do not have to start scratching things from your CV, but think about how each line can serve as an opportunity to showcase skills that the company is looking for.
  • Looking for a job is a full time job: It is costly in time and money. You need to develop a routine and stick to it if you want to be successful (e.g.: Decide that you have to look for opportunities and send applications from 1 to 4p.m. every day, until you get a job).
  • Debrief in writing every interview that you have: How long it lasted, what questions they asked, what exercises you were given and what you didn’t know. This will help you avoid making the same mistakes in the future. Excel sheets are a very good tool for this.
  • No matter what happens, always stay on good terms with your interviewers: A thank you email after an interview process is a must (whatever the outcome of the encounter). I was recently contacted by a company whose first offer I had previously declined a couple of month ago, for a second interview for an even better position. I fully believe this happened because of my tenacity to show politeness and potential corporate spirit throughout the first interview process.

Esther graduated from Warwick with an MSc in Biotechnology, Bioprocessing and Business Management and is currently working as a strategy consultant for a company specialising in pharmaceutical consulting.

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