Career Talk - Episode 3 transcript: Lan Xu

Transcript of podcast episode with alumni guest speaker, Lan Xu 

Podcast length: 28:23

Cate: Welcome everyone to another edition of Career Talk, the Careers Network at University of Birmingham podcast. I am Cate Linforth, I will be hosting today. I'm the International Employer Liaison Officer here at University of Birmingham, and I am so excited because today we are joined by our good friend and alumna, Lan Xu. Welcome Lan, how are you? 

Lan: I'm good thanks, very nice to meet you. 

Cate: Thank you so much for coming on today. We're really excited to talk to you a bit about your time at University of Birmingham and what you're up to now, and how you got there.  

I just wondered if initially you'd mind telling us a bit about yourself and where you're from, what you studied at the University of Birmingham and what you're up to now.

Lan: Sure, so I come from China, and I first came to the UK to study a foundation degree in Birmingham International Academy, so it's part of the University of Birmingham. Then, I progressed to study Business Management with Marketing. It was a fun three years for me and after graduation, I went straight to work in marketing, also in Birmingham as well. After a while I have quit the job now and I've decided to do a Masters in Finance. 

Cate: Great, and when you first came to Birmingham, or first came to the UK, what did you envisage yourself doing for your career? What did you want to go into after your studies? 

Lan: I think I was really open minded, I didn't really have a plan, because I thought it would be a great opportunity to explore during my studies anyway, so I didn't really think about that too much. I was trying to make my university experience as fun as possible, so just go with the flow. 

Cate: Definitely, and just try as much as possible to get that experience and see what naturally felt best for you. I think the fact that after your studies, you went straight into working for a marketing agency as well, just further enhances that trying everything and seeing what sticks. Now you're doing a Masters in Finance, and I know that you're probably about halfway into your masters right now? Have you started looking into different career options or are you solely focusing on studies right now? 

Lan: I'm currently focusing on my studies because doing a Masters is actually very challenging. At the same time, I'm also looking for graduate schemes. In the UK, graduate schemes, you have to apply before you graduate, approximately one year early so I've already applied for a few and hopefully will hear back from them. I think I’m currently mainly looking for jobs in finance instead of marketing because University of Birmingham has provided a very good study opportunity. When I was doing my degree in Marketing, I was actually having a chance to explore different modules, such as finance and I found it very interesting. That's why currently I'm changing my career path. 

Cate: That's great and it's great that you've had that opportunity to explore different options and try different things. On top of that, obviously we know you well at Careers Network because you worked with us. Did you want to talk little bit about your time outside of your studies at Birmingham, and what did you do in terms of jobs or internships or were you involved with any sports and societies as well? 

Lan: When I was studying at University of Birmingham, I felt that I had lots of opportunities to explore and everything. I joined the Chinese society, and I was actually the marketing officer there before. After that I just when went from there and tried to get more into marketing. I applied for a few internships, one is doing marketing in a start-up in Birmingham city centre.  

I feel that Birmingham is such a vibrant city and students actually have lots of opportunity to connect with the local network. It was really fun for me, studying at University of Birmingham because everyone was so friendly, and you can meet people from so many different backgrounds, compared to if you go to another university. 

Cate: It’s amazing, I haven't checked these figures in a little while, but when I first started working at Birmingham I think we had students from 170 different countries represented at Birmingham. It really is such a multicultural experience, and so I think for international students in particular, it's really great because not only do you get that British education experience and you get to immerse yourself in British culture, but also there are so many people from all around the globe. So you really do get a feel for the city of Birmingham being so multicultural, as well as the institution which I think is really helpful.  

How do you feel that your work with societies and and your internships and things, how do you feel they affected your job prospects when you were looking right after your studies? 

Lan: I feel that it was sort of important that students start to look for some work experience, even if it was unpaid for me in the beginning. It was just very helpful in terms of building your networks, before you graduate and then after graduation you just feel that oh you've actually got so many networks, and you can just get straight into work more easily. Obviously, when you are doing an undergraduate degree, sometimes is not too busy compared to a Masters so I feel like you can make full use of the time, and just make the best of it. 

Cate: Definitely, and I think it's a really great opportunity to work on your skills development and also look at ways in which you can enhance your CV while you're studying too. We always talk about societies and sports being such a crucial part in enhancing a student’s employment prospects as well, because they teach so many skills and especially if your leadership, within a society as well, and those are those are such beneficial experiences to have on your resume for when you finish. 
When you finished at University of Birmingham, or whilst you were studying rather, did you always plan to stay in the UK or were you hoping to return to China after your studies? Were you thinking that you would just go where wherever the opportunity took you? 

Lan: I was hoping to stay in the UK, because I didn't realize it was such a privilege to have the opportunity to meet so many people from different backgrounds. Also, I felt that for international students, it's also a very good experience to feel like oh what it's like to work in another country compared to your home country. You can always go back to your home country and work if you want to, but if you have a chance at the moment to work here to experience different things, I feel that you should just make full use of it while you can. 

Cate: Definitely and I think that brings me to my next question in terms of the differences in culture, especially with regard to career planning and the application processes. Did you find that there were any particular elements to work experience or applying for jobs in the UK that surprised you compared to what perhaps you were used to back in China or what you had been told to expect back in China? 

Lan: I think when I was studying in the UK, I was a bit surprised that students have to apply for graduate schemes so early because in China, or maybe other international countries, maybe you can still look for jobs like two or three months before your graduation. But in the UK if you really want to work in corporate or big companies, you really have to just push yourself to submit all the applications right before your term begins.  

It was a bit of a challenge, I think. Also, I feel that in the UK, and they focus so much on, for example, strength-based questions and what techniques you need to use like the STAR technique, I’m sure a lot of people have heard of it, so I think it's something that’s quite different from my country. 

Cate: Did you find that there were any particular things that you did at university or maybe within the Careers Network or within your academic department that helped prepare you for these differences or that helped prepare you for the job application processes that you are going through? 

Lan: I think University of Birmingham has one of the best career services out of so many universities in the UK, because I remember when I was studying in my first year or second year, I would always go to book an appointment with a Careers Consultant. There were so many slots available, because now I've realized in my current university they don't really have that many resources, compared to University of Birmingham. I think that sort of helped me a lot, because the Careers Consultants really look very deep into your CV, for example, and also try to find some websites that would be tailored to your career aspiration.  

Cate: Tell me a little bit about your role directly out of university. What did you do on the day to day? Well, before we talk about that, what was the application process like? Was there any aspect of the whole applying and interviewing that you felt perhaps less prepared or that you maybe had different expectations for? 

Lan: I was applying for SMEs in the UK, so it was marketing and I remember, I was just interested in the company because it's quite relevant to what I was studying, so I just drop them an email asking if they are recruiting any graduates. I think the first stage was actually a personality test, and they were trying to figure out if you are good fit for the company. I think not only SMEs are doing that, I think in terms of like corporates or big companies, now the first stage will be like, if you are a good fit for the company. Then after that, and because of the nature of marketing my task was a writing task, so I was asked to write an article within a few days. I just sent that over and then after that I passed it, so I went through to the interview with the manager and the director.  

Cate: Were you expecting all of these stages, or were there any stages of the process that you were asked to do a certain element, whether it was like the personality test or the writing, that you thought oh I wasn't quite expecting that? Or did it all seem to be the natural flow for you?  

Lan: For me, I was not expecting that exactly in or the normal interview that that you have to go through in every job. I think for SMEs it's really just up to them what they want to do, you really can't like Google research into one company, how they recruit graduates and they use that tips on to other companies. If you are aiming for big companies, I think they will have a very standardized process and you’ll know what you'll be you'll be doing, and if you prepare for one company, you can also use that for another company. 

Cate: I think that's so true, I think that there are a lot of, if you're working for like a multinational or a larger corporation, the process for application, assessment centre, first round of interviews, second round of interviews, is quite the same, or a very similar model. The content might be slightly different, but the model remains the same so like you say if you're preparing for one you can be preparing for a lot of them.

Whereas with SMEs, I think, because of maybe sometimes smaller resources or smaller HR departments or just the fact that they have that flexibility, there's not a huge corporate identity. They're able to have that personalization of the interview process, and I think whilst that in some ways is really good, I would imagine it's also really tricky to try and prepare for that, because you don't exactly know what you're going to get. Is that what you found? 

Lan: Exactly, you have nothing to prepare for, just wait to see what the tasks are.  

Cate: Just going into it completely blind and just seeing what you do they do. I think that, in some ways, that's fantastic that you were adaptable and that you had that resourcefulness to just come with whatever was thrown at you in that respect.  
How did you find that initial transition from university doing your undergraduate at the University of Birmingham to working full time? Was there anything that surprised you about that or did you find any particular element of full time work, compared to studying, really challenging, how did you find the transition? 

Lan: I found it quite easy for me because before I did a full time job after graduation, I already had some light work experiences, so it gave me a view of what it's like to be working instead of studying. So I think, by having those work experiences it really helped me to adapt more quickly.  

Cate: That's great, and I think it's really crucial to gain as much experience as possible whilst at university to make that transition a little bit easier. I think like you say you, had a lot of experience and within the work environment you knew what you were going into so it would have been a smoother transition. 

With regard to your career so far and what you've done so far, I know that you are in the process of changing directions, a little bit. But in terms of like the lessons that you've learned so far and with regards to like your work experience in your current studies now, what do you think the most important lesson is that you've learned after your studies? Is there anything that the two years of working that you had before you started your Masters has really taught you and that you'll take forward into future and jobs or future career paths? 

Lan: I feel that it's very important to network and just to try to be friends with people in the company, because although they are doing marketing now, they might actually have done a very different career path before so they might just give you some tips, or they might have worked in some companies that you might want to apply in the future, so it's also good resources, I think. 

Cate: I couldn't agree with that more, I think personal relationships are so vital and in a work environment, and I think that there is a lot to be said for making those human connections because you never know who might have a similar path to you or how your paths might cross in future or ways in which you might be able to help each other out or ways in which you might be able to learn and grow from each other.

I think personal connections and allow for so much advancement in workplace for people and so much in terms of helping you make decisions and and helping shape and mould your experience. I think it's really crucial. Like you say networking right now is so vital and it's not something that comes easy for a lot of people. I think most people find networking a bit daunting, would you agree with that?  

Lan: Yeah, sort of and especially when you're 18 or something, it's really not even easy to, for example, talk to people on campus just other students, not to mention HR from big company or very renowned companies, it’s just not easy.  

Cate: It's awkward isn't it, and I think the more that you do it, the easier it gets. But I do think, I mean it's not something that a lot of people find particularly enjoyable, especially at the beginning, when you're first starting to get into that networking mindset and you have to really throw yourself out there and it can be daunting, I think. 

Lan: Also, when you're trying to sell yourself, like branding yourself to the people, they might not be interested in you, but they just show you that they're interested so it's a bit daunting. But I mean when you do more, then it would just be fine.  

Cate: Exactly I honestly think, the more you do it, the easier it gets, and you do get used to that awkward initial bit and then it, it tends to flow a little bit easier. I think with networking you never know who you're going to meet, and you never know what connections you might have, and I think the reward far outweighs any awkwardness at the beginning.  

Lan: You find surprises so.  

Cate: Exactly, I think some of the best connections are made from networking and you think you might not want to do it, to begin with, but there's always something good that comes out of it. 

Do you think, with regard to Birmingham as a city and working in Birmingham, do you think that there are many options open for international students to work in Birmingham? Do you think it's a receptive city for international graduates? 

Lan: I think Birmingham is definitely one of the cities that allows international students who have more work options. In the UK, I think the three main working hubs are London, Birmingham and Manchester so there are so many international students, not just students but also companies. For example, when I was doing an internship in the start-up company in Birmingham, the director was from Italy so it's just quite international and you can always find work, then other, for example, small villages. 

Cate: I agree, and I think also larger cities tend to have more of an international population and more of a global mindset so are perhaps more receptive to international students staying and working than those who have less experience, perhaps with international graduates.   

Moving on, I'm really keen to talk to you a little bit about your Masters in finance and the career paths, or where you're hoping to go in the finance sector. Where do you gain insights into the industry and roles that you might be interested in? Do you look to social media, or do you look to other industry associations that you look to, or are there, particular companies that you look to, or where do you find insights within the financial sector? 

Lan: So actually my insight into finance came from the employer events from University of Birmingham. Before Covid, I knew that University of Birmingham hosted so many careers events and lots of big companies were to coming on campus so you can just directly talk to them. I know that University of Birmingham as a Russell Group has a very great connection with lots of big companies compared to other universities, so it might be a bit easier for you slide into a company as well.  

After that I think I just mainly focused on LinkedIn because on LinkedIn you can actually see, for example, how many people working in this company were from the same university as you so it's also easier for you to start talking and getting to know more about the company. Other than that, I would just say social media.  

Cate: To check out what the current companies are up to. What do you think the biggest challenge or what are the challenges facing the financial industry right now? Are there any particular challenges facing new graduates working in the financial industry, do you think? 

Lan: I think if you are talking about big companies, I feel that they are always very open minded because they don't really care about what backgrounds, what you are studying and everyone can still apply for some roles. For example, like business roles, they're open to different backgrounds.  

I think one of the challenges the finance industry is facing at the moment is definitely example, the regulation issues sort of thing, especially the UK is going through Brexit and a lot of the deals are not finalized because of Covid. Also, companies are changing the working models like working at home, and also the new technology coming from it. I think, not just finance, I think every industry is going through the same thing. 

Cate: I was just going to say that, I think that these there's a lot of uncertainty right now In the UK, and I think whilst we've adjusted, or we seem to be adjusting to the changes that Covid brought around, there's still a lot of challenges that Brexit brings with it. We’ve spend a lot of time in the EU and this country for all intents and purposes, has been set up for that for a long time so it's going to be, I think we're in the midst of a few years of rocky transition and I think resilience and adaptability are really key skills to have right now to just be able to, as they say, roll with the punches and go with the flow a little bit.  

I'm just conscious of your time and I'm so grateful that you've been able to join us. I just wanted to end on one final question. What are the top tips you have for current Chinese students or current international students in general, studying at the University of Birmingham from I guess twofold, for one making the most of the time in the UK, and two, making the most of their time at Birmingham to enhance their career prospects? 

Lan: So the first one, I will talk about the careers prospects first. As I mentioned, I think, networking is the most important. It can be just go into societies and meet people from different subjects because maybe after graduation your friend will become very big in a company, and you can just go to them.  

Also, for making the most out of the university experience I just feel that, because you are studying in the UK and I feel that is a very good opportunity for you to go out and have a look, for example, to some other European countries. It's so easy because in Birmingham the train station is just quite close, well there's a train station on campus so it's really easy for you to just go to, for example, London and then from London you just go to other cities and come back. It’s not expensive as well if you can save up a bit and, for example, working a bit when you are studying and you will really enhance your experience and broaden your horizon. 

Cate: Definitely, and I think those broadened horizons really pave the way for future experiences and for shaping who you are as an individual. I was talking to someone today who said, “we are only as unique as the experiences that we have and the people that we meet”. I think it's really key to just get out and see as many people and learn about as much as possible and that shapes our journey.  

Well, thank you so much for joining us, Lan, it's been really nice to talk to you and I hope everything goes well with the rest of your Masters course and we really look forward to catching up with you at the end to see what you're up to. 

Lan: Thank you for having me. It’s my pleasure to be here. Thank you very much, you. 


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