Learning on the job

By at home

Work experience can be one of the most valuable ways to get in to your chosen career, as you can prove what you’re capable of to those who count. We speak to four successful people for whom practical experience paid dividends

Charlotte Moreso, 35, is managing director of True Grace PR, a beauty press relations agency

My work experience

‘In 1995, I took a year-long course at St James’ College in London to get qualifications in PR, marketing and advertising. The college arranged work experience for students and when I found out my stint was at the cosmetics company Estée Lauder, I was thrilled. ‘My tasks weren’t nearly as glitzy as the people who worked there, but I didn’t care. I remember having to photocopy press releases and ringing journalists to see who’d be coming to launches. Listening in to every conversation possible, I tried to absorb it all and learn how things worked. ‘I went back to college knowing what
I wanted to do for a career.’

My career path
‘When college was over, Estée Lauder asked me back to help out. I waited around for a while to see if a permanent position came up, but in vain.
‘In 1996, I landed a job with an agency as junior PR for Asda’s health and beauty range. Two years later, I moved to another agency as account manager for its Schwarzkopf Professional account. ‘I moved to Tesco in 2004, and headed up their own health and beauty brands. ‘After my children Jake, six, and Grace, four, came along, I decided to go freelance for a year. Then I returned to a permanent position as associate director of another agency, heading up brands such as Pretty Polly and Palmer’s.’

My position now
‘This January, I set up my own agency. It’s called True Grace PR after my daughter Grace. My regular clients include: Pupa bodycare, glominerals cosmetics, Indiba Deep Beauty spa treatments, Spongelle, Tattoo Secret and Keep Calm and Carry On. ‘Being responsible for my own time is refreshing. I’ll never forget what I got from doing work experience myself so will be looking to give someone else that chance, too.’ Go to: www.truegracepr.com 

John Ellis, 51, works as senior curator of higher vertebrates and horticulture at Zoological Society of London (ZSL) London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo

My work experience
‘To help a bird project I was doing for my O-levels, I applied for a fortnight’s work experience at Chester Zoo. If the task was grotty, I was asked to do it and I became an expert at scrubbing dry parrot poo. ‘But the keepers were really patient with me, and I hung on their every word. The animals were amazing as every single one had a story. In short, I loved it. ‘Needless to say, I got fantastic marks on my project. And I returned to do more work experience in between exams.’

My career path
‘Chester Zoo offered me a job as a trainee zoo keeper in the bird department, and I started working there aged 17. Apparently I was the youngest person to be promoted from trainee zoo keeper. ‘I left that zoo after four years, then realised my dream of working as a bird keeper for the Wildlife Park at Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust in Jersey. Gerald Durrell had been my hero for years. ‘I noticed others around me starting their zoo careers with a degree, and it made me realise how my work experience had given me a head start.

If I’d gone down the academic route, too, there was no way I’d have able to reach my level already. ‘The head keeper of birds job came up at Chessington World of Adventures in 1993, and I moved there. ‘I’d been promoted to assistant zoo manager when I spotted the curator of birds job at the Zoological Society of London. But as applicants needed a degree, I didn’t think I stood a chance. Thankfully, I was wrong.’

My position now
‘In 2007, I was promoted to my current role and now have a fantastic 120-strong team. ‘Obviously, work experience was life-changing for me, and it can also be that way for our placement students. We’re a lot more competitive than Chester Zoo – there are strict criteria and we’re booked up years in advance.’ Go to: www.zsl.org

Make the most of your placement
Top tips from the National Council For Work Experience…

  • BEFORE Set some personal objectives. Ask yourself what you want to get out of the experience.
  • DURING Don’t be afraid to ask questions and take notes when you’re being briefed by your boss.
  • AFTER Ask for a reference from the company – this will stand you in good stead for moving on to a permanent job.

Chris Lehane, 36, is principal scientific officer of the Chromosome Segregation Laboratory
at Cancer Research UK

My work experience
‘Aged 17, I applied to help out in the pathology labs of a hospital in Hemel Hempstead for eight weeks. It was part of my BTEC National Diploma in Science. ‘Instead of leaving me to watch over someone’s shoulder, they trained me up and put me to work – while still overseeing me. ‘Much of the work involved putting urine samples on Petri dishes. There were also post-vasectomy checks, where we had to observe sperm under a microscope to see if it was still moving. ‘I enjoyed the practical side of the job and thanks to that placement, I grew to love laboratory bench work.’

My career path
‘After finishing college in 1993, I landed a job as a laboratory aide at the charity that’s now Cancer Research UK. Although my role involved washing glassware, my manager encouraged me to do more. In time, I was promoted to assistant scientific officer. ‘Cancer Research UK supported me to do a part-time honours degree in Applied Biology alongside work, and in 2000 when I graduated, I became scientific officer.’

My position now
‘I’m now principal scientific officer of the Chromosome Segregation Laboratory. I run the lab day-to-day and oversee 10 people. ‘I don’t take on work experience students myself, but Cancer Research UK does have 12-week placements (see right). I’ll always remember my stint in that path lab though.’ Go to: www.cancerresearchuk.org

Charlotte Roden, 21, is doing work experience in the charity sector

My work experience
‘I graduated from university a few weeks ago and am now on a two-month work experience placement with Fight for Sight, a charity that funds research into eye diseases. ‘Before this, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do as a career. A friend knew the charity was looking for a summer intern, and I applied. ‘Fight for Sight is paying my travel and lunch expenses, and I’m lucky to be able to live at home with my parents.

I wouldn’t have been able to do this otherwise. ‘There are about 12 people in the Fight for Sight team and I’m currently helping with fund-raising. I have always loved talking to people, and this might be the area I want to work in. Without doing the placement I might not have found that out. ‘It’s my first time working in an office and these days I think it’s essential for graduates to have this type of experience. When I’m applying for jobs I’ll be able to say I have some practical experience. ‘Everyone at Fight for Sight is so encouraging, which is great for building my confidence. I feel much more employable already.’

Fight for Sight’s Chief Executive, Michele Acton, says: ‘We’ve all been impressed by how quickly Charlotte has fitted into the team and how keen she is to learn. In the short time she’s been with us, she has demonstrated the confidence to get on with things and her enthusiasm and manner make people want to help her succeed. It’s a winning combination!’ Go to: www.fightforsight.org.uk or call 020 7929 7755.

Pictures: Paula Harrowing

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