Work experience is vital. Critical even. Often we’ll skim read the education section on a CV, but hone in on what practical experience you’ve had.
Why is it so crucial? Two things: first it shows that you’re learning the skills; and second, it shows you are dedicated to getting your career started.
Is work experience the equivalent of slave labour? Well, it depends what you’re doing. Most work places will have a system so that you try many different areas of the organisation and get something out of your time there. We tend to take placements on shoots and in the edit, so they see how the process works.
However, if we call the person back, because we thought they were good, or know that we can trust them to be a part of the team, then it turns from work experience to work – and you get paid.
We feel this is the fairest way.
How to behave when on work experience
Let’s face it, it’s a bit daunting going on work placements. These people are probably doing the job you want. They’re working in a high pressured environment and unless you’ve been in a media work place before, it’s probably unlike any office you’ve ever seen.
Be respectful, but don’t be anonymous. Make sure you’re courteous, polite, but most of all, make it clear that you’re there to learn and when possible, to help. You should ask questions and be like an information sponge, but don’t be so full of questions that you start exasperating people. If you can see the person you’re shadowing is up against it, get them a coffee or tea. It may not seem like much, it may even seem demeaning, but it demonstrates that you want to be part of the team. It makes you stand out.
As you gain confidence, see if there’s something you can do to help. At a newsroom, maybe you can put in some calls, or do some research, or even you may have a great story idea.
You want to make a good impression, because there are so many students doing placements, that when a good one comes around, there’s always a chance it will lead to something more.
Think of work experience as a career
There’s a perception that if you’re getting work placements you need to aim high. The first applications will go to the BBC, FT, Edelman… Big names are going to be great for the CV aren’t they?
Well, that’s not necessarily the case.
Sometimes the smaller the organisation, the more work you’ll get to do. Smaller media organisations tend to be quite understaffed and if you show the right attitude, you can quickly get involved.
My first experience was on my local town’s newspaper, after a few days I got a byline, then went out to do stories and much, much more. I then moved onto a bigger regional paper and ended up writing news, doing voxes and interviews and most of their entertainment supplement.
Next step was radio, through local BBC radio and commercial radio. I even got invited back to BBC Radio Manchester to work on a massive story for them. At one commercial station, the station manager took me to one side and asked if I wanted a full-time job with them.
That’s the value of work experience, because all this was done while I was a language undergraduate, with no formal journalism training.
It meant that I was able to leave my post graduate course in journalism and head straight into a TV reporting job.
So, basically I’d worked up to television right from local press, but I did it while I was a student.
Do I need a media degree/post grad?
This is probably the most common question and it really, really doesn’t matter. It’s completely down to how you feel about education.
A media degree will give you a huge head-start, but then any degree will give you a huge amount of skills, you just need to learn how to transfer them into media. Bear in mind that you’ll be taking huge concepts and researching them, examining the pros and cons, making conclusions and distilling this information into essays and dissertations.
Media is not too different. You’ll be presented with a lot of information, your job is to see if it’s true; to see if there’s something hidden; or to break it down into bite-sized chunks for your audience.
I could have accepted a great broadcast journalism job at that commercial radio station, but opted to turn it down in favour of a PGDip at Cardiff University and I’m unbelievably glad I did.
After struggling through a language course, I felt that if I was going into journalism I wanted firm foundations, I needed the media law and the public administration background. For me, Cardiff was the perfect stepping stone. I had confidence in my ability through the placements, but it honed those skills.
But, it’s not for everyone – only you will know if you can afford another year’s education – both financially and mentally.
How do I get that dream job?
Who’s doing the job you want? Is sounds a silly question, but media people tend to be quite outgoing and we do like talking about ourselves!
When I first started thinking of a media career, I guessed the email of someone who’s work I respected and basically said “I want your job, what should I do?” They responded a few days later with a really long email detailing exactly what they did and gave some pointers.
So properly research it. Do you like the way a certain PR stunt was achieved or how a media story progressed; are you impressed with how a person interacts on social media on behalf of their company; did you like a specific marketing campaign; or the way a documentary was filmed? Well find out who’s behind it and drop them an email.
Don’t stalk them! Just be nice and if they respond, then great. If not, move on.
What can I do now?
We are in a truly exciting time in media. People are releasing short films shot in iPhones. Bedroom filmmakers and documentary makers can get millions of views on YouTube. Photographers can build up a major portfolio and get noticed on Instagram. You can set up a blog for free and get readers from around the world. Everyone is a marketer through social media.
If you can’t get work experience, or you feel your skills lie outside “traditional media”, then my thoughts are, just go out and do it.
If you’re good enough, you’ll be found. If you’re first outings are rubbish, it hardly matters, make mistakes now, hone your skills and get better.
Resources, cheap stuff and freebies
This is by no means a definitive list, so please use the comments section to recommend more.
If you’ve got any advice or questions, please use the comments below.