We spoke to former sabbs from right across the sector to see if they had any top tips for those about to exit the student movement. And they were generous with their responses!
Faithais Yáñez (Birkbeck, now a Special Educational Needs Teacher)
Don’t leave 😉
Kit Friend (Arts London, now a consultant at Accenture)
Consultancy is a surprisingly neat fit for the strange range of problem solving and people liaison you’ve unintentionally built up. Don’t count on your role title being any shorter either- mine is now Senior Business & Technology Innovation Principle. And be optimistic about the challenges that may face you. Few things can be as terrifying or potentially horrific as that trip where you helped chaperone 50 art students in Amsterdam.
Richard Stearn (Exeter, has been at BCS Consulting and Accenture)
The skills, experience and confidence gained from being a sabb will serve you very well for life and career – just don’t expect immediate results or to be treated any differently because of what you’ve done – it’s what you now do that counts.
Rachael O’Byrne (Liverpool Hope, now a Labour Councillor)
You need to reframe your skill set in a way your new sector will understand. Talk about being a senior officer in a charity responsible for managing budgets, communication strategy, membership engagement, developing relationships and partnerships within HE and the wider community, working in partnership with key public sector partners including local council, CCG, Police, Housing Associations…
I went on to be a community engagement officer, then became a community manager. I’ve now founded and run a community business.
Vonnie Sandlan (Langside College, NUS Scotland, now a Senior Policy Officer)
You have way more valuable experience and knowledge that what you’ll perhaps give yourself credit for. Pitch for your new role accordingly. Also, remember that your time as a trustee has given you skills and attributes that would be valued highly by third sector organisations so consider joining a board. It’ll help you develop your professional competencies and support a good cause.
Mike Blakeney (Surrey, now a Public affairs consultant)
Be humble. Where you’re going next is very different to what you’ve just been doing. Don’t be afraid to learn.
Hollie O’Connor (Deby SU, now Services Manager, Unipol Student Homes)
Nobody knows what you mean when you say you were a full time officer for your SU. You’ve got to get used to having an actual boss, meeting targets, probation periods, appraisals, deadlines and not being the most important person in the room (lol). But also try and hold onto the skills you learned whilst being an officer because that’s so unique and can set you apart from the rest.
You’ll never have a job like your time as a sabb and that’s okay as you have the memories.
Rob Henthorn (Aberdeen, NUS Scotland, now Learning officer at a teachers’ union)
Nobody outside the student movement understands what a sabb does, so do take credit for everything you’ve tried, learned and achieved. You can and should make your CV look amazing. You shouldn’t mistake this for actually knowing anything, though. Enjoy having a normal social life again!
Lily Davis (Leicester, now Senior Partnership Executive, British Triathlon)
Learn and listen to anyone and everyone you can from the full time and senior management. These people are working year in year out to enact the latest fads that officers come up with. They’ll advise whether things are feasible or not. Take their advice.
Many of them have been in your position so don’t assume that they don’t know what you’re going through. And never take them for granted.
Hayley Clarke (Southampton Solent, now at BBC Sounds as a producer)
There are a lot of transferable skills from being a sabb to moving into the ‘real world’ e..g leadership, communication skills, problem-solving, team-work, being self-motivated etc! Whilst many companies might not know a great deal about the student movement, these are impressive traits and your experience is very unique, which will make you stand out in an interview – so make sure you sell yourself!
Don’t be scared, accept new challenges, don’t feel that menial task are beneath you (ALWAYS make friends with and value the receptionist wherever you work) & bring that same passionate, campaigning energy you have to your new role. Good luck!
Peter Gorbert (York St John, now CEO at University of York Graduate Students’ Association)
There’s a whole world outside of HE and the skills you gain as a sabb make you perfect for working in small local charities. It’s hard to get a first job in a national charity so look at smaller ones to expand your horizons and skill sets. Also working in local charities is much more rewarding than working in a university.
Richard Pyle (Stirling, now Head of Advocacy, IRC Europe)
NUS / student movement advocacy training is the best of its kind so don’t be surprised at how little some outsiders knows about how to effectively campaign for change. Have (quiet) confidence that you’ve got real knowledge that more experienced campaigners might not have. So speak up if you think it will help (especially important if you’re a woman).
Alex Causton-Ronaldson (University for the Creative Arts, now Lead Strategist – Education & Youth Marketing, Havas People)
This is where you will learn to be a leader in a safe space. Use the time wisely. Listen to your staff members and learn everything you can from your CEO. Don’t worry if future employers don’t quite understand what you were doing. Just learn to articulate how transferrable your new found skills are and it will be the first step in an amazing career.
Johnny Rich (Durham, now CEO at Push and the Engineering Professors’ Council)
There are those who believe they are natural leaders for whom the world will unfurl opportunities. They will be disappointed. And there are those who underestimate the personal qualities that drove them to put themselves forwards and which got them elected. They don’t appreciate how much these will be valued outside student unions. They too will be disappointed.
The challenge for both groups is to work out which group they’re in and be more more like the other one.
Leo Bøe (Warwick, now Consultant at PA Consulting Group)
Be prepared to take a step down when you finish and sharpen your skills. You will have an accelerated career but your first job or two may not meet your expectations in terms of seniority or salary but you will get there more quickly than others. Be patient.
Jo Walters (Sussex, now Founder, 25 Dots, a marketing & communications company)
Be prepared for the fact that your next few jobs might not be as good/bad/ugly/weird as being an elected officer. This is a good thing and a bad thing.
Callum Martin (Robert Gordon, now Account Manager at Nalco Champion)
Copy your emails! You’ll have random moments you want to reply to an old contact! And make sure you keep examples of work you’ll want to show people in future (subject to data protection/confidentiality rules etc)
Emma O’Kerry (Manchester, now Civil service – MHCLG strategy team lead)
I have just been applying for jobs and all this time later I still used examples of the work I did as a sab. So right it all down now while it’s fresh in your mind, think about what skills it shows and then don’t be afraid to us it.
Steven Godwin (Canterbury Christ Church, now Microsoft Consultant at GCI)
Leap, and the net will catch you.
Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery and today is a gift, it’s the present you’ve yet to discover. Transfer your skills and face your future with courage. You can, and you will. Network, leave a lasting impression. Write memory joggers on business cards (take cloud storage pictures) and chase up. We fought for an equal society – it isn’t (yet) – why? There’s usually someone in the pipeline for the role you’re applying for unless you know the person checking the CV’s (I know right, see networking above).
Change your social media and follow powerful people first so when you ‘waste time’ you’ll be inspired. On that, watch ‘How to Make Stress Your Friend’ and subscribe / download TED Talks for inspirational downtime: It’s going to be okay…buckle up and enjoy the ride!
Hollie White (Royal Holloway, now part wedding coordinator, part forester, part estate planner)
Every time you want to get in to a position you have to do the same things you did to become a sabbatical. The research, the networking, the friendship building, the canvassing, the publicity and so on. If you want to continue to have the big roles be prepared to go through the same process over and over and over. But know that you are good at it and you already have successful experience under you belt.
That said one of the big things a sabbatical may not have learnt yet is bouncing back from failure, prepare yourself for that and don’t let failure stop you from trying again. Keep in touch with those who will be your cheerleaders. You’ll need them. Remember to return the favour(s).
Cat Elif (Warwick, now Policy Analyst at the Russell Group)
If you’re lucky to make great relationships with other officers and (almost more importantly) staff at your SU, hold onto them. Some of the people who I met in those two years continue to push, inspire and champion me to make hard life and career choices. Don’t lose touch.
Rachael Brannan (Northumbria, now at Public Health England)
My advice would be to never think that one or two years wholly defines you or your capabilities. Sell your skill set to employers but equally enable and empower others to learn from you. You’ve learnt a lot but realistically it’s the tip of the iceberg of what’s to come.
Finally, you may have more than one career in your lifetime. Make your passion your career.
Antoinette Kyu (Oxford Brookes, now Senior Consultant at Pricewaterhouse Coopers UK)
It will feel like you are running your campaign from scratch again but this time finding fans will take time, they will be genuinely interested in what you actually do…or can do (rather than being a popularity contest) Remember how you captured others’ imagination and make this your signature skill, look out for those who challenge and push you, who look at things differently to you, don’t go after the applause and the fans only, but make sure you get the right mix of them both.
Fiona Blair (Surrey, now Director of Marketing, Communication and Engagement at University of Reading)
I’d done a music degree and had always assumed my career lay in that world largely as that’s all I assumed I was good at and was what I enjoyed! Being a Sabb taught me that a) I could do loads more and that b) I could therefore explore career options way beyond my degree that I could find equally (if not more) rewarding!
P.S. I still draw, today, on the skills and experience I developed during my year! Almost 20 years on! It’s an opportunity like no other!
Andy Hartley (Man Met, now Web Development Lead)
You’ve just had a year or two learning a thousand things that will be useful in future, but don’t forget you have that degree too and you can apply what you learned as a sabb and the knowledge from your course and be in a great position to take the first step in whatever you want to do next.
Sam Davys (John Moores, now Learning and development partner, Arco)
Use the huge network you have made as a sabb, as much as you can. Get yourself a mentor, reach out to the governors of the university, get your linked in and CV up to scratch. And quantify your achievements as a sabb (articulate what impact YOU made rather than ‘the team)
Leon Jarmon (Fibchester, now looking for opportunities)
Get your SU to sign up to Wonkhe SUs before you leave. It’s a bargain, your successors deserve the help and support, and they’ll make a better job of their year in office than I ever did.
I think my year as SU president really politicised me and I have worked hard to keep that part of my role as a Clinical Psychologist. I think being part of a national campaigning organisation makes you see things at a national level, which you can bring to all sorts of jobs if you feel passionately enough! Also, “service user involvement” is so important in health, particularly mental health settings, and I have often felt quite confident in talking about this in comparison to peers which I am sure is all the work on engagement in student union work.
Hele Aberdein (UWE, now Social and Wellbeing Service Lead for Bristol Community Health)
Being a Sabb gave me the confidence to question ( no matter how senior a colleague is) and the belief that I could make a difference. These skills have been essential throughout my voluntary and employed roles and within my current role leading on promoting the social model of health (social prescribing, volunteering and peer support programmes) in children’s, adults and offender health – a job I feel very lucky to have.
Jon Antoniazzi (Aberystwyth, now Policy & Public Affairs Manager at Macmillan Cancer Support)
You will have developed a lot of great raw skills from your time as a Sabbatical Officer. Public speaking, political intelligence, strategic thinking. It’s important to remember they’re still raw and you’ll never really be a finished product!
I had a misplaced sense of my own value and what I’d do next. Of course, I’ll land a £30k job straight off the bat…
I left with a job offer in my back pocket from the local council at a good graduate wage or a vague opportunity to work with a backbench politician. The lights of politics drew me towards it and before I knew it, the offer was £400 a month to work two days a week in a damp constituency office.
My dad died, I had to spring into action to support my family, but it gave me time. Along with my bruised ego I managed to spend some time reflecting on where I wanted to go and what I needed to do to get the right mix of skills.
In a nutshell: Work out where you want to end up, get a decent CV and have it checked over, make plenty of mistakes, it’s the only way I learn, and don’t sweat it. The journey is a long one and if you want a job that involves campaigning and change, you will get there!
Matt Myles Brown (UEA, now Head of Membership at UWLSU)
The best advice I got is that the organisation you work for next will be more important than the job role. So compromise on things like salary and responsibilities if that’s what it takes to get into a great organisation.
Dom Anderson (Derby/NUS, now Higher Education Consultant)
Students’ Unions can be a very insulating working environment, no matter the working environment you enter next it will be very different. As Sabbs we were often used to having credit bestowed on us that is often beyond our skillset. Outside of the movement you will need to show some humility and be willing to be managed.
Arthur Kaddu (Salford, now Academic and Campaigns Co-ordinator at Edge Hill Students’ Union)
Best advice I got from my old CEO was to remain humble and true to myself. And that has helped me get to where I am. Because most sabbs tend to think they deserve a well paid job as soon as they finish their role. But as long as your humble and true to yourself it will get you far.
Paddy Stern (Liverpool, now Clients Services Manager at VessellsValue)
The reality is that you have been given a level of power and respect that your own experience didn’t warrant. Sabbs must prepare themselves for a reality check when they step into the real world. Think carefully about the skills that you have learnt rather than focusing on the accomplishments because the wonderful thing about the NUS world is that it prioritises the student and issues to them, the issue is that this does not translate into the wider world. The skills you have learnt and how to demonstrate them will set you up well but you will still be starting from the bottom.
Michael Müller-Breckenridge (Queen Margaret, now Office Manager, Personalized Health Informatics at SIB Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics)
My top advice for outgoing sabbs is to (re) establish your relationships with non-SU friends and pre-emptivly plan your self-care. The shock of going from 100% to no real responsibilities of consequence hit my mental health hard once the initial holiday feeling wore off, particularly after I moved away from Edinburgh. Not such an issue if they’re heading straight on to further study or employment, but I had a few months of break and was very lost.
Brittany Tomlinson (Cumbria, now Education and Policy Advisor at Lancaster SU)
Take these final months to reflect on your achievements and ask for help from staff or the Uni careers service about how to communicate them. Unlike most other jobs, being a sabb is a time when you plan, start and finish up some amazing projects and campaigns in just one year so make sure you can explain your impacts and the skills you developed in that time. My second small bit of advice is don’t jump straight into a job at another students’ union – if you love them you’ll come back (I did!) but get some experience elsewhere first and you can bring even more back into the sector with you!
Rob Scully (City, now Head of Finance – Major Projects at UCL)
So, you’ve been a sabbatical officer and hopefully it’s been amazing/stressful/transformative/developmental/worthwhile. Now forget all about that! You’re about to enter a world where the vast majority of people don’t know or care what being a sabb is.
Don’t let this dishearten you. You’re competing with many thousands of talented graduates and for most employers your SU experience won’t set you apart. Don’t feel entitled to more; you have gained some amazing skills and experience that will set you apart when you start working, and mean that you will progress faster than the rest.
Remember, you didn’t run for election to springboard into a FTSE100 boardroom, so don’t be disappointed if that’s not your next move. If spending your interview talking about being a Trustee of a £m organisation doesn’t sell, rest assured that your ability to deal with the situations that arise over the coming years will be vastly enhanced by those experiences you’re leaving behind.
Ellis Michaels (Man Met, now Recruitment Specialist at Emmerson Kitney)
I’ve worked a number of roles since leaving University life, and had to adapt quickly to new situations and processes. This seems to be fairly common so don’t worry if your first job, training or placement isn’t ideal straight after your Union. The majority of people have been in similar situations as you; however you’ve got the experience of working in the fast-paced, ever-changing madness that is the world of Student Union’s. Don’t fight the change, and let what you’ve learnt in the past year or two help you enjoy the adventure.
Plus – Keep trying to make change for the better. I unfortunately do not do enough outside of my work life that inspires change, or fights for the community; and I really miss it. Get out there and make a difference!
Carrie Young (Leicester, now a quantity surveyor (and project manager consultant) in Nottingham)
My advice would be, make use of the time and network with lots of people. You never know where it might lead too higher education is very fluid people move all over the country and an opportunity might pop up. Use this time to get the description of what you did concise and add it to LinkedIn. And lastly never under sell what you did as an officer or what experience you gained! Sitting on the board of directors, looking at financial accounts, setting budgets, creating new jobs, leading thousands of students in a movement its all big!!
My (boringly practical) advice would be to collate a repository of all committees contributed to, publications/reports written and other senior-level outputs. This repository can be easily accessed when building a website, portfolio, job application or other situation in which expertise should be adduced.
Kathryn Sullivan (now founder of MiraGold)
There is a whole world outside students’ unions – and you should definitely explore it – but remember you will always find a place in the movement; whether as a staff member, mentor to new officers, or trustee of a students’ union. If you can, write down the things you are most proud of as you leave office; you can then use these experiences better when looking for new opportunities.
Bill Yuksel (Abertay, now Associate Business Manager at Peridot Partners)
Connect with everyone you have ever met via your role on linkedIn, spend time updating your CV and highlight your campaigning experience, trustee experience and where relevant your experience as a university governor too. It’s also worth thinking about an elevator pitch about what you do to an audience that has no concept (or an outdated one) of what an SU is or does.
Jo Goodman Birmingham City, now Senior Partnership Officer – Aspire to HE)
Don’t expect the world to just be handed to you on a plate because you’ve been in such a privileged position. A lot of companies don’t see being a sabbatical as a ‘real world’ job which is such a shame. I found myself having to do a lot of explaining in interviews after I finished.
Take time to reflect on absolutely everything you’ve worked on and achieved in your term of office. I made a physical list and this really helped when applying for jobs and talking about myself in interviews.
Sasha Watson (Southampton, now Public Sector Management Consultant)
Recognise that you’ll likely have to start on grad schemes and entry level jobs like many of your peers, but if you’ve made the most of your opportunities as a sabb, been involved in projects, developed planning and management skills, and grown effective communication skills, you’ll likely accelerate quicker – just don’t rest on your laurels and make sure you continue to learn and seek development opportunities.
I think one of your other contacts put it rather well too, and I’d advance it to: the worst kind of sabb thinks they are ready made for the workplace and deserves recognition automatically; the second worst kind of sabb doesn’t realise the skills they have developed and doesn’t push themselves beyond the pen they are first put in.
Emilie Tapping (King’s, now Director of Membership at London School of Economics Students’ Union)
Immediately after you leave you’re probably going to need some time to deprogramme – take a holiday or get yourself a slightly easier job to give yourself some space to think. It’s absolutely ok to work 9-5 and not take home your work and that’s a skill you’ll need to deliberately learn after being a Sabb.
You are likely to feel a bit lonely – this is the same feeling all your friends had when they finished uni 1 or two years ago so reach out to them and see how they coped, or reach out to any Sabb friends you made over your time because they are probably going to be feeling similar (do this even if you disagreed over a minor political issue at some point, it probably doesn’t matter any more).
Longer term – you’ve now got a huge network of people you are connected to – use that network, don’t be afraid to ask for help/access. That’s the privilege you’ve earned over the last couple of years but be prepared to give back also and help others out when you can even if they don’t ask outright!
Richard Kuti (South Bank, now Operational Delivery Manager)
Stay open minded about where you may end up – career wise…You do not have to have it all figured out!
Jim Dickinson (UWE, now Wonkhe SUs)
I had an amazing, relentless time after being a sabb – I soon became a senior manager at NUS and then at UEA. And then last summer, I realised that over almost twenty years I’d barely seen my kids and friends. I’m trying to fix that now, working in a brilliant organisation with brilliant people. Management, probably senior, beckons for most of you – do it right and it’s a real privilege to be responsible for others’ growth and building better workplaces. But don’t be in too much of a rush. Life moves pretty fast – if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. Oh and keep in touch.