Volunteering, Internships & Setting Up a Side Hustle: a grad’s reflection on how to get ahead.

Article

7 min read

Author: Santiago Beltran Diaz

In a job market more competitive than we’ve seen in years, what can tertiary students or recently graduated students (grads) do to maximise their chances of landing a dream job? After completing a 5+ year double Degree in Biomedical Science and Materials Engineering, I am now the co-Founder of a medical technology start-up, and a graduate engineer at one of Melbourne’s leading healthtech product development and commercialisation companies. It’s fair to say then, that I’ve definitely been there, done that. For uni students and grads alike, eyeballing the job market can be a daunting task, but there are numerous (and often incredibly stimulating) proactive steps candidates can take to increase their employability. In the following article, I reflect on my own university journey and some of the key initiatives I took along the way to optimise my post-uni employability, and share some of the big lessons I learnt along the way.

In the beginning …

Over the first couple of years of my Degree, I placed most of my focus on excelling academically; believing good grades would be one of the major factors contributing to my employability down the track. After completing my first year, I had my eyes set on working in the field of prosthetics and therefore started to consider undertaking a Masters after my Degree to follow this passion. However, halfway through my Degree I began to wonder, “What if I go down the prosthetics route and I don’t actually like it? Will I have to start all over again?”.

I soon realised ‘dipping my toes in the water’ would be a far smarter / less risky approach – I needed to somehow get a feel for what prosthetics entailed. Like many students, I quickly started looking for internships, however soon discovered it was hard to snag one in this area without the right qualifications – particularly given I was only mid way through my studies. Here’s how I tackled these kinds of problems head on, and ended up where I am in my early professional career today.

Internships

To try different work experiences that were related to what I was studying, I dedicated one entire summer to a research internship. Immersing myself in a lab environment for this period of time not only offered me great insight into research and the application of what I was studying, but taught me that research perhaps wasn’t quite my thing (at least not research that involved studying features at the nanoscale). I later participated in another research internship which lasted 18 months. This role gave me the unique opportunity to write a published article, which was a highly valuable experience, and a critical stepping stone to my graduate role.

Both internships enabled me to bring to life a lot of the theoretical knowledge I had been learning throughout my Degree, and develop a wide range of practical techniques too. Being able to put theory into practice was incredibly rewarding as I was able to embed the studies I was undertaking via real-world applications. I was also able to see what ‘a day in the life of’ a researcher was truly like, whether it be an Honours, PhD, or postdoc. Internships also gave me the opportunity to talk to people that had followed the career pathway I was considering, imparting valuable knowledge that I wouldn’t have been able to access via online research, or attending information sessions.

Exchange

One of my major goals for university was completing an exchange semester overseas. Halfway through my Degree I was fortunate to travel to Denmark to study for six months. This was a truly exceptional, eye-opening experience. I got to travel, meet great people, and live overseas, but most of all, these six months pulled me out of the narrow academic approach I had previously been taking to uni. For the first time, I was living away from home and close friends – an experience which challenged me to learn more about myself than ever before. I was forced to push past the comforts and safety nets I would typically have relied on, and challenged to problem solve and grow as an individual. When I look back at my university years, this exchange was a pivotal turning point for me – a circuit breaker which reframed my thinking, and allowed me to take a refreshing new approach to my studies.

One of the most remarkable experiences I had in Denmark, which has definitely paved the way to deciding my career path after university, was attending a medical technology hackathon. This is a great example of something I would never have done back home due to being “too busy” with other extracurricular activities. This hackathon truly opened my mind to the world of medical technology. It not only allowed me to interact with local companies, but tackle some of the real-world challenges they were facing. Immersing myself in an intense design process, and working towards a solution to a clearly defined problem heightened my interest in this industry.

While international exchanges might not be as easy in a 2020+ world, do your best to explore opportunities outside of your home city. Scour the web and your network to understand what exciting sabbatical opportunities might be available in regional/rural locations or interstate, taking time off can be daunting but a truly rewarding experience.

Volunteering

The exposure to the hackathon led me to become more involved with student groups back in Australia. My determination inspired me to co-found Monash Young Med Tech Innovators (MYMI), a medtech student group providing students with opportunities to gain exposure to the medical technology industry.

Co-creating MYMI challenged me in so many ways. It taught me concepts I wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to in the classroom and gave me a taste of medtech commercialisation and entrepreneurship. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of my time with MYMI – it launched me into an industry I knew very little about, and allowed me an opportunity to further develop soft skills that would ultimately give me an edge when applying for graduate roles. Communicating with a wide variety of audiences, managing a team of over thirty members, fostering strategic partnerships with promising stakeholders, and adapting the direction of the organisation; were some of the tasks that truly helped to develop these all-important soft skills.

MYMI was also the springboard project for my current start-up company. While the whole concept of entrepreneurship only became known to me in the last two years of my Degree, it remains key to both professional roles I play today; as start-up co-Founder, and graduate systems engineer alike.

Lessons learnt

Every one of these experiences culminated in building the knowledge, confidence, and experience required to land my first graduate role in an industry I love and contribute to today. Today, I’m thoroughly enjoying a career in med-tech, and continue to draw on my university experiences to grow even further day in, day out. Of course I still have much to learn, and my professional journey is only just beginning, but do hope the aforementioned experiences and learnings will help others to make the very most of opportunities that arise throughout their tertiary lives, and beyond.

Some parting thoughts:

  • Test as much as you can. As much as gaining experience gives you an edge, it’s also an exercise in learning what you like/don’t like. Don’t stop until you find your passions/curiosity points – it’s absolutely worth the effort!
  • Getting an edge is about more than just performing better academically. Get experience in other areas that will help build your profile and demonstrate your ability to rise up to challenges.
  • Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. You won’t always have the answers, but being uncomfortable means you’re learning. Thrive on this feeling to make the most of the opportunities that come up!
  • It’s okay to stumble. We humans are constantly learning, and are constant works in progress. This is even more the case towards the end of university, as we transition into the workforce. Don’t expect perfection or a linear pathway to personal and professional success.
  • There is no defined path. There are so many ways to get to where you want to be and achieve your goals. Be creative about how you wish to get there!