You’ve studied hard and it’s time for your first degree-mandatory job. Or is it? Whatever your first choice area of study, post-graduation you are likely to be competing for jobs with dozens, if not hundreds, of other candidates with the same degree. Or worse, the same degree with honours. Or worst, the same degree plus experience. How do you set yourself apart?
My seventeen-year-old sister, Genevieve, is completing Year 12 and currently considering her tertiary study options. When I asked recently which direction she was thinking of heading in, she replied, ‘Either midwifery or writing.’ And my immediate response was, ‘Why not both?’
As someone who is fifteen years into a writing and editing career, I know better than most how a second qualification (or even just a second informal skill set) can be crucial to what employers are looking for. And writers, editors, teachers and trainers with a specialty are always in demand.
So consider. You could be not just a midwife, but a midwife who can write. Not just a scientist, but a scientist who can edit. Not just an engineer, but an engineer who can teach. Not just a teacher, but a teacher who can write curriculums.
It could be crucial to the career you end up having, to the twists and turns it will take – and it always ends up taking twists and turns no matter how much we like to think we can plan our careers in advance and then stay on course.
There are definitely people who are better suited to being writers, editors and educators, with a passion for information or a passion for learning, and if you hate the thought of it, then stick to that MBA in a couple of years’ time. But for those with the capacity, it could be the best career decision you will ever make, all before you’ve even really started your career. In fact, it could be the career you didn’t even know you wanted but were meant to have all along.
I was seventeen when I started my Bachelor of Arts degree and twenty when I finished it. Those three years turned me into a researcher of the highest quality, a skill I am known for to this day. But majoring in American History and International Politics, two subjects I really enjoyed while I was studying them, hadn’t really given me what I felt were a set of employment-ready skills. And at twenty, I still wasn’t sure what I wanted that employment to be. One thing I did know: I wanted to keep studying. I was embracing the motto of my alma mater, Ancora imparo: I am still learning.
Even when I was in high school, I’d been tinkering away writing stories and poems. In the back of my mind, the part where you keep things you would never admit to anyone else for fear of them not coming true, was the idea, the dream, the hope that I could be a bestselling author. So at my Bachelor graduation ceremony, as the Dean handed over my certificate and asked whether I was still studying, I whispered in embarrassment, ‘Yes, but not here.’ I was already six months into a writing and editing course at another tertiary institution.
If only my twenty-year-old self had known back then how important my decision to study writing and editing would be. Because every job I’ve had since can be directly traced back to the skills I honed during those extra two years of study. I’ve edited novels, text books, newsletters, 700-page membership applications, hundreds of tender responses and even the odd non-fiction article or two. I’ve written novels, press releases, marketing brochures, website content, speeches, sales collateral and even advertisements. And I never would have had the professional abilities, let alone the opportunities that my extra qualification opened up for me, if I hadn’t taken those extra two years and completed those additional studies.
Sheridan# began her tertiary studies in dentistry on the advice of a family friend who was also a dentist and called it ‘a great career’. ‘In high school, I had great marks in everything but I had no idea what I wanted to do. So I followed her advice.’
For a while, it seemed like a good decision. She worked in the field for a decade before gaining a Master’s degree in Public Health in order to teach dentistry herself and undertake university research. She taught for four years and published a number of well-regarded research papers before taking leave for the birth of her first child.
‘But where I worked there was not a lot of support for women who chose to have children. And going back to clinical dentistry was not an option because I suffered from chronic back pain from bending over to look in people’s mouths. I decided my only choice was to find a different career.’
But that didn’t mean abandoning her career path entirely. By then, Sheridan had also completed a Bachelor’s degree in Fine Art. ‘My greatest passion was and still is art. But I always loved teaching so the next logical step was to combine my art degree with a Graduate Diploma in Secondary Teaching. I have never looked back.’ She has been teaching ever since.
Sheridan taught art at the high school level for a few years before moving first into primary teaching and then into the specialist education of gifted children. ‘It’s an ideal teaching scenario because I use both my science and art qualifications.’
Teaching provided a career trajectory that she never would have been able to foresee all those years ago when she began her studies in dentistry.
‘Changing careers was probably one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. Fortunately, I had continuous support from my husband and my friends, many of whom had changed careers as well. I never gave up hope of finding something better and it paid off in the end. Now my family and I have a happy and healthy lifestyle.’
So Sheridan’s career has changed course twice from science-based studies and work to teaching, then from art-based studies to teaching and she is described as no less than ‘an amazing teacher’ by her current employer.
Jessica is a self-taught marketing specialist who spent seven years figuring out what she didn’t want to do.
‘I’ve worked in recruitment, call centres, veterinary surgeries, event management, administration, you name it, I’ve done it. But none of them spoke to me the way marketing did.’ She turned a talent for drawing into a flair for graphic design by teaching herself Adobe Illustrator, informally learning marketing techniques and strategies, and landing an assistant role in a tiny marketing team where everyone did a bit of everything.
When the marketing team leader left suddenly, Jessica found herself in a senior role in everything but name and salary. She considered applying for Recognition of Current Competency and studying to fill the gaps in her knowledge to gain the piece of paper to hang on a wall and list on her CV. But it felt like a step backwards.
‘And it would have been. I would have been spending time formalising a lot of information that I already knew.’ Instead, she did what had proved so successful in the past. She began adding to her skill set by learning to professionally edit.
Jessica was part of the same broader Sales & Marketing team I once was and we sat in cubicles next to each other for more than two years. Knowing my background, she pumped me for information. She asked questions (some simple – ‘Can you give me an easy rule to tell whether I should use there, their or they’re?’ – some more difficult – ‘What the heck are all these little squiggles on the copyedited page?’). She asked more questions (‘Is this right?’, ‘Does this flow?’, ‘Does this make sense?’). Then she practised. And practised some more.
Nine months ago, when Jessica applied for a new role as a communication and design specialist, the interview process included copyediting a page of written information. She got the job. And now, less than a year in, she has been promoted to editor of her new employer’s in-house magazine with a circulation of more than 75,000 each quarter.
‘It could never have happened without that decision to learn those extra skills. And while I may not have done it in a formal setting, I harnessed the knowledge of those around me, absorbed it and advanced my career beyond anything I could have imagined in such a short time frame.’
While most of us don’t have first-hand access to a mentor on a daily basis, there are plenty of TAFEs and universities that can play the same role (for a fee) and with that sometimes compulsory piece of paper at the end (in the case of training and educating). And that extra set of skills can take you places you might never think you would go in your career.
#Name changed for privacy reasons
*First published on LinkedIn 25 August 2014