Okay, this is mostly pessimistic and horribly realistic, but I am not going to apologize. It’s the way the economy, society, and the humanities are now, and acknowledging that and preparing for it are the best ways to get on with your career.
I’m in the humanities. Which means it’s really hard to talk from the point of view of STEM subjects. They are vastly different in how they are set up, and how work is oriented, and how jobs are acquired. If you are doing a STEM PhD (or MA, or work in STEM) you’re going to be much more familiar with how things work than I am. Take all of this with a grain of salt and use your own knowledge and colleagues.
Everyone touts work experience nowadays. You hear it literally everywhere. In universities, in colleges, in high school, in business, in news articles. Kids are bombarded with ‘get work experience!’ slogans. It will run through your life until you are high enough in the working world that are either permanently employed, or so experienced you don’t think in terms of ‘gaining’ it, but of already having it.
But what is it? No, seriously, what is it? Because it’s not just one thing. It’s not just a single definition and, check, I’ve got it! Because that would be easy.
Work experience means ALMOST ALWAYS paid work. There are a few times this is not true, and volunteering or unpaid internships will count, but basically, they mean experience you have acquired by being paid for work.
Getting paid work experience without having work experience is one of those brilliant chicken and egg scenarios that destroys people’s psyches and is so disheartening that people give up careers.
You must have work experience to apply for this job. [That experience must be paid.] This is common in almost all job advertisements in the humanities. No one wants to hire someone without work experience, because it’s too much trouble to train someone. We’ll leave aside that almost every job will require training anyways, but companies think it’s easier to train someone who’s worked in the field before than someone who hasn’t (I argue how true this is, but it doesn’t matter what I think; I don’t hire people).
So how do you GET the paid work experience?
I wish I could tell you. I wish there was a brilliant work around to this problem, like a hack, and ‘poof!’ you will get your paid work experience. But it doesn’t work like that. If it did, a lot fewer twenty and thirty somethings would be suffering from intense stress and feelings of failure.
You gain work experience over time. This is true. You gain it over multiple jobs. This is mostly true (if it’s a great job, you can gain a lot of experience in one place). You don’t gain work experience in a month. Job applications want 2-3 years experience in most cases. If you are applying for an entry level position, it might be 12 months experience. But it’s entry level. It’s your first paid job in the field, right? Wrong. You are expected to have already worked, in an internship or placement or job shadow already.
I have volunteered for 2.5 years. Free. Weekly. In some cases, I was volunteered 15 hours a week. I usually also work a job that makes money so I can afford to live, but that job is never in my field and therefore does not count as work experience. Volunteering used to. It doesn’t seem to anymore. It’s a start, yes, but what companies really want is that illusive internship for you to have on your CV. Of course, many fields don’t have internships.
You are expected to have work experience without ever having worked. It’s ludicrous, of course, but most things in life are. Most things don’t make sense, and this is one of them.
What can you do?
You can volunteer. In your field. As soon as possible. Preferably in high school. Don’t wait until you finish undergrad to figure out what you want to do with your life. Volunteer as much as you can around jobs that pay you actual money. Try to get a paid job that has skills involved in it that will be of use to your field. So if your field requires customer service, get a customer service role, like retail, and work that for AT LEAST a few years. A few months of a job is not the sort of work experience employers look for.
Try to find an internship. If internships exist in your field, apply for them all, even if they are not paid. Keep applying until you get one. Apply early and often.
If you are in university, see what work experience your university can provide. Can you mark essays? Teach intro classes? Run tutorials? Do marketing for your department? Be a school ambassador? Universities offer a wealth of options, but you have to go looking for them; no one will tell you what they are or what use they are. Ask questions, ask people, keep your ears open, and then go after those opportunities. It’s no use saying ‘but school takes up all my time!’ No one cares about this issue anymore. You are expected to do everything in university, even if that involves 30 hour days.
[I always had projects/work I was doing while doing a full-time PhD. It sucked. It sucked a lot. There were many days I didn’t get through my to do list because there weren’t enough hours in the day, and you have to sleep eventually. But I managed to get all of it done, somehow, sometime. And I have a host of things on my CV besides ‘PhD’, many of which are now coming in very handy for freelancing.]
Balancing work-life-sanity is hard. It gets harder the further into university you go. It’s why mental health is such an issue in universities and amongst early career professionals. When you do a PhD, balancing your life is almost impossible. And if you have a life, if you have a partner and kids and a full-time job, all I can say is I am raising a glass in your honour. You people amaze me, inspire me, impress me, and put my piddling efforts to shame. Keep going, I’m here cheering you on.
If you don’t have these things to worry about, things are that little tiny bit easier, but not easy. Social engagements will still be cancelled. You will still work 24 hour days. You will go weeks without seeing or talking to friends. The PhD, and the work, come first. Everything else is a distance second. You chose to do this. But I understand. I understand exactly how hard it is to do, literally, everything. And be expected to.
But for every year that passes, people expect more of university students. Employers expect more of applicants. Business demands experience and skills that you can’t get at university. It’s why high school students are now being told to think carefully about what they want to do in their life, and whether university is the right call. I wish someone had taken more time to tell me all this 15 years ago. I might have made a different decision*.
Anyone want to share their work experiences with readers? What you’ve learned; what you wish you’d done; what worked for you? Any little secrets out there to be had…?
*In all honesty, probably not, I was too obsessed with classical history.