BA Social and Political Science. MA International Relations.

June 2013

Where did you Study?

I did a BA at Cambridge University and an MA at the University of Sussex a few years later

What did you Study?

The BA was in Social and Political Science and the MA was in International Relations

What year did you Graduate?

2003 from my first degree

So we can feel more intimate, three words to describe your physical appearance.

Big smile, ‘stocky’, ballerina feet

What did you do when you left Uni? Be brutally honest! If you cried into a bowl of cereal every morning & treated your local pub like your favourite Uni nightclub, say so.

I went to Romania to help run a volunteer Teaching Programme. I had been a teacher on the Programme myself the summer before. I then travelled quite a bit around Europe before going to Japan to be a teacher on the JET Programme in a Japanese State school. I lived in a city between Kobe and Osaka for two years.

What made you start Young Charity Trustees? How did you go about forming this?

A few years ago I was finding it hard to find full-time work (at least, in something I really wanted to do). I was working as a private tutor in North London, mainly for the Tamil community. I saw an ad in the paper for committee members at a charity called Centre 404 which supports people with learning disabilities and their families. After a number of months to my great surprise I was asked to be a Trustee. Up to that point I hadn’t realised that younger people could be Trustees, I thought it was for retired people. I attended a national conference for Trustees and almost no-one there was my age. As I was really enjoying my role I wanted more young people to be able to experience it so I initially set up Young Charity Trustees (YCT) as a LinkedIn group to see if there was any demand. I was also interested in charities having a wider pool of talented people from which to draw. Over time interest steadily grew and I got a few volunteers, a website and became active on the topic on social media.

Why should a graduate become a trustee?

There are so many reasons. One is that it is a great opportunity to ‘give something back’. Whatever your passion it is likely that you will find a charity that will match it. Charities really need good people with a range of skills to support them and get involved. Also, being a Trustee looks great on your CV. As there are currently very few young trustees and the average age of Trustees in the country is 57, you are likely to stand out. Being a Trustee exposes you to a wide range of situations that will develop your skills. For example you might be doing things like helping to set the Budget for the charity you are working with, helping to develop their strategy, publicizing the work of the organisation etc. It is also likely that you will have responsibility at a higher level than in a graduate job. So for example even if you are in a job that you don’t enjoy or doesn’t utilize your skills, you can stop them from become rusty via a Trustee position. Of course the most rewarding thing of all about being a Trustee is seeing the real difference the charity makes.

You got the position of Chief Executive of the Small Charities Coalition late last year (Congratulations!) – can you tell the process you went through to get this?

Thank you! My aim had been to set up YCT as a fully-fledged charity. I wasn’t looking for other jobs and I was about to move back to my home town of Brighton to live with my family as I couldn’t survive in London without a regular income. I actually heard of this opportunity through the outgoing Chief Executive. As I had spoken at a Small Charities Coalition event via YCT, I already knew a little about the organisation and felt that my skills and interests would compliment it. I would have been thrilled just to get an interview, I didn’t expect to get the role. As I was preparing to apply, the more and more that I read made me more convinced that I would fit in well here. The Trustees who interviewed me, the Chair and Chair-elect, were good enough to see my potential, even though I am very far from the finished article and still have a great deal to learn.

Are you in your dream job? What are your future aspirations?

I am! Well, I suppose my dream job if I could imagine one from scratch would be a chocolate or wine-taster. But in this role I pretty much couldn’t think of something that more closely aligned with what I believe in and how I would prefer to spend my working day. I love being able to help small charities and small charities trustees, they do work which inspires me every day. I’m finding it fascinating to be a Chief Executive, it has been a steep learning curve but I’ve appreciated all of it. As for future aspirations: nothing concrete I’d mainly like to be able to keep learning as I have a very curious mind, and to be able to champion people who I think are doing a great deal of good and who deserve more recognition.

Do you think Uni has helped you to be where you are now?

Yes, definitely. For me, Uni was never a stepping stone to someone else, it was an opportunity to expand my mind. However I was luckier enough to have lower (but still high) fees when I attended. One of the things that I think graduates should be aware of/try to relax about is to realise that just because some of the things that they learn at university may not seem directly relevant in the first part of their careers, as they progress this will change. For example, I’m now 30 years old and I think some of the research and debate skills I picked up on my Cambridge degree are only now becoming useful for me professionally. I also think that many of the extra-curricular things I did at Uni- chiefly student politics- have helped me in my career. University exposed me to a much greater diversity of (brilliant) people, which certainly helps me with networking for my current role.

Any advice for graduates who aren’t yet in their dream jobs or still battling against this rubbish economy for just an interview?

Yes, a few pieces of advice. The first one is that trite as it sounds, don’t give up. It is easy to look at people in work or in jobs that they enjoy and think that things have always been plain sailing for them. In the case of some lucky people it may be true. In the case of the majority though, including myself, it hasn’t been. When I first lived in London I didn’t have enough money for a travelcard at weekends. I filled my time with as many free things as I could. I nearly gave up and moved away but in the end I got a regular job and things started to pick up. The second is to try doing something outside of work which enhances your skills, (like Trusteeship) and crucially, allows you to meet a wide range of people. Young Charity Trustees gave me a legitimate excuse to contact all sorts of people and go to all sorts of things. Finally I’d say that one of the best practical things that you can do to inspire you is to get a mentor. I have a mentor and a leadership coach, both of whom are brilliant and I am also a mentor myself.

Finally, if you would be so kind, tell us briefly about your day ahead – or the day that you have had – just in case we might want to change our career path.

Today so far I have: – spoken to a BBC journalist who wants our help with a story.

– liaised with the Charity Commission about a quote for a press release.

– arranged to meet a number of people from other charitable organisations.

– promoted a few initiatives on social media including a ‘Women in Public Affairs’ network event I will be speaking at.

– replied to my mentee, who is on the Charityworks Programme.

Tonight I am off to City Hall for an NCVO event for Volunteers’ Week. If you would like to read a bit more about me, this is my blog alexswallow.wordpress.com

That’s it. Alex Swallow, you have been wonderful. 

Find out about Young Charity Trustees & how to become a Trustee, here: youngcharitytrustees.org

 

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Medieval and Modern History

July 2012

Where did you study?

Birmingham University.

What did you Study?

Medieval and Modern History (BA Hons).

What year did you Graduate?

2005

So we can feel more intimate, three words to describe your physical appearance.

Couldn’t possibly comment.

What did you do when you left Uni? Be brutally honest! If you cried into a bowl of cereal every morning & treated your local pub like your favourite Uni nightclub, say so.

Controversially, I decided to stay in Birmingham rather than return south (to Winchester, where I’m originally from). I was playing in a band at the time, so I spent a few months staying on the floor of a bandmate’s flat. It sounds rock ‘n’ roll but it wasn’t – I was fed pumpkin seeds and given an electric drumkit as a pillow.

The singer and I ended up (serendipitously) temping for the same company – a public sector organisation, which funded further education for disaffected youths. Essentially we were paid to send faxes and email our friends and eat communal buffets on the fourth floor. It wasn’t exactly challenging work, but being under-employed was better than being unemployed – it paid the rent and I met the odd interesting/inspiring/insane person along the way.

I spent a year with the company, in which time I moved into a house share before joining the ‘dark side’ of the private sector and embarking on a career in marketing.

What are you doing now and how long do you see yourself doing it for? Are you in your dream job? If not yet, what is this?

I’m working as a copywriter for a communications agency. We provide marketing content (essentially editorial and design services) for clients including Toshiba, Siemens, E.On and Honey Monster Foods. We’re a small company but with some pretty big clients on the books.

‘Marketing’ can be a bit of a catch-all for arts graduates. It’s as interesting a discipline as you want to make it, so it’s worth doing your research before you dip your toe into what is a very broad field. Market research, for example, is a million miles from working as a ‘creative’, which in turn is a million miles from media buying or account handling.

A lot of the pleasure (or pain) comes from the brands and clients you work with, and the media in which you are communicating. Micro-managing a graphic designer as he bangs out a poster for a service station canteen is a far cry from Mad Men. However, hearing adverts that you have created on the radio, or seeing copy you have written in public or in the press is a real buzz. At least it is for a sad copywriter like me! You have to experience the mundane briefs to identify what’s interesting.

I can see myself spending many more years in communications. It’s a fast-paced, progressive sector that’s rarely boring. Digital media is becoming ever more important and as one of the generation who lived through the digital revolution, it’s great to work within it.

I think ‘dream job’ is a bit of a red herring. I defy any British office job to be dream-like on a drizzly Monday morning. I think it’s more about aspiring to a role in which your strengths and talents are recognised and rewarded. In my case, it’s nice to be paid for my creative ideas and writing skills, but every job surely has its nightmares. ‘Marketing’ is an inherently subjective field, so you’re often at the whim of opinions and personalities, meaning people (clients) can soon make or break your day.

I think there’s also an important distinction to be drawn between ‘output’ and ‘process’. Your dream ‘output’ might be working for a good cause, like an inspiring charity, but if the ‘process’ of this role is all spreadsheets and pie charts, it might not be the job for you. Working in brand communications, I appreciate that I’m not necessarily making a profound contribution to humanity, but I enjoy the process of being creative every day. Getting the right mix of worthy output and engaging process is crucial.

Do you think Uni has helped you to be where you are now?

It’s a tricky one this. My degree almost certainly helped me to get and impress at, interviews (ears pricked up at the mention of a First), but I think once you’re in a job, it’s advisable to keep mentions of your degree to a minimum. If I were to talk it up at interviews now (seven years after graduating), it would be seen as amateur, and probably a bit desperate. These days my degree gathers dust on the second page of my CV, but it’s good to have it on there.

A degree allows you to jump through certain hoops but it certainly doesn’t guarantee a fulfilling, well-paid career, or even a modestly-paid job. There’s nothing like the crushing feeling of discovering that the lad from school, who struggled to scrape together some A-Levels, is now on 5K more than you. That’s when feelings of being sold down the river by Mr Blair et al can flare up. But the tables do turn.

To use a crude analogy, a degree is a bit like an invite to a house party but an invite that only gets you as far as the front gate. You’ve still got to find a way into said house, whether by charming the hosts or asking those nice neighbours your parents know to lend you a back door key.

When it comes to securing that first temping job (not everyone walks into a grad scheme and not everyone wants to move back in with their parents), your degree is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. Talking up your degree to ‘Paula from Manpower’ is a bit like holding up a red rag to a bull. Forget tales of dissertation successes, which will only make her foam at the mouth, she’d much rather you simply fibbed: ‘Yeah, I’m alright on Excel’. The experiences a friend and I had with recruitment agencies inspired us to write a comedy about graduate recruitment called ‘Twenty-Two Thousand CVs’, which you can see at http://www.youtube.com/forresterfletcher.

Also, going back to my house party analogy, your degree doesn’t protect you from the huge bouncer that is the dreaded psychometric test. Regardless of how good your degree is these inane tests (and they’re about as helpful and reasonable as your typical bouncer) can scupper your career plans in an instant. Almost every large graduate scheme seems to insist on using psychometric tests as a default part of the application process, as if they’re some sacred rite of passage. I, along with many others it seems, think this is a big mistake. Psychometric tests don’t and can’t test essential personality traits like ambition, motivation, conscientiousness, analytical ability, creativity or interpersonal skills. Their only purpose, it seems, is to massage the egos of ‘left brains’ – those who are incredibly logical, but not necessarily incredibly motivated, or ambitious, or effective etc. If there’s a sure-fire way to keep creativity out of a business then flooding the application process with multiple-choice questions about one-dimensional shapes is it. All a psychometric test does is test someone’s ability to answer a psychometric test. If employers want a helpful model for identifying an individual’s working style then they should use Myers-Briggs personality types. But that’s quite enough of my ranting.

Ultimately, I think my degree has helped me to get where I am. There’s no doubt that having a good degree will give you certain advantages over your ‘university of life’ colleagues. You’ll be amazed at how quickly they regard you as a research genius or a grammar guru – which goes to show that all those hours spent wading through dusty periodicals weren’t necessarily wasted.

Any advice for graduates who aren’t yet in their dream jobs or still battling against this rubbish economy for just an interview?

Don’t rule out working for small companies! You can get direct exposure to senior people, often-entrepreneurial senior people, and develop a much broader skills set than you would tucked away in a silo of a large organisation. You can probably be yourself more too. And, if you’re a ‘right-brain’, you won’t have to grapple with that psychometric bouncer.

My job hunting tips: have a repertoire of CVs for different jobs/sectors; buy The Guardian Guide to Careers by David Williams (there’s some good stuff on interviews); prepare for ‘quirky’ interview questions (I’ve had both ‘what’s 7% of 7?’ and ‘Windsurfing or caravanning?’); get some interesting hobbies and never forget: you’re interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing you. If a company/interviewer doesn’t feel right, for whatever reason, go with your gut instinct and look elsewhere.

Finally, if you would be so kind, tell us briefly about your day ahead – just in case we might want to change our career path.

I’ve got a phone interview with a client tomorrow morning regarding the emerging economies of the CIVETS countries (Colombia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Egypt, Turkey, South Africa). The client is a language services provider and I’ve been tasked with ghost-writing a 1,500-word article for a trade press magazine on the communication challenges faced by countries entering the CIVETS markets. Which is where the History essay skills come in.

After getting up to speed with the CIVETS (so I know what I’m talking about), I’ve got to plan a month’s worth of Facebook content for the Honey Monster. I’ll be looking to create engaging posts in the right tone of voice for this iconic brand character (there goes the marketing spiel). Oh and someone’s just given me a headline to write for an article in Kennel Gazette, on the subject of the privatisation of forests.

As a copywriter you’ve got to be able to write about absolutely anything and everything– from economics to Sugar Puffs to Forestry Commissions.

That’s it. Olly, you have been wonderful.