Let’s face it, searching for your first graduate job after university can be a daunting process. Combined with the current economic downturn brought on by Covid-19, an unemployment rate just shy of the 2010 ‘Great Recession’, and a large number of new graduates flooding the market, the outlook hasn’t looked this bleak in a while.
In fact, compared to this time last year, graduate recruitment has fallen by 14% in the UK and US, and by 30% in Italy, Denmark and Canada, according to an international study conducted by The Institute of Employment Studies.
Given the challenges, it has never been more important to adjust your approach to job searching. You will need to use every method at your disposal to have the best chance of securing the graduate job you’ve spent the last several years preparing for.
1. Understand What Employers Are Now Looking For
With the current situation being so unstable, employers have been driven to seek something that seems like a distant memory - stability. When the market is doing well, employers can afford to take more risk, be it in terms of the projects they undertake or the employees they invest in. However, in difficult economic times, employers become risk averse and only look for the ‘safest’ candidates, provided they haven’t already frozen their hiring intake.
A ‘safe’ candidate is a person who they can see easily integrating into the team and, above all, does not cause disruption. Although it is important to show that you can work independently, it is just as important to show your willingness to work as part of the team and learn the way the company works rather than to come across a person who will try to reinvent all the steps on your first day.
It will also be more important than ever to show a high level of personal responsibility. This is because employers will be more cautious in phases when it is difficult to win new projects and clients become more critical. They will want to hire someone they can trust to handle projects with a high level of care and not be afraid to admit their mistakes so they can be corrected before growing into a larger issue.
2. Qualifications Land You the Interview; Skills Land You the Job
Most individuals applying for graduate jobs will have very similar, if not identical, qualifications to one another. Therefore, your CV and cover letter should focus more on your skills and experience than on your academic background. This is especially true during an interview because if you have made it this far, the interviewers already believe that you have the academic background necessary for the role. With this in mind, you should see the interview as an opportunity to talk about what you can offer the company, i.e. to focus on the future, as opposed to what you have already achieved, i.e. to focus on your past.
The exception is research and PhD graduates who are looking to secure a role in research or academia. In these cases, you should put more emphasis on your academic achievements and relevant experience as this is what employers will largely be assessing you on.
Given this difference, it's essential to learn the differences between the two types of graduates and tailor your approach to the right one. For instance, a graduate looking to work in industry should produce a conventional CV and cover letter, while a graduate who wants to work in research or academia should prepare an academic CV and cover letter. The difference between the two is small, but get it wrong and your chances of landing the job you want can greatly diminish.
Although networking has always played a role in recruitment, it is being increasingly relied upon as more companies are being forced to cut costs. This is because any candidate recommended through networking is already pre-vetted to some extent, follow-up interviews can take place almost immediately, and in some cases, the need to advertise a position can be eliminated.
According to a joint survey by LinkedIn and The Adler Group, 85% of all jobs are obtained through networking. With this in mind, don’t ignore the importance of networking in your job search and try to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible. Not only can you meet new employers you may never have known existed, but it’s also a great way to learn more about your field and stay up to date with the latest industry trends.
Networking opportunities include:
- Industry-specific speaking engagements and conferences
- Roundtable events and trade associations
- Graduate fairs
- Career open days
- Speed networking
- University alumni events
Remember that networking events don't just have to be face-to-face; one of the most popular ways to connect with others is through online platforms like LinkedIn, where you can engage in conversations, write short articles about your industry, and interact with influential people within your field. You can also participate in online events, such as those advertised on Eventbrite, and tap into your existing network of professors, fellow students, and career advisers.
In all of these cases, it's about getting as much information as possible about a company or individual and coming across as an enthusiastic person. Your goal should be to get the people you talk to to be naturally interested in you before you inquire about any vacancies. For example, you could ask what projects their company is working on, what path they have taken to get to where they are today, and whether they have any advice for you they would like to have been given when they were your age.
4. Craft an Elevator Pitch
Whether it's at a networking event or an interview, being able to introduce yourself confidently not only piques the interest of your listener but also helps you to have a more professional conversation. One of the most effective ways to do this is to create an elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is exactly what it sounds like, a rehearsed pitch of 30 to 60 seconds, the time it takes to ride an elevator to the top floor, during which you sell yourself to the person next to you.
Your elevator pitch should be clear and to the point. It should summarise who you are, what experience you have and what your current career aspirations are.
If you have trouble crafting your elevator pitch, consider how you would answer the interview question "Tell me a bit about yourself" or, if you were to include one, what the 'personal profile' section of your CV would say.
While you should rehearse your pitch, focus on learning the key points rather than a full script. This will allow you to adapt your introduction to suit who you are talking to and make it seem more natural.
5. Online Presence
This point goes hand in hand with networking, so we won't dwell on it too long, but it deserves its own section given that it has the potential to make or break your job search chances.
According to a study conducted by CareerBuilder, 70% of employers screen the social media platforms of potential candidates, and over half admit to turning down a candidate based on what they have seen.
As a graduate student in a highly competitive job market, it's imperative that you review and clean up your social media platform. A good way of going about this is to create a secondary account and use it to look up your primary account on each social media platform you use. As a rule of thumb, if your secondary account can see something, a potential employer can see it as well; so, if you find anything you’re particularly keen on, either make the material private or delete it altogether.
6. Cast Your Net Wider
When looking for your first job after university, keep in mind that it doesn't necessarily have to be the job that leads to your dream career, and usually, this will be the case. In fact, most people don't settle into their chosen career until much later in life, so use this as an opportunity to get your foot into your preferred industry and give yourself room to grow from there.
It's also worth considering other career paths not directly related to your degree that you may be interested in. In fact, many graduates take on roles very different from what they envisioned themselves applying to at the beginning of their studies.
A good way to look for roles outside your discipline is via a systematic, three-step approach:
- Think about responsibilities you could picture yourself taking on based on your academic background and current interests.
- Open up several different job adverts with titles that capture your interest. Check the 'job role responsibilities' section of these adverts and make a note of all those that have high overlap with the previous responsibilities you envisioned for yourself.
- Keep reading into these positions, and if they still seem like something you could imagine yourself doing, include them in your job search.
Another thing to consider is whether you want to get a job right away. Some take a year off to better understand what they want to do, and others opt for postgraduate study, whether it’s an MSc, MBA or PhD, to improve their long-term career prospects. Although these options won’t be for everyone, you should explore them if you feel you are only looking for a graduate job because you're not sure of what to do next.