Graduate trainee Rhianna Williams is currently on a placement with Imperial College London from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). During her year here she will move around 11 departments gaining a full understanding of the work of advancement and alumni relations at Imperial. We talked to Rhianna about why graduate schemes offer an excellent grounding and her top tips on managing a placement post:
Why did you decide to apply to a graduate scheme, and why specifically with CASE?
Graduate schemes are known to be tough to get in to, but rewarding and excellent career starters, so that aspect was a no-brainer for me. The reason the CASE was on my horizon is because it melds my passions of supporting both education as a whole, alongside helping widen access to it for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. My previous experience in both higher education, and in fundraising with the National Citizen Service – a government funded programme for youths to get involved in philanthropy in their communities – seemed a natural fit to the programme too.
This is an important thing to keep in mind if you decide to go for a graduate/postgraduate placement scheme as competition can be fierce. Ensure you have acquired the relevant skill set at least in majority, and can possibly relate other experiences to the other asks of the scheme. Volunteering and internships can help to build this experience.
Why did higher education appeal?
I worked for over two years within the world of higher education in a widening participation role, alongside developing a distance learning degree to widen access, and speaking about barriers to higher education access at conferences such as with the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (now known as the Learning and Work Institute). It remained a continued passion which I wish to pursue further. Higher education is paramount to improving quality of life and equality surrounding life prospects.
How have you found moving around different departments?
Fantastic! It’s such a great opportunity to be able to hone my skills and learn new ones. Opportunities cover events and logistics, database work, reports and presentations, social media communication, strategy development, relationship building, and fundraising. At the same time, you are able to discuss your particular passions and often take on assignments which relate to that. For example, my background aside from education is in healthcare, so I am able to apply this knowledge to work at Imperial surrounding the development of the new School of Public Health and the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative.
What is your advice regarding starting a new job and settling into a new work environment?
Being introduced to so many people can be overwhelming, with names and faces getting mixed up and forgotten. My top tip is to try and create a cheat sheet of where people sit, so you can work out who’s who. Also, volunteer to make the tea! Making a good impression works wonders.
Additionally, if you’re moving around the business, you need to be preparing for your next placement whilst in the previous one – so be organised. Set up your new meetings, check in with the head of the new team at least a week prior to ensure they’re ready for you, and can provide an outline of your new projects, so you can prepare. Also, make sure you know where you’re sitting and when, not every team will have a constant desk for you.
Top tips on applying for jobs and the interview process
Get yourself out there so you stand out. The CASE programme has 1000s of applicants, but only 12 spaces. Volunteer and intern in advance so that you have some things against your name. My speeches have been published in guides and articles, and I have helped write and film a campaign television production with the charity Fixers. This involvement has led to lots of further opportunities such as being asked to be on the interview panel for the new CEO of Surrey Council.
Another important piece of advice is to ensure you identify and use the buzzwords in the job specification in your application. Often applications are screened electronically first before a real person looks at it. Make sure yours isn’t screened out by making it as relevant as possible.
Once you’ve passed this stage, you should be prepared for pre-interview tests to gauge things like aptitude. There are lots of practice versions online, so I would recommend you have a look. You’ll then go to an assessment centre typically consisting of individual and group tasks, and an interview. Ensure you’re prepared to give feedback on things like case studies, and even present your own with a few minutes’ notice. With this, you want to ensure you continue standing out, what can you do to showcase your soft skills here, such as team work and organisational skills?
Best piece of advice you’ve ever been given
If you don’t ask you don’t get. Of course, you never want to be a nuisance, but it’s incredibly important to be proactive in any job, particularly so on a graduate scheme. Keep your ears and eyes open in case any projects crop up that you know you could, or would really like to get involved in and support.
As a new staff member moving around departments, some colleagues are unsure what your role really is, and how you could support them. Other times, they know you have been assigned lots of things to get on with so may be resistant to ask you to do more. Just be honest about your workload and explain if you’ve not got the time spare right now or if you don’t have the time but the project is something you would specifically enjoy getting to grips with in future. You can also reach out first and let your colleagues know if you’re actually getting through things quite quickly allowing you to assist with more.