Increasingly more students are opting to do a degree that includes a yearlong work placement. This placement year allows students to put their knowledge into context, to learn from professionals, and gain real-world skills. It is an excellent way for new graduates to differentiate themselves from other young graduates. I highly recommend attending a University that has a placement year for your degree programme.
Recently, I attended a networking event held by my alma mater for Gold Scholars (current students) and Gold Scholar mentors (alumni). During the evening, the scholars expressed interest in working for smaller companies, start-ups and even charities that align well with their passions and thirst for impact. I told them that for my placement year I worked at an Artificial Intelligence (AI) start-up in Tokyo and had an incredible experience. The scholars wanted to know how I managed to find such an exciting placement at a small start-up in a faraway land. For students, it is difficult to find and get a placement opportunity. It is even more difficult to find opportunities at companies that do not advertise placement or internship programmes.
Universities act as a funnel for talent into large companies while ignoring smaller companies. During my first and second year of University, 1 hour a week was spent preparing us for our placement applications and our subsequent placement year. In these sessions, companies such as Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, PWC and Nomura would talk to us about how to succeed in their application processes. Some of these companies even held interviews on our campus. Only, in a weekly email, and an occasional talk would we receive information about opportunities at other smaller companies that were offering placements to students. What option does this leave for students who do not want to work at/or cannot find a suitable role at a large company?
By the end of this article, I will have shared with you a few techniques that I have used to secure multiple internships and jobs. I hope that you too will be able to use these techniques to get your ideal placement opportunity or job.
“Opportunity Comes to Those Who Create It” — Charlamagne Tha God
Strategies for getting a placement
Finding non-traditional placements is less discussed and more difficult than passing the interviews required to get the job. The following strategies will focus on helping you find your desired placement opportunity.
Apply through a permanent job posting
Ignore the permanent position sign and the majority of the requirements on a job posting that you are interested in. People falsely believe that they will not be an adequate candidate if they don’t match almost all of the requirements. Do not let this worry stop you from applying for a role that you are interested in at a company that aligns with your values. The truth is, most companies do not expect or demand you to match every requirement that they state on their job description.
When applying through a permanent position, at the beginning of your cover letter explicitly state that you would like to do a year-long work placement. You will be surprised to find that many companies will be willing to offer you an internship. The one-year time frame allows an intern to learn and do a lot more work than other short-term interns at low cost to the company.
Mine your network
“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” — Anon.
As a university student, your network most likely consists of other students or maybe some recent graduates. The aim is to mine your network and find people who are willing to introduce you to the person you need or willing to introduce you to someone who can. This especially holds for companies that do not have a placement programme.
Friends and Family
Do not be afraid to ask people for help! Someone in your network may already be able to help, you just need to ask. Friends and family that are older and already in industry can be a wealth of knowledge and social capital. They will know more people in industry that they can introduce you to. They will also know of smaller, more obscure companies, as well as career progressions, and job specialties that exist within their field.
If your family is not involved in industry, you can ask your university friends’ parents for help. It is likely that their parents work at the desired company or know people who work there.
Using LinkedIn allows you to search for people and directly send them messages. You can filter the results by company, education, and level of connection. The level of connection tells you how close you are to someone. A 1st-degree connection is someone you already know, a 2nd-degree connection means that you know someone who knows this person, and the same logic applies for further degree connections. Using these filters turns LinkedIn into a tool for finding people that are willing to help you while maximising the chances that they would want to help you.
For example, if you want to work at a company A, you would go on LinkedIn and search for company A, filter the results list by university and level of connection. The remaining people in the list will have a shared background with you. When you send the message to the employee at company A, you can refer to this shared background and proceed to ask for whatever help you need.
Social enterprises, NGOs, charities, and radio shows may not have a LinkedIn, but they probably have Instagram or Twitter account. If there is a specific industry or organization, you are interested in you can look at their account. From that account, you can find similar accounts allowing you to discover many organisations from a single one.
Twitter and Instagram can be used to directly message notable individuals within your field. If they respond, you can set up a coffee meeting or ask them for advice. They may not hire you but will certainly be able to point you in the direction of someone who can.
The advent of the internet and social networks means that we are blessed to be able to connect with individuals and opportunities across the globe.
The benefit of going to parties is that you are likely to interact with people that you would have never interacted with otherwise. These interactions can help you to diversify your thinking, allow you to help others, and/or allow others to help you.
In 2017, I attended NeurIPS, the biggest AI conference in the world. After attending the Black in AI workshop, we had a boat party. On the shuttle bus to the boat, I ended up speaking to a lady that happened to be a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and co-founder of an AI start-up called Selerio in London. I asked If she had an internship and she gave me her business card and told me to email her when I was available.
Once I finished working at Cogent Labs, I came back to London. I sent an email to the CTO, we had one interview and then I joined.
The team consisted of the three cofounders and me. A super small, highly focussed team working on cutting edge technology. Working at Selerio allowed me to strengthen my knowledge in Computer Vision and Deep Learning.
My Placement Experience
When searching for placement opportunities I randomly thought of Googling “AI start-up Tokyo” as it combined two things that I was interested in.
Through this search, I found Cogent Labs, a new (around 10–15 employees) and exciting with world-class OCR (optical character recognition) technology. They did not have vacancies for interns, placement students, or junior engineers but I applied anyway. I spent time crafting a really good cover letter and applied through their permanent job posting. After doing a few interviews and a coding test, I passed.
When I got to Tokyo my job title was changed from software engineer to research engineer, even though I had no clue what the role was. Being thrown into the deep end allowed me to learn a lot about Artificial Intelligence and the world of research. This experience completely changed the trajectory of my career and interests.
Because of the work I was doing at Cogent Labs, I received a travel grant to go to Long Beach, California and attend NeurIPS, the biggest AI conference in the world for free (Thanks to the Black in AI team).
By the time I left Cogent Labs, there were 60–70 people. During this year I saw first-hand how start-ups are grown and scaled. Working there allowed me to meet some spectacular people and live in an incredible city.
The core thread connecting each technique is that they are all require you to be active. You must go out and seek the opportunities you want. In no case should you be sitting down waiting for things to come to you. That being said, go send that DM, email, LinkedIn message or tweet. Do not wait to be taught, go and learn.
I hope that you will be able to use the techniques presented above to get your ideal placement opportunity, internship or job.
“Use curiosity and passion as a tool to carve out your own unique path through life.” — Omar Reid
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