For many students, the day after they graduate college an uneasy realization starts to bubble up. Job ad after job ad is targeting applicants with “experience” but outside of their class portfolio, they worry that they don’t have enough to properly market themselves. Hiring managers aren’t returning their calls, they are not being called in for second interviews. All seems lost, until finally someone gives them a shot.
This story is all too familiar, but doesn’t always end with a happy ending. Looking for work after college could be frustrating. I’ve been there. Most of us have, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Here is a list of tips that are compiled from my own experience as both the student (a very long time ago) and employer. I also asked colleagues at Macmillan Learning and LinkedIn network for their tips, which I am very grateful for. I wish I had this when I was in undergrad, but if you have others add them to the comments!
Get an internship
Don’t wait until the day after graduation to start thinking about gaining experience. Jump on the opportunity for internships offered at your school. If the companies that you are interested in are not represented in their list of partnerships, then do what you need to do to make them exist. Do all the leg work to figure out what the process is for becoming an organization on the intern list. There are likely some forms and requirements that the organization needs to fill out.
Now that you know what is involved, contact that organization’s Human Resources or someone from the department you’d like to work in. You could find this information on their website or LinkedIn. Send them a professional email describing yourself and why you’d make for a great intern, then attach your resume. Let them know that although they don’t currently offer internships you could walk them through the process and have already attached the required steps. By doing all the research for them, you’ve saved them time, which increases your chance of success. Especially if the company doesn’t already have an internship program and is not familiar with the process. Most importantly, this shows initiative, and people like hiring young talent with initiative.
Another important factor in getting an internship while in school is that you sharply increase your chances of rolling into a full-time position. It will also will kick off your professional network. The people you meet at one company will likely move onto other companies, which gives you an internal reference at that new organization. These are priceless.
When I was an undergrad I did a summer internship as a designer at a translation company and met another another designer that was super talented. After graduating I moved to startup, and they were growing their design team. Guess who I called. A couple years later the start up was going through bad times, and he left to a slightly more mature startup, guess who he called. I ended up spending several years at that place. We both went onto working for ourselves for a couple years, and once I decided to work at a company again, guess who followed a long.
Another question that is sometimes raised is paid vs. non-paid internship. In the end they both have value, in terms of networking and building real-world experience, but if an organization offers to pay you, then you greatly increase your chances to roll into a full time opportunity, so take that into consideration.
Whatever you do, make sure you put 120% into your work, and come out of that experience with 1 or 2 solid references. You might even ask them to add a reference blurb on your LinkedIn profile.
Work on a passion project
Thinking back at my early college career, I don’t recall having any rockstar idea other than working on my personal website. However, while talking an intro to Marketing and Advertising class, I watched a student present on marketing idea for a martial arts tournament. It was great and obvious that he really thought it through to last detail. It turned out we shared a friend in common. After a couple beers, I told him I’d help him out and use my graphic design talent to add some visual appeal to his vision. I designed his logo, t-shirt, website, even the medals. It was fun, and I was helping out someone that ended up becoming a life long friend. Month later his little presentation turned into an actual tournament, then more tournaments, until it became one of the largest Grappling tournaments in the country. It was even part of UFC’s fan Expo.
This project, while rewarding, putting a couple extra bucks in my pocket, and some free beer and cheese fries. What really made it rewarding was being a part of my friends success, and seeing people wearing my t-shirt designs randomly in the streets. Granted the founder of that organization is by-far one of the most focused entrepreneurs I’ve met at the ripe age of 20. He would have likely figured out a way to have been successful with or without my help.
Go and meet people and offer value
Whether it is virtual or at a physical space. Find out where people that are in the position you’d like to be hangout, and do your best to bring value to any conversation that you participate in. Value comes in different forms. You don’t need to be the expert in the room to bring value. Many times asking a thought provoking question on a topic offers more value than answering a question.
In terms of UX, you should be developing your interviewing skills in all aspects of your life. Instead of talking about yourself, learn to ask people open ended questions to gain insights that might help you with adjusting your approach. Designers are problem solvers, so learn to approach all problems as a designer.
You might also share an interesting book, experience, or ask for a critique. Pretty much anything that will help you build relationships, expand your network, and place you in a situation where a person could see the value you offer in a problem that they might be experiencing.
You will have to do some research to find where best to meet people in your industry, but here are some places; try Meetup.com, social media groups on LinkedIn and Facebook, or targeted Slack Channels for example a colleague suggested Mix Methods, a slack community that centers around user experience research.
Claim your space on the web to help craft your personal brand
Today it is easy to make your own website. You don’t need to know how to code. As long as you know how to fill out a web form and click on a button you could have a website. WordPress, Wix, and a ton of others, offer free and inexpensive solutions for placing your porfolio on the web. Add in some case studies describing your work and process. This is great for organizing your experience, but there is more to you than the clients and project you have worked on either professionally or in course work.
Nick Carbone, a former colleague from Macmillan gave some great advice on a LinkedIn message I posted to solicit ideas for this article. He said, “ Write professionally on at least one social media channel as well as your own site.” I couldn’t agree with this more. People that are interested in hiring you want to know how you think. This is your chance to highlight all of your knowledge beyond client work. I’ve done everything from
- Publishing how-to videos for new software
- Sharing my reactions on interesting books or web article that I read. Don’t just regurgitate what the original author said. People that are hiring you want to know what you think, not what someone else thinks. What do you agree with, what do you not agree with, and why. How does that apply to a problem you are trying to solve today.
- Similarly, annotations of interesting speakers at conferences that I attended and my views to what they were trying to communicate to me in the audience.
It could literally be anything that you think might bring value to someone, and gives you a chance to elaborate on your skill beyond the 15–30 minutes you might get at an interview. Give people a chance to know what you have to offer before you even step in the door. You might think that people don’t have time to read all that stuff, and while that might be true for people in HR folks, once a short list of names gets to the department who’s budget your employment will hit, they are likely going to want to dig into your experience a bit more. Even today, I have this medium domain to guide people to the content I want them to see.
Find organizations that caters to your circumstance
Don’t limit your search for help to the on-campus career services department. While they have a wealth of knowledge that you should take advantage of, you need to put the effort into looking for other organizations that might actually be better suited to give you more targeted advices in your area. An example is the User Experience Professionals Association. Every once in awhile they will offer Portfolio reviews that you could attend, and get thoughtful feedback. They also offer mentorship opportunities where they pair up young talent with local professionals. I am sure that doing some google searches will unearth many more.
Find a someone to offer you guidance
If you can’t find an organization, all is not lost. Learn to be bold. Go on social media and find people that you admire. Without sounding creepy let them know that, while they may not be hiring at their organization at the moment you are iterating on your portfolio and value their input. Making people sound important and smart increases the chances that they will be more likely to help. The worse thing that will happen is that they will say no because they are too busy. However, even if that is the case, when an opening does present itself in her company or someone in her network, there is a chance that she might remember your email a forward along your contact.
If your meeting is a success, don’t be afraid to ask them if you could send them follow up questions, just don’t bombard their inbox. I like to think that people are inherently good and want to help and see others succeed because of it.
Find someone that has achieved your short term goal
While getting an expert mentor is great. Depending on their time on the job, many could be disconnected from the circumstances that you are currently experiencing as student stepping into the job market today. Much of the advice that an expert might give (including myself) may be outdated, or unrealistic. There may be better ways of doing things in todays market. Long time experts have no idea, because while we may have been in similar shoes, decades have past, and the world is a different place. An experts advice may be top-down, from a “what am I looking for in a new hire” perspective, which is important, rather than a “how do I get noticed by this particular company” view. Just like the tip above, look for Jr. designers and other employees that are fresh out of college on Social Networks. Invite them for coffee, and be ready to put on your UX interview cap on. What did their journey consist of, where were their pain points, what channels did they leverage, what might have they done differently, etc. Like I said, as UX designer you have a gift, so use it.
Learn how to tell a compelling story
As you build your portfolio you might be compelled to find as many shiny objects, and create slide after slide of what you believe to be a polished representation of all the final artifacts that you are capable of delivering. While this is important, and people like to see the output that you are able to provide. What really matters is describing process of how you got there.
In UX interviews, I love to see the candidate’s mistakes and how they acted on the learning to improve their next iterations. What their research method is, why they picked those methods, and why not. I also like to see artifacts that help to communicate the findings of those research projects in clear and articulate manner.
I remember one interviewee follow the Duarte Method, which made for a such a compelling story that the structure of his presentation and his ability to articulate his experience in such a thoughtful manner became a portfolio piece as well. Since communication is such large part of a UX designers role be ready to approach your interviewer as you would any stakeholder, only this time the product design you are trying to sell is you.
The problem that a lot of students just stepping into the field for the first time have is that they don’t feel they have anything that they could tell a compelling story about. Many college classroom cram a lot into a semester, that there is no time to help students work on projects that fit a seamless narrative arc. Logos for this company, wireframes for that, research for this other thing. It is all over the place and very difficult for the interviewer to understand your process from point A to point B. This was exactly my problem when i was doing my undergrad and looking for a design job while in school.
While in undergrad I worked at the graphics computer lab. There I spent most of my day debugging hardware issues, and helping students with software questions as they worked on their class projects. It was actually one of the best jobs I had when I was young because it helped my hone my skills and serve as pseudo teachers assistant that happened to fix printer paper jams too. I was confident in my skill, and I knew that I could handle working at a local design agency. It wasn’t too long that I realized that, while my portfolio was polished, I didn’t have a story to tell. So what is a student to do when all the jobs they look at are asking for someone with experience, yet nobody is willing to give them their first experience?
I am not one to wait for open doors. I might politely knock at a few doors, but once it is clear that nobody is answering, then it is time to grab a sledgehammer and make your own door. Putting my designer hat on I analyzed my situation. The problem was that the people I was talking to were so distracted by the obvious “class project” nature of my portfolio. They wanted to see clients, but I had no client. That is why I was there in the first place…to get my first client. So how do i get a client if nobody wants to be my client or offer me one of their clients? Turned out to be pretty simple. I went online and bought 2 domain name that I totally made up. One was a flower shop to show a more standard and clean approach to design, and the other was an event promotion website. At the time I was a David Carson fanboy, and was highly influence by his experimental approach to typography. The event promotion site gave me some flexibility to experiment.
I was conscious that while I found Carson’s work to be extraordinary, I knew that others might have found it to be illegible and confusing. I wanted to highlight both and my goal was to communicate how I could adapt to various design styles and trends.
I took all aspects of both designs through branding, sketches, and design iterations. At the time I was in school, there was no such thing as sites like WordPress that are highly customizable, but my curiosity of design tools got me interested in HTML and CSS, so I coded both sites. Now that I had the tools I needed to help me structor my story and ground it on a tangible representation of my skills, I was able to attack the problem once again. This time the entire tone of the interview change, I was able to drive the conversation more, highlight my strengths, and making sure the that the interviewer got to know me. They asked me tough questions, and since i did the work from the ground up, I had good responses. Not only did I get my first client, but my first project was to redesign their website of the small design firm (I think it was called Inkstop) I was trying to consult for.
Some people might see this as being insincere, but I see it differently. I put in as much effort into that project as I would a real client, and it’s only purpose was to articulate my design decisions to my audience. Go figure, decades later I do the exact same thing, but this time with wireframes and prototypes with a room full of stakeholders.
If this approach is not your cup of tea then you might do a series of thought experiments using current designs that people are familiar with. Let’s say your paying your bill on your provider’s website and run into a confusing flow. Take that on as a design experiment. Be sure to show your steps along the way and articulate the rational on why you made certain decisions.
Good enough is better than perfect
When looking for your first job out of school, don’t over think it. Just like designing a product, your goal is to learn and continuously improve on it. The same goes for your career. Don’t waste too much time trying to find the perfect fit. Just get started learning and improving on your skills. Once you feel like you have stopped learning, then iterate, move onto your next job that has a better trajectory to where you want to be or what you want to learn next. Eventually you will start to find your sweet spot and start to settle into a career that is a good fit.
If you are decided to make shift from one industry to another, figure out how to use that as leverage to get into the door, and once you are in the room it is easier to move to other places in the organizations. When i decided that I wanted to work in education back in 2010, I had no experience as an instructional designer, user research, or anything else, but I was starting to gains some of this in my graduate studies at NYUs Digital Media Design for Learning program. I was also already working full time as a Sr. developer, making Sr. developer salary. Jumping into a Jr. role in another industry seemed risky. I ended up applying to several educational companies that had opportunities in taking development centric role for an educational context. Little by little I gain the trust of my peers as someone who was more than a coder and understood education. Eventually I was able to moved to a product role and take a more direct role in the conceptualization and design direction of the organization.
Hopefully students find this to be a helpful resource. I would like to thank everyone that helped me get some ideas to add here and reflect a bit on my experiences. Make sure to add any other tips that you’d like to share!
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