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

August 26, 2010

So you’re an SPA senior who’s had several internships related to careers of interests.  You’ve gained valuable leadership experience through student activities.  You’ve excelled in your coursework and even completed several class projects and papers specifically relevant to your career interests.  Now it’s your senior year and you are asking “what do I need to do next”.  Well, there are several things that you can do 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.

Right off the bat, create a job search plan.  I would recommend utilizing a multi-layered approach to the job search, where you (1) respond to job postings that you see on large job clearinghouses like idealist.org, indeed.com, USAJobs, WashingtonPostJobs, and AU CareerWeb, (2) 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; and (3) network, network, network.  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.  Professors, family members, current and former co-workers and friends can also be good resources for contacts.  Try to schedule 30 minutes or so to sit down with each of these contacts individually to learn more about their jobs and organizations, and to start building connections.  And be prepared when you meet with these contacts.  Although it might not be a formal job interview, these contacts are utilizing valuable time from their busy schedules to meet with you, so dress professionally and have some relevant questions in mind when you go in to speak with them.

Begin the networking process now instead of waiting until the Spring semester.  This is a great time to network…there are still several months left before graduation to cultivate and leverage these professional relationships.  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.  Give yourself a goal, such as speaking with 2 valuable contacts per month.  Moreover, continually leverage your existing contacts.  Ask them for 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.  Often, a specific contact doesn’t lead to that initial job but then proves valuable down the road when you are looking for that second or third job on the career ladder.

Meanwhile, 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.

Meanwhile, gain additional experience; even though you might already have had 2 or 3 or more internships, this is the time to get your foot in the door of an organization of interest, especially during a tight job market.  Don’t worry about whether the experience is deemed an internship, part-time job or volunteer work, but instead really think about the contacts you are making, the skills that you are developing, and the projects you will be completing, as these will be beneficial when you are trying to market your credentials down the line to potential employers.

Be flexible.  Think about where you might be able to gain transferrable skills, even if it 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.

Prepare for interviewinginterviews for full-time employment are often different than interviews for internships and part-time jobs.  Become familiar with the questions you might be asked, and then practice, practice, practice.  Know your success stories and be ready to talk about them.  If you are a CLEG or Law & Society major, understand that although these are great majors that help students to develop great writing and critical thinking skills, but that they are somewhat unique to AU.  Be prepared to talk with potential employers about your major and how your education has made you more prepared for work within their organizations.  You can meet with your Career Center advisor for help with interview preparation.  Also, the Career Center has Interview Software which will allow you to practice interviewing directly from your home computer.

Finally, don’t forget to continue to utilize your Career Services Office.  You might think that you have everything in order, but use all resources available to you.  Your career center advisors can help you shape that job search plan and practice your interview skills, as well as hone your cover letter and resume.  You’ll quickly realize that the job search can vary from sector to sector and from field to field.  Not only will you want to create several versions of your resume tailored toward the various jobs and sectors in which you are interested, but you’ll want to meet with your Career Center advisor to explore the nuances and the resources specific to your field.

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