'Why is it so hard to get a job as a receptionist? How can I move into education policy?'

Poor reception

Q. I graduated in June with a degree in politics. Ever since, I have been applying for a receptionist post, to no avail. I'm hardly requesting to be the chief executive, and everyone has to start somewhere! I have been a receptionist twice before and took a break to go to university. This is confidence-destroying. What should I do?

A. Start by doing basic checks on your letters and application forms - receptionists need to be good with detail and even small errors go down badly. Nowadays, receptionists need good IT skills and be used to the full range of telephony. If you aren't getting past interview stage, you may be presenting yourself poorly (appearance and speaking voice count for this job).

The most likely problem, however, is that you are failing to convince employers that you really want the job. They need people who are motivated to do this job well. I suspect the fact that you see receptionist work as a foot on the ladder is coming across, and you're not persuading them that you'll stay the course. You might want to think about casting your net wider - there are many entry level jobs other than receptionist that might provide a better fit for the skills you have developed during your studies. Politics develops a number of skill areas. If you do want to pursue a career more directly related to your degree, you can start by looking at the websites www.internsnetwork.org.uk and Work for an MP ( www.w4mp.org).

These sites are good for job listings and guides to working in Parliament, think tanks, lobby groups and consultancies, not just for jobs with MPs. Or download the guide "Looking for jobs in politics" at the website www.careers.lon.ac.uk/development.

Strategy for change

Q. I am a 50-year-old graduate with 13 years of volunteer experience in primary schools. I teach art, have set up and run an after-school club, and chaired a PTA for two years. I want to start a career in education to help shape policy at a local level. What would be the most relevant qualification?

A. To work in policy, your experience will be more valuable than a qualification. You can look at part-time courses in policy areas, but that would not guarantee you a job. The first hurdle is getting enough of the right kind of experience to get you on to a shortlist in this competitive area.

Your teaching qualifications are fine, but you need to build your credibility in the area in which you are seeking a job - policy. Working in one of the national or local organisations (the voluntary sector does a lot of work for children) would be a vital start. Education services such as the Advisory Centre for Education (ACE) or the Campaign for State Education (CASE) might provide useful opportunities. There is also a wealth of free experience to be had - think tanks such as the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) or Politea run public events to stimulate policy discussion. You need to be able to show that you have thought strategically, or worked, or lobbied, to achieve real outcomes. What matters is showing that you can work in this environment.

Advisers: Siobhan Hamilton-Phillips, managing director, Career Psychology; Carl Gilleard, chief executive, Association of Graduate Recruiters; Anne-Marie Martin, director, the Careers Group, University of London

Send your queries to Caroline Haydon at 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; fax 020-7005 2143; or e-mail to chaydon@blueyonder.co.uk