Communications pros share advice from 15+ years in the trenches
The day you and your fellow classmates parade in front of thousands of parents wearing your cap and gown as you cross a stage is not the day to start thinking about what you’ll do after college.
It’s time to start thinking now — while you’re in school.
The good news is, if you’re going to school for communications, marketing, public relations, journalism or any related field, there is plenty you can do now to actually start your career — even before you have a diploma in hand.
Our ideas include the standard internship, but they go much farther than that, as well. And the ideas are not just our own; we asked some of our fellow communications professionals to share what insights they have discovered as they have moved through 15 or more years in communications-related fields. Many had overlapping comments (like being a life-long learner), and some had truly unique and helpful tips.
If you’re eager to start your post-graduate life with a long-jump-style leap into your career, print this list and keep it visible. Take it a piece at a time, take pride in your work, and put in the effort it will take to do it well. You might very well surprise yourself by the results.
1. If you don’t love learning right now, learn to love it ASAP.
“Make sure that you are a life-long learner, because technology and trends change quickly,” says Marcella Kates, marketing and communications manager for First Resource in Indianapolis. “This field centers around technology and software that will be obsolete in a few years — if not sooner! Stay curious, take risks on new ideas, and you will succeed!”
Get used to reading non-fiction books. Pick books that interest you but that teach you something, not just entertain you. The saying is true: “Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” If you want to be in a leadership position, reading books (which go deeper than reading blogs) will be key to developing your professional reputation.
2. Become as well-rounded as you can.
While in school, take as many classes on as many forms of communication as you can — journalism, marketing, digital media, creative writing, graphic and layout design, strategic communications, photography, communication design, public relations, media analytics, radio, television, publishing and more.
By giving yourself a strong foundation in many areas of communication, you prepare yourself for a huge variety of opportunities upon graduation. Strong communication skills are a necessity in many professions, especially as consumers’ attention spans shrink, advertising becomes less effective and quality content is a necessity for any business or not-for-profit organization.
When I entered journalism school in the mid-1990s, I had my heart set on becoming a writer for a newspaper. Thankfully, I didn’t only take classes about newspaper journalism. If I had, as the newspaper industry continually shrinks, I might have found myself needing to pick and start a second career in who-knows-what by now, completely unprepared for anything but newspapers.
Instead, I took classes in public relations, writing, design and photography — and when I realized I loved all of them, I discovered an entire new array of opportunities.
I encourage you to do the same. Study as many different forms of communications as you can fit into your class load. When you find something you love, explore it further. Build upon what you’ve already learned. By the time you graduate, you will be prepared to pursue a number of careers that might interest you, not just one.
3. Take some time to discover yourself.
Taking a variety of classes will help you identify which areas energize you and which areas drain the energy right out of you. This is an incredible gift when it happens during your college years, rather than on the job.
Being true to yourself every step of the way will naturally direct you into a career you love. If you don’t love radio, don’t spend any extra credit hours on it. If you do love photography, check out photography classes in both fine arts and journalism. Follow what makes your heart hum.
4. Identify ways to combine a communications career with your personal passion.
“I often tell students to consider first what they might do if all jobs paid the same,” says Michelle Crowe, director of communication at Indiana University (Bloomington) Libraries. “This is your passion. Communications careers are special, because they allow us to marry our professional skill with our passions. If you love theater, then find a position marketing one. If you want to change the world, work with fundraisers at your favorite foundation. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination and your patience to find the right fit.”
Yes! This is one of the best things about communications careers. Take advantage of it!
5. Find your voice.
“No matter what area of communications one goes into, knowing the difference between your voice and someone else’s will help one to grow in the long run,” says Francine Dash, communications director for Faith in Indiana in Indianapolis.
Writers and generalist communicators should “try to understand where you stand on the subject (before writing about it),” Dash says. It will make you a better writer.
“Many times we think we are writing an unbiased report, but in reality, we can sometimes repackage our own opinions so well that we don’t even recognize we’ve done so. Be fair.”
6. Start a blog.
Blogs are quickly becoming a must-have communications tool in the professional world. We recommend blogging to all of our clients, and we don’t expect blogs to go by the wayside anytime soon.
The great news is, anyone can publish a blog, even you. You don’t have to wait until you have a degree in hand to start practicing your writing, publishing it and building an audience.
Blog about any topic for which you have a passion. It doesn’t have to be communications-related. Starting a blog now will:
- allow you to express your passion for something, such as a hobby. This style of writing (of personal interest and an obvious expression of your passion) can provide valuable insights for a future employer who is considering you for a position.
- demonstrate your ability to write about many angles of the same topic. Communicators who work within a single industry might have to write about a single overarching topic for as many years as she is employed within it. By researching and writing weekly about a single topic for your blog, not only are you showing future employers that this is something within your skills, but that you have the ability to organize, plan and publish with regularity.
- show future employers how you handle public criticism. Negative comments are common on blogs, and being able to respond to them with grace and poise will earn you many points in the eyes of a future employer.
Just be sure your blog posts are positive! A blog filled with negativity, judgment of others or bad language will turn off a future employer.
7. Become an excellent observer.
Dash recommends an exercise that will help you observe details you might otherwise miss — a skill that can take your writing from hum-drum to heart-wrenching.
“Take some time to just soak up the world around you,” she says. “Watch the people struggle to put the kids in car seats. Watch a young couple try to discreetly argue in public. Think about how all of it makes you feel. Then write down everything you say, so that others can see it to.”
“All communications goes back to good writing,” says Dash. “Get good at writing. Practice your art.”
8. Become a storyteller.
As “traditional” communications like television interviews, radio shows, advertisements and articles in newspapers are falling out of favor for the average consumer, it’s becoming harder and harder to capture an audience’s attention. One tried-and-true method? Storytelling.
People resonate with personal stories. Practice your ability to tell a story from an individual person’s perspective. For example, talking about immigration policy will not grab attention the way telling a story about someone affected by it will. Describing the plight of a single, undocumented mom with two American children and her desperate plea for a chance to stay with her children in Indianapolis gets to the heart of the issue.
Find those stories in every opportunity you have to write.
9. Look at group projects for classes as training grounds for collaborative projects in the working world.
You’ve heard it before: You are assigned group projects in middle school and beyond because “that’s how it is in the working world.” It’s so true.
You will never work in a vacuum. Even those who work in their homes, by themselves are not fully free of collaboration. Self-employed freelancers have to work collaboratively with clients and vendors. Authors have to work with publishers and editors. Artists have to work with customers and gallery owners.
There simply isn’t a scenario where you can earn a living without having to work with others.
When your success rests at least partly in someone else’s hands, the best way to avoid frustration is to communicate with all of the parties involved, early on.
Lauren Menachekanian, editor for Tetra Tech, a provider of consulting, engineering and technical services located in Pasadena, Calif., offers this advice: “Take time to really understand your client’s (or internal client’s) goals before you start on a project.” Save yourself and your clients future headaches by making sure you’re all understanding what the other needs.
Speaking specifically to young editors (but sharing advice that is universal in its wisdom), Menachekanian advises “remembering that someone is invested in those words.” The writers have worked hard to produce the pieces you edit. You don’t want to butcher their writing, but you do want to help them communicate their work in the most effective way.
“Editing is a collaborative process, and the editor’s job is to know how to apply the rules to make their client’s writing clear and concise — and make it shine,” she says.
When your next group project arises in school, set a discovery meeting immediately. No one should get started until everyone has met, all at once and in person, to discuss expectations.
Watch how others participate (or don’t) in the project. Make sure everyone has an assignment, and make sure everyone is allowed to do his or her part to make it work. Then get together as a group one more time before submitting the project for a grade. Talk about the results. Offer suggestions for making things better. Be open to others’ direction, and look at constructive criticism as an opportunity to stretch your thinking. You all will benefit by working as a team.
Strive to get to a point where you sincerely enjoy group projects by the time you graduate.
10. Don’t ignore internship opportunities.
Certainly, you’ve heard this one before. But just because it’s “old” advice doesn’t mean it’s outdated.
“Internships are invaluable — even if they are unpaid,” says Susan McKenna, director of marketing and communications for That’s Good HR, Inc., in Indianapolis.
While it’s tempting to only apply for the paid internships, don’t skip the unpaid ones. Look at those unpaid opportunities as McKenna does: They’re simply “non-compensated learning opportunities.”
Look at an unpaid internship as a class you’re taking (without having to pay course fees), one that will boost your resume, teach you how to get along with a diverse group of people (by age, gender, race and career experience) and give you a glimpse of what it really means to be part of a team working to achieve the same goal.
Taking an internship while you’re a student is essentially another way you can start your career before your degree is in hand.
11. Boost (and clean up) your online presence.
Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, etc. Take a harsh look at your personal social media presence. Better yet, get an unbiased adult (ideally one who’s at least 10 years older than you are) to look at all of your feeds and give you honest feedback about what they see. It’s time to take your online presence seriously.
Future employers will seek you out on social media — and they will form opinions about you when they find you there. Don’t risk turning away a potential employer based on what you post to your Instagram, Twitter or Facebook feed. A good rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t post it on the Jumbotron at a football stadium, don’t post it on social media — no matter how “private” you think your feed is.
LinkedIn. Set up your profile on LinkedIn. This is an important social media platform for professionals. Being present there even before you graduate shows that you see yourself as a professional and are ready to network.
Don’t forget to:
- Write a short (one-sentence) “elevator speech” about who you are and the kind of job you’ll be looking for when you graduate.
- Share a few of your best projects. Post samples of your writing, design, photography or other creative work.
- Link to your online portfolio.
Then ask to join the networks of your professors, your internship boss, the manager of your retail job, your aunts and uncles, adults from your church or place of worship and other trusted adults. If you’re comfortable, ask a few to write you recommendations.
The key as a student on LinkedIn isn’t to get the largest number of connections. It’s to show that you are linked to adults who are professionals with good reputations. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t connect with other students, but you should aim to have more working professionals than student connections.
Portfolio and resume. Use a software like Adobe Portfolio to build an online portfolio of your best work — both classwork and work you’ve completed during internships. Include your resume on the same site. Being able to provide a link to an online hub when applying for a job will not only make it easy for recruiters to find your work, it will also show companies that you’re tech-savvy and willing to participate in the digital space. If you blog, be sure to include a link to your blog on your resume, and include writing, design and/or related photography samples in your portfolio.
12. Break out of your comfort zone: Network!
It’s perhaps the least comfortable part of career readiness for many students, but it’s a good idea to get some practice networking before you’re officially employed.
Look for opportunities to network through your local Public Relations Student Society of American (PRSSA) chapter, community events for business professionals and events on campus that are designed to help students meet-and-greet other students and faculty.
If you’re unsure how to carry on small talk with professionals you’ve never met before, consider this: You’re a communicator. Use your interviewing skills to start asking questions. What do you do? What do you enjoy most about doing that? Do you have any advice for someone who might be interested in your field?
Practice, practice, practice! Look at every project, assignment and social media post as an opportunity to prove your expertise when it comes to communications.
Then, simply be confident. You already are a communicator.
What advice do you have for college students planning to enter a communications field?
Please share in the Comments section.Sources
- Interviews by email with Francine Dash, Michelle Crowe, Marcella Kates, Lauren Menachekanian and Susan McKenna. August 2018.
- Personal knowledge accumulated over the past 20 years
- “5 tips for communications students and graduates,” Beki Winchel, PR Daily. April 28, 2016.
- “10 tips to succeed as a communications major,” Gina Alyse. February 2015.
- “What can you do with a communications degree?” Laura Tucker, Top Universities. Jan. 12, 2015.