Breaking the Experience Barrier (In Your Post-Graduation Job Search)
Updated: Mar 16, 2018
The barrier of “experience” is a very common topic when talking about one's search for employment after graduating from college or university.
Imagine this: you're in the third year of your degree, and you've come across a job on the internet that seems perfect for your post-degree self. I don't have experience in this field, but maybe they'll give me a chance, you think, as you read that they want your exact major for the position. Nonetheless, as you scroll down to the next bullet point, it states that the hiring organization wants someone with 2-5 years experience in a related position. Disheartened, you close your laptop and spend the next six hours watching Jane the Virgin on repeat, while drowning your sorrowing heart in Häagen-Dazs and KFC.
Image retrieved from https://www.colourbox.com.
Before you go any further, drop the spoon of Mint Chip, throw the Popcorn Chicken into the garbage can, and stop saying, “Just one more episode,” when you know it will be four. (Especially if that “one more episode” is you watching in hopes of Jane and Rafael finally getting it on. Sorry, but it will definitely be more than one.) Turn off the TV. Instead of avoiding your problems, ask yourself: what can I do to fix these problems? Seems like an easy change of attitude, but it is also easy to convert back into the lump of self-doubt on the couch that you were five minutes ago. Therefore, to help prevent you from getting overwhelmed, I have come up with a list of tips for gaining experience while studying as a post-secondary student:
1. Realize that You Need Experience for a Reason
My first piece of advice is to stop thinking that organizations are being mean when they ask for field-related experience. They are not picking on young graduates, but, instead, they are looking out for all parties’ best interests. This does not mean that new graduates cannot be helpful and productive within an organization, but that the transition from university into full-time work will be smoother if the new employee has some experience in the field. Moreover, this smoother transition does not only enhance the success of the company – it also enhances the new employee’s enjoyment of the position. Think about it: if you enter a new position, knowing nothing about the field or organization, you will likely feel overwhelmed and somewhat discouraged. On the other hand, if you enter a new position with some former experience in that field or position, you will feel more confident and motivated about your place within the organization. You want to enjoy your work experience after graduation, and gaining some experience during your degree may help you in doing so.
2. Engage in Volunteer Activities
Volunteering is always a good way to gain experience, as organizations usually do not require you to have experience to become a volunteer. Furthermore, the fact that you have taken the time to volunteer in your field without getting paid to do so says a lot about your genuine interest in the field. Volunteering could mean taking on a similar role to the job role you wish to later obtain, without getting paid to complete the tasks within that role. On the other hand, it could mean volunteering as an assistant in your desired field, helping you to better understand the system and order of completing tasks in that field.
3. Obtain Field-Related, Part-time Employment
Education can get expensive, and you may be required to obtain part-time student employment while attending university. Instead of viewing this as a burden on your post-secondary experience, view this as a supplementary opportunity to gain field-related employment while studying. For instance, your college or university may have field-related jobs available for students. Often, there are student research positions and Learning/Writing Centre tutoring positions available for eligible students. Furthermore, you don’t need to limit yourself to the opportunities available at your post-secondary institute; browse around online to see if there are any part-time opportunities available at outside organizations, as well.
4. Obtain Field-Related, Summer Employment
In the same way that you can obtain field-related part-time student employment, you can also aim to obtain field-related summer employment. For instance, if your post-graduation goal is to become an Elementary teacher, you could apply for child-related summer positions, such as children’s library program positions or summer camp positions. Though short-term, such positions are a great way to accumulate field-related experience during off-time from school.
5. Consider Alternate Forms of Study
Depending on your program, you may not be required to take all of your courses on campus. In fact, if you are like me, you may even be able to take your entire degree online. With a flexible online schedule, you can complete your schoolwork anytime throughout the day, making it possible for you to pursue field-related opportunities during work hours. If you don’t want to commit to a fully-online degree, taking one or two of your five courses in an online setting could also open up your schedule. On the other hand, night and weekend courses are often available. In short, you do not necessarily have to complete your studies in the Monday-Friday daytime schedule that is “usually” used; explore your program’s scheduling options to find the best fit for your needs.
6. Offer Freelance Tutoring Services
If you are unable to work at your school’s Learning Centre, or if your school does not offer such services, try freelancing! Whether you choose to market your freelance services through posters, the internet, freelance tutoring websites, or word-of-mouth, freelance tutoring is a great way to make some extra money while gaining experience and expertise in your major.
7. Offer Other Field-Related Freelance Services
Maybe you want to take advantages of freelance opportunities, but tutoring is not your thing. If this is the case, then be creative and try to think of field-related freelance services you are interested in providing! For instance, if Communications is your major, freelance your writing services to small businesses looking for grant or business writers. If Computer Science is your major, freelance your computing abilities to individuals in the community. Whatever your major, there is likely a non-tutoring-related freelance opportunity that will help you to gain experience.
8. Take a Co-op Work Term
Another great way to gain experience is to take a co-op work term during your degree. Co-op work terms provide you with the opportunity to gain credits (usually equal to one course) while gaining experience (usually paid) in a position in your desired field. Because co-op terms typically occur in either September-December or January-April, you may need to take one more semester than planned, deferring your graduation date one semester. On the other hand, you can choose to take a co-op work term during the school year and an academic semester during the summer, allowing you to graduate on time.
9. Get Involved in School Organizations and Events
There are many opportunities to gain experience at colleges and universities. You could get involved in your school’s student union, volunteer at school events, or join relevant school clubs. Depending on your future career goal, such experiences may be relevant in your post-university job search. Moreover, if you want to join a certain school club, but that club does not exist, find out what you need to do to start it!
10. Consider Timing
We have talked about the various opportunities available to help you gain experience as a student, but we have not fully addressed the issue of timing. You may wonder: over the course of my degree, when is the best time to start gaining such experience? Should I engage in these experiences during my entire post-secondary program? If I’m in the final year of my degree and haven’t started gaining experience, am I too late?
The only answer I have to these questions is that it is never too late to start gaining necessary experience, and there is no formula for gaining experience in the “right” way during school. To guide your timing when gaining experience, ask yourself the following (or similar) questions:
1. Do I want to gain relevant experience over the summers, or during the school year?
2. Would it work best for me to obtain experience during the first two years of my degree when the workload/expectations are less intense?
3. Or, would it be best for me to obtain experience during the last two years of my degree, when I am a more seasoned student and know how to better manage my time?
4. Do I want to gain experience as a weekly endeavour, or attend random, one-off events?
5. How many years of experience do employers want from employees in my desired role?
Ultimately, the only one who can find the answers to these questions is you, and there are no perfect answers. In the end, there are seasons for gaining experience, seasons for focusing on school, and seasons for enjoying off-time. This brings me to my final, most important point of Knowing When to Say No.
11. Know When to Say No
The point I will stress most in this discussion of experience is that you have to know when to say “no.” By this, I mean that you have to acknowledge when you are taking on too much or when you are taking on opportunities that are not right for you. It is very easy to become obsessed with the idea of having a perfect resume or becoming the most desirable candidate, but, ultimately, such obsessions will detriment your overall experience of life, school, and work. By knowing when to decline (or, simply, not pursue) opportunities, we learn more about our limits and preferences. In turn, when we do choose to say “yes,” the experiences that come with accepting those opportunities will be more enjoyable and worthwhile.
Good luck with your studies and post-graduation employment search!