Work experience and internships

International Students – Maximizing Your Employability

I arrived in Brisbane July 2017 to pursue my Bachelor of Business majoring in Accountancy in Queensland University of Technology. Till date, my past experiences include interning with Ernst & Young Malaysia, being a Brisbane International Student Ambassador with Study Brisbane, and the Treasurer of QUT Malaysian Students Association in 2018. I am currently working in the Finance team for Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

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We’ve all been there.

You find a job listing. Your eyes scour the description. This is the perfect job. You get excited. Then, at the very end, printed in italics – Permanent Residency/ Citizenship required’. not again.

International students have it extra difficult when it comes to employment. Our visa status, cultural and language differences are legitimate organisational risks to employers.

To be successful, we need to approach this market from a different perspective. We need to cut through the clutter. We need to market ourselves effectively. We need to be proactive, different and better. And this guide is here to help you.

This guide is intended for both international students and fresh graduates in Australia who are trying to secure their first graduate position. A collection and compilation of my personal thoughts and guidance that I have received throughout my time in Brisbane – each represented by a letter inBRAVE MIND.

(B) Study Brisbane

Australia has plenty of resources to support international students in terms of student life and employability. Every major city has a first point of contact organization for international students. For example, Study BrisbaneStudy Melbourne and Study Sydney. Nonetheless, each organization’s ultimate purpose is similar – to boost the city’s international education presence through their unique programs and resources. In simpler words, they are here to help so take advantage of them!

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In 2018, I had the opportunity to be appointed as a Brisbane International Student Ambassador by the Lord Mayor to represent my country, Malaysia. The Ambassador program aims to promote Brisbane as a world-class international student destination and is Study Brisbane’s brainchild. I am one of the 44 selected Ambassadors from more than 20 countries in the world.

As an international student, my goal was to partake in a truly unique Brisbane experience – this program was a perfect fit.

Personally, my most important takeaway was the instant access to an immense network of like-minded ambassadors and influential Study Brisbane executives. Without realizing, you find yourself connected to different countries in the world through your fellow ambassadors. Through the regular meetups and events, I was able to enhance my interpersonal skills by exchanging ideas and learning about different cultures. With Study Brisbane’s media coverage and valuable insights, you can easily leverage on the additional exposure and access to job/volunteer opportunities.

Furthermore, nothing can beat the level advocacy you receive through the ambassador program. In my experience, the Study Brisbane executives were more than friendly to assist and advice on matter, how good is that? Advocacy plays a huge role in the Australian culture and can be the deciding factor in any job application.

(R) RESOURCES

There’s an incredible amount of free resources available for international students. Knowing where to look for them is half the battle won already.

These resources can range from online learning courses and professional development classes to job-seeking platforms. Do take advantage of them! As international students, we need to constantly improve our skills and abilities to stay relevant in this tough market.

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1.  University

a.   QUT

  • QUT Career Hub: This platform is incredibly useful in which jobs & internship vacancies are displayed. I have many friends who successfully secured their first graduate jobs through this platform as you do not need to compete with non-QUT applicants.
  • Business Advantage: This is a free modular-based workshop which offers classes on public speaking, interview skills, networking and entrepreneurship. The sessions typically run from Week 1 to 6 throughout the week and are conducted by industry professionals. Be sure to reserve your spot quickly as spaces are extremely competitive. Find out more info on bus.advantage@qut.edu.au.
  • QUT Career Mentor Program: A good mentor can seriously accelerate your professional and career development by sharing insightful experience while guiding you along the correct pathway. Fortunately, QUT has an in-house Mentor Programme which is curated specifically for international students. I have friends who have secured their first job through their mentor’s network or referral. Find out more info on careermentor@qut.edu.au.

2.  Brisbane Student Hub

Located in Woolloongabba, Brisbane Student Hub provides free support for international students in Queensland – employment, budget management, healthcare and accommodation. Particularly, you should take advantage of the employment preparation service on career advice, resume writing and jobs opportunities. For non-native speakers, there are free English conversation classes and IELTS workshops.

3.  Online Learning

The beauty of LinkedIn Learning lies in the diversity and flexibility of its courses

a.   LinkedIn Learning

LinkedIn Learning (formerly Lynda.com) is an online educational platform which offers thousands of educational courses on business, creative and technology areas. Most major universities (University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology, etc.) provide FREE access to this powerful platform. Else, many Australian public libraries have partnered with LinkedIn Learning. For example, QLD – State Library of Queensland, VIC – Melbourne City Library, NSW – Wollongong City Libraries. You can find the full list here. Simply join the library as a member for FREE and you will have unlimited access to LinkedIn Learning!

The beauty of LinkedIn Learning lies in the diversity and flexibility of its courses. Traditional industry-specific skills are insufficient and needs to be supplemented with cross-discipline skills. For example, data analytics and visualization are useful skillsets to complement my accountancy knowledge. University syllabus is limited thus I am learning programs like Tableau and PowerBI to upskill myself in my free time.

b.   KPMG Data Analytics Consulting Virtual Internship

Through this program, I learnt about data quality assessment, extracting data insights and data presentation.

Personally, I like the fact we can compare our solutions to real-world KPMG solutions. Thus, I can gauge the quality of my work from a professional standard and learn from my mistakes. Once completed, you can put the virtual experience in your resume. I think completing the program demonstrates your drive and initiative, qualities many employers seek for.

In summary, these are predominantly Australian-based resources (specifically Brisbane). Nonetheless, wherever you are, be conscious about and always take advantage of resources available for you. It will be tempting to take on as many programs as possible but remember to strike a balance between university and work commitments. Learning should be fun and not forced!

(A) ASSIMILATE

University is supposed to be the best time of my life, right?

Bags – packed, flight – booked, house – settled. Do as the Romans do, I’ve got this. University is supposed to be the best time of my life, right? Then, you step out of the plane and realize you must learn everything, and I mean everything, from ground zero in a foreign country with no friends and family.

Assimilating is the name of the game here. And you need to master it.

Everyone experiences culture shock differently; I’ve got friends who adapted in 3 months and friends who never did – and that’s perfectly okay. Trust me, there will be an ongoing internal conflict between immersing in the local culture (scary) and settling in with your fellow country mates (comfortable). The ideal spot would be a balance between the two. Personally, I pursued my studies in Australia to really push myself out of the comfort zone. I knew that the journey will be scary and tough, but hey, I also knew that it will be worth it.

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Fortunately, there are various ways to help with assimilation – employment (explained here), volunteering and clubs & societies. The best way is through part-time employment during your studies. Throughout university, I have worked as a barista & waiter thus exposed to the local environment by interacting with the customers and my colleagues. Along the way, I picked up on some of the Aussie slangs and practiced my English too! Furthermore, you will also pick up on important non-verbal cues such as local norms and social values. All these are critical to ensure that you have a sense of belonging and feel comfortable in Australia. Of course, some pocket money while achieving these is sweet!

 

(V) VALUE

‘Why should we hire you? What do you have to offer us? How do you add value?’

All these questions revolve around ‘value’ and, unfortunately, you can run but you cannot hide from them.

The term ‘value’ is used so much nowadays, and appropriately so. The question is not if automation will replace human jobs, the question is when it will do so. Machines are incredibly fast and accurate in learning algorithms and recognizing patterns which makes them far superior than humans in transactional jobs. What machines cannot do well, however, is to critical evaluate information holistically and derive meaningful strategies. And that’s the direction we should focus our resources into.

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One way or another, you are competing with the best candidates locally and internationally in every job application. How do you stand out then? Always think of how you can add value! Can you streamline the current process to be more efficient? Can you think of a different and better way of doing things? Can you communicate effectively to increase efficiency and reduce turnaround time?

If your suggestions are successfully implemented, be sure to note down the direct & indirect impacts in your resume. Additionally, you should keep abreast of the industry’s latest trends and news, this shows self-drive and focus to prospective employers.

(E) EXTRACURRICULAR

One common conundrum is balancing your study commitments with extracurricular and employment

As an accounting student, I only had 12 hours of classes every week – that averages to 4 days of 3 hours class each. Granted, there is some self-studying to be done but this still leaves me an incredible amount of free time. Therefore, I decided to take up some extracurricular activities!

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Another great way to enrich your experience is through event volunteering. Australia is home to hundreds of fantastic events annually. Here are some of my personal favourites:

a. Brisbane Student Hub – This is a great platform to check for Brisbane’s major events which needs volunteer eg, MDA Multicultural Event & Raise Your Voice Choir.

b.Volunteering Queensland – Another great platform for volunteering opportunities in the greater Brisbane region.

c. QUT Connect – QUT Connect is an on-campus, university-run volunteering program which assists new student in settling down into university life. You’ll become a Connector and be involved in initiatives which contributes to a safe and inclusive international campus community. This is a great way to meet more people and gain some local experience! For further enquiries, please email qutconnect@qut.edu.au.

d. Brisbane Festival – Brisbane Festival is one of the most iconic events with beautiful displays of art and music events over 3 weeks in September. This really is an incredible event to contribute, plus volunteers get free access to events!

e. EKKA – Queensland’s largest annual event, also known as Royal Queensland Show, which showcases the best of Queensland from agricultural displays, animal parades and fairground rides. Volunteers get free access to the ticketed event after their shifts!

f. Music Festivals – For the adventurous souls, Falls Festival & BIGSOUND Festival are great opportunities to volunteer while enjoying some sick tunes. Falls Festival and BIGSOUND Festival typically runs during the end of December and September each year respectively.

In the context of international students securing employment, extracurriculars are quintessential. Your involvement gives you the chance to be unique and present yourself professionally during interviews. Fellow ambassador, Ocean Cheung, wrote a great article on how volunteering helps with securing a job.

Was it difficult to manage the club’s finances? You bet, but I now have many stories of my thought process, decisions and strategies taken to overcome the situation. Subconsciously, I have plenty of materials to work with to prepare for my interviews. However, you must articulate your experiences succinctly – this will greatly improve your chances of acing the interview.

Balancing GPA and Extracurriculars

One common conundrum is balancing your study commitments with extracurriculars and employment. Above all, your primary goal is to fulfil your study commitments. This is the reason why we are even here in the first place, so please do not lose track of this.

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An effective strategy is to set a target GPA to achieve (say 5/7). Once achieved, you can plan any remaining time available for your extracurriculars & part-time employment. Well then, how high of a GPA should you aim for? Consider two students:

Student A with an impressive 6.5 /7 GPA and 0 extracurriculars, and Student B with a good 5.5/7 GPA with active involvement in clubs and casual employment. Personally, I think Student B is more employable generally due to the acquired soft skills and real-world experience.

Of course, a good GPA forms the basic requirement for any job. However, unless you intend to be in the research (or academia) space, I personally think a GPA of 5.5/7 is the healthy limit (and commendable too). Why? I think the amount of resources required to climb is no longer proportional to the level of improvement made (if any at all).

Any student will tell you that it is much more difficult to improve your marks the higher you go in the spectrum. For instance, 2 hours of daily studying might improve your marks from 70% to 80% but that will not hold true for 80% to 90% (which might take 4 hours). Much more effort and time is needed to focus on the finer details. This is also known as the Law of Diminishing Returns (hello economic majors!)

The trade off? You can then use the two additional hours to focus on your extracurriculars which improves your communication, leadership and teamwork abilities. These skills are crucial yet difficult to obtain through traditional classroom activities

The good news is that there is no set matrix to follow, you need to find your own balance. Take them at your own pace; this is a marathon, not a race!

(M) MINDSET

Throughout university, one challenging aspect to overcome is our own mindset. As international students, some of us tend to suffer from inferior complex – feelings of inadequacy due to shortcomings compared to our local peers. These shortcomings can be language, cultural and communication differences. Some of these may not be even real yet our minds will perceive them to be if we believe in them.

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In a foreign country, it is only natural that even the bravest of us begin to doubt and question our own self-esteem and worth. We often think our peers – local or international are not interested in what we have to say therefore we do not even share our stories altogether. Gradually, we begin to withdraw from social interaction and develop toxic thought patterns. These are detrimental to our experience here. Therefore, it is critical that we recognize this and make a conscious effort to overcome it.

What does it take? Consistent and intentional effort outside your comfort zone. It will be daunting at first, but I promise it gets easier the more you try. One effective way is to make fun of yourself – a light-hearted joke, witty comment or funny story. These are helpful to lighten up any situation. When we show our peers that we can take a joke, I think they will be more inclined to warm up to us.

Conquering this mental barrier will build your confidence as you get more comfortable in expressing yourself and become a great storyteller. And we all know the benefits of having excellent communication skills – particularly in the workplace.

(I) INTERNSHIP

Perhaps the single most beneficial thing you could do to maximize your employability is to complete an internship before graduating. I really cannot stress this enough.

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You will get the first taste of your discipline put into the motion of the working-world. Typically, students should complete the internship in their summer break (Dec-Feb each year for Australia), lasting 2-3 months each. Wondering how to find the perfect work placement for you? Fellow ambassador, Stephanie Casas, wrote an insightful article on this.

Now that you have chosen the internship over your summer holidays, here’s how to approach it!

Being the young enthusiastic intern, your mind is a sponge

a) Attitude

Have an open yet inquisitive mind. Your primary goal should be to gain as much experience as possible. Thus, don’t be afraid to volunteer in taking up tasks (yes, even those boring, never-ending grind work). Remember it is neither embarrassing nor degrading, you are simply pulling your own weight so that your seniors can focus on more complex tasks. In contrast, you will come across as a fantastic team player.

b) Observation

Being the young enthusiastic intern, your mind is a sponge. Now is a good time to observe your seniors’ good working ethics and habits. Leave the toxic habits at the bin but pick up the healthy ones. These includes good management of expectations and rapport-building with clients and professional communication (both written and spoken).

Internships can be difficult, but it is a good training ground to sharpen our rough edges and build our character

Personally, I joined Ernst & Young Malaysia as an audit vacationer in summer of 2019. I had assisted in the audit of a major bank, completing audit work papers independently and setting up meetings with executives to extract information. To be truthful, the experience was mentally challenging as I struggled to transition well from classroom into real-world. I found it difficult to cope with the intense workload and expectations from my clients. Nevertheless, I persevered through the hardship successfully.

Another good news is that many universities offer ‘internship’ subjects which grants student academic credit equivalent to conventional units. Queensland University of Technology’s Work Integrated Learning (WIL) program facilitates internship opportunities between students and their strategic partners. In addition, I was able to use my internship to count as a completed unit towards my graduation. With one less unit, I spent my additional time and effort into the more challenging subjects in my final semester.

Internships can be difficult, but it is a good training ground to sharpen our rough edges and build our character. It will not be easy, but I promise you it will be worth it.

(N) NETWORK

50% of your success comes from what you know, the other 50% from who you know

In your home country, networking may not play an important role in your home country. Nevertheless, you must understand that networking is deeply ingrained into the Australian culture. If you are to succeed in Australia, you need to master networking and use it to your advantage.

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Understandably, networking events are scary and uncomfortable. Who would want to share their stories in front of complete strangers, right? The good news is that you are not alone, I can assure you every networker is as awkward as you are when starting out. The unfortunate news is that you can only improve the more you join networking events; there are no shortcuts. All you need is a pinch of focus and perseverance. Practice makes perfect my friend.

From personal experience, merely attending a networking event puts you well ahead of your peers. There’s so much to see and learn from the speakers and peers. Most students dare not even attend the events, oh my English is bad, I am shy, I do not have any interesting stories. Well, if you do not attend more events to see and listen more and speak more English, how else can you improve? Without a doubt, I was terrible in my first networking event almost 3 years ago. Nonetheless, with each and every networking event I attended, I got more comfortable in sharing my stories and connecting with my peers and speakers.

Here are some strategies to improve your networking skills:

1. Get comfortable

Or being comfortable in feeling uncomfortable, if that makes sense

The first and most important thing is to focus on being comfortable when networking. Or being comfortable in feeling uncomfortable, if that makes sense. We get uncomfortable because we feel as if we are put under the spotlight; every single word and action is being judged. Believe it a not, everyone is too busy worrying about their own self-image to be judging you. The stranger you are talking to is just as busy thinking about what you are possibly thinking about himself as you are to him. Keeping your self-consciousness in check will allow you to be more comfortable in networking events.

The more you place yourself in these uncomfortable situations, the faster your brain and mind will acclimatize to being uncomfortable. Slowly but surely, you will learn how to ride on your body’s adrenaline waves and glide through the awkwardness effortlessly.

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2. Power Pose

I am tricking my body into thinking I am confident by mimicking confident poses

Power Posing‘ is the brainchild of Amy Cuddy, professor and researcher at Harvard Business School. Amy proposed that our body language directly affects how we think and feel about ourselves. Her research reveals that by practising a powerful stance, we will then feel more powerful about yourselves. This is incredibly useful as we can adopt this concept in networking events and interviews.

Powerful postures need not be bold like the iconic Wonder Woman pose. My personal key takeaway from Amy’s Power Posing is to maintain a strong, upright and open posture during stressful situations. This means sitting straight, shoulders back, chest open and no slouching. During stressful situations, we tend to subconsciously retreat or curl up into a weaker posture. Therefore, we need to make a conscious effort in maintaining these power poses which inadvertently gives us increased self-confidence and eloquence.

I find that simply adopting a confident stance has actually given me confidence. In other words, I am tricking my body into thinking I am confident by mimicking confident poses. This increased confidence is incredibly useful to better gather our thoughts and express ourselves.

3. Preparation is Key

Even 30 minutes of preparation the night before can make a world of difference

Look at the poster, the panelists and the companies in attendance. Where and what industry do they work in? When preparing for networking events, create your elevator pitch, update your LinkedIn profile and formulate some questions (using What, Who, When, Where, Why and How). You should have at least 5 questions ready at your disposal. Besides, being prepared will greatly boost your confidence level and prevent those awkward silences!

University can get busy but the good news is that even 30 minutes of preparation the night before can make a world of difference. You should not be seeing the name of the speakers for the very first time during the networking event itself!

(D) DIFFERENT

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Fortuna Eruditis Favet,

fortune favours the prepared one

When opportunity comes knocking on your door, are you prepared enough to capitalize on it? The truth is we all need some good fortune (right place and time) to secure our first graduate position but unfortunately, fortune is out of our control. What we can do is to ensure we are prepared when our lucky moment is finally here. It is easy to dismiss other people’s success as ‘lucky’ but most of them have paid their dues with months or years of consistent and purposeful actions.

Getting your foot in the door is difficult, however, once you are in, it becomes easier to navigate your industry. To maximize your success, you need to stand out and be different. Having been through university life, I would recommend maintaining a good GPA, obtain part-time employment or/and balance one extracurricular to gain some local experience. You should not feel embarrassed to be different, you ought to celebrate your achievements. Your achievements are stories you can keep and tell forever.

Technical skills can be easily trained but attitude and cultural fit are far more difficult and expensive to improve.

Your target market needs to be different too. Instead of big multinationals and corporations, you should play to your strengths and focus on smaller boutique firms. Gain some local experience and use that to launch yourself forward into the next. When starting out, place more importance on local experience than salary. Australian employers place a huge emphasis on cultural fit therefore local experience is critical. One interviewer told me that technical skills can be easily trained but attitude and cultural fit are far more difficult and expensive to improve.

Of the 100 applications you send, perhaps 10 companies will respond, and you will only secure two interviews. But that’s okay, all you need is one YES among the hundreds of Nos.

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That’s it!

These are my strategies and advice to achieving your full potential in securing employment. There is a lot of information so take your time to digest them. You can always come back to the article and remember them through – A BRAVE MIND.

If you have any questions, I am happy to answer them on my LinkedIn.

Good luck!

Jayden Kuik.

Jayden Kuik

Jayden studied a Bachelor of Business (Accountancy) at QUT. For more info, see his LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/wenghoangkuik-jayden

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