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3 lessons to help you jumpstart your career

Cíntia Chen

Thu May 08 2014

3 lessons to start up your career

IF you’re looking to stay on in Australia for work after graduation, you’ll want to heed the advice of former international student Cíntia Chen – start preparations now. She shares the most invaluable lessons she has learnt along the way.

3 lessons to start up your career

University is undoubtedly an exciting new stage in life we go through with the hope of finding our lifelong passion, like-minded people, a new identity or an opportunity to start all over again. Although it is a time of experience, discovery and fun, there are many things we do or not do that will influence our likelihood of getting a good job later on.

A tutor once told me, the first year of university is for you to make friends and adjust to this new life; the second year is the golden year, where you should be actively involved in university clubs, expanding your social network, building on your skills and potentially working part-time; the third and final year is for you to start getting ready to enter the workforce and applying for full-time jobs (and graduate programs if you have a PR or Australian citizenship). Of course not all of you study for three years but you get the gist.

You should note that there is definitely more than one way to do this. Some prefer to do a graduate degree and do research, some prefer to start their own business and some prefer to take a gap year and others prefer to volunteer overseas. The point is you should be preparing for whatever you’re doing after graduation. I’ve put together three lessons I learned along the way, which would have been handy to know when I was a university student.

Lessons to start up your career

#1 Make friends. Then make even more friends.

This is the most common career advice and the most important. Once you enter the workforce, they are called “connections” because you have a relationship with them, and you could potentially build a relationship with your connection’s connections. Aside from the actual friendship, which, by the way, must be genuine, each friend may help you get where you want, each friend becomes a door to new opportunities.

A friend from school had done an internship in a Melbourne consulting firm, and was asked whether she knew other students with credibility that might be keen to do the same internship with them. She then contacted me and long story short, I got the internship, which turned into a part-time job, and then a full-time job after I graduated.

There’s more. My manager happened to be looking for a Mandarin tutor, so I told her about a friend I knew who was tutoring a couple of kids part-time while studying. After one year of tutoring and with graduation soon approaching, my manager arranged an interview for her with the managing director, who later on offered her an internship.

Lessons to start up career

#2 Work on your social skills

This is very much linked to your ability to make friends. If you are shy, or fall under what some people would call “socially awkward”, now is the time to learn how to socialise. While there’s nothing wrong with being shy or introverted, social skills do play a part in a competitive working environment. Besides, they’re also important skills to build good relationships with your colleagues and managers.

You might not value it now, and it’s easy to brush it aside at university surrounded by a tight circle of friends, but at work, you’ll find yourself surrounded by people from all walks of life, especially if the organisation is large. And if you want to advance your career, or move to a different company, it is very likely that you will need to “know” people that will support and advocate for you, and open doors that would have been closed to strangers or people they don’t like.

What exactly are social skills? They involve your abilities to relate to people and be able to carry out a conversation with them. More recently, I had been having chats over the phone with a youth development officer from a local council, whom I had never met. What had started with me inquiring about the youth services committee, ended up becoming an agreement for me to join them as a volunteer consultant for youth services projects across the council, with access to connections from public and private sectors.

3 lessons to start up your career

#3 Do incredible and memorable things

Getting through university is the minimal requirement from employers, in Australia at least. As discouraging as it sounds, having a degree in this day and age is expected and unremarkable. This means that you should be doing things that will make you stand out from the crowd. Typical extracurricular activities are doing internships, having a relevant part-time job (like being a university tutor) or being in the executive committee of a club. But don’t be limited by these. There are heaps of really cool and memorable things you could do to demonstrate your passion and capability.

A friend from university who was passionate about social enterprises and entrepreneurship chose to volunteer in Ecuador and Guatemala. There she met like-minded people and formed a group that got into the Young Social Entrepreneur (YSE) Campaign. Since then, the group has travelled to counties including the US and Taiwan to present their social business idea. All of this was done during her four years of university, and she is now planning to turn her social business idea into a reality in the coming years.

One last story. A mate from college started his own business and undertook an internship at the World Health Organisation – while pursuing a medical degree. To top that, he co-founded a social enterprise that used technology to improve public health  in developing countries. Today, he works in one of the top three global management consulting firms.

Now ask yourself, if you had a company, would you employ a graduate with all these experience and skills, or someone who has a bachelor degree as the only value add?