Who is influencing your career ideas?

What I wish I’d known: Jan Wilkens (MSc Middle East Politics 2012)

Who is influencing your career ideas?  For Jan Wilkens, currently working and studying for a PhD at the University of Hamburg, the support and encouragement of academic staff plus insights from work experience has had a great impact.

As an undergraduate, Jan really enjoyed his classes on International Relations and was able to get a part time job as a Student Assistant in a research team working for the Professor in this subject.  He supported the team through assisting with research but also taught first year students as a seminar assistant.  This experience, combined with the encouragement from his Professor, began to make him think about an academic career. Whilst studying for an MSc in Middle East Politics at SOAS his dissertation supervisor encouraged him to apply for a PhD as the next step towards working in academia.  Jan chose to go back to Germany to do this for a number of reasons including availability of funding. He was able to secure a job which also enables him to study for a PhD, back at the University of Hamburg with the research group headed by his former Professor.

Jan feels that his current role provides him with very valuable work experience for the future. In addition to teaching, researching and writing applications for grants, he is a project manager for a large scale research project which involves coordinating the research of 8 academics. This significant insight into the ‘business’ of research, how systems work, the politics and funding have helped to confirm his interest in  an academic career as well as providing some solid evidence to include in Post-Doctoral applications. And just in case you wondered if he could fit anything else, he is working on a book project and, oh yes, his PhD as well!

Jan is realistic about his future and acknowledges that sometimes no matter how well prepared PhDs are for moving into a Post-Doc position, funding may not be available so the practical project management skills which he is acquiring now along with his other work experience can be transferred to other roles outside of research.

Work experience can also help you decide what you don’t want to do.  Jan interned on a project with refugees for part of the UNHCR in Syria during his undergraduate degree. Whilst he gained a very useful insight into how an international organisation works and developed further valuable skills including project management, it also helped him realise that this wasn’t the sector in which he wished to work.

So what are Jan’s tips for current students thinking about a PhD and beyond?

  • You don’t necessarily need to go straight onto a Masters after completing your Bachelor’s degree and could use the intervening time to get some valuable of experience related to your future career or area of study. Jan felt that it might be more difficult for students to go onto work after their Masters course then return to study for a PhD.  From his perspective, the intensity of the Masters level study really creates a momentum that can carry through into the Phd and having a break from this along with, perhaps a good salary, from employment, might make the return to being a student more of a challenge.
  • Think carefully about why you want to do a PhD. You may have a real passion and interest in your subject but how will the qualification fit with your long term plans? Don’t use it simply as a way of postponing decisions about your future.
  • Competition is tough for academic and Post-Doctoral positions so start building your portfolio of experience during your PhD, for example, working as a Graduate Teaching Assistant.

Claire Rees


Be bold : don’t wait for your perfect job to find you …

Adam Schoch 24.2.15

Today’s Alum in the ‘what I wish I’d known when I was a SOAS student’ series was Alex Schoch (on the right in the picture).

Alex graduated in 2009 with a degree in History & Asian Studies without a really clear idea of what he wanted to do, but a very clear interest in sustainability and clean technology.

He’d heard of Tesla Motors which was (at the time) a small start-up modifying the Lotus Elise to become a battery-powered car, and called them up speculatively to see if they had anything for him. To cut a long story short, due to his interest in the sector and his convincing story, he was hired and became the European Sales and Marketing director by 2014, managing a team which had grown from 4 to 250 people in 35 European locations. Tesla worldwide now has about 1200 people and a market capitalisation of over $50bn, so it’s clearly no longer a start-up!

Alex’s boldness clearly paid off. He’s currently on a sabbatical year, and due to return to Tesla in March to head the division which will explore battery storage on a grand scale.

Alex and the students who came to the session had a really interesting discussion about the relevance of degree subject to jobs in Sales & Marketing (answer: not necessarily relevant); why he chose the degree he did (answer: it was a passion he longed to pursue); how he learnt the technical skills for his job (answer – make sure you spend enough time with the experts to get the gist of what they are saying and have confidence in yourself).

There was also a fascinating discussion about what Alex looks for when he is hiring fresh graduates himself (answer – people who have taken the trouble to research the company thoroughly rather than just rely on the ‘about us’ page on the website; people who can show their passion for the company’s ethical approach).

Finally, here are Alex’s top tips for current SOAS students

1. While you are at University, don’t think you have so many classes and seminars that you won’t have time to do anything else. Take all opportunities to go out and look for clubs, events, activities which will help you to deepen your own interests and may give you some new contacts.

2. Look for roles or sectors which interest you but don’t restrict yourself – you may find that that a similar role in a different sector, or a different role in the same sector would bridge your interests and skills.

3. All work experience is useful – try and make it last at least a month so you can demonstrate you have completed a project or achieved a result as part of your work experience.

Philippa Hewett

What I wish I’d known: The Alumni Perspective

Our alum at today’s ‘What I wished I’d known’ was Sam Mayer. Sam has held analytical, managerial and executive roles in various development organisations including the Clinton Health Access Initiative, Columbian University’s Earth Institute and Grassroots Soccer. He is a leader in the ‘Sport for the development sector’. Sam received his MSc in Development Economic from SOAS in 2007 and now lives in New York. He currently works as a fundraiser, raising funds for Grassroots Soccer, an organisation that using football to engage and motivate young people.

Sam enjoyed his time at SOAS. He encourages students to try to get some work experience, whether paid or volunteering. This will give you some good networks and help you develop your skills. It would also give you some insights into how organisations work and help you decide what sort of work you want to do in the future.

One of the benefits of getting work experience for Sam was that he was able to explore the different aspects of his interests and experience. He was particularly interested in how the public and private sector can work together to impact change in the society. This led him to work in project management, doing analytical work in the real estate sector and then travelling to Africa to work on development projects.

His key advice is for students to imagine themselves five years from now and think strategically about the sort of work they will like to be doing. Whatever the work might be; now is the time to get the skills and experience needed for that job.

Diana Omololu

Is this one interview question people don’t prepare for?

We all know interviews are a bit of a game – they have rules (of a sort) and there are many well-rehearsed formulae for answering questions (and if the above comes as news to you, then either take a look at the Careers pages for some ideas, or book a Quick Query in the Careers Service).

The Good Day At Work site has just published a really interesting article about the latest ‘killer question’ designed to get to the real you rather than the well-rehearsed actor.

It is this:

‘Tell me something I wouldn’t know from looking at your CV’

This might sound odd, given how much time everybody spends perfecting their CV, but what it is designed to do is find out a bit more about the real you – your enthusiasms, your ideas, what makes you tick – to see how close a fit you are to the organisation you are applying for.

Read the full article here: http://tinyurl.com/SOASinterviewQ

If you’d like to practice your interview skills and don’t have a real interview booked, why not come to one of the alumni interview sessions? These are held monthly and are designed to give you the experience of both being interviewed and being on the interviewing panel, so you can see what works in a safe environment. The next one is on 5th March from 2:00 – 4:30 and will be hosted by Olamide Bada who is now a corporate lawyer – here’s a link to book a place.

Philippa Hewett

‘What I wish I had known’ – Raymond Sweetman

The value of volunteering was the resounding message from our fourth, ‘What I wish I had known’ session.  Raymond Sweetman, until recently a Senior Language  Learning Adviser at Kings College London,  spoke about how volunteering enabled him to develop a wide range of skills in addition to those gained through his MA in Japanese and Taiwanese Studies.    His advice to current students seeking to enhance their CV is to try to obtain good quality voluntary opportunities with real substance.  As a former committee member and helpline worker for London Student Nightline amongst other work, Raymond felt that this experience was viewed extremely positively by employers.

Continuing personal development and learning, professional memberships and building networks also featured in Raymond’s tips for current students.  Whilst contributing to a professional interest group may seem daunting to start with, don’t be afraid of making mistakes.  Putting forward ideas that stimulate a discussion can get you known within the group in a positive way. Look out for other opportunities to broaden your professional knowledge through additional courses and attending lectures and talks.  Following  his MA completed part time in 2012, Raymond continued to work and study, gaining  a teaching proficiency certificate and certificate in librarianship and regularly returns to SOAS to take advantage of lectures on aspects of East Asia.

As a Senior Language Learning Adviser, Raymond supervised a team of 6 staff and 20 volunteers focused on helping students develop their language skills.  Support included workshops on pedagogical aspects of language learning, 1:1 tuition to enhance conversational skills and developing substantial book and the multi media resources.  Whilst he is now  moving on from this role, Raymond  still wants to remain in education and find opportunities where he can utilise his experience and academic background in new ways.  He is also using his knowledge and interest in East Asia to develop another career,that of a professional dancer. He is about to spend time in Japan undertaking dance training in a variety of genres.

‘Don’t give up’ and ‘don’t lose sight of your goals’ were strong themes in his talk and he encouraged students to think about combining their interests and future career direction. Nearly 10 years ago, Raymond’s curiosity about East Asia led him to start learning new languages, studying different cultures and ultimately moving into a new career.

Claire Rees, Senior Careers Consultant

How to get a job, SOAS style…

by Steve Lipscombe, SOAS Alumnus, now working for the BBC, who participated in the mock interview workshop on Tuesday 3 February.

It was great to return to SOAS after a few years away to participate in a mock interview workshop. During those years away I ended up in a role that isn’t uncommon among SOAS graduates – at international development NGO with a focus on Asia – so I was happy to come back and talk about my experience, interview techniques, hints and tips.

I was then asked to write a blog, but it seems someone has beaten me to it. My colleague has already written a really practical blog on our website for anyone thinking of applying for a job with us. A lot of the hints and tips there can be applied to any role. So take a look!

But the hints and tips on that page aren’t necessarily tailored for the average SOAS student – and that’s what we focussed on in the workshops.

What’s so special about SOAS? Well, we all know the clichés about SOAS students (documented at overheard at SOAS) and elsewhere. But from my experience at the workshop, it’s true that most students at SOAS have got some interesting stories to tell.

Whether it’s volunteering, travelling, work experience, living abroad, or crusading tirelessly for any given cause, these are the sorts of things that help employers realise that we’re interesting people, we know what interests us, and we care. In an interview situation where lots of people might be suitable for the same role, it’s things like this that can help set us apart.

For example, I have a strong hunch that it was the work experience that I gained in China during my year abroad that helped me get my first job in the UK as a graduate. The experience meant I had loads of examples to give in my interview – talking about different working cultures, working as part of a global team, and dealing with the unexpected. I was also able to apply it to a role working in the UK with a focus on Asia.

Some other examples from students in the workshop included practising for jobs that matched a specific specialism from their degree course, or applying for an NGO that worked in a sector which was relevant to their volunteering experience. It’s the logical connections that you can make between who you are, what you’ve done, and the role you’re applying for that can help set you apart.

So when a potential employer asks you to talk a little bit about yourself, think! Try not to sound like everyone else. Stand out! It’s not just about where you’re from and what you’re studying. Relate the role you’re applying for to your values or your personal experience if you can.

Even if you’re reading this and you don’t really know what you want to do when you graduate (we’ve all been there…), you’re in a strong position because you probably have some great experiences to talk about. Think about those stories, and how the experience gained from them can help you succeed in the role you’re applying for. By making that link for the interviewer, and doing the thinking for them, you’ll be more likely to walk out of the interview with your head held high.

What I wish I’d known: The Alumni Perspective

The fourth session in the Careers Service’s ‘What I wish I’d known as a student’ featured a wonderful SOAS Alumni, Leonie Le Borgne, who completed a Masters in Violence Conflict and Development 3 years ago. Leonie had planned to go into humanitarian relief work, but got side-track by a social enterprise opportunity in the Philippines.

Leonie was one of those students who took part in many activities whilst at university. For example, she volunteered at two different organisations at the same time –Tibet Society part of the Tibet Relief Fund and Greenshoots Foundation. It was during her time at GreenShoots Foundation that her boss offered her the chance to do a placement year abroad. Leonie ended up in the Philippines, were she worked with a partner organisation that works to transform the slums. She worked on a project funded by the private sector to build new homes for slum dwellers. Whilst working on that project it became clear that the needs of the people were much greater than initially thought, for example, people had lovely home but no money. After researching and talking with the local community, she helped local farmers set up a social recycling waste management project that helped them to generate income.

On returning to England, she found the Student Hubs job vacancy via the SOAS Careers Service. It was a graduate scheme with a placement at SOAS. She is now a permanent member of the SOAS Student Enterprise team helping students start up social enterprise projects.

One top tip: Leonie says that doing work experience of any type is very important. She was lucky to find something that she really enjoys, but there are loads of other opportunities for students. She encourages students to get involved in internships and to not be afraid to volunteer even if it is just for a couple of hours a week. She was given a great opportunity by her two day a week volunteering experience and now she has a career that she really enjoys.

SOAS Careers Service thanks Leonie for her time and contribution.