Alternatives to Grad Schemes

Wondering what’s next after uni? Not keen on grad schemes? Looking for something different but unsure of your options?
Don’t worry, graduate training programmes are not the only way! Sure, they can provide a great kick-start to your career, but they are extremely competitive and not the answer for everyone. In fact, only 14% of applicants are accepted and most graduates start working-life on a different path. So, even if you’re applying for some of these programmes, it’s well worth exploring the many exciting alternatives to grad schemes out there, which may suit you better…
Which career direction?

Apply for a graduate scheme later

Entry level graduate jobs

SMEs (Small & Medium-sized Enterprises)

Speculative applications

Internships & work experience

Start your own business

Postgraduate study

Travel, or work abroad

Career gap year

Final thoughts


Apply for a Graduate Scheme later


Don’t give up if you missed out first time round, or you’re just not ready to apply before this year’s deadlines. You are eligible for many of these programmes up to 3 years after graduating. So consider getting relevant experience elsewhere, and applying/reapplying later.
Also, there are other routes into these blue-chip companies: apply for an entry level graduate job, try a
speculative approach
or opt for an internship.

Graduate Schemes
What they can offer, what to expect from the selection process, tips for success & useful sources of grad scheme opportunities


Entry Level Graduate Jobs

 Man going to work

If you know you are keen to specialise in a particular field, you might be better off applying for entry level graduate jobs in your preferred companies rather than going for a more generalised scheme that moves you around various departments over a couple of years. Even if the starting salary is lower, you could progress faster by gaining experience in your particular specialism.
Entry level graduate jobs are still very competitive, but the application process might be slightly less demanding than for graduate programmes. You will also find more openings, and in a wider variety of businesses, large and small, across all industries, because numerous companies are looking for graduate talent!
Where to find entry level jobs: Jobs boards, top graduate recruiters, specialist recruitment agencies for your industry/career, attend careers fairs, LinkedIn, leverage your network, try speculative approaches. For more suggestions see Where to search.

Applying for jobs
How to tackle graduate job applications & succeed at each stage of the recruitment process, plus different ways of applying


SMEs (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises)

Consider smaller companies and the start-up scene.
SMEs account for 99% of all companies in the UK, and 3/4 of graduate jobs are with these smaller businesses, charities and the public sector, so don’t miss out by focusing solely on the big corporates! The openings might be slightly harder to find, but there are plenty of reasons for choosing an SME over the well-known big graduate recruiters; they can provide equally exciting careers.

Whilst you might not have a lengthy formal training programme, you will benefit from hands-on training, working alongside senior staff, interaction with most areas of the organisation, and more responsibility early on, which all means you will learn a lot, and fast. This sort of experience could provide a stepping-stone to a larger organisation, if that was your ultimate goal. And remember, in recent years there have been a whole raft of small companies that made it big, really big! (Amazon, Facebook, Google, Groupon, Instagram YouTube, Spanx, Skyscanner, TOMs Shoes, Tough Mudder, Under Armour… etc. etc.)
SMEs do not always actively publicise opportunities, so you will have to search hard and get creative with how you approach them e.g. through networking, their social media channels and speculative applications.

Find out more about this hidden jobs market, why graduates should consider working for SMEs and how to get into them.


Speculative Approaches

Apply directly to companies that interest you. Even if they are not actively recruiting, it is well worth approaching them with a well-crafted cover letter and CV.Lady with CV
A speculative approach demonstrates initiative and a genuine interest in a company. It also allows you to show your personality, which is less easy through a generic application process. Explain what you can offer and enquire about job opportunities or internships/work experience, which can be a good route to a permanent role.
The speculative route is a particularly effective way of applying to smaller companies, where jobs may not be widely advertised. Whilst you might have to send a lot of letters to get a connection, because you are not applying for a known vacancy, competition will be less intense.

Speculative applications
Tips & what to include


Internships & Work Experience

If you are struggling to get a full-time job, or you’re unclear about your career direction, try to get an internship in your preferred industry. It’s a great way to test the water, to see if the sector and type of work suits you. It could even lead to a permanent role. But whatever the outcome, the experience will improve your employability, by making you work-ready; in this competitive graduate labour market, that could be an important differentiator.


‘Two fifths of recruiters warn that graduates without any previous work experience at all, are unlikely to be successful during the selection process and have little or no chance of receiving a job offer, irrespective of their academic achievements or the university they attended.’

Source: Highfliers – The Graduate Market


Earn cash
An internship will give you industry knowledge and highly transferable skills. You are likely to make useful professional contacts, who could help with career advice and possibly open doors in the future. And you could earn a bit of cash – the majority of internships must now be paid at least the minimum wage, and most leading graduate employers now also offer paid work experience programmes for students and graduates.
If you are unable to get a placement with your first choice employer, try another business in the same field. Your relevant experience will improve your chances later on. Also, an internship with a smaller company could provide you with hands-on training and more responsibility, making you an attractive proposition for a larger employer, if that was your end goal.
Find out more about internships and how to get the most out of work experience.

Start Your Own Business

Side hustleWould you prefer to work for yourself?
Do you have a professional qualification, skill or trade that would enable you to do freelance, consultancy or contract work? Or perhaps you have a genius business idea and an entrepreneurial spirit, and you’re keen to pursue the start-up route?
Self-employment offers many attractions such as freedom to make your own decisions, flexibility to work when and how you want and recognition for everything you create or achieve. This all contributes to high levels of job satisfaction, and considerable earnings potential if you are successful.
But you need to be sure that the self-employed life is right for you. Being your own boss might sound like the dream, but it brings total responsibility for everything, from providing the goods/services, marketing and sales, to managing the finances and people. And if it’s just you, you’ll be making the tea as well as the decisions! In the early days, if you’re working alone, it can feel lonely and tough to stay motivated, and income can be unpredictable. Be prepared to deal with uncertainty and risk, plus the fact that your business can take over your life at times.
Running your own business inevitably requires hard work, tenacity and perseverance, but it can be super rewarding. Don’t let the fear of failure put you off; whatever the outcome, you will learn loads about yourself, rack up a huge amount of transferrable skills and feel a great sense of self-fulfilment. Also, know that most organisations really value entrepreneurial spirit, should you decide to go into employment.

 Self Employment
Helpful resources for anyone contemplating self-employment

See our bite-size interviews and blogs by entrepreneurs who tell it how it really is, to help decide whether this could be the right path for you. Here are a few of our favourites:

Grad Bites: Starting Sancho’s Ethical Fashion
Kalkidan tells how she has grown her business from its original Exeter pop-up shop. She discusses working in a partnership, financing their venture & what they have learned along the way.


For those Budding Business Brains…
Young entrepreneur, Jamie, gives a light-hearted view of why so many graduates are shunning the comfort of corporates for the thrill of start-ups.


Grad Bites: Find What You Really Want To Do
A truly inspiring story of 2 guys who left UK corporate life to set up something amazing. They started Malawi’s first fruit processing industry, & they will leave you feeling that anything is possible….


Postgraduate Study

further educationIf you have just graduated, a return to university might be the furthest thing from your mind. But a postgraduate qualification can bring personal rewards and professional advantages, enhancing your career prospects and earnings potential.
Some professions require further study at postgraduate level e.g. law, education, architecture and certain areas of healthcare. A Masters can also provide an opportunity to specialise and develop expertise in a particular subject, or to change career direction.
But do make sure you are studying for the right reasons. A Masters degree involves time and considerable costs, and it’s unnecessary for some careers. Be clear how the qualification will help you achieve your goals, or whether the expertise and experience you would gain from an extra years’ work would be more beneficial.
You could also consider lower cost, short courses, which could be combined with part time work. Or broaden your horizons and study abroad.

Further Education
Postgraduate study & short courses


Grad Bites: Doing an MBA
Michael explains why he did an MBA & how it has helped his career


5 Benefits of Professional Training
How a training programme could improve your prospects


Go Abroad to Work or Travel

Now could be a good time to explore more of the world, discover different cultures, become fluent in a second language or learn a new one, before you settle intGo travellingo working life. It could give you time to reflect on your career plans while you gain valuable life experience.
As well as personal enrichment, a period spent overseas can also increase your employability. Multinational companies will appreciate your global outlook and interest in other cultures. And, whether you are working abroad or travelling, international experience demonstrates to potential employers that you are self-motivated, organised, resourceful and able to adapt to change and take on new challenges.

 Global Graduates
Opportunities & support for students & graduates who want to work, teach, volunteer or study abroad   


How to Find a Job in another Country
If you’re considering taking the leap, see Stuart’s tips for finding employment in a new country


Why it’s Ok to Say No to Grad Schemes
Harrie abandoned her graduate job in advertising to follow her own exciting path. She shares ideas to help you find alternative jobs


Do Something Different
Organisations to help find a fulfilling alternative to corporate life, including working or studying abroad

 Which career direction?

Unsure Where to Start? Consider a ‘Career Gap Year

Many students leave university without a clear idea of career direction. And that’s OK. You have a long time of work ahead of you, and your career path may take many turns, so don’t feel pressurised to find all the answers now.
To guide you towards a starting point, you could take a ‘working gap year’ or even a ‘gap-few-months’ – including temporary jobs, tutoring or freelancing to earn some cash, and a selection of internships, work experience, volunteering, further learning and travel.
You will then have a better idea of what you enjoy, the way you like to work and fields that interest you. The experience you gather will make you work-ready, equip you with transferrable skills and expand your network, all of which will help with your subsequent job search.


‘Focus on building transferrable skills, then you’ll be ready for anything’

Fraser Wood, Digital Strategist & Agile Coach



Final Thoughts

Finding your first graduate job can be tough. You will have to be resourceful and may need to try various different approaches. Where you are unsuccessful, learn from the experience, try to remain positive and resilient. It is often a numbers game, but you will get there!
There are plenty of routes you can take after university and everyone’s journey is different. Whatever you choose to do now, it is not a lifetime commitment. These days, careers are much more fluid and flexible, and you might try several different things over the course of your working life. So, don’t worry if you’re unsure about your career direction and don’t fret about finding the perfect job. Think about what you would like to do for the next few years, and just give it a go!
Good Luck!   🙂 

Find out more about career direction:

Grad Bites: Not a Clue What to Do? Help from a Life Coach
Watch this bite-size video from an early careers life coach, who helps graduates and young adults work out what they really want and how to get there


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