Let’s skip forward to the end of the year, and imagine you have finally completed the VCE. From writing additional essays to quizzing your friends with flashcards through to last minute colour coded highlighting, all of your hard work has finally paid off. At Valedictory, you’ve thanked all your teachers for their dedication, laughed at the photo montages and awkward jokes in the speeches and reminisced with your friends about the time you accidentally let one rip in the middle of an English SAC. But the question is: what now?
Most of you will be able to immediately answer that question with your plans for next year. This might include going straight into your dream university course, moving out of a home, working in retail to earn a little extra cash or taking a gap year to discover the world at the bottom of a bowl of pasta in Italy. But the one thing you should be including at the top of your list, regardless of your plans, is to start getting relevant work experience for your dream career as soon as possible.
So, what counts as relevant work experience? This includes anything that draws on skills that are relevant within your chosen field. For example, an aspiring law student might volunteer with legal aid, participate in running a university law society or work at a law firm as part of your clerkship. An aspiring teacher might tutor part-time, a volunteer with an educational programme such as VCE Summer School or a homework club in a disadvantaged area or publish study resources online. Any relevant work experience is better than nothing, even if it simply draws on relevant skills such as leadership, collaboration or administration skills. Still feel like you need a little bit of convincing?
1. Work experience makes you more employable
When you start applying for positions within your chosen field, you could potentially be competing against hundreds or even thousands of other applicants. While getting good grades at university is a great step, it is not enough to help you stand out for the crowd.
Relevant work experience demonstrates to your potential employer that not only do you have valuable skills that would make you an asset to the company but that you are a committed and hard-working individual who is passionate about the field.
Who would you rather hire? Someone who has a tonne of relevant work experience dating back several years or someone who coasted through their degree and only participated in work experience when it was mandatory.
Furthermore, having relevant work experience gives you plenty to talk about when it comes to those tricky interview questions. When your interviewer inevitably asks you to recount a time you have solved a difficult issue, it is definitely an advantage to have a breadth of relevant experience you can draw upon. For example, I was once asked in an interview to detail my public speaking experience and ability to manage a classroom of students. Luckily for me, I had plenty of experience as a VCE lecturer for both classrooms and cohorts, as well as debating and acting experience. However, if this had not been the case, my answer might have fallen flat as I tried to make my oral presentation in English that one time relevant to the question.
Getting relevant work experience in your chosen field is essential for standing out both on paper and in person and puts you one step closer to achieving your goals.
2. Work experience allows you to decide sooner rather than later whether your chosen field is the right fit for you
As you click submit on your VTAC applications, some of you might feel confused about which direction you want to take your career in, while others might feel absolutely certain that you have picked the perfect course for taking you to where you want to be. But as with anything in life, it is almost impossible to know for sure until you have tried it out for yourself.
That is why it is so important to get relevant work experience, so you can experience first-hand whether the career path you have chosen is the right fit for you.
For example, an aspiring law student might initially be interested in becoming a criminal prosecutor and might apply to shadow an established prosecutor for several weeks. Meanwhile, s/he might be participating in her/his university law society as the Director of Sponsorship, a role in which s/he liaises with the HR departments of top-tier law firms seeking funding. However, while shadowing the prosecutor, s/he might witness the abuse the prosecutor experiences from people being charged with crimes, while being increasingly drawn to the creative problem-solving s/he has seen demonstrated by the HR in law firms. This might compel the student to start seeking more opportunities in HR and shift her/his career’s focus towards attaining an HR position in a law firm.
In my own experience, volunteering has been essential in shifting the direction of my career. When I first began my Bachelor of Arts, I was certain I would eventually pursue either a Masters of Directing or a Masters of Writing for Performance. In order to get relevant work experience, I started directing student theatre at my university. While this experience was invaluable, it was the moment I realised that directing was less about the creative practice and more about having the networking skills to get a production off the ground. This made me realise that I craved a career that had a consistent routine, security and the opportunity to exercise creativity within educational constraints. All the while, my part-time work as a tutor made me realise how much pleasure teaching and learning brought into my life. Almost immediately, I shifted the direction of my career and started pursuing opportunities in education, and have never looked back. If I had never engaged in relevant work experience, I might have spent years in a career that did very little to contribute to my personal happiness, before eventually switching and having to start my career all over again. As an added bonus, all of my experience in directing student theatre still continues to be relevant to positions for teaching drama and theatre!
3. Work experience gives you relevant skills that compliment your degree
If the content you are being caught within your university course is being echoed within your work experience, these connections can actually maximise your performance both academically and within work experience.
For example, if you are a law student who is volunteering with a not-for-profit which runs seminars teaching incarcerated prisoners about the legal system, you are likely to ace your mid-year examination on criminal law. Alternatively, if you are a political science major who is volunteering with former asylum seekers, your conversations with this community might contextualise the academic readings you study within your subject on human migration and political policy. When I was studying a Shakespeare subject as part of my university degree, we were assessed on our ability to perform a scene with a clear vision for adaptation supported by acting and stagecraft decisions. Fortunately, I was able to draw on my directing and acting experience, as well as my knowledge in crafting blood packs and fake knives, and ended up receiving one of the highest scores in the cohort.
Being able to use the skills you have learned in your degree and apply them in a practical setting is an invaluable, and vice-versa. It really is a win-win situation either way!
4. Work experience can often lead to exciting opportunities and experiences
It is amazing how quickly a few small work experiences can build towards getting an amazing opportunity down the line. The reason it is so important to get started on acquiring work experience as early as you can is that often entry-level work experience can become a stepping stone for some really phenomenal opportunities you may not have initially qualified for.
For example, if you are a law student who began volunteering for legal not-for-profit organisations, ran legal workshops and participated in several moots and competitions, this could eventually lead to a paid position as a secretary at a law firm while you are studying, or a prestigious clerkship at a top five law firm. But each of these volunteering experiences that lead to these incredible opportunities might have only required a commitment of a few hours a week or a few days. But in the larger picture, all of these small opportunities add up to an impressive resume and interview.
In my own experience, volunteering has led to paid opportunities in ways I could never have even imagined. Earlier in my degree, I began volunteering with a charity called the ASHA Foundation, which had recently begun offering VCE lectures to schools in return for a small donation to the charity from each school, which was donated to health care efforts in South East Asia. However, one school, in particular, was so impressed by my lecturing skills, they wanted to hire me as a freelance VCE lecturer to create tailored lectures for their students, returning to deliver lectures several times throughout the year, in addition to being recommended as a tutor to many of their students. Not only did volunteering lead to a very well paid position, but this was an opportunity that I could never have come across on a jobs bulletin as it was never made available to the public. However, it was my commitment to gaining work experience allowed me to be in the right place at the right time with the right skills.
Opportunities often create more opportunities and networks, which is why it is so essential you begin pursuing relevant work experience and volunteering as early as possible within your degree.
So what are you waiting for? Start googling tips on where to start for your chosen field, scouring your university volunteering bulletin and applying for jobs that have even the smallest bit of overlap with your dream career. Ready, set…go!
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