When I was about eight years old I wanted to be a vet. Then I wanted to be a superstar or a princess. While I flitted from one fantasy job to another, my mum always reminded me to have proper plans in place. At the time, I didn't pay much attention, but her advice started to make more sense when I tried to get my first job after graduating with a HND.
Anyone starting out in the industry should be able to relate, and will know one thing - it's harder to get a job than you first thought! There's only so much an education can give you. Often, it doesn't provide you with the right skills to enter the workplace. Entering the 'real world' can be difficult - not knowing where to start and being in an oversaturated industry like ours, it’s almost impossible to stand out from the crowd. It's important to remember, though, that you won’t just 'make it'. As clichéd as it may sound, to succeed takes more hard work and dedication than you could ever imagine.
Do the groundwork
Your portfolio is the most important asset you'll have. Think of it as your magic weapon. But, of course, a selection of brilliant pieces doesn’t just appear. You have to graft to get it. Find as much work experience as you can. Do placements at as many agencies as possible, work for charities and - although it can be difficult - offer to do some unpaid projects for exposure.
The more experience you can get, the more your portfolio will expand. But it's not just about the work. After all, what good is a project if nobody knows about it? In this day and age, it’s hugely important to create an online presence too. Having a website is almost a matter of course for designers nowadays, so it's important to have somewhere online that you can present your work. If you don't, you could be missing out on catching that amazing assignment or job offer.
An online presence doesn't just stretch to a website, though. Use social networking to your advantage as well. Talk to and interact with people, post about your work and then chat a little more. At the same time, it's important to find the specific social channel that works for you.
I started using Twitter in February 2009 and I now have more than 1,600 followers. Some of the time I wonder why people would want to see me discuss web design, photography, WordPress and coding among more selective subjects such as cute animals and how I always manage to pick the wrong clothing for a terribly wet day. Over the years, though, I've realised that it’s not always what you tweet about, it's how you use the tool. I take the time to respond to everybody who sends me a message and I get to know my followers. It’s these important touches that will get you noticed - and remembered.
But social networking doesn't just mean getting as many followers, messages or 'Likes' as possible. When entering the industry, you need to be raising awareness of yourself and your work, and creating as many contacts as possible. Talk to people that you would only have dreamed of talking to before. I did the same and I'm now lucky enough to be able to call some of them friends.
As important as social networking is, it's crucial not to hide behind the computer. As a graduate or student you should be full of enthusiasm, and let it show. Network at as many local events or conferences as possible. If you're anything like me, I can guarantee you that it will absolutely terrify you at first. But the more you open yourself up to new experiences, the more likely you are to be able to make a name for yourself and get noticed.
The most important thing I can tell you, though, is this: love what you do. Pour everything you are into it and, eventually, you'll be great.
Words: Rachel Shillcock
This article first appeared in issue 222 of .net magazine - the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.