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Are you considering a role in commercial planning or heritage consultancy? Assistant Heritage Consultant Mya Plumley-Beere gives her top tips on how to prepare for life in employment.

When people talk about the transition from university to working life, they talk about the need to set regular sleep patterns, to start thinking carefully about budgeting and to prepare to have less free time (makes it sound exciting doesn’t it!). But what I have found people don’t talk about is the difference between how universities prepare you for industry, and what work is actually like.  Of course, I can only speak from my personal experience with university and the Heritage sector, but this is what I’ve learned. 

When I first started my Masters, I had no idea what I was going to write my dissertation on, let alone what job I wanted at the end of it. These things came as a result of my modules, conversations with peers and work experience outside of the MA. By the end of the year, I had developed a passion for the built historic environment, culminating in 15,639 words on the value of retrofitting and adaptive reuse in the face of a changing climate. Having spent months of my life researching and writing about this topic, as well as completing modules focusing on consultancy, policy and law, I thought I’d have a relatively good understanding of everything I’d need for a job as an Assistant Heritage Consultant…right?

In part - yes. University in general teaches you a lot of transferable skills that will apply to whatever you end up doing after graduation: group projects teach you about teamwork, presentations enhance your public speaking skills, and short placement modules let you dip your toes in the world of stakeholder and resource management.

But on the other hand - not at all. In the relatively short time I have been with Avalon, I have learned so much: the different types of reports, what a local plan is, how to take a half-decent picture of a room (and remember which room it actually was when I get back to the office), and how many components make up a staircase (hint: it's more than you think). At times this has filled me with a sense of imposter syndrome which I think is common in graduates entering their chosen industry for the first time, but I am lucky to say that the team here at Avalon have been nothing but supportive. 

From what I can tell, the main difference between university and working life is the application of the content. Whilst knowing a lot about the historiography and theory behind critical heritage studies will get you a good grade in an essay, it won't win you points with a conservation officer who isn’t a fan of the double glazing your client is trying to put into their Grade II listed cottage. Functional knowledge is more valuable in the commercial context than the primarily theoretical knowledge that university priorities. When you’re at uni, graduating feels like the end of your formal education, but having started work, I think it was more of a springboard.

That in mind, here are 5 tips I’d give to recent or soon to be graduates thinking about entering the world of commercial consultancy:

  1. Read up on the legislation and policy - I know it doesn’t exactly sound like an exciting afternoon activity, but this really is the foundation for everything in commercial practice. Grab a cup of tea and get your head around as much of it as you can - I promise it’ll be worth it!
  2. Technical Guidance - sorry, more reading… but the technical guidance is really useful (and free!). A lot of Historic England’s guidance is designed for homeowners as well as consultants, so it's very accessible and covers pretty much everything you need to know. Historic England also has recordings of previous ‘Technical Tuesday’ webinars available on their website, if that’s a format you prefer.
  3. Get networking - I know talking to new people isn’t for everyone, but a lot of commercial practice (rightly or wrongly) is based on who you know. Set yourself up on LinkedIn and start building your professional network as soon as possible.
  4. Look for a company that shares your values - In consultancy, you don’t always get to choose which side of a case you’re arguing. Picking a company that shares your values (environmental/ social ect.) will mean you're less likely to find yourself at odds with your conscience. 
  5. Don’t panic! -  It's important to remember that when you first start out, no one expects you to have all the answers. You wouldn’t have been hired if your employer didn’t think you had the right experience, so get stuck in, ask questions and back yourself!