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How to make the leap from education to occupation

By Michael Crump | 06 October 2015

How do you make the leap from education to a real occupation? As a student, your priorities are clear: enroll in the classes you need, study hard and graduate. But as a worker in the real world? The things you need to do to be successful can seem quite foreign.

If you haven’t yet entered the workforce, it may surprise you to hear that your future bosses won’t care what grades you received on your assessments. It won’t matter to them that your trainer complimented you on the hard work you put into your submission. What matters to them is that you can do the job you’re either interviewing for or have been hired to do – and proving that can be difficult without years of relevant work experience on your resume or even an ounce of real world experience. 

So how do you prove to your current or future boss that you’ve got practical skills to offer beyond your education? Consider any of the following strategies:

Undertake Internships Whenever Possible

Certainly, one of the best ways to translate your education into real world terms is to undertake an internship in your field. Peter Cappelli, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business Center for Human Resources, argues that:

“There’s kind of an emerging model where your employability after you graduate is driven by things that don’t have to do with your college education per se. They have to do certainly with the internships you’ve gotten.”

Already have skills to offer beyond your education? Then consider any of the following strategies and take the following recommendations into account when applying for these coveted opportunities.

Start looking early

Students who get the best internships don’t just stumble upon them. They start looking for interesting opportunities as soon as possible so that they can align everything from the classes they take to the research projects they pursue to the program’s objectives. If available, connect with your college’s careers or student support office to see if they’re able to offer any assistance in your hunt.

Network, network, network

The best internships aren’t always heavily advertised. In fact, getting an “in” might come down to who you know as much as it does what you know. For this reason, the students that are most likely to be successful are those that put time into making professional connections. Never skip chances to introduce yourself to influencers in your industry, whether you do so through online or offline networking events.

Know your rights

As a student, you’re getting real world experience out of your internship, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be paid for the work you’re doing. The government’s Fair Work Ombudsman’s office clarifies that, “Unpaid work experience and unpaid internships that are not vocational placements are okay as long as the person isn’t in an employment relationship.” If your arrangement qualifies as an employment relationship, you’re due compensation.

Finally, keep in mind that an internship isn’t just something you’ll add to your resume in the future. It’s also a chance for you to improve your skills, connect with professionals in your field, and potentially even snag a full-time job. Take your work as an intern seriously to get the most benefit out of the arrangement.

Build a Portfolio of Compelling Work

Of course, internships aren’t possible for everyone. Perhaps there are few offered in your field, or maybe your family or work schedules make it impossible to commit to such an arrangement. Don’t worry – that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck when it comes to building real world experience as a student! 

You can still show future employers that you know what success in your industry looks like by building a portfolio of compelling work. There are several different ways you can do this:

1. Expand on Your Classwork

Let’s get one thing straight… Few real world employers are going to be impressed by your research papers, your assessments or your class projects. It’s not that your work isn’t good – it’s that the assignments you’re given rarely relate that well to actual job responsibilities.

Say, for instance, you’re a graphic design student. While you’ve probably taken classes in things like vector design, the exercises you’ve completed as you’ve progressed through your courses aren’t going to impress employers. Instead, apply your skills to the kinds of projects you’d do in a real job. If you’re looking for work designing websites, mock up a few of your own designs to give your future bosses an idea of how you’ll perform on the job.

2. Volunteer in Your Industry

If the thought expanding on your classwork is unappealing, take things a step further by actually applying your skills through volunteer gigs.

Take our web design example above. There are plenty of small nonprofits out there that could use a website upgrade. Instead of simply mocking up your designs, approach them and offer your services for free. If you’re successful, you’ll gain a live example for your portfolio as well as some new additions to your network from the people you’ve served.

3. Leverage Your Prior Employment Experiences

Finally, if you’ve worked professionally before going back to school, don’t discount the importance of your prior experiences.

A lot of what employers are looking for in their workers are things that can’t be taught in a college classroom. They’re looking for employees who can follow instructions, who can interact well with others in their group, and who are punctual, reliable and professional. Reviews from your former bosses and descriptions of the projects you’ve handled successfully in past roles can go a long way towards making up for a lack of industry-specific experience.

Entering the job market as a new graduate – even if you’ve worked professionally before – can be challenging, especially when you take the record unemployment rates affecting some parts of the country into account. Snagging one of these coveted opportunities comes down to the way you distinguish yourself and how well you can translate your education into real world skills. Looking for internships, creating a killer portfolio of great work, and leveraging your past employment experiences can all give you a leg up on your job search competition.

Have another suggestion for finding work after graduation? Share your best tips and recommendations by leaving a comment below

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