What is a graduate program?

If you’re considering your graduate career and asking yourself ‘what is a graduate program?’ then our handy guide will answer some of your questions.
Craig Shepherd
Craig Shepherd
Team GradAustralia
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Every university student needs to know what a graduate program is – but if you don't, you're not alone – it's a common question asked by students, 'what is a graduate program?' 

University life is full of new experiences and getting closer to graduation means facing a whole new set of experiences and responsibilities... such as finding the right place to start your career. You may have heard about graduate programs but have no idea how they differ from graduate jobs or regular jobs – here's a handy explanation.

Planning for your future

Sometimes in the hustle and bustle of your studies, the end goal can often get lost in the hectic schedule of lectures, assignments and deadlines. But there comes a time during your degree that you need to start seriously planning for your career after graduation. There are many avenues for you to enter the workforce or use your qualifications, and one you might like to consider is a graduate program. Much like clothes, graduate programs come in all shapes and sizes and some will suit your career aspirations more than others. Let’s take a look at what a graduate program really is.

What is a graduate program?

While all graduate programs will differ somewhat in their structure, they’re all designed as a fast-tracked career pathway for a specific organisation or industry. You’ll be offered industry-specific training, professional development, and networking opportunities as you consolidate the theory you’ve learned and put it into practice in a real employment situation. Many graduate programs also offer the opportunity to perform multiple roles in an organisation on a rotating basis, giving you more exposure to a range of different jobs within your chosen field.

It’s important to understand the difference between a graduate program and a standard entry-level position, as there are major differences between the two. While both will give you the opportunity to work in your chosen industry, the support, ongoing training and mentoring you receive in a graduate program will usually be more intensive than a normal graduate position.

In addition, you may find your job responsibilities as a graduate program participant are greater than if you joined an organisation in an entry-level position. Graduate programs are generally designed to help develop future leaders, rather than simply providing the basic on-the-job training required to perform your current role.

Who offers graduate programs?

As a general rule, graduate programs are offered by larger organisations, and in many cases their annual program could have several inductees. This isn’t a hard and fast rule though, as many smaller organisations also find value in running graduate programs to identify and bring new talent to their team. When studying in a specific field it’s also easy to overlook one of the largest providers of graduate programs in the country – the Australian government. Most government departments run annual graduate programs which are advertised between February and June each year.

Most graduate programs will be tailored towards one type of degree, but larger organisations such as Toyota, 7-Eleven, Fujitsu and DHL to name a few will run several different graduate programs in different parts of their business. So when you start searching, keep an open mind – just because an organisation’s core business may be retail, behind the scenes they will be supported by management, human resources, IT and plenty of other departments. You will find a wide range of opportunities on our Graduate Jobs page, or if an employer you are interested in has no current vacancies, you will still find information about their programs on our Employers page.

What training can I expect?

The training in a graduate program will vary depending on the employer and the field of specialty. Some graduate programs will be quite specific in their training, focussing on a particular role within an organisation, where others will be quite broad and expose you to a range of operational areas. For example, 7-Eleven’s current graduate program involves four rotations of six months each, allowing graduates to grow their skills and experience different aspects of what makes their business tick.

Organisations are usually looking to fill their graduate programs with top-level candidates, as most will place a strong emphasis on developing future leaders of their business. The training you receive should be well structured, industry specific, and include plenty of one-on-one mentoring. You should even find you have access to executive staff and their knowledge, as well as the opportunity to network with internal and external stakeholders which is almost invaluable. Best of all, your program is likely to include professional development opportunities not available to non-grad staff. Keep in mind though, a graduate program isn’t just about training, and isn’t like an internship. You will be given the same responsibilities and opportunities to showcase your work as other full-time staff members – maybe even more if you are training for management positions.

How long is a graduate program?

While there is no set amount of time that a graduate program runs for, most will be between one and three years. Programs offering rotations through the business will typically provide graduates with six month stints working in different areas of the organisation. Some, however, are flexible with their program and rotation lengths, as discovered by Jessica Lee who completed her graduate program with Multiplex, ‘It runs for about three years, through six-month rotations. It is structured but also flexible so you can go through the program at your own pace.’

When deciding if a graduate program is right for you, make sure the expected timeframe suits your needs. If you only want to learn one particular role in an organisation and excel in that job, make sure you aren’t applying for three-year programs with rotations through positions you aren’t interested in.

When should I apply?

If you’ve decided a graduate program is your ideal pathway into the workforce, you should be starting the application process in your final year of study, with peak graduate recruitment season in March each year. If you’ve already identified particular organisations to target for graduate programs, you’ll need to do the research and find out when they open for applications. For instance, government departments will advertise their programs between February and June each year, so you’ll need to be on the ball early in your last year. Our employers page is a great place to start if you want to plan an application timeline for the whole year.

Bearing in mind you’ll generally be applying for graduate programs before you have received your final marks, you can rest easy – employers understand this and will take into account your weighted average mark. Of course, this does highlight the importance of working hard through all years of your study and not banking on a big final year to lift your grades.

If you’ve decided a graduate program is the right way for you to start your career, it’s time to start researching. Check out individual employer information on our employers page. This is a great resource to see program details, testimonials from grads, and specific advice on how to apply. Sign up here for regular updates. Even better, if you’re ready to start applying today, head on over to our graduate jobs page to check for current vacancies!