Many people study at university because they want to work in a specific profession, or perhaps gain employment with better conditions. This chapter outlines some steps that you can be taking now, while you are a student, to increase your employability when applying for work after you graduate. These activities do not need to be time consuming and many will also be helpful to you as a student learning in your field of study. Field of study is referred to as your discipline area in this chapter, and describes the major or key area of study, for example education, nursing or creative arts. It’s not too early to start thinking about your post-university employment, and many of the activities suggested in this chapter can be undertaken now, regardless of how far you are through your studies. This chapter begins by discussing the importance of having a general career plan and then describes some activities that can assist in developing your career readiness and make you more attractive to future employers.
What are your plans?
Part of increasing your employability is understanding the profession or career you are planning to enter. You have chosen a program of study, but what types of jobs do you plan to have when you graduate? Some students will have a very clear picture of what their future work will be. For other students, the pathway to a career is not as straightforward. If you are in the latter category, then we recommend that you have a chat to a Career Practitioner (or Careers Advisor/Counsellor). Most universities will provide free access to expert careers advice. This doesn’t mean you are locking yourself into only one career path. However, having a clear picture of your future profession will make it easier to work on the skills and attributes that your future employers will be seeking.
Professional in training
It can help to think of yourself as a professional in training, rather than as a student. This happens from the moment you start your university experience and provides you with opportunities to develop your professional identity, ready for your first new role after graduation. You demonstrate your professionalism (or lack of) in your interactions within your subjects, with fellow students, university staff and others. This includes how you interact with others in forum posts, in lectures and tutorials, and in the assessment work that you submit. This doesn’t mean that studying cannot be fun. It’s more about ensuring that you are not acting inappropriately or creating a negative impression.
Developing a positive professional relationship with your lecturers can have many benefits. Your lecturers will often have connections with employers in your discipline and they are usually happy to share their knowledge of employment practices and opportunities with students. Many graduate employment programs require applicants to submit academic references and your lecturers need to know who you are before they can be your referee. You can connect with university staff and demonstrate your career readiness in a number of ways. This can involve being an active participant in your classes, including discussing the subject content in classes and tutorials, engaging in the forums for your subjects and joining discipline clubs (e.g., Engineering Club). Not all of these options will be possible for all students. If you are studying online, you may need to consider different approaches compared to a student studying on campus. For example, students attending live online lectures can use a webcam to show their presence, be dressed appropriately, ask questions during the session and consider their video background view (Quick tip: Use a virtual background image if your actual background isn’t ideal).
Your professional image is important. Many employers will view the social media pages of applicants, so consider if your public profile is what you want potential employers to see. As an employee, your behaviour and image reflects on your employer, so employers are looking for people whose image matches the business. It’s important to be aware that anything you post or upload online may be accessible forever, even if you remove the original post. Once something is online you may lose control over how it is distributed or shared. This doesn’t mean that you cannot have personal opinions or share your personal life with friends and family online. However, you may consider having a private personal profile and a public professional profile on social media and other online platforms, such as LinkedIn.
Many professional organisations have free or reduced cost membership for students. These organisations often provide useful resources to members, have graduate programs and advertise job vacancies. They will also often provide professional development opportunities and mentoring programs. Professional groups provide opportunities to meet people to develop your professional network and are also an opportunity for you to become more familiar with your profession and the types of jobs that might be available.
Your university website may list relevant professional organisations for your program of study. Your lecturers and career practitioners will also be able to provide you with advice regarding the most relevant organisations for you to join.
Joining a professional organisation is the first step. To get the most out of your membership, consider participating in professional development opportunities, accessing member resources, joining mentoring programs, or attending local branch meetings. These activities demonstrate to potential employers you have done more than just complete a membership application form.
Many professions require registration or have optional registration. This process is overseen by organisations known as accreditation bodies. For example, the Queensland College of Teachers is the organisation responsible for teacher registration and for accrediting teacher education programs, or teaching degrees, within Queensland, Australia, and membership with Engineers Australia is often required before you can be employed as an Engineer in Australia. We recommend that you review the competencies and skills you will need to demonstrate for registration if this applies to your profession or discipline. These are also likely to be many of the same skills that employers will be looking for. Be prepared to submit your application for professional registration as soon as possible. You may need to have completed your degree before you can apply for registration, however you may be able to prepare the other elements of your application beforehand. You don’t want to miss a great employment opportunity because your professional registration isn’t finalised.
Internships and other work experience
Many students do not have industry experience when they commence their studies. However, there are often opportunities to gain discipline experience while you are a student. This can include professional placements as formal components of your studies, work integrated learning, internships, industry placements and paid junior roles. Your university’s careers and employability team, your lecturers and other support staff will be able to inform you of the options available within your discipline area. These placements provide excellent opportunities to not just develop discipline skills, but to also expand your professional network, gain professional references or recommendations, and may lead to ongoing employment. They also give you an opportunity to see what it might be like working in your chosen profession and what employment opportunities exist. Ideally, you will be excited by your work or placement in your discipline area and be even more motivated to finish your degree.
Don’t worry if you are unable to undertake work experience in an area directly related to your study. Any recent employment where you can demonstrate that you are a good employee (e.g., that you are punctual, reliable, appropriately presented) will be helpful. Skills you may be able to demonstrate from other paid employment include experience in customer service, working with others, written communication skills, managing budgets, following policies and procedures, plus many more. Consider asking your employer for a reference that verifies that you have demonstrated these key qualities.
Volunteer activities also provide opportunities to develop skills that future employers will be seeking. For example, if you prepare your cricket club newsletter then you may have valuable experience in written communication, working with contributors, using the software or program used to create the newsletter and graphic design.
Other extra-curricular opportunities
Most universities will offer extra-curricular opportunities, such as student representation positions, peer assisted learning, sporting clubs, debating clubs, etcetera. These provide opportunities for you to develop and demonstrate skills that employers are looking for (as well as being good fun). Participating in these activities also shows that you have some balance in your life and are not “just” a student. For example, playing in a team sport may indicate to an employer that you are able to work with others and are generally fit and healthy; and holding student representation positions can allow you to develop and demonstrate leadership skills.
Prepare your Resume or Professional Portfolio
We recommend that you prepare your resume or CV (Curriculum Vitae) now, at least in draft form, so when positions are advertised you are ready to apply. Graduate employment programs are often advertised six months (or more) before the program is due to commence and may only be open for submission for a short period of time. There are a lot of resume preparation resources available online and your university is likely to provide support in developing your resume. Your resume is an opportunity to highlight your skills, experience, and abilities and why you are a desirable candidate. It is important that you spend some time preparing a professional resume. A poorly prepared resume may lead employers to believe that you are a poorly prepared professional.
Some disciplines will require students to develop a professional portfolio during their studies. For example, a creative arts student may develop a digital portfolio of their paintings, a film and television student may develop a showreel, an education student may create a showcase portfolio of lesson plans, or an engineering student may develop a skills development portfolio. This is a great opportunity to gradually build a portfolio of evidence of your skills and abilities and your professional learning. Carefully consider any feedback you receive on your portfolio, as your lecturers are likely to know what potential employers are seeking.
You will often have to submit a number of other documents with your application, which may include a cover letter, statement of claim, selection criteria statement, university transcripts, referee reports, or samples of work. Your university careers and employability team will have resources and support to assist you in preparing a comprehensive application.
It’s exciting when your resume, professional image, skills and abilities lead to an interview for a position. Don’t let all that good work go to waste by being unprepared in your interview. There are a number of things to consider during the interview stage to maximise your chance of being the successful candidate. These include:
your personal presentation, including what you wear,
- body language,
- punctuality (not too early and not late),
- understanding the employer and the business,
- knowing what skills to highlight,
- how to answer interview questions, and
- how to manage nervousness during the interview.
Your university careers and employability team will have resources to help you prepare for an interview and may provide opportunities for you to practice your interview technique. There are also many useful resources online.
Industry events on campus
Your potential employers may attend events at your university, either on campus or virtually. Your university may host careers fairs and other opportunities to connect with potential employers. A careers fair is an event where employers from a wide range of professions will attend to discuss their recruitment processes and provide information about their organisations. Other employers may offer information sessions at key recruitment times, for example your local state education system may offer recruitment information sessions for students about to graduate with teaching degrees. These are all great opportunities to connect with your potential future employers. Consider these events as a mini job interview and aim to make a positive impression when you attend. You never know; the people you meet may be the ones who interview you formally for a job in the future.
Other skills required in your profession
As mentioned in earlier sections of this chapter, not only are employers interested in your technical or discipline skills, they are also looking for candidates with other skills. These may include the ability to communicate clearly, work with others, problem solve, manage their time, show initiative and adaptability, and demonstrate leadership. It is important that you consider how you will demonstrate these skills.
Develop a Checklist of skills and experience
When you know what potential employers might be looking for you can develop a plan for acquiring any skills that you don’t already have. Job vacancies, your university careers and employability team, professional bodies and accreditation or registration bodies are all possible sources of information. For example, you can review the skills, training and experience applicants are asked to demonstrate in relevant job vacancies.
University Careers and Employability support
Most universities will have a careers and employability team that will offer a range of services, including promoting job vacancies, resume and application writing support, and careers advice. They may also offer internships, mentoring, and other programs designed to assist you. The careers and employability team are also a great resource if you aren’t sure about what activities might be helpful, who your professional organisations might be, or what job opportunities might be available. They are experts in the field of employment, career development, and employability and their services are usually free to university students, so make the most of this great resource.
Starting your career preparation while you are still a student at university can help you to build a comprehensive portfolio demonstrating your readiness and suitability to enter your profession. Universities usually offer a number of opportunities for students to develop employability skills so take advantage of them. Other activities such as joining a professional organisation, connecting with your lecturers and joining university clubs will provide you with opportunities to develop skills and widen your professional network. By developing these skills and gaining experience you will improve your readiness to enter your profession and the transition from student to professional will be easier.
- Preparing to enter your profession starts when you commence your studies at university.
- Knowing about your future profession will help you to choose appropriate career readiness activities.
- Developing positive relationships with your lecturers is part of developing your professional network.
- Ensure that your public social media profile shows you as a professional to potential employers. Consider creating a professional LinkedIn profile.
- Join professional organisations relevant for your future career and participate in their activities and services.
- Gain work experience, either in your chosen industry, as a volunteer or in other work areas.
- Participate in extra-curricular activities. Not only are they often good fun, but you are developing useful skills at the same time.
- Prepare a professional resume.
- Consider developing a list of skills, experience and abilities that you will need to demonstrate in your profession and use it as a checklist as you prepare for your future career.
- Your university careers and employability team will have resources and services to assist you.