Tips for the Unprepared SPA Senior – What to do this year

So graduation is less than a year away and you don’t believe that you’ve had those relevant internship or work experiences to make yourself a marketable entity to potential employers.  Furthermore, to many, finding a job is often a job in itself, where you need to commit several hours each week toward the process.  Still, there are several things that you can do now to make the transition from student to employee smoother.

First off, start the job search early; your senior year will go by quicker than you think, and you don’t want it to be a month before graduation without significant job search progress.  Many industries, such as the Federal Government, might have longer job search cycles and require background checks or security clearances, so allow plenty of time for the process to play out.

Next, use your senior year to gain experience that will be relevant to potential full-time employers down the line; this experience can come in the form of an internship, a part-time job, or even volunteer work.

Be flexible, both in your immediate search for an internship or part-time job, but also in your search for full-time employment.  Try to gain transferrable skills, even if the experience isn’t within your intended sector or at an organization of great interest.  Explore those sectors which are still experiencing job growth, or at least where the job market appears relatively stable.  The Federal Government has a great student program called the Student Career Experience Program, or SCEP, where if you successfully complete 640 hours of work for an agency within that program, you are eligible to be hired to a permanent position with that agency without going through the traditional competitive hiring process.  If you are interested in the federal government, check your schedule for your senior year and see if this might be feasible, and then meet with your career advisor to find out how to explore these opportunities.  Often, whether through the federal government’s SCEP program or an internship with another organization, the most important thing is just getting your foot in the door and then showing an organization what you can do for them; contributing to an organization through an internship or part-time job is a great way to accomplish this.  This may even be the case come graduation if you do exit AU without much in the way of relevant experience.

Still, don’t sell yourself short on what you can offer an organization.  Now is the time to really examine your undergraduate experience, and to think about the courses you’ve taken and the activities you’ve been involved with.  Yes, maybe you don’t have a lot of valuable experience or knowledge obtained from a professional setting, but have there been class projects and papers you have completed that would be relevant to potential employers?  Have you performed relevant tasks for a student club or organization?  If so, you need to think about how you can market these papers, projects, experiences, and transferrable skills to employers through your cover letter and resume.  Also, there might still be time for you to take on a leadership or service-oriented position within a campus or community organization; employers like to see applicants who have demonstrated delegation, motivation, and problem solving skills. When tasked with writing a paper or completing a project during your senior year, when possible, look for ways in which you might utilize this assignment to gain knowledge and build connections in your field of interests.  For example, if you are interested in education policy, you might interview staff at the U.S. Department of Education, the DC Chancellor’s Office or an education non-profit or think tank as research for your paper, but this could also serve as a great way to start building professional contacts.

Get connected with the Career Center.  Your career center advisors can help you translate your experiences into marketable skills and then tailor your cover letter and resume toward the various jobs and sectors in which you are interested.  If you haven’t ever created a professional resume, get connected to the Optimal Resume system on the Career Center website and draft a resume to be critiqued by a Career Center advisor.

Meanwhile, explore options on AU CareerWeb and other job clearinghouses.  Some of the most popular sites for SPA students include Idealist.org, USAJobs.gov, and Roll CallIndeed.com is also a good “catch-all” job search resource.

Still, you’ll want to adopt a multi-layered approach to the job search process.  In addition to responding to specific job postings, you’ll want to identify organizations that are doing work that you are interested in and follow up with them directly, as many organizations only post their jobs to their own websites or advertise internally.  Moreover, the most important job search skill you need to be utilizing is networking.  Try to contact AU alumni and other professionals to set up informational interviews to gather organization information and further insight into the job search.  You can utilize tools like LinkedIn and AU’s InCircle Online Community to help identify key people at organizations of interests.  Since you might not have many professional contacts already established through previous jobs and internships, remember that professors, family members, and friends can also be good resources for contacts.

Begin this networking process early in the year.  You’ll find that more alumni will be willing to talk if they believe you are seeking career advice as opposed to asking them to be responsible for landing you a job.  Moreover, continually leverage your existing contacts.  Ask them for suggestions on what you can do now to strengthen your credentials and seek referrals to additional individuals…and then when you meet with these new contacts, ask them for additional people to speak with.  Keep this process going, as it might not be that first contact that leads to a job, but instead that third degree of separation that finally leads to pay dirt.  Still, make sure that you follow up with each contact to let them know how their advice benefitted you.

Finally, attend networking and career events. AU and the Career Center host numerous career panels, including a series of programs during Federal Careers Week each October, as well as job and internship fairs each Fall and Spring; research the organizations and industries that are going to be represented at these events, and come prepared to impress.  Also take advantage of being in DC, as there are plenty of other career fairs and networking opportunities throughout the region.  You might even think about volunteering at a political fundraiser; there should be plenty this campaign season and by volunteering, this is a great way to get into a $200 a plate dinner for free while still being able to make valuable contacts.

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