How to Become a Professional, Future-Proof Graduate

theuniversityblog professional future-proof graduate

When you’re stressed out and too busy to do all the things, what’s the first thing you would drop?

Students shun extra-curricular activities in favour of good grades, according to a GetRevising poll. Nearly three-quarters of respondents said they felt pressured by others to drop activities so they could perform better in exams and coursework.

When worried parents tell me their child puts professional projects first, they think it’s a bad thing.

Who is right? Those who ignore the activities or those who prioritise them?

How about understanding priorities across the board?

Priorities do change and you need to keep in mind WHY you’re doing all the things you’ve chosen to do. If it’s not good use of your time and you spend too much time on frivolous activities and fun, drop something!

But when you’re developing important new skills and building a portfolio of great work, why would you want to drop that?

You want the best grade possible. You also want to spend enough time doing new things. I’d choose a 2:1 and relatable experiences over a First and little else to showcase.

I’ll tell you what this DOES NOT mean:

  • Doing new things for the sake of new;
  • Too many new activities all at once;
  • No engagement with study because you’re spending all your time on other work.

What I DO mean is working toward one or two targeted activities that you can capitalise on.

Whatever ‘capitalise’ means for you, that is a big deal. I’m not just talking money, but experience, relationships, learning, and so on.

looking beyond

Looking beyond the degree

You’re paying for the academic side of university. You may think non-academic ventures could be conducted some other time. But university is a great place to encounter these frameworks.

What you get from university is far more than what you actually pay for. Not everything grows on fees.

Maybe this is a contextual problem. Perhaps the ‘degree’ should be packaged as more than the degree. Pathik Pathak suggests:

“I’d argue that the best way for universities to foster borderless skills is by embedding opportunities for entrepreneurship into a student’s experience of higher education. To do so, university curricula will need to evolve to fuse disciplinary knowledge with applications outside the classroom, fostering an appetite for continuous learning where skills are constantly reconfigured to match the size and shape of new problems.”

Universities could do more than extol the virtues of university life beyond study.

By bringing more into play for students, professional development can become an intrinsic choice.

Would you feel more at ease if you could make extra-curricular activities part of your academic intention while you’re in higher education?

University life should continue embracing learning for the sake of learning. Future employability is important for many, but shouldn’t overtake learning at its core.

At the same time, by introducing optional modules and activities with inherent industry benefit, these elements can be part of the ‘degree process’ even when they’re not explicitly part of your subject.

This matters for employers as well as students. A Guardian editorial last year makes the case:

“…a fifth of graduates are not in graduate-level employment three years after leaving university, employers complain that they still struggle to recruit people with the skills and qualifications they need, and the next generation of final-year school students will be looking with dismay at some universities’ student satisfaction ratings while contemplating the burden of leaving university with a debt of at least £27,000. And from next September, the grants that supported the poorest students and have done so much to widen access are being replaced with loans.”

This is why you need to make the most of your time at university.

Everything you do makes a difference. It’s not worth waiting to get your act into gear just before (or worse, after) you graduate. The time to strike is right now.

big picture story

Stories and big pictures

What are the two or three big items on your agenda for impact? This is more about planning than passion.

You don’t always need to name-drop big companies on your CV. You need a narrative.

Build the story of you and tell it from the rooftops.

More could be done to help you do this. Tristram Hooley states:

“What is lacking is access to the career education, advice and guidance that might help young people to actually engage with it and make sense of it.”

If you can’t make sense of things yourself, how do you make anything clear to employers?

It’s no wonder grades get precedence over everything else. It sounds right, it makes sense, and it’s what you pay for. But it can also be limiting, misunderstood, and wrong in some cases.

There’s a difference between struggling with academic work and spending less time on academic work. Struggling needs urgent treatment and support, while consciously limiting time is a subjective matter.

I’ve seen some students plan out their moves like a game of chess. They are several moves ahead and playing the long game. Study only suffers a little, but the payoff is much bigger in the grand scheme of things. The pros outweigh the cons by a wide margin.

A big picture attitude is hard to fake. You don’t fall into it by accident. It needs work and willpower. But it’s worth making a few small changes so you can focus on the outcomes you want from student and graduate life.

In other words, current priorities have to tie in with future priorities, otherwise you have a mismatch.

Without a match, you get into trouble when you reach the next point on your roadmap. You realise too late that your priorities don’t reflect the person you wanted to be after graduation.

separate to shape

Separate to shape

One way to begin shaping your narrative and honing your professional persona could be to separate the extra-curricular and the professional.

I tend to call anything outside the degree as ‘extra-curricular’. This could be a mistake.

A survey asked recruiters what they are looking for in graduates. Recruiters (and the survey) saw ‘professional experience’ as separate to ‘extra-curricular activities’.

That’s not to say you can’t get professional experience from clubs and societies. But it does highlight the need to tell your story effectively. Especially when activities aren’t always considered so important by employers.

Over 40% of recruiters want to see professional experience from graduate applicants. Yet a mere 10% were interested in extra-curricular activities.

To impress recruiters, emphasise the business qualities of your experiences, wherever they occurred.

That means highlighting your achievements and framing what you’ve done through examples and a narrative flow. You’ll impress more when you frame your achievements in the context of professional development.

Language makes a difference. And story captures more than a list of facts.

At the same time, recruiters also said in the survey that cover letters are the least interesting thing in their search for candidates.

What, no cover letters!?

Isn’t that where you can bring your story out most?

Don’t let the mixed message confuse you. I wouldn’t suggest you abandon cover letters yet.

Just make sure to work on story and flow in your CV and other supporting documents too. At the least, give examples of your skills through professional examples.

And find ways to express them in something other than a list format. A short sentence to provide detail of each of your most important skills may be all you need to set yourself apart.

Better still, build your online portfolio and provide access to your achievements in different formats. Not every role out there comes about through a CV or application form.

bullseye

Keep refining your story

You may still be uncertain whether to focus all your time on study, or whether to dedicate a bit more time on building a professional portfolio. The survey did find that UK employers are more likely to focus on grades than recruiters elsewhere in the world. Yet that still only accounted for less than a seventh of respondents.

You’ll always find some people who look at a single metric and won’t deviate. And some applications slip through because a computer rejects a certain piece of information. But these are not the norm and you don’t know the criteria anyway. Unknowns like these shouldn’t sway your long-term priorities.

Keep refining your story and keep developing your skillset. Although your degree results are important, they are just one part of the bigger picture.

Consider all your priorities and make sure they match with each other.

The second part of TheUniversityBlog’s tagline says, “Be the student you deserve to be“. To do that you must go way beyond academic work.

That’s why the first part of the tagline says, “Life shouldn’t stop when you study“.