According to the papers, graduate job prospects are becoming bleaker by the day. The number of vacancies has been slashed, while the competition for remaining entry level jobs has increased by an alleged 40% in the past two years. In the arts sector in particular, unpaid internships and work experience are notoriously difficult to secure, let alone ‘real’ jobs offering wages and fixed-term contracts.

Launched in November 2010, the DCMS Jerwood Creative Bursaries Scheme aims to address some of these problems. Running as a two-year pilot programme, it offers 40 paid placements to arts graduates who would otherwise be unable to support themselves through voluntary work experience. Positions are available across a wide variety of art forms, including theatre, dance, literature, photography, cinema, music – in short, all the forms which are supported by the Arts Council England. Within these fields, the scheme boasts some incredibly impressive links up and down the country: participating organisations currently include Kneehigh, Punchdrunk, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, Streetwise Opera, Tate St Ives, and many, many more.

Kate Danielson, the scheme’s director, explains that the host organisations must apply to participate: “They had to make a case as to why they could offer the best opportunities to new graduates…so they have really had to think about how the graduate will make the very most of their 6/9/12 months with them. I don’t think you get that kind of attention to detail very often when it comes to entry level jobs.” Andrew Hughes, currently working on the scheme as Producing Assistant for Punchdrunk, adds: “It’s not one of those ‘just make the tea and do the photocopying’ graduate jobs – I feel like I’ve been let into the company and given a position that is, at times, really quite challenging.” Indeed, all of the positions that the scheme offers are very specific (including Concerts Administrator, Marketing Assistant, Assistant Curator etc.) and, as such, are able to provide valuable “traineeships”, as Andrew puts it, as opposed to the more basic ‘dogsbody’ work that a number of other arts placements fall back on. “I’m being trained as a Punchdrunk producer,” he says, “so I work with the company’s administrator and the rest of the team, finding out what goes on behind the scenes in a big, independent theatre company. Today, for example, I was writing up contracts, or letters of agreement, for designers that we’re going to be working with shortly.”

As well as guaranteeing that each position is suitably engaging and demanding, the scheme also assigns each graduate a mentor from a different arts organisation. Kate Danielson reflects: “The idea is to have someone who works within your art form but isn’t too high up in their career, so that they can remember what it was like to start out. The mentor is effectively someone else looking out for the graduate, helping them to plan their future.” Each graduate is encouraged to come up with their own ideas about who they would like to be mentored by; for example, Stella, the Assistant Resident Director at the Gate, chose a director she’s always admired and wanted to work with. The mentoring system will allow her to meet with this director up to three times throughout the course of her placement.

Alongside the mentoring programme, the graduates are encouraged to engage in ‘structured networking’, which aims to bring together as many of the participants as possible in the hope that they can start to offer each other advice and support. Following the launch night in November, the graduates have met a number of times to discuss their progress and to forge links that may prove useful in the future. What’s more, Kate asserts, each graduate has access to all of the other organisations that form part of the scheme: “So if someone wants to spend a day in the education department at the RSC, all he or she has to do is contact them,” she says. “All of the participating hosts are very open to supporting all of the graduates on the scheme”. It is this networking and support structure that makes the participants’ experience both unique and invaluable in the early stages of their careers.

So how does one go about applying for one of the scheme’s placements? Eligible candidates must have graduated with a minimum 2:1 degree in either 2009 or 2010, and they must have been in receipt of a full maintenance grant (or equivalent – see website) throughout their university career. Kate Danielson explains that the application process is “as rigorous as each organisation wants it to be”. The scheme allows its participating hosts to conduct all applications and interviews: “we felt that it was really important that the graduates should go through the process that everybody joining that particular organisation goes through. We did, however, advise our hosts to take into account the fact that these applicants might not have the same level of work experience as others, being, as they are, very recent graduates. We asked that they were more flexible on this count.”

Andrew Hughes reflects, “to come out of university and have a paid job this quickly is amazing. And to be granted access to such a prestigious company at such an early stage in my career is just brilliant.” Indeed, as a drama student myself, I’d always imagined that graduate schemes were only available to my friends studying economics or law, what with the likes of Deloitte and Merrill Lynch promoting themselves left, right and centre at university careers fairs. I assumed that we artsy lot would have to make do with unpaid internships – if we were lucky – for a good few years before being recognised financially for our work. But initiatives such as the DCMS Jerwood Bursaries Scheme are paving the way for change, seeking to ensure equal opportunities and more promising graduate prospects in the arts.