Leaving education to start work can be quite a shock

Student life is like no other. In many ways, it can be a fairly selfish existence: you work largely alone, keep your own hours, attend lectures (or don't!) for the sake of improving your grades and your knowledge, and hope to succeed ultimately for your own personal and professional advancement. Work is different. You'll have to co-operate with people on your employer's terms and for the sake of your company. Within that, you'll set and achieve your own goals, gain friends and build your expertise. But there's no denying that it's a different game altogether.

"By the time I finished my PhD, I'd been in education for 23 years," says Amy Carroll, who studied zoology and now works in science education. "You get used to a certain way of living. When I got my job, having to get up in the morning was a shock. But then, so was having free evenings where I didn't have to stay up writing essays until 3am."

And it's not just your day-to-day routine that will change: there are all sorts of things you'll suddenly have to consider, from practical issues, such as paying council tax, to your long-term plans. "I had to really think about what sort of jobs to apply for, where they'd get me, what I'd be doing in years to come," says Amy. "You have to think about how to structure your life and take a long-term view." Gone are the days of long summer holidays and flexible conditions: once you have a job, you'll want to give it your all and climb the career tree.

Confident in her career choice, and knowing the commitment it would take for her to succeed, Amy decided to take a year out to travel before starting work. "If I'd gone straight into a job, I'd have had to have taken time out if I'd wanted to travel later," she explains. "Once you've started your career in earnest, that's a worrying prospect. You risk losing contacts and forgetting what you've learnt. You might end up unemployed when you get back, or having to take a cut in pay or position. Plus, you have to think about what other responsibilities you'll have. Rent, for example. It's hard to put it on hold to skip off to India or wherever. That's why I slotted travel between my PhD and my first 'real' job - for me, it cut out all that stress."

As it worked out, Amy was lucky: after travelling the world, she moved to London and found her dream job - or the first rung on the ladder to achieving it! - within two months.

Some graduates aren't so lucky. "I finished my degree in 2004, but only got my job in November 2005," says David Poulter, a history graduate. "I knew I wanted to work in TV, and it's so tough to get a break. I applied and applied. I spent 16 months after graduating doing 'fill-in' jobs just to earn some cash." Even with his 2:1, David found it difficult to get his foot in the door. "I'm now working as a programme developer for an independent film company," he says. "The pay is dreadful, but the work is perfect. I'm so happy and relieved to finally be starting out on the career I want to be involved in."

Certain industries are tougher to get into than others, so it pays to do some research and find out about yours before you complete your course. If you're in a notoriously competitive field, such as a journalism or design, make sure you at least know where to go to find out about vacancies before you graduate. Better still, contact employers while you're still studying and send out your CV. "I had friends who lined up their first job before they'd even sat their finals," says David. "It makes life so much less stressful." Building contacts in your industry, knowing about graduate or postgraduate schemes, and registering with relevant agencies can really put you ahead of the game. Careers advisers at your university or college can help, as can your tutors and the Internet.

"Don't underestimate how depressing being unemployed can be," warns David. "What initially feels like a bit of a holiday soon descends into pointlessness. You have so much to offer after you leave university or college, but knowing how to do that and who to approach is difficult. Give yourself the best chances - and don't be afraid to keep calling and reminding people that you exist. Perseverance pays," he concludes. "I should know!"

Of course, there are only so many hours in the day, and it's reasonable to take one pressure at a time. If you're approaching finals, job-hunting may be the last thing on your mind - and, to some extent, fair enough. But looking around and assessing your employment options can actually help with your revision and focus your mind. "I started looking in papers for jobs around Springtime before finishing my thesis," says Amy. "It was useful because the more I looked, the more I realised what I did and didn't want to do with my life. So I started tailoring my thesis towards that a little." That meant Amy's completed PhD was directly relevant to the jobs she was applying for, which gave her a competitive edge and confidence in her abilities. "I did prepare for life after uni and I'm very glad I did," Amy adds, "it made life easier and helped me find work I love."

So you want to get a job?

Looking around and assessing your employment options can actually help with your revision...

* Think carefully about the job offered. How and why are you suitable? Why are you a strong candidate? Tell the employers why in your cover letter and be confident in yourself

* Use your cover letter to draw out elements of experience and expertise in your CV that make you the best person for the job

* Make sure your application is going to the right person - and that you've spelled their name correctly

* Swot up on the company - the more you know about the role, market and position the better

* Make sure your CV and cover letter are attractive and readable

* Apply apply apply! The more jobs you go for, the more chance you have of success