A backpacking trip around South East Asia in 2012 sparked an interest in International Relations for graduate Ben Woolley. He now works for La Trobe International, and he spoke to MyLaTrobe about his graduate pathway. Ben will be on the Career Options in Law and International Relations panel in October- register now.
Much of what university does to prepare you for the workplace can actually come from outside of the classroom
MyLaTrobe: How has your Bachelor of International Relations helped you prepare for the workplace?
Ben: Since graduating, I’ve found myself well-prepared for entering the workplace. I believe much of this is due to the soft skills I developed outside of the classroom. Taking a semester abroad, a couple of study tours and an internship overseas really helped to prepare me for working in an international environment.
This is the nature of the world today, and especially of my work, so it is worthwhile to seek opportunities that may expose you to different cultures and people and to try living independently in a foreign country. Much of what university does to prepare you for the workplace can actually come from outside of the classroom, in your own time. That’s not to say I didn’t learn a lot in my degree, I found the academic experience highly rewarding.
I enjoyed the opportunities to study abroad on four occasions during my undergrad, spending time in Hong Kong, Beijing, Chongqing and Delhi.
MyLaTrobe: Are there any aspects of your degree that have proved particularly important in the workplace?
Ben: I believe it is a lot of the seemingly less important and peripheral skills that I learned while studying that has benefited me most in the workplace. In particular, working cooperatively and with people of diverse backgrounds.
I enjoyed the opportunities to study abroad on four occasions during my undergrad, spending time in Hong Kong, Beijing, Chongqing and Delhi. These experiences gave me a solid foundation of cultural awareness and understanding that has proven valuable in the workplace.
It seems to me that it is the extracurricular and optional aspects of the university life that gave me some of the most beneficial lessons. While the content and process of learning were obviously important, the language classes, overseas experiences and internship were vital to my ability to land full-time work post-graduation.
MyLaTrobe: Can you tell us about the steps that you took to land this role after graduating?
Ben: I had some advantage in landing my job as Senior Officer International Relations as I had already been employed at ASK La Trobe during the time I studied. Prior working experience was crucial, as was the knowledge of the University and having contacts on campus. Beyond this, I would say that my commitment to maintaining good grades and making the most of opportunities like interning, study abroad and volunteering go a long way in polishing up your CV.
MyLaTrobe: When it comes to graduate roles in International Relations – what key skills are employers now looking for?
Ben: International Relations is such a broad field, but I would say that the most sought after skills would include: leadership and initiative-taking, consistent professionalism in communication of all forms (written, verbal, even physical i.e. how you present yourself), international experiences (to demonstrate an ability to deal with people of diverse backgrounds) and language skills, among others.
It’s cliché, but being well-rounded and a quick learner are really the most important qualities, especially if you are looking at a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) graduate program or similar pathways into international relations work.
…get out there and go to events, workshops or whatever you can, to be in the room with the people who matter, at the places you are interested in getting in to.
MyLaTrobe: What additional steps, outside of the classroom, can our current undergraduates take to enhance their employability?
Ben: Connections and network are often talked about but not in the context of employability as a skill or attribute per se, however, I’m sure that this accounts for much of how hiring is done. Having met or familiarised yourself with the individuals who make hiring decisions in any organisation goes a long way to put yourself ahead of the competition. So get out there and go to events, workshops or whatever you can to be in the room with the people who matter at the places you are interested in getting in to.
Other than that, the obvious and previously stated experiences such as taking a semester abroad, and not just to America or the UK, but think of somewhere more unusual or niche, where you can make something original of yourself and bring back some unique insights and skills. I went to Hong Kong for a semester (OK, not exactly the wilderness of Borneo, I grant you that) and loved it there. I took Mandarin and Cantonese classes, which proved interesting and useful later on in work.
As well, internships are very important. Working for free isn’t exactly what you want to be doing after incurring 25k+ of student debt but the reality is, it’s a competitive job market and many if not all places an International Relations grad might apply for expect interns to work for free in exchange for developing skills. Once you’ve done your stint you can expect that you’ll be in pole position for employment when the opportunities arise, especially compared with the others who didn’t go through an internship program.
Leadership skills are also key. This can be on a student interest group, sporting team or organising the sack race (Ok, maybe not the last one), as long as you can demonstrate time spent making executive decisions and organising others, these skills are highly sought after and in relatively short supply. If you doubt this, look at the criteria for all major ($50k+) student scholarships out there. They all prioritize leadership, and for good reasons. I wish I had done more personally, but it’s never too late to take the initiative and put your hand up for these opportunities.
Make the most of the Careers Hub at the University. Attend workshops or meet one-on-one with staff to go over your resume and provide you with career advice.
MyLaTrobe: What practical employment advice do you have for current students in International Relations?
Ben: Make the most of the Careers Hub at the University. Attend workshops or meet one-on-one with staff to go over your resume and provide you with career advice. These are free services that now, most universities will offer to students or recent graduates.
Find what it is that makes you stand out from the crowd, some past experience you’ve had that’s given you specific skills that could translate into the workplace. Even the seemingly irrelevant work or study experiences in your life may translate into the job you are going for. It’s all about it articulating in a clear, confident and concise way.
I worked on a documentary film for 16 months and even though this is a departure from my study and working life I often use this experience when applying for jobs or in interviews. It differentiates me from other applicants and shows I’ve had broader experiences in life. It’s about finding what makes you stand out and emphasizing that.
A high degree of computing literacy and being comfortable learning new systems is a must.
MyLaTrobe: As the world of work is changing rapidly with tech advances, do you have any specific advice for students on how they can be prepared for these changes in relation to International Relations?
Ben: This is a tough question. And after listening to virtually every Sam Harris podcast on AI and being terrified by the predictions of futurists and experts on machine learning, I’m no closer to figuring out how to make sense of our complex technological future.
Fortunately, international relations is a field that requires nuance and a diplomatic approach – something that we as humans still have over machines. We are most likely one of the more insulated professions, that cannot so easily be automated away. Having said that, it would be wise to make some preparations for the changing technological world. A high degree of computing literacy and being comfortable learning new systems is a must.
Instead, develop a good understanding of how computers and networks work in general, particularly how it pertains to cybersecurity, both for your own privacy reasons and that of your work. Cyberattacks are an ever-growing threat and there are simple measures that can be taken to avoid exposing oneself or noticing when a system may be vulnerable. Mostly though, being familiar with powerful applications like excel can translate well into learning new ones, so be tech-literate and unafraid to learn.