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Education: From study to work

20 September 2019

Education is not what it used to be. How do you make yourself employable after a degree, asks Huw Spanner


THERE was a time, in living memory, when a good university degree was a distinction that seemed almost to guarantee a rewarding career. Those days have gone.

Universities are now increasingly focused on making their students employable, and are judged by their success or failure on that score, thanks to things such as the TARGETjobs National Graduate Recruitment Awards, and the Global University Employability Survey (published by Times Higher Education).

The situation is unhealthy, says Emma Temple, who works for the Student Christian Movement’s project Faith in Action. “So many students now are burning out . . . because they’re working all hours in the library, they’re doing as much part-time work as they can, and they feel they ought to be doing extracurricular activities to boost their employability. It’s just not manageable.”

What makes a graduate a good job candidate? Unlike many other countries, employers in the UK generally do not care what subject a person has studied, the chief executive of the Institute of Student Employers (ISE), Stephen Isherwood says. Nor are the particularly swayed by top grades. The ISE’s research suggests that roughly half the companies surveyed expected a graduate to have at least a 2.1 (“or else a good reason why they haven’t”), but it is very rare for an employer to require a first.

“Although a first can indicate excellence, it might also mean that you have focused on your studies to the exclusion of everything else. It’s a bit of a cliché, but what employers are looking for is a well-rounded individual,” Mr Isherwood says.

One of the reasons that IT graduates can struggle to get jobs in IT, for example, is that they wrongly think that their coding skills alone carry weight, whereas employers need people who can work in teams, communicate, and deal with clients.

His advice to students is to have a balanced approach. “Make the most of your time at university, and develop as a human being in a way that gives you the skills to deal with life and not just work. But don’t neglect your career.”


So, while it’s good to join up to university societies, many universities also run mentoring programmes to support students, including planning for professional development and career opportunities.

Freddie Keighley graduated in July from Bristol University, where he read history “just because I loved the subject”. He started thinking about a career in his second year. “I fell into writing match reports for the university football club. I enjoyed it so much I thought: maybe I should go into sports journalism.” In his final year, rather more deliberately, he worked as online sports editor for the student newspaper Epigram.

This year, he worked unpaid for two weeks on the sports desk at the Daily Telegraph, a break that he was given by a friend of his uncle. The newspaper sent him to press conferences and gave him “quite a few bylines”. He has subsequently managed to organise a similar week at The Times, and there is a further week to come at the Daily Mail, all unpaid.

Having applied, without success, to get on to various graduate training schemes, he is now embarking on an MA in newspaper journalism at City, University of London. “I didn’t really want to do another year of studying, but I want to invest in my career. There are other options that are shorter and a lot cheaper, such as a diploma in sports journalism, but all the contacts I’ve made in the newspapers I’ve worked on have done this MA; so that is a strong recommendation.”

Some careers, such as engineering, require a Master’s qualification, Mr Isherwood observes, but, in his experience, “generally a Master’s does not make you more employable. The extra year might help you clarify your thinking, you might mature a bit more, but you could have done that by going travelling or doing something else.”


SOME students leave any thought of work until after they graduate; then they may have to go through two or three different jobs before they find what they really want to do. Anna Freeman (not her real name) was in this position when she graduated from Southampton University two years ago, with a first in psychology.

Freddie Keighley

At her sixth-form college, she says, it was “assumed that we would go to university and get a qualification, and I was worried that, if I didn’t, I would be stuck without a job”. She had opted for psychology only because, in Year 12, she had enjoyed writing an essay on body image in the media.

In vacations, she worked in shops, a café, and a call centre, and did some mentoring of first-year students, “principally to get some money”, but she also did some office work with an eye to a career. After her A-levels, she worked for the market-research company Ipsos Mori for three months, and they invited her to rejoin them during her summer holidays while at university.

After she graduated, she decided to take one more year “before looking for a proper job”. She undertook two short-term contracts — for the National Citizen Service and Contact the Elderly — and then spent two months travelling around France, Spain, and Portugal.

Someone urged her to pursue her interest in statistics, which had been a big part of her degree, and she now works as an analyst in the Civil Service. She believes that her degree played a large part in getting her the interview, at least, but that what also helped was the time she had spent working at Ipsos Mori. “They saw the fact that I knew how social researchers work as a big bonus.”

She has arrived where she is “almost by accident”, she reflects. “It’s so much easier if you know what you want to do, but the vast majority of graduates have absolutely no clue, and end up falling into whatever job they can get — and either they find they like it, or they don’t and move on.”


UNPAID volunteering is another way to explore a career, and to build both experience and contacts in an industry. Various organisations exist to promote volunteering opportunities — such as Do-it.org (more than a million volunteering opportunities which can be searched for by interest, activity, or location) or the charity vIinspired, which promotes volunteering for those aged 14 to 30.

Experience in the workplace helps to boost people’s career prospects, Mr Isherwood says. “It can turn you into a mature adult, ready for the world of work, but ready also for all the other stuff life throws at you.” And he strongly recommends that undergraduates take a year out to get some experience.

“Some degree courses require it, of course. Easily 80 per cent of the students at Bath or Surrey, for example, do a placement year, because that’s how their university builds its courses; but I think you can drop out of many university courses for a year — and then you will come back to your final year a better student, more focused, with a bit more life experience, more experience of the world of work, and you’ll be much more likely to get a good job afterwards.”

Anna Freeman

One rich source of experience is the opportunity presented by Christian missions and other agencies, often abroad. Mike Frith is the founder and director of the registered charity Oscar, which provides information and advice to Christians who are interested in cross-cultural work around the world. He believes that volunteering abroad is an effective way to enhance a CV.

“Often, you will get involved in a lot more things than you could here in the UK. You might end up managing a project for a while, as an individual or part of a very small team, with a level of responsibility you are unlikely to get in the UK. You don’t have the option to just dip in and out — you’re fully immersed.

“It’s a steep learning curve at the beginning, but I think that most people who do a gap year overseas acquire more skills than those who do something in this country.”

There are opportunities to suit those who already have a career in mind, and those who, as Miss Freeman put it, “have absolutely no clue”. “If you’re set on going into health care or teaching, for example,” Mr Frith explains, “an organisation like Mercy Ships or a Christian international school will give you tasks that are going to be useful to you.

“If you’re doing a degree in modern languages, an organisation such as European Christian Mission can help you to set up a placement year that meets your university’s criteria. You might end up doing an Erasmus+ course in Spain, for instance, and, alongside your studies, you might get involved in the local church. It’s a good combination because you grow spiritually, as well as getting some language learning under your belt.

“On the other hand, there are organisations, such as Tearfund, that can get you stuck into all sorts of projects and activities to help you to find out what you enjoy, and what your skills are. If you think you might like to get involved in something, but are not sure, WEC International and World Horizons have exploratory weekends, where you can put a toe in the water and talk things through with experienced people.”

The key to making a gap year work for your CV is to reflect on what you have learnt from various experiences and challenges, and to be able to articulate it, Mr Isherwood says. “Sometimes, students don’t realise that they’ve gained skills and attributes that employers want: they’ve built their resilience, learnt to deal with other cultures, increased their communication skills, all sorts of things.

“Building an impressive CV doesn’t have to involve an internship in a glass tower in Canary Wharf. These kind of experiences can show an employer that you’ve got the potential they’re looking for.”

Read more education features in our special supplement





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