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Getting a Job in IT: Tips for College Students & Graduates

By - Source: Toms IT Pro

College students studying computer science and information technology can avoid getting stuck at the end of the academic line by being proactive -- getting relevant work experience, researching and applying for jobs -- while still in school.

A fascinating email plea for advice on certification and further study shows the need for some forethought while still in school as to what one might do for a living when the diploma has been earned, and the rest of life begins. I offer some tough questions, but hopefully also some interesting avenues for reflection, research, and pursuit of gainful employment.

As somebody who follows Information Technology as a business, a job market, and a technology arena, I have been forced to learn that while some people in IT may be surviving, others could be thriving, while still others may be struggling to find a job (or stay in the job they already have). I was forcibly reminded of this once again this morning when Tom's technical editor and writer, Julio Urquidi, forwarded me a poignant email. I can't reproduce the whole thing in its entirety, but I can tell you that it involved a presumably young person facing graduation with a Computer Science degree seeking information and possibly inspiration about what to do next. Obviously, he or she understands that it ultimately boils down to "find and get a job," but the real question turns into "what kind of job should I pursue?"

This turns out to be a little more complicated than it might appear, because my questioner goes on to assert that he or she doesn't feel terribly well-prepared for the workforce, nor in possession of real or usable clues as to what kind of work to pursue. This is a real problem, particularly with graduation coming in less than two months, with the need for income presumably putting some claws into the notion of "commencement" (as in "get on with your life, and pay off your potentially significant student debt").

1. Get Work Experience While in School

First things first: for those not in the exact same situation, or for those with friends or family members in college studying something IT-related who will have to find work after graduation, I'd like to explain how they might avoid finding themselves in this deplorable situation. To begin with, I'm a great believer in part-time work while still in school, preferably something related to one's field of study.

[Tip: Get Valuable IT Experience Through Volunteering]

For students of CS, MIS, Information Technology, or other subjects in the general IT vein, this could be anything from help desk, tech support, or computer lab work on campus, to "junior IT" jobs in the production IT infrastructure at one's school (or someplace similar), such as system operator, backup operator, PC technician, and so forth. Many programs offer work/study options that provide connections to local employers off campus, particularly for more experienced upper-division students with more courses (and hopefully also, work experience) under their belts.

Students should also dig deeply into internships and summer placement through their academic departments and on-campus job or work placement programs. By the time my correspondent was ready to graduate, he or she would have been much better positioned to find a job -- and probably had a much better idea about what kind of jobs might be of interest -- had this person participated in one or more summer internships or IT summer job placements prior to graduation. Of course, these observations can't help this person turn back time, but they should provide some food for thought and action for those not quite so far down the path to graduation.

2. Start the Job Search Process a Year Out

Companies and organizations usually begin recruiting graduates during the fall semester prior to graduation. This gives students almost nine months to scope out opportunities, get a sense for salary ranges, learn more about potential jobs and employers, and start developing some sense for their impending entry into the workforce.

I'd urge pending graduates to start thinking about work no later than their junior year, then start researching the job market, where and what kind of opportunities are available, thinking about salary requirements and suitable positions, and so forth. If they can get their creative juices flowing early, and start thinking about what kinds of jobs might be of interest, where those jobs might be easiest to find, what kinds of employers are offering them, and so on, they'll be well-positioned to start trying some potential opportunities on for size at the start of their senior years.

[Tip: How (and When) to Bring Recruiters into a Job Search]

Early on, an experimental approach to interviews might be helpful; where one can learn to understand the recruiting game, the interview process, the kinds of jobs and opportunities out there, and other important aspects involved in finding a toehold in the workplace into which one might squeeze later on. As the year wears on, it should be both easy and natural to start focusing mostly on the topics, employers, and opportunities of greatest interest, in hopes of finding work through on-campus channels.

At the same time, it's equally (and perhaps more) important to start working your personal networks to get the word out about looking for work. This means contacting friends, family, previous and current employers, fellow students and faculty you know well enough to ask for recommendations and job leads to let you know if they hear of anything that might fit your interest, skills, and abilities. It's not a good idea to ask for a job straight out, though: it's better to ask for a recommendation, and then let those who are interested in helping out step up to help you get the word out, to let you know about possible opportunities, or perhaps to play "employment matchmaker" on your behalf.

3. Don't Wait for School to End

Let's say your situation is just like that described to me in the email I received this morning. Even with just six weeks to go before graduation, there's still time to talk to the recruiting and placement folks on campus to see if they have any ideas for potential work, or know of employers still looking for recruits. It's definitely time to start working your personal network right now, probably with an emphasis on those you know who are most likely to roll up their sleeves, pitch in, and really help you try to find work: immediate family, best friends, strongest former and current employers, faculty with whom your closest, and so forth.

You'll also want to put together a resume, set up or update your LinkedIn account, clean up your Facebook or other social media acts, and start thinking of yourself as a serious job candidate.

[Tip: The Secret to IT Resume Success: More $ and % Everywhere!]

When it comes to thinking about what kinds of jobs you'd be most interested in chasing, you must leaven where your interests lie. Answer as honestly, completely, and directly as you can these three questions with what's most likely to produce income in the short term:

  • What subjects interest you most?
  • What courses did you enjoy best?
  • What kinds of IT jobs do you know about that you could tackle?

Next, research answers to these questions:

  • Who's hiring in IT?
  • What kinds of IT jobs offer the best entry-level opportunities?
  • Is military service an option?
  • What do friends and family recommend?
  • What do your professors advise?

This will take time and effort, just as you're getting ready for exams prior to graduation. Somehow, you'll have to find time to squeeze everything in. Don't let this derail graduation, but don't wait for school to end before digging in, either.

"When the Going Gets Weird, The Weird Turn Pro"

I was never quite sure what Hunter S. Thomson really meant by that phrase, but in this context let's take its meaning as that if you find yourself coming up to the wire without much clue as what's going to happen when you cross it, it's past time to get serious about figuring things out. This can be heart-wrenching and difficult, and will involve hard work and a serious investment of time and energy. But it's one of those things in life that must be done, so the sooner you get going the sooner you'll have something to show for that time, effort, and anguish.

Start talking to those you can trust to have your best interests at heart, start looking around at what's available to you, put on your thinking cap, and you can work your way through this.

Good luck, and best wishes from me, too. If I can help answer questions about specific steps along the way, or specific topics to pursue (or avoid), please ask.

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