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Getting a job and all that.

As an academic who teaches undergraduate students I have a strong interest in what my students do when they finish university. While I don’t believe that employment should be the only outcome of a university education, it is certainly a high priority for both students and their families. Here are the five things that I think will get you a job:

  • Doing the best you can in your degree(s).
  • Experience.
  • Skills.
  • Knowing those already in the job.
  • Being creative.
As a sport and exercise scientist I truly believe that a thorough understanding of the science is at the heart of your success. While the practical aspects of working with athletes and those wanting to improve their health will always be important, without the underlying knowledge that what you are doing has the potential to work, then you’re basing those decisions on guesswork or experience (more on that in a bit). I also know that employers are seeking those who are, or have the potential to be, outstanding employees. In the end talent wins. You should also consider postgraduate study at Ph.D. level. An advanced level of knowledge and understanding of the scientific process will be a real advantage over those who don’t have postgrad qualifications, and will also allow you to provide a better level of service to an employer.

While doing the best you can in your studies should be the priority, it is an undeniable truth that employers like to know that you’ve been there before. Having (some) experience of what they are about to pay you for reassures them that you have the potential to do it well and stick at it. A recent survey of employers reported that more than half of those companies surveyed would be unlikely to employ a graduate who doesn’t have any experience. Consequently, the message to undergraduate students is start looking for work experience as soon as you can, preferably in your first year. Work experience will also let you discover if you truly like it. I also count coaching teams and voluntary work here too. Showing that you’ve made a commitment to a long-term situation like coaching a junior hockey team shows an employer that you can stick with something and see it through. However, work experience is not just about seeing what is currently done. What we try to get you to do at university is to think critically about the world around you. That is, don’t just take someone else’s word for it, find out for yourself. The same applies with work experience. Yes, try to get a sense of what it’s like to do that job as it’s currently done, but also try to think about better ways the job could be done. What have you learnt during your studies that might improve how the job is done? Now i’m not suggesting that you actually convey these thoughts to your supervisors as that might be considered rude! However, you should be reflecting for yourself about these things. These reflections might come in handy during a job interview.

Having additional skills will always be welcomed by an employer. Many organisations now like to see graduates with a range of vocational skills like coaching awards, strength and conditioning awards, or fitness industry qualifications. While I don’t believe these types of qualifications should be viewed by employers as more valuable than a degree, they certainly add a practical element to your skill set that universities often don’t provide. I would encourage students to obtain a range of vocational awards but to specialise in at least one. If you want to work in professional tennis, then go as high as you can with tennis coaching awards. Employers are looking for excellence, so show them that you have it.

While having a good degree and experience are very important, it also helps to know people within the organisation. I suspect it’s just human nature that people like to recruit others who they already know and who they know they can get on with, and trust. That might be superficial, but it’s probably true. Of course, there are many people who get a great job without knowing anyone within the organisation, but I guess it can’t hurt your chances if you do. So how do you get to know people where you want to work? Here are some ideas:

  • Cold calling - Contact an employer directly and say that you’re interested in working with them and you’d like to look around and get a feel for what it’s like to work there. You’ll probably get a ‘no’ more often than not but you might be surprised. If you do get an opportunity then ask to speak with the people who you want to work with. I guess you’d need to be confident enough to do this but it’s worth a try.
  • Work experience/internship - Probably the best way to meet people within the organisation. They see you on a daily basis and are therefore more likely to remember you when a job comes up.
  • Conferences - Try to get yourself to a conference or two during your degree. There is the annual BASES Student Conference for a start. Conferences are a great way to meet people in the field including those from professional sport and companies that sell sporting goods.
  • Social media - Get yourself on Twitter. See if those in your area of interest are also on Twitter and follow them. Ask them interesting questions and they might just take notice.
While the four aspects mentioned above are of course important, you also have to be creative. That is, be creative in what you do but also be creative in how you advertise yourself. Here are some ideas:

  • Get known for something different - There are thousands of graduates all looking for the same jobs. How do you stand out from the crowd? My advice above is a start, but there might be other things that can help you differentiate yourself from everyone else. One of the ways I’ve tried to do this within my job is through computer programming. There are surprisingly few academics, and I suspect even fewer exercise scientists, who can programme. With the explosion in mobile technology in recent times the opportunities for solving health problems through programming and mobile technology are very exciting, not to mention the ways that technology (and therefore programming) is transforming sport. But that’s just me. You have to find your own unique ‘something different’.
  • Share what you have - We now live in an online social world. Many are sharing their thoughts on Twitter and in blogs. There is a real opportunity here for you to contribute to the debate, show your creativity, and yes, get known for something. Employers want to know that you have your own voice and that you can contribute your own ideas to solving problems. One of the projects I started this year for my students was running a course on iPhone app development. Apart from being great fun, I wanted to show them a skill that they could use to solve problems, be creative and share with people. I truly believe that creativity and being able to show and share something you’ve made is a skill that employers are interested in. So, it could be a monthly podcast that you make and publish on iTunes, or maintain a website about sport science, or make videos to put on YouTube that show different training techniques. You’ll also have a permanent online record of those things that you’ve made that you can share with potential employers. The important thing though is that you are contributing something that others will find useful. The bonus is that you might just become known for ‘something different’, which might lead to other opportunities.
I’m sure there’s many other ways of getting a job, but what I have described above are the ones i’ve found useful. I hope you do too.

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