How to Escape the “Needing Experience to Get Experience” Paradox


Yes, you usually need experience to get a job. But often people apply for jobs because they need experience, and hope to get it by being employed.

The conundrum is not as cruel as it appears, though.

1, These expectations may be overstated. You usually find the expectations for prior experience in the “requirements” or “qualifications” in a job ad. It’s usually a separate section at the bottom of the ad listening all the things the ideal candidate for the job will have or be able to do. Many candidates for the job are not going to have all of those qualifications, which often function more as a wish list than a realistic set of expectations. People who already have all of those qualifications (including years of experience doing the job) are probably seeking a job with more responsibility and higher compensation. Read the job ad carefully and critically before you decide that your lack of experience automatically disqualifies you.

2. “Experience” is not the same thing as “years at a full-time job doing this same thing.” Particularly when you’re applying for an entry-level job, “experience” is a fluid category. Have you done similar kinds of work in an internship, part-time job, volunteer activity, or leadership position? You may not have the specific amount of experience they ask for, but you still have experience, and it counts.

3. There are many ways to gain and demonstrate “experience.”

  • If you want to go into a career using your writing/design/editing skills, your portfolio or writing samples is what employers will want to see as evidence of your experience. Working on a campus publication, doing publicity for an student organization, getting a part-time communications job on campus, volunteering your skills to help a nonprofit improve their website all give you results that you can show to employers.
  • Any kind of work experience can demonstrate your work ethic, responsibility, ability to manage your time, customer service skills — all of which will be relevant to future employers. It’s okay to start with food service and retail work. It all counts.
  • Employers want people who can make things happen, see a project through to completion, work well with others, and solve problems on their own. As you get involved with campus activities and organizations, look for ways to demonstrate that you can do these things. Plan an event, raise money, organize a service project, recruit more members, create a new program.
  • Projects count! If you’ve done some significant research, completed an independent creative work, made something cool with someone else, been involved in a college class project with real-world impact, employers will be interested.

4. Experience doesn’t always speak for itself. There are a lot of resources on campus to help you craft your resume so that the things you’ve done while in college are visible to employers as “experience.” Make an appointment with Kirstin Wilcox (call 333-4346 or stop by EB 100) to talk about your resume strategy, or make use of the resume review service at the Career Center.

Bottom line: you probably have more experience than you think you do, and every semester offers opportunities to get more, even if full-time employment is a long way off.

English/CW Major –> Foreign Service

Melissa Martinez, the Diplomat in Residence for the Midwest from the Department of State, was here on campus earlier this week to talk about careers in the foreign service. Ms. Martinez spoke frankly about the challenges of a diplomatic career: accommodating the careers and needs of spouse and children, physical danger, difficulties staying in touch with family and friends, sometimes inconvenient and uncomfortable working conditions. She emphasized that it is not the glamorous, urbane life often depicted in the media. However, she also stressed the rewards of the job: the opportunity to travel, a career path that can span continents and offer new opportunities to learn, the support provided for relocation and family/household needs (including language training, health care, and mentoring), and above all, the opportunity to make a difference while representing your country.

Ms. Martinez stressed the value of excellent communication skills — not only in the lengthy application process, but also in performing the work of the foreign service. While some specialized career tracks require specific expertise or technical skills, there are others that rely on a broader skill set, and there are five general career tracks that are open to all. The only requirements for entering the foreign service, she told us, are (1) US citizenship, (2) being at least 21 years old, and (3) being prepared to go anywhere in the world.

For those interested in exploring this career path while they are still in school, there are a number of internship opportunities: paid, unpaid, and remote, as well as specialized fellowship programs. She encouraged anyone pursuing these opportunities to spend some time looking over the various bureaus that make up the Department of State in order to target their internship application towards the particular areas of greatest interest to them.

Learn more by contacting Ms. Martinez at the Office of International Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where she is based, and by checking out the Department of State’s online forums.

Internships at ATLAS

Recently we had the chance to talk to some staff and interns of ATLAS about internships. The conversation provided us with valuable information about internship opportunities at ATLAS, application procedure, the possibility of continuing internships for more than one semester, and the prospect of transition from unpaid internships to paid positions.

How do you invite internship applications? Do you advertise them or do you accept applications throughout the year?

We invite applications year round, as we constantly have new positions coming in, and have started interns at mid-semester in the past. We also do specific calls for applications if we have a position that needs filled and we don’t have applicants that fit that position.

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Alumni Profile: Steve Haruch, independent journalist and filmmaker

Recently we interviewed Steve Haruch, a writer, journalist and independent filmmaker based in Nashville, TN. He graduated with a B.A. from UIUC in 1996 (English/Rhetoric double major), and went on to earn an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Washington in 2000. After a series of teaching, copywriting and other odd jobs, he landed at the Nashville Scene, where he worked as a staff editor for seven years. Since then, he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, NPR’s Code Switch and The Guardian, among other outlets. He edited People Only Die of Love in Movies: Film Writing by Jim Ridley (Vanderbilt University Press, 2018) and is currently producing a documentary film about the history of college radio. He is particularly interested in talking with students from minority backgrounds. In the interview, Haruch talked about freelancing, a career option that offers freedom of work.

What is your current job? What do you like about it?

I’m a freelancer, so my current job is really a series of jobs, mostly involving writing in some way. These are strung together in a manner that resembles regular work but is more open-ended and irregular.

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