Fast Track: Long hours? No pay? Great!

Making the coffee could land you that sought-after media job.
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The Independent Culture
Making cups of coffee, co-ordinating lunch orders, collecting dry cleaning and addressing envelopes - all for no money. Just what you had hoped for as a recent graduate? Don't be too quick to knock it. For the thousands of graduates who want to enter the "glamorous" world of the media, it could be your only way in.

According to one recent study, a staggering 50 per cent of this year's graduates are after a career in the media industry. Added to the highly competitive nature of the business, this means that most of today's hopefuls are less likely to get a foot in the door and more likely to find it slammed in their face. To top it all, an increasing number of employers no longer look for a good degree from a good university because that is simply considered a basic foundation. What really counts is work experience.

Josephine Hilton, a personal assistant in publishing, knows this all too well. She was initially unconvinced about the concept of work experience. "I spent four years at university with no money," she explains, "so the last thing I wanted was to go in to unpaid work once I left." But after a series of unsuccessful job applications, she saw the light. "Several of the local papers near me offered short work placements which gave me a real feel of the industry."

Indeed, your experience may lead you to the discovery that publishing or PR is not for you after all - or alternatively, that it is everything you wanted and more. Either way, you've gained. And that isn't the only benefit. Experience in your chosen industry can do wonders for your CV. Shauna Horgan, Vice President of the Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services, adds: "If graduates can work for no money - perhaps travel expenses being the most to expect - then it is also a good way to network. Networking is about making contacts, a way of proactive job hunting."

But before you rush out to apply to shadow the editor of Vogue, beware of the fact that while the number of jobs in the media has remained fairly static, the number of graduates is rising fast. The result? Finding work experience may be no easier than finding a fully-paid job.

Indeed, if an employer suspects that your application is a result of nothing more than wanting the company's - and its renowned employees - names on your CV, you'll be caught out immediately. Employers are looking for people who can make the most of their experience, explains Louise Ford, marketing executive for a leading publishing company. "When the work needs to be done and we cannot afford to bring in a temp, then I see it as an opportunity to offer the work to somebody who would appreciate it."

For this reason, says Dr Sandi Mann, university lecturer and author of Hiding What You Feel, Faking What You Don't, a positive attitude is key. Simple things like looking smart, having a polished CV and a strong handshake can make all the difference between you and the next person.

Most of the large - and many of the small - media organisations offer placements ranging between one and four weeks, and the best way to get on them is to ask. Always telephone the company to get the name of the work experience co-ordinator before writing in. Since it's the media we're talking about, it can be worth trying to make your request stand out by using coloured paper or distinctive graphics. Don't use wacky fonts, though - they're difficult to read. Send examples of your work where appropriate, but nothing that will take longer than five minutes to skim through. If you don't hear anything after three to four weeks, chase up your letter with a telephone call.

Emma Cooper, production co-ordinator at the BBC, who waited eight months after graduating to embark on her work experience, has even stronger advice: "The only way is to get your face in front of them." Ensuring she knew about his work, she contacted a producer and was subsequently invited in for a chat, followed by several interviews. Finally, she was accepted.

"Once in, you have to make it work for you," she continues. The aim is to "make them feel they can't do without you." For Cooper, this meant anticipating what they wanted before being asked. "It's all about testing you. It's not glamorous getting up at four or five in the morning, and they want to weed out those who can't cope."

In fact, initiative is most essential ingredient of any successful work placement. Not only will it impress the people who count, but it will enable you to reap the benefits of your experience. You may, for example, be offered the placement of a lifetime in a company that is the best in its field, and yet spend weeks on end in a room with back issues of the annual report. Suddenly, your time is up, leaving you with the terrifying recognition that all you have learned is where the coffee machine and the toilet are. No one in the company even knows your name.

That is not to say, however, that you should refuse to carry out boring errands or menial tasks - it is very much a part of the deal. Emma Cooper is certainly not alone in her experience of making endless cups of tea. "Nobody was ever interested in whether I had a degree or not," she explains. "Employers only ever want to know your previous work experience."

Josephine Hilton had similar feeling. "I was treated like a skivvy, making lots of coffee and doing lots of filing. I hated it because I got so little respect, but I was determined that it was the only way forward."

The trick, both women agree, is to remember that most media hopefuls would love to be in your position simply because you're "in" the media. Indeed, according to the latest survey by Graduate Market Trends, 48 per cent of graduates report that relevant work experience is an important factor in enabling them to find their job.

And while you are running all over London buying baguettes or photocopying 500 letters at a time, you can think of ways in which to show the staff your competence and intelligence. Offering your services to those who look stressed, or providing ideas to which you have given some serious thought is always a good start. In addition, ask to attend meetings and conferences where appropriate.

Remember, too, that good work will be rewarded with a reference. In addition, there is always the possibility - however remote - of being offered a job. Weeks after Emma Cooper completed her period of work experience for the BBC, she was asked back - this time for a nominal payment. A year on, she has a fully-paid position.

Josephine Hilton confirms the value of unpaid work: "When it came to applying for my first paid job, it came down to two applicants. My employers offered me the job because of the work experience I had done."

"They will pay nothing for you to work a 12-hour day, seven days a week, with absolutely no guarantees," explains Warwick Banks, associate producer at Tiger Aspect, a television production company. "But if you stick it out, you can only win."