How do I know if a graduate scheme is right for me?

In a month when several retailers have announced the creation of hundreds of new jobs, you might be tempted to leap headlong into the application process for a (relatively) secure, varied, long-term contract for a big-name brand. 

But how do you know if working for a large corporation is right for you? Sure, money, security and status seem like important factors in finding decent employment and they might be really important to you and the way you’re made. But what questions should you ask yourself before leaping in?

This may seem odd, but it doesn’t make sense to start your career search by seeking an answer to “What do you want to do?”. How can you answer that if you haven’t been honest with yourself and consulted your friends, family and professional connections about what motivates you, what you believe in, what your values are, what kind of working environment inspires or annoys you and how you’d be happiest making a difference in your 10,000+ working days to come?

Do you envy your friends who’ve landed the ‘big job’ with nicely mapped-out career progression and formal appraisal schemes analysing your every trait or does that horrify you? Do you privately wonder whether, despite the juicy salary package, they’ll become slave to a machine, over-moulded or even confined by organisational red tape and the latest management theories? Especially those friends of yours who always seemed really enterprising with big creative ideas?

Hit the ground running

Some people just aren’t tempted to apply for big grad schemes despite their many attractions. Despite being reasonably paid with impressive, multiple training opportunities, many grads still favour making a ‘hit-the-ground running’ difference for a smaller outfit. In a smaller, hungry business, people might notice your contribution more quickly. You‘re not a small cog in a huge wheel – your contribution has a real, visible effect on the organisation and the people it serves. 

If you want and need responsibility and authority (and the challenges they bring), and to shape the way an organisation develops (and deal directly with the consequences), then a small- or medium-sized company is probably more up your street than a vast multi-layered organisation, where responsibility will take longer. If you value being tasked early in your working life with making important decisions that will affect others around you (people you like and don’t like!), taking calculated business risks and being exposed to every aspect of keeping an organisation (be it business or charity) afloat, then small is good.

But the reality might be that being a safe, small fish in a big pond - protected by the team around you, climbing gradually up a clearly marked ladder and supported by training courses along the way - is what suits you best. Not everyone wants the buck to stop with them if they make a mistake while learning on the job. Large corporations are a giant community and if they’re good, they’ll nurture you and give you a sense of belonging and protection.

Reasons for applying

If you go for the grad scheme, be clear on the main reason/s for putting yourself through the process. Don't know what else to do? Buying yourself some time? Not strong starting points. There's no momentum, energy, impetus. That would be sleep-working. You wouldn't employ yourself under these circumstances.

Your 'why' is important because the process of a grad scheme is rigorous. Rejection rates are high (one major company quotes 8,000 applications for 40 jobs) so you've got to really want it otherwise you're wasting time - yours and others. If you do want it then be prepared for rejection - learn from it, use it. It will make your next application stronger. For some, applying for a grad scheme is a chance to test yourself; to size up the competition, have a chance to perform, to learn about an organisation, to commit yourself and to put yourself out there (“This is who I am.”) and get feedback on you. If you get through, they might excite you with their vision. 

OK, so you won’t know until you’ve been in your first job what really lights your fire and what kind of environment and colleague/boss suits you best. BUT before you plunge into rounds of applications and interviews, you do need to ask, ‘what makes you you?’.

grad schemes

Your values

You, like everyone, have unique strengths and qualities. No-one else can tell your story. So what are they? What gets you out of bed – is it really just money, progress and status? What sets you apart already from your peers, how are you going to communicate that and who do you want to tell your story to and strike a rapport with?

It’s all about meaning, and it’s about being inspired by what’s going on around you and whoever’s doing it. As Roman Krznaric suggests in his short book, How To Find Fulfilling Work (published by The School of Life), salary rises and job titles are simply not enough for most people.

So whichever direction you head in this year, first explore your values, what motivates you and how it makes you feel and act. After all, you’ll want to avoid that nagging feeling that there really must be more to life than the job you chose. Identify and use your lifelong or recent talents and passions and be true to who you are.

Ex-grad schemer Zena freelances happily for organisations with a cause whose goals she really cares about, including Eyes Wide Opened, a social enterprise that runs coaching courses for people who crave meaningful work. 
Images of Judd Nelson in Businessmen shaking hands and Woman crossing road in city used courtesy of reynermedia and -Ben Thompson respectively via Flickr under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic licence. Image cropped and resized.