Q+A: How to land that first job

Hi Amy!

I’m a budding young interdisciplinary illustrator/creative writing. Right now I am closing in on my final months at school and I’m worried about finding a job. What was your first professional job hunt experience like?

~ Alicia

Hi Alicia!

Congrats on your impending move up into the real world! I always tell my students that life after graduation is the best part about being in school – to which they’d have groans and moans about how difficult life out there is.

Funnily enough, I didn’t think in that terms. Not because I was rich or anything like that (I still lived with my parents then though – but I was on my own financially.) I just thought about what I wanted first and foremost, and it was a simple enough a goal: I wanted to be happy.

Being happy is such a broad term, so let’s break it down.

Before I was allowed to graduate as a landscape architect, we had to go on a 6-month internship at a landscape consultancy. I got my feet wet researching about plant selection and design, and was being given a crash course on how tedious meetings were. I told myself before I started the internship that whatever I chose to do after graduation would hinge on this 6 months of me giving it my all in the field. I didn’t hate being a landscape architect, but I wasn’t exactly ecstatic at the prospect of having to work on AutoCAD for the rest of my career.

And so I gave it my all – and what that meant was trying to be the best darn intern that company has ever seen. I asked the big boss to take me along for his meetings (he was stunned because I was the first one to ever ask), and I gamely took on site excursions under the hot sun just to rack up some experience.

At the end of the internship, I knew what I wanted.

And it wasn’t the path that I had went along for the past 6 months.

So before I graduated, I worked on a plan. I had decided that being a landscape architect wasn’t for me, and I was interested in publishing instead. Specifically, I wanted to be a magazine editor, so I was on the lookout for vacancies that started at the bottom rung of what seemed like an impossible ladder – an editorial assistant post. I love books and magazines, and the desire to be a part of a fast moving arena really helped make the scary jump.

I was lucky. I saw an ad for an editorial assistant position at a spa magazine (it was a decent, classy one) within a few weeks. The ad mentioned that they were looking for graduates within the communications and PR field, with at least 1-3 years of publishing experience.

I had none.

So here’s what I did:

#1. I made a case for what I could offer them, and gave it my all… in my cover letter.

I had to strategize. I knew that a big part of getting my foot in the door relied on my cover letter. So I started to research about cover letters, heading to the bookstore for samples of great resumes and cover letters, as well as doing my research online. I aimed to write a letter that conveyed my passion for writing, and research. I also tried to allay their fears – I told them that if I didn’t know something, you’d bet that I would find the answer, and I wasn’t afraid to work hard at it.

#2. I wasn’t afraid to go above and beyond what a resume/CV looks like

In addition to the cover letter that I tailored for the magazine, I also researched about health and wellness – two topics that I was really into at the time. I asked myself – why in heck would these people hire me just by looking at my letter? I had an AHA moment – I wouldn’t just send a letter and a resume (which was looking pretty empty at this point) I would send them a mock-up of an article, in which I wrote about new age fitness, and – get this – I didn’t just send it in as a text document. Oh no. I made it all fancy – I laid out the article in Microsoft Word as a series of images and text, just like how it would appear in a magazine.

#3. I took a bit of a price cut. [scary, and optional]

The cover letter, resume and mock-up worked. I had an interview! And I was so excited too – it was a small, close-knit team and I was eager to show them my enthusiasm, and I was even more prepared to learn a whole lot from the experience. And what surprised me most of all was that I was hired on the spot – apparently they’ve never met someone who had enthusiasm bubbling out of their ears! They negotiated a slight salary adjustment because I had no experience – but they told me that it would be adjusted as I proved my capabilities within a few months.

In instances like mine, I knew that once I had my foot in the door, that slight salary cut would be nothing compared to the experience that I would gain. Plus, I knew that I could negotiate the industry rate (or higher) when I went to another magazine (which I did.) I lucked out because it turned out really well – I had an exciting career in publishing, and worked my way up to editor in the end (in a different magazine, with a fair bit of twists and turns along the way, but that’s a story for another time).

The biggest takeaway from my experience that you can apply to your own job search is this:

#4. Don’t be afraid to take risks in pursuit of what you want.

Perhaps you don’t know what you want yet. Maybe you don’t know if you’re happier pursuing writing or illustrating; or even both at the same time. Do one at a time, and see how you feel about it. Most of the time, even if we don’t know what we want, we are sure of what we don’t want, and that in itself is a good stepping stone to find what fits.

It’s okay to not have things work out right from the start. And that’s where the fun is – trying to figure out your career, and in the process, figuring out what you really want to do.


What about you? What tips and advice do you have to offer Alicia? Tell us your story – we’d love to hear it!


Got a question? Nothing’s too crazy, too serious or off limits – just send it in through our contact form and I’ll do my best to answer your most burning questions!

4 Replies to “Q+A: How to land that first job”

  1. Grace Scarlett says:

    Thank you so much for this article! I’m a design student and I have to present a proposal for a sandwich work year tomorrow, discussing everything I want to achieve. I just realised whilst researching that maybe design isn’t my dream job which really freaked me out. This is exactly what I needed to read today. 🙂

  2. Kim Tomacruz says:

    This was excellent. Thank you. 🙂

  3. Ella says:

    I think the most important thing you can do whilst studying is work experience. I not only got design work after because of work I had undertaken whilst studying but also teaching work as I had put together workshops as part of my work experience at uni.

    Enter competitions and although working for cheaps may be necessary to build a portfolio know when to draw the line and value your work.

    I think also that too many students ping out their websites/pdfs of work to agencies without personally tailoring them. And it’s really important to follow up after sending as all to often they end up in junk or not read. I am still old school in terms of the value of a real life mailed self promo piece as well as digital. However I do notice that a lot of companies actually ask submissions not to be made this way so check first and find out the name of who you’re submitting too.

    Most of all it takes time and a whole lot of work so don’t be disheartened if things don’t go to plan immediately. I heard a great phrase today, “you need oomph in your try to triumph”! Haha!

  4. Adelina says:

    After graduating from university with a BA in interior design I thought the next obvious step was to get a job. A lot of the 3rd year training focuses on being hired so I think all of us were manic at that point in time to land a design job. Any design job. Preferrably in interiors. Whilst at university, I always performed quite well but in hindsight, my storytelling/artboarding/illustrating was much better than the design itself. I hated AutoCAD, 3Ds max, google sketchup and any other similar computer concoction. I hated to admit it while a lot of other course mates of mine(perhaps pretending themselves) seemed to love the idea of spending hours on 3d renders. As much as I knew computer skills weren’t the be all end all, I always knew it was only one part of the story. My heart wasn’t in it. Just before graduating my tutor sent an e-mail out to a couple of us. It was a junior designer position at a local company and they were looking for a graduate. Without thinking, I put a nice e-mail together, sent off my portfolio and 3 weeks after(and a couple of chase-ups) I was invited for an interview . The senior designer and I connected instantly and what really got me is how impressed she was with my hand-drawn visuals and quirky Canada geese inserted into my elevations. I ended up being hired out of 11 people after the second round of interviews and stayed with the company for 7 months at which point they let go of the interior design dept(this was an architect’s company, to be specific). While I hated most of my time there while they loved me all along, I now know it wasn’t just the stress, the restrictions and the grind of choosing tiles and carpets all day(joys of working in commercial design). It was the pain of not being true to myself, to the fact that I wanted to illustrate all along, to be more than just a decorator.
    This was 11 months ago and now I drift for a teaching qualification, work once or twice a week for a children’s book illustrator and soon finishing my own website. I know where I want to be this time.

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