Getting work experience is crucial when you’re breaking into the world of employment. Ashley Davies has some useful advice – some of which she wishes she’d known about when she started.
For a sweaty, gut-twisting hour I thought I’d badly cocked up my first ever work experience. It was at a local newspaper, and due to the lack of space, I was sitting at the desk of the terrifying editor while she was out at a press conference. When no one was in the room I spun her executive chair around for kicks, causing a framed photo on her desk to go flying, crack and splinter glass all over the room. The picture – a formal black-and-white portrait of an older man – ripped as I tried to rescue it from the shards.
The reporters came in and shook their heads, sucking air through their teeth while doing that “rather you than me, mate” thing, and informed me that that was the last picture the editor owned of her now-dead husband. I nearly puked with horror and shame, then spent the next 45 minutes sprinting around the local shopping centre, trying to find a frame to replace the one I’d destroyed. Then I raided the stationery cupboard to select the best tools with which to colour-in the torn photo paper, and just as I was picking the last bits of glass from the carpet, in walked the editor, half an hour earlier than anticipated.
I gushed breathless apologies and braced myself for the bollocking, but none came because she didn’t really care about the photo. The reporters had been taking the piss out of me. Many years later I bumped into one of them and asked him why they’d been so sodding cruel. Turns out I’d been getting on their nerves because I wouldn’t stop offering to do stuff, and making this thing that I thought was all about me, well, all about me. I was so desperate to be given a chance to show that I could write, find stuff out and possibly get hired, that I ended up irritating them and preventing them from getting on with their busy jobs.
If, like me when I started out, you don’t have any connections in the field you wish to enter, getting work experience is absolutely crucial. I got my first journalism job after being recommended by someone I’d done work experience with, and I know lots of people in other careers who’ve got their first break in similar ways. And since that day when I made an arse of myself on that local paper, I’ve met hundreds of young people doing work experience with varying degrees of success. The ones who make the most out of opportunities are the ones you remember – the ones you take pleasure in helping. You also remember the bad ones.
“Show secretaries and PAs respect. They know where all the bodies are buried and they’re the direct lines to everyone with power.”
Here’s what I wish I’d known. I’m not saying I was guilty of all of them, but, you know…
• Before you start, do as much research as possible on the firm you’re joining and the individuals you’ll be working with. You don’t have to act like working there has been your life’s ambition, but you absolutely can’t appear to be uninterested.
• Don’t be surprised if you’re largely ignored for the first few days. They might get loads of work experience people in and you shouldn’t take it personally. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself.
• Show enthusiasm for whatever task you’re given, no matter how menial it seems. You get to do bigger, better stuff by proving you can do the smaller things.
• Keep offering to help, but be aware of your timing. Discreetly observe everyone at all times so you know who’s most busy when.
• Get to know as many people there as possible, and connect with them on Twitter or LinkedIn just before you leave. Stay in touch, so that when a job does come up, they’ll hopefully remember you.
• If you meet people who do work you’re interested in, ask them about their professional background and how they got their job. People are usually flattered if you ask their advice – but not when they’re really busy.
• Show secretaries and PAs respect. They know where all the bodies are buried and they’re the direct lines to everyone with power.
• If you’re female and you flirt with the men, nearly every woman who works there will notice and will subconsciously judge you.
• It doesn’t hurt to bring in baked goods. It’ll be harder for them to forget who you are if you can say, in an email a few months down the line: “Yes, the one with the cakes.” (OK, maybe not.) And do offer to make tea and coffee. This isn’t necessarily a rank thing – in some of the best workplaces very senior people do this for their colleagues.
• I know it’s easy to say this, but don’t feel disabled by shyness or introversion. A lot of people don’t especially like working with loud-mouths – it’s your work and your attitude that makes the difference.
• Please, please, please don’t throw away opportunities. If you feel like something is beneath you, it will be obvious to everyone and insulting to the people you’re working with. Work hard and be nice to people. It usually pays off.
• DO spin around on executive chairs if no one’s looking. It’s brilliant.4242 Views
Ashley Davies is an Edinburgh-based writer and editor and the human behind animal satire website thelabreport.co.uk.