My Graduate Life: Caitlin McGarry

About Me

Hi, I’m Caitlin McGarry! I’m 22 years old, from Northern Ireland, and soon moving to Reading, England as an incoming member of Virgin Media Business’ graduate scheme. In July 2020, I graduated from Ulster University with First Class in BSc (Hons) Communication, Advertising and Marketing degree. Beyond academia and job stuff, I am a lover of fitness, coffee, travelling, meeting people, taking photographs and learning about vegetarianism and sustainability. 

From Classroom to Lecture Hall

In May/June 2016, I completed ‘GCEs’ or ‘A Levels’. Like the majority of school pupils, I had not a notion of what I wanted to do. Teachers, friends and family in every direction were rhyming off job titles: doctor, teacher, lawyer, vet…a visiting careers advisor even suggested becoming an author. All of these careers are completely different from the business, languages and social sciences subjects that eventually made their way into my 5 choices on my university application.

I loved studying most of my subjects. That’s all fun and games, until the deadline for the UCAS application is fast-approaching and you must narrow down ‘the world being your oyster’ to 5 universities/university course choices. A friends’ sister told me that “everyone kind of, just, falls into their degree subject”, which scared me more than anything, being someone who can be quite indecisive, at times.

I was convinced up until Lower 6th (6th year) that I would become a journalist. So, my local newspaper kindly offered me some voluntary short-term work experience.

Fast-forward to the beginning of Upper Sixth (7th year) and I was adamant that I would pursue teaching. Naturally, when my school allowed me to leave early one day per week (win-win) to complete work experience in a local primary school, I jumped at the chance. I definitely recommend gaining work experience, even if it is short-term.

Although I liked the idea of becoming a primary school teacher, I was apprehensive that pursuing a ‘niche degree’ would be limiting. Although this isn’t true, the thought of my career being completely mapped-out at 18 years old scared me (again, indecisive).

When decision-time came, Google was my best companion. I was able to access university ranking websites, online prospectuses, reviews etc. I was convinced that I would study in Northern Ireland, but I was still so caught up in ‘the world is your oyster’ that I wrote down every course that my A Levels qualified for (i.e. anything maths or science-based was out.)

Eventually, I read-up on the BSc (Hons) degree in Communication, Advertising and Marketing at Ulster University. Immediately, I knew it was something I would be interested in. So, at the upcoming university open day, I made sure to enquire about it.

I really recommend university open days. They allow you to talk to lecturers, students and to gain a general ‘feel’ for the place where you may spend your next life chapter. You might even be made aware of similar courses that you may be more interested in or, should results day not go to plan, courses that have lower entry requirements.

Having not studied any business subjects prior, I was apprehensive about applying for CAM. Still, I liked the variety of modules offered and felt that it suited my interests. CAM became my first choice, and thankfully I got offered a place! With modules ranging from interpersonal communication and digital media, to public relations and advertising; I loved exploring the different areas of the broad marketing communications industry.

Placement Year: Finding an Internship

What I would consider one of the best things about my degree is that is a ‘sandwich’ degree, meaning that it involves an optional placement year. This is a whole year dedicated to finding out if what you want to do is actually what you want to do.

The main ways to gain a placement are to search and apply for internships/placements on company websites, employment websites, to contact companies directly (without pestering them), or via university. Ask your tutors where past placement students or alumni ended up working, and don’t underestimate how helpful your university careers’ department might be.

Second year can be hugely pressurised for university students applying for placements.

Applications take time. Don’t be disheartened in the (very likely) case that you aren’t successful in your first, second or even third application. Keep exploring what roles you are interested in and that you qualify for, apply and don’t lose hope, which I appreciate is easier said than done. Stick with the process. The perseverance is rewarding in itself.

I knew from the get-go that I wanted to land a job outside of NI. Eventually, I landed an absolutely dream 12-month placement at a mid-size media agency in Boston, Massachusetts. My international placement experience went beyond expectations; an experience which immersed me in the world of media and enhanced my global awareness beyond measure.

Moving into an unfurnished house in an unknown city and only with dollars in your pocket that you converted before you left Belfast. The first day involved no phone or WiFi; the first week no heating or aircon, no running water and no electricity; but I can safely say that moving to America for placement was the greatest decision I ever made.

I had no idea what to expect on my first day of placement. Little did I know that I would be lucky enough to work with many wonderful clients, help to enhance brands and work to create innovative and bespoke marketing strategies. My placement helped fortify my academic knowledge, brought theory into application and practice, and ignited a passion for working in media.

Caitlin spent her placement year working in Boston.

Final Year

Re-entering student life is strange. Suddenly a Monday-Friday, 9-6pm job becomes 3 days of university and a part-time job. There is required reading, recommended reading, independent research, assignments, exams and (shock horror) having a free weekend is no longer guaranteed. Final year is busy. It’s cliché, but it’s true when lecturers say that “it’s all about time management”. It truly is. Managing your time does not equate to final year being a breeze, but it may save you from endless all-nighters.

Write a to-do list in the AM, with daily goals rather than weekly goals. Include a ‘quick tick’ list for things that take a few minutes or less to complete – it’ll set the day with you feeling motivated. Leave room for flexibility and don’t ‘over plan’. Things can creep up that may take over and you’ll be more productive in the long-run if you haven’t assigned tasks into a specific time-block. Try not to multitask too much. You may find things are completed more quickly and to a better standard if you focus your attention to one thing at a time.

Dissertation

Submitting my dissertation in partial fulfilment of my undergraduate degree was such a strange mix of emotions, and it was definitely bittersweet. It was a challenging, but extremely fulfilling, process to complete a piece of research entirely my own,10,997 words and almost 200 pages later.

I remember reading my university’s Dissertation Handbook for the first time. Although I was excited, I simultaneously felt my heart beat at a million mph. I began to consider wildly over-ambitious topics, the vast possibilities of superfluous titles I could have and the ‘never-done-before’ topics that I could research. There is a lot that wish I’d known back then.

Work with your dissertation supervisor. They’ve ‘been there and done that’ with their dissertation(s) and with endless students before you. They’re there to help you; they want to help you; and you need them to help you. You cannot go from student to researcher overnight.

Caitlin pictured having submitted her final year dissertation.

There is always room to slightly manoeuvre your dissertation title, so don’t overthink. You will doubt your topic and wonder ‘if it’s good enough; you’ll fret about whether it’s interesting, if it’s been done before, or if you’ve chosen the right topic altogether. If you mention your dissertation to family or friends, they will ask you what it’s about. They may expect a more impressive explanation than you can give. They may give you a strange look. Don’t be too fazed, they’re not the ones marking it. ALSO, do not ask classmates how much dissertation progress they’ve made. You’ll stress, they’ll stress and everyone ends up stressed. It’s not fun, and you don’t have time for it.

You will worry; you will think that writing a dissertation is impossible and you will feel that you’re not in control. You will feel that you’re behind, that you’re failing and/or that you ‘just don’t get it’. But you will get it, eventually. You will get there. You will finish it. It’s worth the effort and work to know that you’ve completed (what might be) your most significant and most important piece of work. Be proud of it and own it.

The Graduate Job Search

Amidst the final year frenzy, you are constantly reminded that you will soon finish your undergraduate degree. You will start to think of what graduate life might look like.

In semester one of final year, I updated my CV and began to research graduate opportunities. I was torn between taking a travel year, going back to the USA to work, doing a Masters, applying to a graduate scheme in the UK/Ireland…yeah, I hadn’t a notion.

I visited my university’s careers department. The staff were phenomenal at talking me through different options. Attending graduate fairs was invaluable (for the freebies) to talk to employers from different industries, and I collected every single brochure there. So many opportunities, and that ‘the world is your oyster’ phrase was thrown around once again.

A member of the careers team suggested that I create a document with upcoming application deadlines, where I could also track the progress of applications. This was actually really helpful, as I was able to include final year academic deadlines too, so all of 2019/20s’ deadlines were in one (positive, happy, fun) place.

Applying for graduate jobs takes time. There could be an initial application, a numerical/logical reasoning test, a video interview, a phone interview, an assessment centre and a final interview. Still, remember that you have to balance final year assignments and exams. Your studies should always come before job applications. The good thing about applying for graduate roles is that it isn’t as time-pressured as finding a placement – i.e. you don’t need to roll out of graduation into a graduate job the next day.

I had a list of companies that I would love to work for. Long-story short, I applied to a few different schemes and got to various stages in the applications. As one graduate scheme closes (i.e. you get rejected), another one opens (i.e. other opportunities go live), so don’t lose hope! Remember that if you get rejected from a company once, you could apply again in future intake seasons.

Virgin Media’s array of graduate schemes had always gained my attention. A well-known, award-winning company with a positive workplace culture is where I wanted to work. With a commitment to their employees and social responsibility, I applied for the Virgin Media ‘Business’ and ‘Customer’ graduate schemes.

Having numerous live applications between Virgin Media and other companies across the UK, I was called to three different assessment centres in January. Virgin Media’s assessment day happened to be in the middle of the end-of-semester exams. The journey to England involved revising at the airport, on the plane, on the train and in the Airbnb. It was really fun. As I was leaving my last exam the following week (like literally driving out of the university car park), I received a phone call offering me a place on the Virgin Media Business programme. I think I must have experienced every single emotion possible that Tuesday.

In February, the careers team came into one of our lectures and reminded us about Ulster University’s EDGE (Engagement, Development, Graduate Employability) Award, which we could apply for in April 2020. The EDGE Award is kindly sponsored by PwC and provides students with the ability to partake in activities outside of their academic studies. There are two levels: the EDGE Award involves completing 4 activities and the EDGE Excel Award involved completing 6 activities. Activities may be directly linked to your study field, or students can explore various personal/academic interests – there is a lot of scope!

For me, completing the EDGE Excel Award involved volunteering locally and internationally, being a course representative, gaining short and long-term work experiences within different industries, partaking in an advertising workshop with Publicity Association Northern Ireland and even participating in a leadership residential at an Army Cadet Training Centre.

Nowadays, employers require individuals who are adaptable, flexible and willing to work both independently and as part of a team, regardless of your industry. Most universities offer similar schemes to the EDGE Award. Completing this alongside your degree enables students to gain, develop and strengthen skills before entering graduate employment.  

Caitlin completed the EDGE Excel Award during her final year.

The End of the Tunnel

In final year, Monday and Tuesday became ‘Lecture, Coffee Shop and Library’ Days (until the March 2020 lockdown); Friday became ‘Dissertation Day’ and the rest of the week became ‘(Insert Module Name) Assignment’ Day. February became March, March became April, April became May. Although I was entering my personal work-filled and coffee-fuelled lockdown, the world was also going into coronavirus lockdown.

Caitlin graduated with a First Class Honours from Ulster University.

 Although it sounds doom and gloom, final year can actually still have a healthy dose of work and play. Remember that literally everyone is in the same boat. Keep your family and friends close, and make sure you still have a social life. Even if it is a (socially distant) coffee date, you absolutely do not need to lock yourself away. In fact, you’ll likely become more motivated, confident and productive if you step away and have a break. Second semester does eventually finish and you will get through it.

Amongst exams, deadlines and dissertation, my 4 years of university involved so much laughter, friendships and memories (pandemic aside). The Class of 2020 did not receive the ending that was anticipated, but it will make belated graduate ceremonies mean so much more

I am absolutely delighted (understatement of the century) to have graduated in July 2020 with First Class Honours in Communication, Advertising and Marketing at Ulster University. Here’s to the next chapter with Virgin Media Business on their Business graduate scheme (and a move to England)!

To anyone entering university, placement or a new job, good luck! You’ve got this. 🌟

Caitlin McGarry

Connect with Caitlin on LinkedIn & continue to follow her graduate journey!

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