It seems odd to be writing this post, eleven months on from my recruitment to South West Literature Development Agency, Cyprus Well, initially as a part time web-updater and administrator, but then to the full time post of coordinator. A year ago I was a Masters student writing a dissertation, working part time as a porter at the University, and volunteering in the Cyprus Well office. I had no idea what I wanted to do, or where I'd end up.
So, how do you go from volunteer to employee?
I'd like to tell this story, and offer some tips to those looking to work in the arts.
1. Apply for leaderships positions in student societies
While I was an undergraduate, I studied hard, played hard and enjoyed involving myself with a few societies. The most important of which was undoubtedly the Creative Writing Society, of which I was President and then co-editor of their journal. It may seem obvious to say this, but there are a whole load of skills you can develop through involvement in student societies: budget management, planning events/workshops, project management, database management, and editorial experience. I don't think I really realised how much I learned until making that list, but these are all transferable skills that are highly relevant to work in the arts.
2. Work part time
I always did a double take when I met people at University who had never had a job before. Granted, for me, it became essential as a way of saving up for my Masters Degree, but regardless, I started working part time when I was sixteen and I can't advocate this enough. Personally, I don't like the attitude of entitlement that is bred among people I know whose parents have paid for everything they've wanted. In relation to getting work in the arts, it is essential that you demonstrate a good work ethic, and the ability to communicate with a variety of people. These are skills I know I learned by working in retail and on a busy reception desk, and they've served me well.
3. Become involved in your community
It could just be Exeter, but there is a university 'bubble', which means many students can live completely separately from anything else that's happening in Exeter. To me, this seemed like a real loss in terms of the writing community, and led me to take advantage of my position in a student society, and decide to begin a new open mic poetry night in town, where local poets were invited, as well as students. Aside from making some really great friends with local writers, it also got me noticed. When Cyprus Well were organising the first Exeter Poetry Festival, they heard about my open mic night and asked if I'd like to be a volunteer. That's how I found my way in.
4. Know how to work independently
When volunteering/working for a small arts organisation, there will likely be loads to do. This means that the ability to get on with things and to show initiative it vital. I first got asked to do some paid hours when a member of staff was leaving, and it was during this three month period that I proved myself capable of independent work, and made myself infinitely more employable.
5. Have ideas, and share them
Nothing is more endearing to potential employers than a young person with ideas. I went into my interview having several suggestions of small projects I'd like to begin were I to be offered the full time position. The best way of proving you're a creative, motivated person is to make suggestions. Ok, some of these may need funding that isn't available, but the very fact that you're coming up with these ideas proves that you have passion and enthusiasm, and that you are the sort of person who will be an asset to their organisation
Of course, some of what I have achieved has been due to being in the right place at the right time, but it's also the result of hard work and perseverance.
It is possible to gain employment from volunteer work.