I constantly felt the spectre of “The Job Search” on my back throughout grad school, but it was also easy to deny it or stress over it in unhelpful ways that didn’t actually get me closer to getting a job or engage in interesting activities or projects that ultimately had zero impact on my marketability later on. I remember the head of Career Services warning us the first week of school to “Network! Network! Network!” and to start applying for jobs “Now!” She wasn’t wrong about the networking, but while, yes, if you’re planning to go into the Foreign Service or some UN young professionals programs it may actually be beneficial to start that process more than a year out, most organizations in my field were looking to hire someone within the month, or at least sooner than 1-2 years in the future, so that advice didn’t really help me or most of my peers. What I needed to know was: What should I be doing now, while I’m in grad school, busy with classes and group projects, to line up that job right after graduation or set myself up to have great options in the future? There’s no perfect answer and some people get lucky, and of course, like every curve, others get unlucky. But there are ways to play the game such that you’re on the right track, and headed for success.
First off, “Network!”
Yes, I’m parroting what the Career Services person said, but it’s true. It’s rare for companies or non-profits to hire someone entirely because of a great cover letter or resume. Of course it does happen, but even without a direct referral, if the people who are impressed with that cover letter and resume are able to connect the dots from you to someone they know and have worked with in the past, it puts you ahead of others in that stack of “also great resumes and cover letters”. Networking also means simply that you know about opportunities. Half the battle is just hearing about open positions, so if a connection knows you’re looking and is impressed with you, they will forward you that position you didn’t even know was open. Go to career panels, schmooze with professors, hang out with your classmates (don’t be the person stuck in the library all the time–take the time to get to know your peers!), sign up for conferences, set up “informational interviews” with people at organizations where you might want to work. Don’t do all of this to the point of being annoying, but find what feels natural to you. Networking should be fun and exciting. You don’t want to come across as needy, but as a smart person who is genuinely passionate about your shared field. Don’t over think it. But do it! Another key is to get the right skills. Hard, tangible bullet-point-on-the-resume skills. It’s nice that you might consider a skill “critical thinking” and yes, that’s clearly important, but who graduates from these programs without at least considering him- or herself a critical thinker? Depending on your field, critical skills could include knowing how to do statistical regressions or experience with STATA, M&E experience, negotiation, mediation and facilitation skills, understanding of logframes, experience writing policy memos, language skills… you get the idea. It’s nice that you have a fancy degree from a great school, but if you don’t have the actual skills in the job description, while yes, you can make the case that you’re a fast learner, they’re going to take that other person with the other fancy degree from another great school because she comes in with those skills on day one.
Get as much experience as you can.
The academics are great, but employers are going to want to know what you’ve actually done. And if they’re hiring you to do a job, most want proof that you’ve done that specific thing, or worked in that specific region. It can be a chicken-and-egg situation where you need the experience to get the experience. This is why internships and capstones are so crucial. This is the time when because you’re a student at your impressive grad school, you’ll have “ins” to internships and capstones you wouldn’t otherwise have. It’s also a time in your life when you may be more willing to take unpaid internships, or you may be required by your program to do an internship for credit. Trust me, six months into your unsuccessful job search–when you realize no one is biting and you may be forced to take an unpaid internship to fill in that gap on your resume until you find something–is a time when you’re going to be less excited about that unpaid internship opportunity. Figure out what experience you want to get (on the ground experience in a refugee camp? in South Asia? in the field of impact evaluation? in gender-based violence? at the UN? in CSR?) and find an internship during the semester and over the summer. Don’t expect to get a job offer from the place you interned (though I know a lot of people who did!) Internships are another way to round out your resume, and makes you that much more appealing to a future employer.
Finally, read job postings while you’re in school.
Even if it’s too early to actually apply for jobs, it will help you know what’s out there and what kinds of skills and experience you’ll need to be a competitive candidate, which can help you choose your courses and internships wisely. If your dream job comes along and you still have another year of school, you might consider reaching out for an informational interview, so they know you’re interested but the timing isn’t right. If that or a similar position comes up a year later and you apply, they’ll remember you, assuming you made a good impression. You don’t want to get caught doing your first internet job search in the month after graduation. So get started now. While that might sound stress-inducing, planning now will turn out to be stress-reducing in the longer run. You’ll look back from your amazing job a few years out of grad school and the stress of fitting networking, internships and career panels into your packed schedule of late night paper-writing and group projects will fade into the background. Good luck–you’ve got this!