Put yourself out there & learn the landscape. Start building relationships. Get your dream job.
Now that you’ve graduated, that sense of urgency you’re feeling has less to do with a looming deadline and more to do with wanting to kick off your next big adventure. That restlessness will become your new best friend. It will help you pay your rent, get your dream job, and start making a dent on the universe. It will creatively fuel you.
But before you go knocking down doors, you’ll have to figure out which doors to knock on (there are a lot), how to knock politely, and how to make an entrance. Below are a few thoughts on putting yourself out there, learning the landscape and building relationships that may lead you to a dream job.
First things first: Get out of your head and into the mindset of the person on the other side of the desk.
I get it — you’re hungry. You want to start doing, making, shipping, whatever-ing. But at the moment, you are stepping into someone else’s routine. They’ve been at this for years and are busy coordinating with vendors, managing their team, producing work on deadlines, etc. Below are a few thoughts to help you understand how the world currently views you so you can begin sympathizing with the person on the other side of the desk:
- Though the industry is small, no one out there knows you exist yet. You’ll need to start marketing yourself.
- You may have priorities, but so do we, and you may not be one of them at the moment. Success typically results from focus and clarity.
- While it is polite to reply, no one owes you a response to your email.
- No one owes you a job. Businesses are not easy to build and every hire is a liability.
- Time, energy, money and resources are always limited, so respect what you ask of others. Note that if you help others help you, or make it easy to help you, you will see a higher response rate (e.g. prewriting a referral with the points you want highlighted for them to edit, instead of asking them to write a referral from scratch).
- Karma is a thing; show up to give.
- Scarcity or Abundance: You get to choose which worldview you prefer.
- We’re all human. Everyone deserves respect and compassion.
- Be confident, but not brazen, arrogant or cocky. If you’re so sure of yourself, you wouldn’t be asking for help now would you? Remain teachable.
- Have faith in yourself, your drive and your ability to learn & grow. If you don’t, why would anyone else?
- You need to be emotionally in tune with yourself and understand your desire to work with others or pursue your own thing. If someone is paying you, they will have expectations and opinions. It will be your job to figure out how to involve them in the process.
- You will get what you have the courage to ask for.
Not an exhaustive list by any means, but now that we got that out of the way, one more thing before we get started…
Understand your context.
Every day we get paid to work with smart, talented & committed people, and think for a living. Creating valuable and memorable things for others to use is extremely fun and rewarding, but it’s also: unrelenting (Marketing! Digital! Social!), going through a midlife crisis (Branding!), trying to remain relevant and prove ROI at every turn (Advertising!), not in need of yet another app or service (Product!), facing shrinking budgets yearly (Print!) or just stuck on an archaic, unimaginative pop-up paved path to hell (Publishing!), etc. etc. etc. Every industry is getting shaken up, but that just means more opportunity if you know how to spot it.
There are always larger contexts, competing forces and games that are being played around you. But this isn’t just limited to your chosen industry / desired career path. For example:
- That person who rescheduled you 3 times? Sure, they might be a dick. But they also might have had to drop the kids off at school because their spouse was sick.
- That company that brought you in to interview even though they don’t have an open position? They might just be waiting for the ink to dry on a contract before officially hiring anyone.
It means waiting another week or two for you, but it’s just a moment within whatever is going on with them. Understanding the context within which you currently exist will help you see its limits, discover new ones and change conversations / mindsets so you can shift to a different, preferred context.
Now let’s get to it. Doors are rarely going to get opened for you. You gotta get out there and start banging them all down yourself. (Yes, you!)
Put yourself out there & learn the landscape.
It’s time to create your own deadlines — they’ll provide the structure & discipline crucial to making progress.
Meet with anyone and everyone you can.
It might take a week or two to get on a person’s schedule. Or a month. Everyone is busy, especially the higher you aim.
Pro tip: Shoot for Senior level talent. They aren’t too busy running a company, will give you valuable feedback, and if they recommend you elsewhere within the company it should hold some weight. (You are always going to ask if they can think of anyone else you might benefit from talking to, right?)
Just get used to talking with people, professionally.
Chat with folks about your work and what to expect next, before asking for a job. It takes a lot of pressure off of you and them. They may even say they currently don’t have any open positions, but persist and tell them that you’d really just value their feedback on your work. They might meet with you if only for the fact that you’re genuinely trying to better yourself.
Clarify your request ahead of time.
A short & sweet agenda of what you are hoping to achieve in your initial email is truly a sign of respect for the other person’s time. Detail out the few questions you are hoping to answer. You’ll get extra points if you relate it back to them and their unique skillset.
For example, if someone runs a small app design shop and might be able to provide feedback on the conversion flow for the e-commerce app you developed as part of your senior project, that’s a great way to direct a busy person’s attention to what you are asking from them. Hopefully you’ll get the meeting, but if they can’t meet maybe they’ll offer a more detailed reply to your email.
Act before your peers do and push for meetings early.
Note that your peer group now consists of exponentially more people than just your classmates; it has swelled to include everyone potentially looking for an entry level job.
Don’t worry if your portfolio isn’t perfect yet — it never will be — though you should have enough work to start having conversations. Of courseyou should be pixel perfect, sans typos, well-rehearsed — fucking DUH! But if you are endlessly tweaking and finessing your portfolio, revising your whole website, etc., just remember that other students in your class have already started their internships — and summer internships were hired 2–3 months ago*.
*At this point you are really getting on a company’s radar for Fall hiring. While yes, life does happen / plans change / new projects are won and help might be needed ASAP, summer is generally a great time to get your shit together, start reaching out and start making connections.
Understand that the people you’re contacting might have vacations or long weekends planned; it might be tough to get timely responses. What you are doing is setting things up so when Q3 / Q4 hits and clients are looking to maximize their budgets before the year’s end (to justify those budgets and get them renewed for the following year), you’ll already have made contact and can stay in touch for any potential hiring needs a company / agency might need to fill.
Consider your portfolio an excuse to have a conversation with someone.
It takes the pressure off of you by creating an “other” and allows the focus to be on the work (as opposed to meeting for coffee and only talking). Grab this opportunity to start meeting your community and the smart people behind work you might use or enjoy regularly. While our industry is small and people are genuinely nice and supportive, take advantage of this single moment in your life where time will be made for you and feedback will flow a bit more freely.
A month ago you were a student. Today, you’re a recent graduate. Tomorrow, you’re competition.
Design the shit out of your presentation.
That doesn’t mean the design should overtake the work being presented. It means you need to consider everything:
- What’s the parking situation? Travel times to the office?
- Will there be wifi? Host your site locally. Download anything you need and open up all browser windows ahead of time.
- Hide/quit any unnecessary tabs, bookmark bars/toolbars, applications.
- Shut off ALL notifications. This goes for your phone too.
- What if for some reason the screen you’re trying to Airplay your presentation to isn’t finding your computer and you have to present it on your laptop? Get a remote control so you don’t have to reach across your computer for every slide if you’re sitting on “the wrong side”. (This works well if you didn’t get yer nails did, you bite them or whatever!) This ensures that you don’t have to be the one sitting right in front of your computer presenting the work to yourself.
- Clean up your desktop, have your presentation opened and ready to start. Bring a charger.
- Will it be cold or hot? Wear normal clothes so you aren’t shivering or sweating profusely.
- Bring something in case you have a headache.
- Watch your caffeine intake. Sure, it can help you focus, but you might get extra twitchy with all that energy, and too much will make you seem extra nervous. Try listening to your favorite music to energize you instead.
- Practice one thought/sentence per slide so you can easily go off script, or easily get back to your script if needed. You most definitely will need to do one of these! Also, play jazz (if you play a wrong note, make it right by the notes you play next).
- Know the few key points you want to make to ensure you leave your interviewer with the thoughts they should think about you.
Accommodate for everything that’s in your control, because there will most definitely be things that won’t be and you’ll be better positioned to respond in the moment.
Perspective is everything. Swing wide and get a lot of it.
People are generally supportive and will meet with you to pay it forward.
Who knows?! You might be that humble student with a killer portfolio they find before anyone else.
Aim for a breadth of work to allow for a more multi-faceted discussion.
Go deep on very specific parts of a project to show you can handle thinking through a complex problems at a micro level. Go wide and show a project where you owned the full project lifecycle from start to finish. This might demonstrate how you work with a team and other disciplines. Or just how you can take an idea from conception through completion.
Demonstrate how you accept critique, handle new/conflicting ideas, and can build off of them to get to something better.
You’ll probably get more feedback than you might know to do with.
Does the brand identity you developed resonate more to some people than others? Did six consecutive people tell you that they thought a personal photography project was ok but they didn’t see how it relates to the type of work you are pursuing? Why didn’t you think to remove that unnecessary step in your app flow? Could you word that notification better so people will actually stop and care?
The more feedback you get at once the easier it will be to start understanding what projects (and also what feedback) you should push forward / act on or leave behind.
What you really want is insight from their years of experience.
It’s easy to critique someone else’s work. But if you connect with someone and get to having a thoughtful conversation, you might actually get some insight — that thing that you can hear at the right moment, with the right mindset, that connects dots for you quicker than you could have figured out on your own.
Write everything down.
Details are everything, so brain dump everything immediately after your meeting. Details are what lead to insights and can be used to start building genuine relationships. Don’t rely on memory here; you’ll want to catalog:
- Who you met with
- Feedback on your work
- Highlights of your discussion
- Peculiar details
- If follow up is required, about what, by when
Did they mention they love knitting? Seahorses? Sculpting on the weekends? Do they collect kaleidoscopes? Did you notice a PMA tattoo? Did they ask you what you thought of a particular game, app, device, technique?
Start building relationships.
Having details written down will be powerful when you thank people, follow up on your meeting or see something 2 months later that you think they might find useful (e.g. an article with stats proving that thing they mentioned they’re currently researching, an upcoming exhibition about extreme embroidery for the knitter, etc.)
Meetings you initiate may result in freelance work.
At best this will result in some killer work for portfolio, some money in the bank and a relationship open to more future work. At worst, you’ll start getting a feel for the external factors that affect work you produce: client handling, project management, billing, sales & marketing, developing and communicating a process, etc.
This is a great way to start building trust, prove your competency and to learn if you enjoy working with that person.
People love closure — we are wired for it.
If you tell someone you have three things to share with them and list out #1 and #2, they will be itching for #3. Similarly, if something they said resonated with you, and successfully influenced your path forward, share that back with them. Let them know you tweaked that project and saw better user feedback as a result. Let them know you met with that person they recommended you speak to and what value it provided for you. It shows thoughtfulness and that you valued your time with them, not just relentlessly pursuing your own motives.
What you share will keep your new network afloat.
If you have a body of new work — which can directly translate into enhanced or new skills — share that with your network. Overshare and you run the risk of being ‘defriended’ quickly. Undershare and people won’t remember you exist. Follow-up occasionally with new work, and ask for more critiques if enough has been changed.
Get your dream job.
Dream jobs take time to surface, but at this point many options for your first job will be a great experience*.
Every day you will paint a picture of your preferred future and your dream job, bringing others to understand it and see you in that role as well. As you nurture your relationships, your behavior and the value you continually create will show that you pay attention, care deeply about the work and leaving the world better than you found it. Each interaction will demonstrate that you care about more than just getting a job and help others see you as a person they might really enjoy working with.
*Yes, there is so much to learn! You’ll forever be perfecting your craft, learning new technologies, and sharpening your thinking, but you also need to start adding production techniques, processes & workflows, how to work with various personalities and competing agendas — on a timeline, within a budget, etc.
I hope some of points above will help you structure the months ahead and set you up to start creating your own luck. Start thinking two steps ahead, always make moves before you think you need to, and enjoy exploring all of the possibilities your new career holds.
And when you get called back to interview for that internship, read about Why I Don’t Hire Interns.
Shout out to Alison Taffel Rabinowitz, Michael Newcomb, Timothy Ingram, Blake Everingham & Mitchell Bernstein for reviewing early drafts.