Making the jump from academic to professional life

How graduates can make sure they are skilled-up and job-ready

In addition to the traditional soft skills and competencies that employers seek – such as communication, leadership, and teamwork skills – there is an increasing emphasis on newer intangible skills, such as ‘design thinking’. Photograph: iStock

In addition to the traditional soft skills and competencies that employers seek – such as communication, leadership, and teamwork skills – there is an increasing emphasis on newer intangible skills, such as ‘design thinking’. Photograph: iStock


For a recent graduate, the move from academic to professional life can be daunting. A nine-to-five lifestyle is a far cry from college days, and can be a shock to the system. But how can Irish graduates ensure they are ready to make this jump? How can they make themselves “job-ready”?

Communication is key. Communicating your suitability for a particular position is vital when seeking work, but it would appear that communication skills are precisely what is most lacking in graduates entering the workplace for the first time.

“In terms of the research that we’ve done, we know that communication would be the biggest soft skill identified that could be improved upon by graduate applicants,” explains Mark Mitchell, director of GradIreland.

After the lack of communication skills, “managing their own learning” comes next at 35 per cent, followed by confidence and flexibility, both at 30 per cent, according to data from GradIreland.

In addition to the traditional soft skills and competencies that employers seek – such as communication, leadership, and teamwork skills – there is an increasing emphasis on newer intangible skills, such as ‘design thinking’. “We’re hearing a lot more about employers looking for people demonstrating design thinking – that would combine elements of creativity, innovation, adaptability, and resilience. We hear a lot about that in terms of people’s work-life balance, career preparation and career development through your life, being adaptable and resilient, and being a life-long learner,” says Mitchell. “So some of those would be relatively new and layered on to the more traditional skill sets that employers look for.”

‘Growth mindset’

Rose Mary Hogan, head of graduate recruitment and development at Glanbia, emphasises the importance of flexible, growth-focused graduates. “We look for graduates who are invested in themselves, so they have a really good sense of self-awareness, how to continually invest in themselves, where they are constantly learning and developing, how we would describe it is that kind of ‘growth mindset’ – you never stop learning no matter what level you’re at in the organisation, from a graduate level right up to the very top – we have that investment and development in leadership at every level. We want to see people that are really open-minded to learning, to coming into environments of change, who can really make an impact in those environments.”

Yvonne McLoughlin, head of the Careers Service at DCU, wants to dispel the myth that the Careers Service is only for students in their final year, and urges students at all stages of their university or college career to make use of the service. “Sometimes first years think that the Careers Service is for final years, but we say that it is very important in first year to start working towards employability.

“We’d say to first years that you can’t fast-track the CV, so really first and second years need to use their time in university to build up their skills, their discipline knowledge, their experiences, and then they can put all of that on their CV and use them as examples to talk about.”

Completing some sort of work experience, be it an official internship, or a week of shadowing, can prove to be very beneficial for students and graduates alike. According to data from GradIreland, 93 per cent of employers found completing an internship or work placement to be either “effective” or “very effective” in helping graduates improve soft skills such as communication and teamwork skills.

“Our research tells us that one of the most important things that you can do as a student is to gain work experience, and one of the most obvious ways of doing that is to complete an internship. When we talk about internships, we mean organised graduate internships, work placements that are part of a course – where almost the majority of undergraduate courses have work placements built into them. For students who don’t have work placements built into their course, there are lots of summer internships, particularly geared at students in second and third year, to develop the key employability skills that they need to access the world of work,” says Mitchell.

Mitchell reiterates that not all internships are unpaid and exploitative, that quite the opposite is true. “Eighty per cent of graduate employers offer internships, and of those, 95 per cent of those programmes are paid, and are paid on average between €1,400 and €1,800 a month.”

Successful summer and short-term internships can also often lead to full-time employment after graduation. “We’re finding as well that 54 per cent of the employers that we surveyed recruit up to 50 per cent of their graduate intake from those who have previously interned with them. So they’re not only useful in terms of building employability skills but they are a direct recruitment pipeline both for students and undergraduates but also for graduate employers,” says Mitchell.

Correct language

When applying for positions, it is important to ensure that applicants use the correct language to demonstrate their capability, maintains McLoughlin. “It’s really important when a student is presenting themselves to an employer via CV, or by an application form, or an assessment centre, that the students are able to connect the dots for the employers. They have to present themselves in a language that employers understand.”

Mitchell agrees. “It is hard with an online application or even a CV, because a lot of young applicants and graduates can look quite similar on paper. They don’t have the same experience that people a bit further advanced in their careers have. So don’t baldly state any work experience you have, elaborate, but the same applies for academic projects, for example: ‘I worked on a project on data analytics, I collaborated with students across the college of engineering, we had a presentation event at the end, which allowed me to enhance my presentation skills, we had a project timeline, so I developed project management skills’, etc.”

When doing your research on a company or business, Hogan advises reaching out to other employees there. “Talking to people in the company, there are so many resources out there and tools to do research, be that at university, or even through social media, making the most of social networks, LinkedIn is a fantastic resource to be able to contact and talk to people, to learn more and get an idea of the culture and the environment, and the realities of the role. Bringing it back to showing that fire in the belly.”

Eight tips for getting job-ready

1. While in college or university, join a club or society: this will probably be one of the first things you include on your CV when applying for graduate jobs, but the skills you learn here will serve you very well, and give you lots of examples to use in interviews.

2. Use your careers service: most colleges and universities have excellent career advisory services that offer a whole range of services and advice for students from first to final year, and in some cases up to two years post-graduation. They often run CV and LinkedIn clinics to ensure you put your best foot forward when applying for jobs.

3. Attend a careers fair: they allow you to explore a whole range of career options in one centralised environment. And you’ll definitely leave with some nice free pens.

4. Check out available mentorship programmes, such as GradLink in Trinity, and DCU Structured Mentor Programme, where graduates mentor students in practical career and application skills. Networking can prove invaluable when applying for positions, and hearing about others’ first hand experience can only further your own knowledge.

5. Complete an internship: first-hand experience is the best way to know if a job is for you, but also makes an excellent addition to a CV. More and more companies have official internship programmes, with decent pay and networking opportunities galore. They may even lead to a full-time job after graduation.

6. Keep working on your CV and LinkedIn: all that you do in college, academically and non-academically, and during your breaks from college should be put on your CV and LinkedIn. By the time it rolls around to applying for graduate positions, you will have a wide variety of experience and lots of skills to draw on, and examples to give in interview situations.

7. Match your language in applications to that of the job description: the language used in CV and cover letters, and online applications, is extremely important, so make sure you read and understand the job description, and match your application to what they are looking for.

8. Keep your social media profiles clean: it isn’t just an urban myth that employers will look up your social media profiles when considering you for a position. Try to avoid having any photos of you doing anything too wild available for the public to view – if you wouldn’t want your mam to see it, best to leave it offline.