Get a job you love

Designers, curators, writers, teachers… many RCA students have gone on to find jobs that suit their skills and channel their interests, rather than opting for self-employment. We talked to John Lees, the author of the best-selling How To Get A Job You’ll Love, about how RCA students and graduates should go about finding the perfect role. To hear more from John in person, come to our event on Wednesday 8 May – bookings are now open

Many students and alumni at the Royal College already have a clear idea of what they’re good at and what they care about. But how do you translate this passion and energy into finding a job that suits you?
It’s a good place to begin, because if you have curiosity and energy about a career path, that’s usually enough to give you momentum to keep moving forward. People give up too soon generally, and one of the reasons they give up is that they haven’t got excited enough about what they’re looking at. Don’t try to get one single idea in your sights immediately – it’s a much better strategy to pick two, three or four target ideas and then research them as if you’re doing it for someone else, so you’re not being put off by setbacks or delays. You’re going to have to talk to a lot of people and sometimes people will say no or they’re too busy, and that's why the initial energy and enthusiasm really helps you to keep going.

Do creative jobs need a different approach?
Yes, in a sense, they’re more competitive and they are looking for creativity at every stage of the relationship, so any contact you have with organisations should say something about your energy and creativity. Standard CVs aren’t necessarily what RCA students should be using. They should be showing that they can break the rules and do things differently, and show that they are excited by the sector they want to work in. It’s one thing to be creative and quiet about it, but they’ve got to convey real excitement – employers are looking for people who are really hungry. One of the ways to convey that hunger is by perseverance. It’s also demonstrated by really understanding the field you’re looking at, reading about it, talking to people – you should be living and breathing your subject. But it’s got to translate into behaviour. It’s not just working alone in your studio but talking to practising artists, being curious and driven.

Is it useful to work as an intern or in a voluntary capacity as a way in to competitive jobs? What kind of rules should you set for yourself around this type of work, to make sure you don’t end up being exploited?
It’s almost a requirement for most people trying to get a job in art or design that they need to do something for free, but they should think of it as a deal, to get the right experience on the CV. If it’s just a job and it’s not moving them forward, it’s not helping. In terms of how long, it depends how much variety there is, and it also depends on the industry standard – ask a mentor or someone who knows the industry well, and set yourself a deadline. People get stuck in an unpaid rut and it doesn’t do them any favours.

How much do you need to tailor your application to each individual job, if the roles you’re applying for are broadly similar?
This is a real misunderstanding of the nature of advertised opportunities – they may be broadly similar but each organisation has its own character, its own needs, its own history. You’ve got to treat each employer as a client and treat your offer as a commission. Make sure that evidence for why you're right for the job comes across in your CV and in the first 10 lines of your cover letter. A good discipline is to work out the top 10 things that employers are looking for and make sure they’re on display.

How do you feel about crazy or eye-catching applications – is it an effective way to get noticed or can it just come across as unprofessional?
Get advice from someone with three or four years’ market experience – they can tell the difference between something that looks like you’ve just finished studying and something that looks like a serious candidate. Take out unfounded claims and anything that demonstrates lack of experience – but you can’t do it yourself, and in fact I would recommend that anyone breaking into any profession get advice from people who are three or four years down the line.

Interviews in the art and design world can sometimes be quite informal, almost like friendly chats – is this deceptive? How do you handle informal interviews?
There’s no such thing as an informal chat. Everything’s an interview, including telephone conversations to find out more about the job. In every conversation, you should be making sure that people understand how you match the shopping list for the job, and why you’re interested and why you’re excited, and they should remember that in terms of stories as well, not just claims. Don’t just say you’re good at something – tell a story which demonstrates it, because people tend to remember stories longer than they remember statements. Relationship building is incredibly important in getting job offers and in getting to people to network on your behalf and open doors for you. Building relationships is not so much about broadcasting what you’re good at, but learning to work well with other people. The best way to get close to an organisation is to show interest in what they do. One of the ways people will fall over opportunities, paid or unpaid, is to go to organisations not with a job search message but a real message about curiosity. Focus on your curiosity – “I want to know more about you, I love what you do, I want to know how you work” – people are very happy to answer these questions. They’re not as happy to answer questions like “please can I talk to you about a job” or “please will you look at my CV”.

When showing work in an interview, what’s your best advice for how to present yourself and your work well?
Using a portfolio in an interview needs practice – the reason is that you’re asking people to absorb visual information very quickly at the same time as trying to build a relationship with them. I would say, spend some time building the relationship first, and open the portfolio when you’re invited to. Rather than talking about your wok, give space for someone to comment, and listen to what they say. Use your portfolio or the work you’re showing much more as a tool for relationship building, rather than someone having to look at and listen to what is essentially a slide presentation, one image after another with you talking over the top – that can be boring for someone if they’re not tuned into what you’re doing. And don’t show too much – it’s a selection of things for them to give their attention to, and if they want to see more they’ll ask for it. Just put in things that you think will work and create interest. If they ask to see more, that's a great position to be in!

Isn’t the most important thing in art and design just to be really talented?
That’s a real misunderstanding of the way the world of work operates – people with the best artwork, the best portfolio aren’t necessarily going to get the best jobs. It’s the ones who are better at relationship building and have more dedication, more perseverance in terms of opening doors. They’re not necessarily talking about themselves all the time and promoting themselves – what they’re good at is constantly saying, “Who else can I talk to? Who else can I go and see?” and getting out there and doing it face to face. It’s all about what happens in a room with someone rather than what you send by email. 

Are people over-reliant on email when they’re looking for work?
Yes, in every sector. But particularly, Generation Y, because they’re so used to the immediacy of the online world, they use it as a way of avoiding the difficulties of having real conversations. But if you want someone to notice your work, you’ve got to go and see them in person. They’ve got to tune into you first and understand what your work is about.