Graduate careers: Career progression, feedback and mentorship are key

We spoke to a panel of four experts for advice on how graduates can do well in work.

We ask: How does a good company nurture its talent – what signs should graduates and recent hires look out for?

We ask: How does a good company nurture its talent – what signs should graduates and recent hires look out for?


Primary to secondary school, secondary to college and now it’s the latest big life transition: the move into the workplace. Many graduates will be eager to get out there and kickstart their career; others will be very reluctant to leave third-level behind – particularly given that the pandemic robbed them of a huge chunk of their college experience.

Either way, as graduates head into the workplace – whether a graduate entry job, a graduate training programme or internship – how can they make the most of the experience to learn new skills and advance their career?

In pre-pandemic times, there was a much clearer pathway, with the vast majority of graduates working in an office and being able to lean on their colleagues and bosses for support and advice. That’s all up in the air now: almost anyone who can work from home over the past year has worked from home and, even as society opens up, there will inevitably be a hybrid mix of working in the office and working from home.

We spoke to a panel of four experts for advice on how graduates can do well in work. Anthony Hickey is an organisational culture analyst with the Great Place to Work Institute, Marina Rivas is marketing and brand executive with the Great Place to Work Institute, Sinéad Brady is a career psychologist and Ruairi Kavanagh is managing editor of

What do recent graduates – those who graduated during the pandemic last year and this year – want from a workplace?
Anthony Hickey:
I don’t think there is a tremendous difference between graduates and the general public here. Of course flexibility is much sought after at present and organisations who are offering remote, hybrid and flexible working are very enticing to employees. Beyond that, we are seeing that physical and mental wellbeing supports are increasingly important to employees and employers since the pandemic.

There is also a lot that hasn’t changed with regards to what employees are looking for. We find that people are still searching for employment that aligns with their personal values, they want to work for a company with a mission they believe in. A good culture is what employees are looking for, somewhere they will be supported as they develop and feel comfortable being themselves.

Sinéad Brady: The word “ambition” has long been associated with career success and climbing a ladder, but many graduates now want a better whole-life ambition, a version of success that encompasses their personal and professional life. There will always be days or weeks where people have to put in extra hours, but it’s important to have your personal, professional and physical non-negotiables. For instance, graduates want enough energy in their soul to enjoy their whole life – to sleep, eat, move, eat, have time for lunch, have energy in the evenings. Graduates want to be engaged at work and feel they are living life to their full.

The world’s longest-running study on happiness, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, followed over 700 men since they were teenagers in 1938, and a few dozen of those men are still left. What it has found is that the biggest regret they had was spending more time at work than they spent with the people they loved and the people who made them smile, and they spotted a correlation – which doesn’t necessarily imply causation – between a happier life with people you love and a longer, healthier life with a decreased risk of depression, obesity or heart disease.

Ruairi Kavanagh: No matter what the job, they want networking and mentorship opportunities to see how things really work. They want someone they can ask questions or bounce ideas off, whether that’s through a mentorship or buddy system, or a more informal mechanism. They don’t necessarily want a 9am-5pm job every day and they want to be able to meet up in person occasionally.

Does the “war for talent” give graduates an edge in today’s jobs market?
That will of course depend on the nature of the qualification. If we are talking about the Stem sector for example, with its well documented skill shortage, the war for talent is absolutely beneficial. Any industry where the need for skills outweighs availability will result in job seekers having more options which is of course an advantage. The same could also be said about talent in the hospitality sector at present.

As a result of this, graduates and job hunters from the Stem sector and similar fields with high demands for talent can be selective as they search for a job. Organisations, being well aware of this, place significant efforts into creating attractive cultures that people want to be a part of. So I think the greatest advantage a competitive talent market affords graduates is the work done by organisations to create great workplaces in effort to attract them to the business.

How do companies communicate what it’s like to work for them?
Marina Rivas:
When people are researching a potential employer, they look at the organisation’s website and career page, their social media presence and the type of language they use in role listings. From this, companies have a number of choices to advertise their culture and the decisions they make are part of their employer branding strategy. Their objective is to meet the talent where they are at, and provide them with the best overview of what it is like to work for them.

Lately, companies’ employer branding strategies have shifted from showcasing how great they are, to proving it in effort to increase their credibility. Current employees are often given a voice to story-tell their own employee experience in their company through “day in a life” content like corporate videos. Another credibility objective they strive to reach is to prove it is great to work for them through third-party validation such as Great Place to Work certification.

SB: It’s worth looking at the turnover rate in a business: do they have people who stay for five, 10, 15 or 20 years? Look at their social media and see what vibe you get. provides information from people who work there and you can also check out their annual reports and policy documents to see their commitment to diversity and the gender pay gap. Are they actually meeting those commitments?

How does a good company nurture its talent – what signs should graduates and recent hires look out for?
Graduates often look to the big companies and the big names, but it’s really worth considering working for a small or medium-sized enterprise (SME). In an SME internship, for instance, you can get a lot more of the personal touch and niche support, which can be harder in a large firm where you’re one of 200 or 300 hundred graduates. And because many of them supply goods or services to the multinationals, they can be a backdoor into the bigger companies.

Whoever you work for, once you start, it can quickly become all about the paid work, but you need to ask yourself what kind of environment, work culture and hours are right for you. If the hours are very heavy and it isn’t working for you, you have to ask if it’s the right organisation for you.

RK: Don’t make a choice on money alone. Look for somewhere that gives you a career development path, where you will be supported, be able to talk and be happy. You can learn a lot on a graduate programme – a two to three year structured programme where you rotate through various departments and get a bird’s-eye view of their operations.

AH: Graduates should look for organisations who hold regular performance reviews, with an emphasis on goal setting and feedback. They should enquire about further education supports: many of our clients subsidise qualifications relevant to the needs of the business. If a company is consistently promoting from within, this is likely the kind of environment that is invested in nurturing its talent. This is often supported by mentoring programmes, cross functional working, and other opportunities to develop their existing skills and, crucially, develop new ones so as they continue to grow.

They might also consider what recognition looks like in the organisation, how effort is rewarded beyond perks and salary. A good company shows appreciation for employees output through social recognition, by establishing consistent leadership thanking and peer to peer recognition practices. If you can see that an organisation is intentional about recognising good performance, it is a good indication you are about to join a supportive environment that incentivises you to be at your best.

How does a good workplace help people to reach their goals and fulfil their potential?
Development is crucial for nurturing talent. What the company offers in terms of development opportunities, how extensively they promote internally and how ingrained continuous development is in the culture. What we see is a direct relationship between how organisations support the development of their employees and how satisfied employees are with their workplace.

Great workplaces employ robust performance management strategies, where the goals of the employee are aligned with the goals of the organisation. Through this, employees can avail of the entire suite of the organisation’s development offerings in effort to help them reach their potential.

Leadership is also crucial here. Are the leaders in the business approachable? Are they willing to be vulnerable and discuss the challenges they have had to overcome on their career journey? Is there sufficient trust between leaders and employees so these kinds of conversations can occur? This is crucial, the relationship between employees and leaders in any setting will determine how the workplace is experienced. When employees feel supported by the leaders in the organisation, they are more willing to get involved in new projects and put their ideas forward, which help them develop and fulfil their potential.

SB: Mentorship is often seen as a big plus, but I prefer to call it “sponsorship”: someone to be your voice when you are not in the room, where if you have an idea you get to present it, where you are given opportunities to help out and have your voice heard. Where organisations have a genuine interest in career progression, graduates will have a chance to get feedback and support in the workplace.

A good leader in a workplace will know if you have been working long hours, and they live the organisation’s ethos and written policy. They understand that you won’t know everything as soon as you get in the door.

From the graduate’s perspective, how can they take advantage of all the opportunities offered by a good company? And what should they be wary of?
Keep an eye on company communications and take on opportunities as they arise. Great companies have strong internal communication practices in place [to let staff know about] new projects. Take advantage of the development offerings in the business and really engross yourself in them. Companies have put a lot of effort into ensuring there are opportunities to build skills, so avail of these at every chance. Really, the best way to take advantage of the opportunities offered is to put yourself forward for them as they arise and fully engage with what you are doing.

They should be wary of any fear they may have when it comes to sharing their ideas and suggestions: great companies want to hear your perspective and thrive off of employee input. It can be intimidating for some as they enter a new setting, but people leaders love to see new [hires] contribute with their ideas – it shows they are engaged in their work.

SB: It sounds counterintuitive, but it’s good to have an exit strategy: never enter a job without knowing when you will leave it, particularly if your non-negotiables are not being met, such as not having enough money to survive, the commute being too great or just not getting chances to learn and develop.