Q: Can you give any tips on juggling voluntary work and a job that pays the bills? I’m a 27-year old languages graduate, but I really want to do further study and work in the ecology/conservation area. However, most universities will only accept students with a primary degree in a relevant subject or a mature student with good experience. I am considering volunteering to work my way up in the sector before applying for the qualification. How do I go about getting that experience on a voluntary basis?

If you are not locked into a particular college at, or close to, home; you could first consider looking abroad for an appropriate course. You may also be able to take advantage of EU funding to participate in such a programme.

If you are staying close to home, clearly you need to ‘pay the bills’ with a job that pays maximum cash for minimal time outlay and that confers the further advantage of flexibility with regard to working hours. Two possibilities that immediately occur to me are:

(1) Specialised translation work, which can be conducted almost entirely over the internet and is therefore not location-specific or
(2) Something in the hospitality arena which offers high potential for tips. You can portray either approach as “Funding the next move” on your CV.

As to your options for voluntary work in the ecology/conservation arena, it will typically involve either grunt-work in the field or administrative work in an office environment. If you want to take it a stage higher than that, what about looking to Europe for a policy role? You may be able to get a graduate internship at subsistence rates within the EU, the UN or the OECD, any of which would give you improved credibility in applying for a post-graduate course and also would kick-start your network in your desired field.

When you are moving outside of your designated or obvious ‘box‚’ you are effectively asking someone to take a risk on you‚ whether it be giving you a job or granting you a place on a course. When applying, in writing or in person, it is imperative that you recognise this a provide a high degree of reassurance as to your commitment, your professionalism and be ready to concretely demonstrate that you are working to a plan – make sure that you really distinguish yourself from the herd in this regard.

Finally, when you are moving out of your specialist area it is always a good idea to look to your network to see if there is anyone who can give you any sort of assistance – these days, this typically comes in the form of information and ideas rather than a steer to an actual job. Most people have approximately 30 people who really care about them. Definition of “care”? Enough to take a call from you or to make a call on your behalf. The trick is to realise that each of those 30 people has their own circle of 30 around them. If you don’t think that you have a network, you are wrong – you are one phone call away from 900 possible new leads. This is not nepotism, it’s not needy and pathetic, it is the fundamental career management skill.

Come on! You’re not asking Don Corleone to cap the guy who dishonoured your daughter here! We’re talking about information and ideas – no body-count involved.

“A good friend will help you move house. A best friend will help you move a body.”