Some advice for the class of 2021

A few thoughts and reflections a few years out of university aimed at current students and recent grads who want to think and plan their next steps

Earlier this month I had the pleasure to virtually return to Imperial College Business School for the annual MSc Management alumni panel. Together with five other alumni, we addressed the incoming class of 2021 (as well as the MSc International Management class), sharing our fondest memories from the programme and discussing where we’re at with our professional lives now.

I figured much of the advice given out to Imperial Management students is, in fact, a lot more broadly applicable. With that in mind, I thought I’d summarise the main points I tried to get across during the panel and back them up with some extra thinking, research, and resources.

Quick ‘about me’ / ‘who is this guy?’ bit: While at university, I spent huge amounts of time researching different industries, attending events, meeting alumni, and applying to jobs. I started off wanting to get into management consulting, but then after being exposed to analytics and data science ended up with a more hybrid consulting/analytics set of experiences, first at two startups that both blended strategy and analytics, and then at Capgemini Invent.

Since then, I’ve reviewed hundreds of applications for roles ranging from Junior Data Scientist, to Analytics Manager, to Policy Researcher. I recently did a count, and I think I’ve conducted about 80ish interviews in total (eek). So this is the first of a few entries designed to share key insights and advice for current students and recent graduates. Naturally, this will be most relevant to those who want to get into similar lines of work as I have, though I’ve tried to generalise my advice as much as possible.

I’m also planning to put out a few more resources in the coming weeks, including a job applications tracker, CV pointers, and interview advice. I’ll link them here once they’re done - until then, this post shall serve as my public commitment to finish each of the above.

Table of Contents

1. From the point of view of employers, most recent graduates are (kind of) indistinguishable

What does this mean? Sounds mean…

I’m not saying this to be mean, I promise!

  1. It’s hard to tell great from good, and good from bad: Employers often lack the ability to delve deep into each applicant’s skills and competencies, and that instead they look for proxies of ability (what uni did you go to? what grades did you get? did you do any internships? do you already know how to code?)
  2. Even if you can distinguish somewhat, there’s still a lot of candidates: Most of us finish university with very similar things to show as far as those proxies go (in part, because those proxies aren’t very good predictors of ability, and often tend to proxy things like family wealth/background much more than ability). We end up with a degree, a grade, basic Excel/PowerPoint, and maybe an internship or two. But so do 10,000 others. Damn.

The consequence of having lots of seemingly interchangeable candidates? Employers find ways to go from 1,000 or even 10,000 applicants, which is too big a number to interview one by one, to something closer to 25 or 100. Typo on a cover letter? Reject. Weird gap in employment/education? Reject. Lower-ranked university? Reject. Missing keywords from their CV? Reject.

Just to be clear, I am not defending these practices as good or desirable (many are definitely not). But it doesn’t change that a lot of recruiters or hiring managers will adopt these, either out of necessity (way too many candidates) or out of poor judgement (e.g. bias, “we’ve always done it this way” etc.).

OK, so that’s a little depressing. But there are constructive takeaways to be made, which is the reason why I’m bringing it up in the first place:

So what #1: Don’t give employers silly excuses to remove you from the pile

Double- and then triple-check anything you write for typos, repeated use of the the same word (see what I did there?), or mentioning the Goldman Sachs sales & trading internship programme when you are, in fact, applying to Unilever’s Future Leaders graduate scheme.

My suggestion:

  • Dedicate the necessary time and energy to review everything you submit. Maybe write the cover letter today, and review again the next morning after a good night’s sleep.

  • Ask a detail-oriented friend to review your CV - and maybe offer to do the same for them! I always did that with both uni essays and job application stuff, since it’s often hard to spot your own errors after you’ve spent ages refining the essay/letter/CV/etc.

Side-note to this: While applying close to the end of the deadline is not a reason to reject someone, many employers look to start interviewing qualified candidates ASAP. So don’t wait until the deadline to submit your application, if you can do so when applications first open!

So what #2: Accept that you’ll get rejected loads, and perhaps often unfairly

The obvious conclusion of there being too many people finishing university for the number of high-quality graduate jobs out there is that most people will get rejected. Often, this won’t even be a reflection of whether they were a good fit - maybe they applied too late, maybe they messed up a test that says very little about their ability to do the job, and heck, maybe their interviewer was just having a bad day.

Two suggestions:

  • Make a plan and aim to apply to a lot of different places: Some as backup/safety options, somewhere your chances are reasonable, and some that are “reach” targets.
  • It’s a volume game: Yes, you should make sure to research each role and employer, tailor your CV to the job spec and so on, but you also can’t go too hard on the Quality vs Quantity tradeoff. Strike a good balance between both!

Related cool-but-depressing fact: During my MSc , I interned at a people analytics startup focusing on graduate recruitment for professional services firms. In the case of one such company, more than half of their interviewers were found to have made a bad hiring decision (either to hire or reject) more than 50% of the time ( case study). So many of the rejections you might get may, in fact, be wrong decisions on the side of the employer - their loss!

So what #3: Use the fact that most people are indistinguishable to your advantage, by differentiating yourself!

It’s easy to look at takeaways #1 and #2 and feel hopeless - but you shouldn’t. Use them to inform what you do to stay ahead instead:

  • Make the most out of the opportunities university (and online learning!) can offer
  • Learn useful skills, and have something to show for them. A few examples:
    • Public speaking? Join the debate club, or find schools/outreach volunteering opportunities
    • Leadership? Run for the committee of a student society (and then actually do things! that you can talk about!)
    • Excel: You probably think you know Excel, but you probably don’t really. Make sure you know how to use Pivot Tables and INDEX MATCH at an absolute minimum. I always recommend this video to make sure you’re not doing any of the basics badly (most people are)
    • Data skills: Check section #3
  • Treat the interview as a two-way street, and ask good questions
  • If you’ve got interesting experiences (esp. if they’ve helped you acquire relevant/transferable skills!), make sure to mention them!

2. Don’t sleepwalk into decisions

aka “just because your friends are all applying to consultancies doesn’t mean you should too”

I remember spending a huge chunk of my first term at Warwick attending Investment Banking presentations, networking events, learning about finance, and reading up on Spring Weeks. Everyone I knew was applying to spring weeks. There were large banners and ads and posts about them, so it made sense to follow. Then at some point when I was filling in the application for either JP Morgan or Goldman Sachs I took a step back and thought “hold on… do I want to become an investment banker?” and realised that I absolutely did not.

Reflect and decide actively, not passively

I learned from that experience, and spent a very big chunk of the rest of my undergrad trying to figure out what I wanted to do. Not only did that help me apply only to the jobs I would actually want to do, but it also helped me do much better in interviews by having a compelling story behind my decision to apply for the roles that I did, and why I’d be well-suited for them.

It’s really important to think about your strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations in order to decide where you want to invest your time and energy. Do you suck at excel? Probably shouldn’t go for finance. Can’t stand talking to people? Forget how much you can make working in sales, you won’t be able to hit your sales targets (or maybe you will, but absolutely hate it). Do you want predictable 9-5 hours? Uh, stay away from investment banking and consulting.

Remember: Getting a job isn’t the real end-goal. Forging a successful career, having an impact, or, heck, maybe just being able to hold onto a job and making ends meet are examples of actual goals. Passing the CV screen and interview stages is just how you get there. If the job sucks, or if you’re gonna suck at it, it doesn’t matter that the company is offering you the position (unless if you really need something right now, which is different).

Explore, connect, and do

Thinking about your next steps is not just about reading job descriptions and attending fairs. You also need to get out there! The main two things I can recommend here are (1) meeting with people who are 1-15 years ahead of you; and (2) gaining some practical experience of the work yourself.

Meeting people (aka “networking” - eugh): Hate the label, not the game. Unfortunately, HR-drafted recruitment copy and videos will not give you a full picture of what’s involved. Speak to insiders to understand what life at a firm is really like, what a graduate will actually do, and what their priorities are. If a company’s website lists every industry imaginable as a sector they work in, but in reality 90% of their work is financial services and public sector, that’s crucial information for helping you decide (a) whether to apply, and (b) what to emphasise when you apply. While company websites are happy to boast about their TMT expertise, people working there will probably tell you that the last time they did a telecomms project was back in 2003, and so mentioning your passion for media is probably not going to help your application.

Tip: Go on LinkedIn or your university’s alumni database, and look for alumni of your uni, school, or past internships that now work at the company you’re researching. Send a connection request with a little “ACME University finalist reaching out for advice” note. Some people will ignore you, but many will be keen to help out. They probably know how hard those first few steps can be, and plus, it’s an ego boost for a lot of people. But do not use that as an opportunity to ask for a job or to be fast-tracked - that’s not what an ‘ informational interview’ is for.

Practical experience: Ultimately, nothing beats having actually done the work. It helps figure out if you want to do it longer-term, it helps you get better at it, and it helps stand out when you apply for roles. Find ‘lower stakes’ internships or research work that you can carry out alongside your studies, or do a personal project. Some of these might not be paid (esp. if for a charity or one of your professors), but they can be invaluable in helping you discover whether you like the work (and, thinking cynically, probably also easier to drop if you end up hating it - though you’ve gotta be professional about that).

3. “Cheat” your way through job-seeking by learning skills that are in high demand

You’d have to be living under a rock to not know that the demand for data skills and data literacy is exploding. Not only that, but supply can barely keep up. Put those two things together, and what do you get? A ‘shortcut’ into (a) getting a job, and (b) killing it once you get in.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying become a data scientist if you just finished studying History and have never coded before (ha ha, just kidding.. unless..?). Improving your data literacy is not just something you should work on if you’re gonna specialise in data science or analytics-related roles; rather, it is becoming increasingly essential for any organisation - and any career.

Land the job thanks to new skills…

There’s a lot of data skills that are becoming increasingly invaluable, and are genuinely not hard to learn. One such example is data visualisation and dashboarding using tools like Microsoft PowerBI or Tableau. Even with rudimentary skills, you can make a big difference to help you get hired, either because the skill is directly desired, or just because you’re demonstrating the ability to learn new tech skills. As the pace of technological change gets steeper and steeper, people will increasingly get hired not (just) for being good at specific things, but for being good at quickly learning the next thing.

There are many, many resources for developing your data literacy, but my favourite platform for learning data skills is DataCamp1. I can probably write a whole post on why, but in short: It has assessment quizzes that figure out exactly what topics you need to cover next, and hundreds of interactive courses. Not only that, it has practice quizzes to continuously test your knowledge (including iOS/Android versions), and hands-on projects to apply what you’ve learned.

… and kill it after you land the job

But tech skills, esp. if you’re applying for a non-technical role, aren’t really about landing the role; they’re about acing it once you start. There’s a lot of stuff you can do much more easily with a tool like PowerBI or Tableau compared to Excel, and there’s a good chance your coworkers aren’t even aware.

Seriously, if you help automate a time-consuming recurring report, or help a coworker do something with Excel that they were doing manually before, they will think you’re magic.

After all, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic…

4. Build all of the above as habits, gradually but consistently

Try to do a little bit of work continuously for academics and job stuff alike - it will help you build habits over time.

I’m sure you’ve heard it already, but cramming really doesn’t work for long-term learning. It also doesn’t work for building productive habits that will help you manage your time (especially during stressful periods).

Linking back to the advice from earlier sections: In order to be able to play the numbers game, send tailored applications, do the requisite research and interview prep, and learn in-demand skills, you need to do quite a bit of work! If you try and do it all in, say, a month, it won’t work. Not only are many of the timelines externally dictated (e.g. job apps), but since so much of it revolves around actual learning and reflection, and not just passing a quick test, it won’t stick either.

5. Focus on more than just job-hunting!

One of the questions we discussed in the panel discussion was whether we’d have done anything differently during our MSc. For me, the answer came down to one sentence:

I would have told myself to not feel like I absolutely had to get a graduate job immediately after the degree was over.

But why? In short, to have more time for other valuable things. To break this down:

  • Time to study: My semester 1 grades suffered because our exams were overlapping with a lot of companies’ interview rounds. In retrospect, even the courses I did not think would matter (e.g. Organisational Behaviour), or that I was not interested in (e.g. Finance) did, in fact, come in handy, and in some cases I wished I’d engaged with the course materials more deeply.
  • Time to think: While I don’t think I sleepwalked into my choice to work in consulting, there were definitely sub-decisions within that which I did not explore as deeply as perhaps I should have.
  • Time to meet classmates: This is the one I regret the most. Ultimately, I was still able to get a fine degree and make reasonably good career choices during and after my MSc, so I don’t want to complain too much about that. What I do regret, however, is that there were lots of great people that I either didn’t get closer to, and even some that I did not meet at all (it was really embarrassing to meet a fellow Class of 2016 coursemate for the first time at an alumni event… ah well).

Final thoughts and caveats

While I’ve tried to generalise my advice as much as possible, it does not, and cannot, apply to everyone. While skill and hard work are essential, privilege and luck play a huge role, and 2020-2021 is not looking great for a very large segment of the workforce, especially those still in their early steps.

Hopefully, some of the advice above will make it slightly easier for those who read it. If you found this note useful, share it with others who might benefit.

Sadly, thoughts about university networking, data science, and white-collar job interviews certainly won’t be at all useful for a huge part of our fellow humans. Remember how lucky you are just for being able to read (unlike 1 billion people) or access the Internet (over 3 billion people do not). And that’s before we get into things like life expectancy, disease, access to shelter, and so on. Consider donating to a high-impact organisation that helps those least fortunate.

  1. Full disclosure: If you sign up via my referral link, I will get an affiliate commission, which I will then donate to a GiveWell top charity. ↩︎

Nick Zervoudis
Nick Zervoudis
Data Product Manager

Data Product Manager