Industry Conversations: Jessica Clarence

The Faculty of Arts Industry Conversations series facilitates professional knowledge sharing between Arts alumni and current students.

In this series, alumni respond to collated questions gathered from students, exploring topics related to employment, transitioning from graduation into industry, what pitfalls or challenges they overcame along the way, and more. As part of our transition to a Virtual Campus, Industry Conversations - which have typically been run as panel events - will now be presented in the form of online articles.

For our first online installment  of Industry Conversations we're excited to feature alum Jessica Clarence, a graduate of our Master of International Relations program.

Jessica is the Education and Outreach Coordinator at the Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre, located in Canberra. Previously she was a researcher at the same institution, and worked on novel issues in cyber security law and policy. Prior to this, Jessica was a research intern at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, where she produced a research report on Huawei and parliamentarian overseas travel that was picked up by ABC News and The New York Times. Jessica has a Masters in International Relations from the University of Melbourne and is currently completing a Masters in Law (Juris Doctor) through RMIT.

Continue reading below to find out how Jessica responded to your questions!

Alum Jessica Clarence is pictured

Arts: Educational Background & Degree Decisions. What did you study, and how did you decide what to study? Students wondered what your undergraduate majors were, and whether it’s worth studying towards a degree in an oversaturated industry?

Jessica: I studied a BA, double-majoring in History, and Politics and International Studies. I then completed a Masters of International Relations (Research).

An undergraduate degree is definitely worth it. The jobs it opens up are far more extensive than without a university education, especially if you are looking for intellectually challenging work. However, unless you are planning to be a doctor, engineer, or something especially technical, then the major you study generally doesn’t matter as it is the skills you learn (writing, analysis, research) that are the key takeaways.

But be aware that a degree does not necessarily guarantee higher earnings (especially in certain industries), and graduate study should be considered carefully.

Arts: Maximising Study. How important do you think it is it to do things during your degree such as volunteering, working, internships, learning an additional language, or travelling overseas? How did you go about securing these types of experiences and how did you balance work, life, and study?

Jessica: Volunteering, travelling, internships and doing extra things outside study are critical to learning interpersonal skills and getting life experience. When you are applying for jobs, it is helpful to point to these experiences as examples of practical skills and applications of knowledge. Plus, these experiences are what make university an experience in and of itself – if you just want a degree then work and do university online or part-time.

I applied for exchange through the university exchange program (it’s a relatively simple process). The volunteering and internships I did came from the opportunities advertised through the University. I think I did one volunteering/internship thing per year, as well as debating, martial arts (outside of uni), and working a couple of jobs. Balancing this could be tricky but it’s about prioritisation and picking things that aligned with my interests so that they didn’t feel like a chore.

Arts: Financial Matters. Graduate programs can be expensive, particularly for international students. Did the cost of study factor into your decision to pursue a graduate program? Were there any funding mechanisms or means of financial support that you accessed in order to facilitate your study?

Jessica: No, but it should have. I was fortunate to have HECS and FEE-HELP, but that doesn’t really become real to you until you start paying taxes. I recommend taking a year off between undergraduate and graduate to work, as it may be possible to get an employer to pay for graduate study – and you will likely value it more knowing how it is used in a practical context.

Also, look for scholarships, especially industry-funded ones.

Arts:  Professional Background & Choosing a Path. Tell us more about your professional journey. What advice you would give your University self about “choosing a path to pursue – how did you navigate your different interests and talents to find a job suited to you?”

Jessica: Do what you love, but know when to cut your losses. Don’t pursue a pathway that makes you unhappy just because you have already started it – chances are the career path won’t make you happy either. And go beyond just doing your degree – talk to your lecturers about getting into extra research, think about different ways of doing your assignments, and look for emerging areas of research as they provide an opportunity to distinguish yourself.

Also, keep in mind that if you are going to do a Masters, incorporating a minor thesis into your coursework program is important if you want to open up research pathways. You can also do a minor thesis via Honours.

Arts: Starting Out in the Workforce. How did you find your first job, and do you have tips on starting out when you don’t have ‘connections’? Are there entry-level jobs in your field, and if so, would you prioritise choosing an entry-level job over a graduate training role?

Jessica: My first ‘job’ was a paid internship at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute – I found that on the website and applied. Because of my demonstrated success in that position, I was then offered a role at the Cyber Security Cooperative Research Centre as a researcher.

I would prioritise choosing an entry-level job over a graduate training role, but that is because I learn faster from being given real tasks. I find some of these training programs can be a little condescending if you’ve ever worked or had responsibilities. However, a grad cohort is a great way to make friends and ease yourself into the workforce, especially if you move to a new city. Ultimately the decision is personal and depends on who you are.

Arts: Field-Specific Pathways. What career paths and opportunities exist in your field? How can students make themselves more employable in your industry? Students asked about global opportunities, careers related to and unrelated to teaching, and public as well as private placements.

Jessica: I work in cyber security, and there are lots of opportunities. In fact, my organization is all about giving scholarships to people who want to do higher level research (Hons, Masters, PhD) in cyber security, because the Australian Government has determined that it is a priority to build up sovereign cyber security capability.

The growing area is for people who have technical expertise but are able to speak and write in a way that ‘normal’ people can understand. Basic network security is not enough– you need to look at developing specialist skills in programming, machine learning, cryptography etc – so you can get more into cyber security roles, rather than IT.

This said, you don’t need to be technical though. Studying cyber security from an intelligence, military, politics, and business risk perspective is a great way to get into the field. And there are plenty of pathways – government (e.g. ASD, Defence, Home Affairs), private (EY, PwC, KPMG), research (think tanks e.g. ASPI, Lowy; universities), and the ADF.

Arts: Relevance and/or Utility of your Degree. “What is it about your degree that employers recognize”, and is your degree a requirement for the career you have pursued? What aspects of your study have proven to be directly useful to your job? Do you think it is “essential to hold a PhD to work at research centres or think tanks?”

The most useful aspects of my Masters were around the subjects and research that required me not to ‘just write an essay’ but actually come up with something innovative in an emerging field. I did Middle Eastern studies when the Syrian War and ISIS were re-writing the borders and politics as they had been for the previous several decades. This became the subject of my thesis as well. This was an opportunity to do really interesting research, and was something I highlighted in my resume when I applied for the position at ASPI.

You don’t need a PhD to be researcher – but it depends where you are applying. If you are in a technical field, then you probably do (e.g. Data61), but Masters (by research) is fine to have for politics think-tanks. Many of the other interns had Masters or Honours.

Arts: Skills versus Qualification. What do you feel matters most to your employers and career success: specific qualifications (e.g. “the type of degree you have”); a combination of skills and educational repute (e.g. that you are “a trainable communicative human being from a reputable institution”); or cumulative work experience? What skills or attributes are most important, and how can students best acquire them? “Is networking key?”

Jessica: It really depends on the career/field. If your plan is to go Big 4 Consulting or a top tier law firm, then yes your degree and institution matters. But you will also need to show that you didn’t ‘just do university’. Volunteering, work experience, internships etc. are things they will look for – and for most places a key ability is interpersonal skills. Being able to talk to diverse people, clearly communicate, and not be obnoxious/pretentious.

Outside of that though, there are so many pathways you can take and once you’re in the workforce, your degree becomes somewhat irrelevant… what matters is proven skills. I have a low opinion of ‘networking’ in the sense of turning up to careers fairs and industry evenings etc. However, being able to make friends and leverage networks does matter – but that happens later on. The people you go to university with will likely be your best networks one day.

Arts: Differentiation. “Did you ever struggle with the pressure of differentiating yourself from others? If so how did you overcome this and were you able to do this in a way that didn't result in you feeling like you had to constantly compete with others?”

Jessica: Yes. I think it’s a mindframe thing – a lot of people just expect to take a particular pathway and don’t really think beyond the tried-and-tested. The pressure to compete is huge, but I think you can distinguish yourself by being willing to take risks and bet on yourself – and be ok when you fail. The worst thing you can do is get stuck in the mindframe that unless you are perfect or check every box you will never get that dream job. You start shuttering yourself from other options – and you forget that in order to distinguish yourself, you actually have to do something different.

Arts: Reality and Retrospection. Is the reality of working in your industry different to expectations you had while studying? If you could do your degree again, would you do anything differently? Are there any useful failures or regrets you have that we could learn from?

Jessica: If I could go back, I would have taken a year off between undergrad and grad so that I could decide what to do. Instead, I went immediately into a Juris Doctor, then switched between postgraduate degrees and then decided to finish off the JD anyway (so I will end up with 2 Masters), which was not the most wise decision financially. This said, I love where I am now, and the very fact of having to confront a pathway that I decided I didn’t want to do is how I got here. So it’s hard to have regrets. Well, except when I look at my student debt.

Aside from knowledge, and the skills around analysis, writing and research, working in industry has very little crossover with the sorts of things you do in University. Even in think-tanks, you will write differently – and you will learn the skill of thinking strategically, which is not something you are taught in university essays. You will need to learn industry-specific skills on the job, and lots of your work day will consist of admin, emails, meetings, and communicating with stakeholders. And you aren’t going to be doing the best work as soon as you get out university – you need to expect to be at the bottom of the food chain for a while, and hopefully, if you’re good at what you do and try to learn from the people around you, you’ll get to where you want to go.

Thanks Jessica for your informed, illuminating responses - and to all contributing students for your great questions!