A Guide to the Graduate Academy by Alex Davies

Starting Out

My name is Alex, I graduated in 2009 with a degree in Criminology and Psychology. After graduation I found it difficult to find any paid work and ended up doing voluntary work for nine months. Whilst I found the voluntary experience invaluable, I felt that my skills and potential were being wasted and I had understandably lost a lot of confidence in myself. I had also started to feel that my choice of career wasn’t going to get me anywhere and as a result, I began to lose any sense of career direction.

I was made aware of the Graduate Academy by my local Job Centre and I immediately applied for the next available programme knowing that I would be able to develop my skills, knowledge and confidence in my abilities, and that the programme would be a perfect opportunity for me to overcome the obstacles that I faced. I was eventually invited to an interview in my local university and was fortunate enough to be selected for the programme.

Even though I had an idea of what the programme would entail, I still didn’t know quite what to expect until I arrived on the first day. The programme was based in Trinity Saint David, Lampeter, a location that I would soon come to realise was beyond ideal for the programme, and I arrived to a room of 15 or so other graduates that were in the exact same boat that I had been in for the last nine months.

And then it clicked, everyone was in the same boat that I was. These were people that had also faced rejection after rejection when they had applied for work, just like I had. It was amazing to hear the kinds of stories that people had when applying for work (the horror stories and the near-misses), what challenges they had faced and why they had applied for the Graduate Academy. By the end of the first couple of days it had felt like we had known each other for years, so the cliché goes, and by the end of the second week of the programme it felt even more so. This was partly because of the programme being based in Lampeter, a quiet location that by its fairly remote nature forced us all together from the outset.

Getting Stuck In!

The programme itself involves three modules that focus on developing Management, Leadership and Marketing knowledge and skills, as well as a wide range of sessions and evening activities that supplemented our learning during the programme such as networking skills and team-building exercises. It has to be said at this point that the tutors were nothing short of fantastic in what they were able to offer us, not only in the taught material, but also from anecdotes, stories, and knowledge that they were able to share with us to help us understand the course in greater detail, many of which have stayed with me to this day.

As part of the programme participants are required to complete a four week placement in an organisation that is tailored to suit the needs of participants as closely as possible. I was fortunate enough to secure a placement in a local charity, the West Glamorgan Council for Alcohol and Drug Abuse (WGCADA) that would make use of my degree, as well as give me an opportunity to put into practice the taught material of the Graduate Academy.

During the placement I was offered a wealth of experience that I would not normally have found through normal avenues, and I was lucky enough to be able to explore and experience as much of the organisation as I wanted to in the short time that I was there; from operational duties across all services, to traditional back-end departments such as human resources and finance. Another requirement of the course is to complete a number of assignments that examine a student’s understanding of the course, and the work placements are designed so that students gain as much information as possible needed to successfully complete the assignments in a working environment that facilitates learning, I was extremely lucky to be working in a team that were happy to answer all of my questions, however trivial they seemed to be and they were incredibly supportive throughout my placement.

After the placement ends, students are invited back for a final conference for two days to wrap up the programme in which a number of sessions are held, ranging from students presenting their experiences to the group, further employability sessions and a session with employers and past participants of the programme. A sad two days only in that it signalled the official end of the programme and that we would be going our separate ways again. It’s strange to think that what had brought us all together in the first place; unemployment, and a desire to improve and develop oneself professionally, would be the trigger point for when we would go our separate ways as successful completion of the programme and securing further opportunities meant that we would all go back to our respective hometowns.

On and Beyond!

Since completing the Graduate Academy I’ve gone on to complete a Masters in Management, a decision taken after a new-found enthusiasm for business and management. Furthermore, I have also continued to support the Graduate Academy programme as a past participant delivering a session to new programme groups on how they can make the most of their placements. After graduating from my Masters I also secured a role within the HE STEM programme based in Swansea University as a Marketing and Project Officer until the programme’s official end in September 2012, a role that I was keen to obtain after enjoying the marketing aspects of my Masters. I have also been extremely fortunate to have recently secured another Marketing role with GO Wales, a role that I have taken to with absolute gusto.

Finally, I have to say that without the tireless efforts of the programme’s co-ordinators, Gwen and Jane, that the whole experience would not have been what it turned out to be. More so, nobody in the programme would have benefitted from the programme anywhere near as much had it not been for their constant support and enthusiastic approach to the programme and our development. Those six weeks are unequivocally amongst the best and most valued times that I’ve ever had and they simply wouldn’t have been the same without everyone involved. Over two years on I still meet up with fellow participants every now and again and everything comes flooding back. It’s amazing to hear what people have been doing since we all went our separate ways, and the success stories that people have shared have been a far cry from the challenges and difficulties that we had all faced at the time of the programme.

All together, the programme was so much more than the sum of its parts. When I started the programme I was expecting to develop some new skills, gain a recognised qualification, obtain some substantial work experience and to make a handful of new friends. What I eventually obtained was far greater than all of this, and to say that had I not participated in the Graduate Academy I would not be in my current position professionally and personally two years on would be an enormous understatement.

My Top Tips

My advice to anyone applying for the programme would be:

  1. Treat the application as if it’s an application for your dream job. The Graduate Academy is quite a unique opportunity and as any job seeker will tell you, such opportunities don’t come along often. A lot of people apply for the Graduate Academy and the number of people applying is steadily increasing with each programme. There isn’t a lot of space to write about yourself in the application so use it wisely.
  2. Be flexible and sensible. The programme is a big commitment to undergo, not just in the time period involved, but you will need to be flexible with which companies and industries you would like to do your work placement with and understand that you will need to be able to work within a commutable distance and set aside plenty of time to complete your assignments.
  3. Say how you want to improve yourself professionally. You’re unlikely to get onto the programme if all you want to achieve is a new job. The Graduate Academy isn’t designed to get you into a job, it’s designed to improve participants’ employability and professional acumen so that they can secure opportunities on their own. If you are simply looking for work or experience then GO Wales advertise a variety of placements, jobs and tasters that will help you get experience and work.
  4. Don’t assume that getting onto the programme will get you a job. The programme itself is challenging, and if you simply expect that the ILM qualification will magically land you a role as soon as you complete the programme then you’d be naive. As I’ve said, the programme is a commitment, not just for the duration of the programme but long into your professional career. At the end of the day, it is YOU that decides on whether you’ll get a role or not when you put in the time and effort to develop yourself on the programme.