Wear Sunscreen (and Be An Intern)

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience…I will dispense this advice now.

I’m sure you know where that’s from.

I’m rather late on this, but Drew invited me (and you, my lovely, darling readers) to contribute our two cents on what university graduates should know about breaking into the marketing and advertising industries:

The birds will soon be chirping, the flowers blooming and the college grads descending like locusts on every marketing agency, marketing department and media outlet. They all want one thing — their first real job.

I remember how scary it was. 20+ years later, I shake my head at the mistakes the grads make while trying to vie for my attention. So I decided we (yes WE) could give them a gift that will put that digital camera to shame. We can help them get that job.

Here’s the thing: my first career job was in software development as a technical writer. So, too, was my second and third. I eventually grew bored with technical writing, and my employee kindly shifted me over to the more exciting world of web marketing.

I probably do one informational interview a month with a recent grad, and inevitably they ask a lot of questions about ad agencies and large corporate marketing departments. I can’t answer those. I’ve never worked in either (though I’ve consulted in both), and given that I prefer a diversity of work (and work environment), that suits me fine.

So my advice to new graduates is degree-neutral–it applies whether your rolled-up paper says “Engineering” or “Visual Arts”. It’s also pretty obvious, but it worked for me and I truly believe it’ll work for anybody.

Do an internship.

About a year after I graduated, I did a two-month internship at Radical Entertainment, a Yaletown game developer. This guy, a frequent blogger, was my boss. It was the height of Web Bubble 1.0, and I played more Quake and Starcraft than did actual work, but it got my foot in the door. After two months they didn’t bring me on (they were busy laying people off, if I recall correctly), but I left their offices with a tech company on my resume, a decent portfolio and a glowing reference. In a couple of weeks I had two offers, and I’m still good friends with the guy who hired me at MPS. A similar strategy worked for my brother.

What does an internship do for you?

  • It forces you to research the local job market, and to actually choose the employers for which you want to work. It makes you ignore the classified ads, which is a good habit to get into.
  • You get a ton of interview experience at a reduced stress level. After all, there are lots of companies that might want to intern for, and you might as well talk to them all.
  • You learn how to promote yourself. You have to make cold calls to potential bosses, and that’s scary.
  • Once you land an internship, you get to practice over-achieving. Obviously you want a job with the company, so you’ve got a short amount of time to convince them of that fact.

My two-month internship was unpaid, and I think that’s okay. Happily, I had the structure of a UVic alumni program (I think this is it) which provided a context for the potential employers. Regardless, accept that during your internship you’ll make little or no money. That ought to make you all the hungrier.

The whole process–from assembling a resume to calling employers–can be difficult work for a young person, but it’s well worth it. It’s the proverbial toe in the door, and that’s more than most graduates get.

Along similar lines, I can’t recommend co-op programs enough. I didn’t do one, but both my brother and Julie did, and it placed them in very good stead upon graduation.

What advice would you give new graduates?


  1. Darren — are you sure I was your boss? I don’t remember managing anyone — heck, I could barely manage myself most of the time.

    My memory must be slipping hard if this is truly the case, though. What dates were you working at Radical? I must be getting old…

  2. Hah, well, in the loosest terms possible. I was sitting with some guys on a different floor, in a development team, writing some docs for an internal tool. As the only tech writer in the company, you were more of a distant overseer, I suppose.

  3. Absolutely, co-op is the way to go. If anything, it will teach you what you don’t want to do upon graduation (in my case, work for government…great people, but too constricting on creativity). I’d also recommend going traveling. After all, what looks better on a resume: spent a summer working in a coffee shop, or trekking though the Australian Outback?

  4. I’d tell people not to be discouraged or frustrated if it takes a while to get a job. It’s a big transition between work and school.

    Make a lot of contacts, and don’t be afraid to let ANYONE know that you’re looking. You never know who could be that one good contact.

  5. Distant, definitely. 😉

    But I still have to agree with you — internship/cooperative education/whatever you want to call it, actual work experience is killer. Did my degree as a co-op placement, and coming out of that I was much further ahead than I would have been otherwise.

  6. I did a co-op and absolutely loved it. It was great experience and I was offered a job afterwards, but decided that they weren’t for me. I would encourage anyone to do one.

    The one piece of advice I would give to students, especially BC students, is to “think outside the province”. There’s a whole world out there. I meet people all of the time who think that UBC and SFU are their only options. I went to Queen’s and would go back in a minute. I would also love to go to McMaster, McGill, Dalhousie, St. Fx…

    Don’t be afraid to leave BC, you can always come back and the winters are not that cold!

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