Getting Ahead in Your Career: Advice From UNSW Alumni

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Making the leap from study to working life can seem daunting. We spoke with three UNSW alumni about what it’s like in the workforce and how their postgraduate study helped them get ahead in their careers. 


Jansen Che - Architect, Johnson Pilton Walker
Master of Architecture 

Postgraduate study was always on the cards for Jansen. As an architecture student, it was what he needed to become registered in his field. But what he didn’t expect was how well it would set him up for work in the real world. And just how beneficial those real-world experiences and connections would be. 

Bridging the Gap Between Theory and Practice 

“The study scenario replicated somewhat what you experience in the workplace,” Jansen says. 

“I remember taking an elective called documentation and you saw the actual drawings you do at work and before that I had no idea what commercial drawings really looked like. The practical stuff you learn at university is good,” he says. 

“They would take us to actual buildings and show us around and visit offices. So you could see the real world application of the built environment.” 

“We had a professional practice elective as well and it involved what the profession did. Like contracts, we looked at professional indemnity, business plans – more real-world stuff rather than the theory of architecture. It gave me a more rounded and more practical experience.” 

For Jansen, who studied part-time while working part-time in an architectural office, the exposure helped broaden his experience and practise his skills in the field to make him workforce ready. 

“It was the bridge from undergraduate study to commercial expectations,” he says. “I think it helped my career a lot. Starting my job out of university, I felt more equipped, able to understand more easily, communicate more easily, understand the jargon. Just pick up things quicker.” 

Meeting the Right People 

Developing industry contacts while studying was immensely helpful to Jansen’s career. Not only did it help him learn more, it even helped him get his start. 

“We had lecturers and tutors from the real world who were practicing architects. And we had mentoring programs. Students would pair up with an architect that was working and meet them once every few months and we got to see real projects and got a really good taste of what the profession was like.” 

In his final year assessment, a member of the judging panel was a well-respected architect from a firm Jansen wanted to work at. He seized his opportunity. 

“I had a mentor who worked at the same firm so I reached out to him. I got an interview and they both recognised my work. I got a job there within a few weeks after my final project so it was a pretty easy transition to work.” 

Connect and Collaborate 

Making new connections was also a really valuable opportunity for Jansen to build both personal and professional support structures. 

“Spend time making friends,” he says. “The friends you meet become your network for your career. They will continue to support you and you’ll learn off them. You get insights of the industry. I have many friends in the industry – both peers and seniors – that I met at university that help me. 

These connections continue to fuel Jansen’s creative approach to work, to shape the built environment for the benefit of the people and the planet. 

“The people I met are passionate about design. We talk about design, we share resources, we discuss things happen around world. They’ve really shaped my thinking and made me more passionate about design.”

 

Tameka Lee - Consultant, World Bank Group 
Master of Policy Studies 

Coming from Jamaica where she worked in government as a registrar, postgraduate study at UNSW was a way for Tameka to further her studies in a global setting. While initially intended to fill a skills gap within her organisation, the study enabled her to pursue a new and exciting direction in her career. 

Empowered Learning 

Tameka’s learning experience at UNSW was “rewarding” and has helped her build her career beyond what she’d previously imagined. 

“You are set up to be successful. In terms of support – it’s there, so all you have to do is know what you want to do and focus on that,” she says.“It’s given me specialist knowledge that was an identified gap. It’s given me extra confidence in seeking out new opportunities. I’m always trying to improve myself as well because that has been instilled in me.” 

The chance to use her skills in a real world setting during her course also helped. “I did an internship for my course. I got a practical experience working in Australia and a chance to experience the working world there. So I got to apply what I learned as well while there,” Tameka says. 

“Upon returning to my country I did a project where I had to write policy documents for my organisation. I was able to do that because of my studies and because of the experience I got as well.” 

However, Tameka’s success saw her quickly outgrow her role. “When I went back to my organisation they immediately saw that I was more qualified so they had to find somewhere to put me. I was overqualified for the position that I was in,” she says. 

Tameka soon moved on to a new role, setting up the Caribbean Climate Innovation Centre for the World Bank.  

“I would not have gotten to that level, or that opportunity, if I had not completed my masters and done so at a renowned university abroad,” she says. “My university degree definitely helped advance me to this job.” 

Global Connections for Global Impact 

Meeting and working with people from around the world while studying has ongoing benefits for Tameka. 

“In terms of teamwork, UNSW is a microcosm of the world. The world is at UNSW. People come from different countries. Sometimes you’re placed in groups. And it prepares you for the work world because in the real world you have to work in teams with people of different backgrounds,” she says. 

“It also helped me in terms of networking – now I can pick up the phone and send a text to wherever because I have contacts around the world I can ask for some advice.” 

Personal & Professional Development 

For Tameka, postgraduate study was a time to look at the big picture and develop herself personally and professionally, both of which have helped her in her career, and have helped her make a difference to the world. 

“UNSW helps you be a well-rounded person as well,” she says. “That helps you become a more well-rounded professional.” 

“Join the clubs. Build your network. Don’t just go to school and go to classes. Build out your network, and not only in your course, but in other faculties as well.  

“My course also came with internships. And there were opportunities for people to go to other countries to volunteer internationally to build up your resume. It all helps you become a well-rounded person. 

 

Nolan Yu - Senior Account Manager, OMD 
Master of Commerce (Extension) 

Despite cultural and language barriers, Nolan made the move to Sydney from China to pursue his passion for marketing. Getting outside his comfort zone at UNSW led to new opportunities and success. 

Plan For the Future 

Since starting his career, Nolan has learned how important it is to look forward, and how his study helped him do that, even if he didn’t realise it at the time. He needed a course that was career-focused in its approach. 

“They carefully design a program to ensure the students with limited work experience can also experience a program that is future-proof and is beneficial to them,” says Nolan. 

“Going through the whole program is a process of equipping you to adapt to the real world and excel in the real world. It’s an ecosystem so you have to fully experience every element of it. Even when you don’t realise it, some of it is so beneficial to your future,” he says. 

“The course design is adapting to the trends as well. For example, there’s more digital marketing. It’s not just about theory; it’s about what benefits your career. Especially in marketing. It’s a behavioural science and is heavily linked to the development of technology. So it has to keep evolving.” 

“How they designed the courses was very forward-thinking. It’s future-proofed program design.” 

In practice, this meant learning something he was completely unfamiliar with – through an opportunity to build communities for purposeful change. 

“One course in my degree was called social marketing – how to start a social enterprise and make positive social change. That was really forward-thinking,” Nolan says. “I got the chance to learn something new. It was something that I didn’t think would be beneficial, but it is,” he says. 

Nolan paired his studies with an internship with a charity consulting organisation and draws on this experience to this day. “At our agency we do pro bono work or work with clients whose marketing goals aren’t about driving revenue, it’s about behavioural change and making a positive social impact,” says Nolan. 

“I feel like I’m equipped. Social enterprise is very trendy in Australia right now and not many marketing professionals have experience but I can confidently say I have experience. I understand why social marketing is so important to all society. It’s the future of business models.” 

Be Proactive and Passionate but Open-Minded 

Getting out of your comfort zone was a major hurdle for Nolan, but one that helped him thrive. “You have to be passionate about what you’re doing and give 100%. And then you can be successful,” says Nolan. 

“Be proactive – in class and outside of class. Try to build connections. Take the knowledge and the connections to the real world. As long as you keep your eyes open, there are abundant opportunities for you.” 

“Try to be more confident and try to interact with others from different cultures and learn from them. But be humble enough to learn from other people. Be open-minded.” 

For Nolan, it came down to making the most of his investment in postgraduate study. “Make your time, make your money, worth it,” he says. 

Embrace Your Differences With Confidence 

Moving to Australia and navigating a new language, culture and even way of thinking was challenging for Nolan. But it brought rewards. 

“We were required to ask and answer questions in class. I’m really competitive but I struggled a lot to think of questions. I had little work experience and was not confident with the language,” says Nolan. 

“But the environment challenges you and influences you. A lot of international students were very active. I admired their courage to ask. I had to challenge myself,” he says. 

“There’s a lot of interaction in the learning process. We had a lot of group assignments. Which is fundamental to the working environment, especially working in marketing, it’s all team-based.” 

“It’s hard to have the confidence to speak out and be heard. But if you want something, get it. Make the effort, it will benefit you. And you take the confidence with you.” 

“Now I’m a really good friend of the person who hired me. She told me that she picked me because she thought I was really well prepared, confident and different. 

“It’s the theme of my career. In the beginning, my background gave me more barriers than opportunities, but it changes with time.” 

Completing a masters has helped further boost Nolan’s confidence while setting him apart from competitors. 

“Career-wise, I think it gives me confidence. I know I have this in my pocket so I can move into more senior roles. Having this on my resume can give me a competitive advantage to further my career in the region.”