Friday, 25 January 2013

Sage career advice from students

This week’s guest post is from Crystal Snyder, Coordinator of the Undergraduate Research Initiative (URI).

One of the things I appreciate most about working with students is how much I learn from the interaction. No two students are exactly alike, so while they may come to us for career-related advice, we are the ones who frequently benefit from the opportunity to hear a unique perspective and learn from each student's individual experience.

For example, the other day I was chatting with a student about his research experiences and his plans to apply to medical school. That in itself was not unusual. But he offered something else that struck me as incredibly insightful and mature: that though his plans right now are to attend medical school, getting into med school is not his primary focus. Instead, he's taken a much broader view of his undergraduate experience, incorporating interdisciplinary research, volunteer activities and international community service as pieces of a much larger puzzle. "If you focus on med school," he said, "it might happen, or it might not. But if you focus on getting a variety of experiences and becoming a better person, you'll be ready for whatever happens."

I couldn't have said it better myself. This is the kind of well-rounded and inherently resilient perspective that we aim for all students to acquire. It seems obvious to me now, but when I look back at my own undergraduate experience, I must confess that I didn't fully learn this lesson until much later. And yet, here it was, gift-wrapped in a casual conversation with a student about his long-term career goals.

It got me thinking about other career advice I've learned from students. My favourite example comes a graduate-level lab that I taught several years ago. There was one undergraduate student in the class, and she stood out immediately, not because she had the highest grades or the most experience, but because she asked great questions and really took advantage of the opportunity to try something new. Her attitude and initiative were so impressive that we offered her a research job based just on what we'd seen in a few hours in the lab. The lesson? Don't overlook even the most seemingly insignificant opportunities -- it's not always how much experience you have, but what you do with it that really counts.

Another memorable example is a student whose research project didn't turn out at all how she planned. Again, that alone is not unusual. It's pretty common to hit a dead end in a research project and have to rethink your approach. At first, when she told me her story, I expected to have to explain that such setbacks in research are normal and that it's not always a bad thing. But what surprised me was that she wasn't at all frustrated or concerned. In fact, she was genuinely grateful that things hadn't worked out, because it made her reconsider the assumptions she made, not just about her project, but about the type of work that she might want to do in the future. 

I could go on, but perhaps it's best to sum up with the lesson that all of these examples illustrate, a lesson that students remind me of almost every day: Always keep your mind open to new possibilities and different perspectives. You never know who you're going to meet, what opportunities might arise, or what you might learn that you can apply to your career.

Monday, 21 January 2013

What are you doing this summer?

With temperatures well below freezing and lots of that white stuff on the ground, summer is probably one of the furthest things from your mind - unless you're pining for warm, sunny days, that is! If you're a student who plans on working this summer you should start thinking about your job search soon, especially since our annual Summer Job Fair is coming up on Thursday, 31 January (10 am to 4 pm in the Butterdome). At the time of writing this blog post, over 75 organizations were registered to take part in the event which is over a week away.

The ideal summer job for many students is one related to the type of work they want to do post graduation - ideal because they can test the waters to see if they enjoy that type of work. They can gain relevant work experience and skills. And they can make professional connections they can turn to for referrals and references when they start looking for work once they complete their degree.

Unfortunately, not all students are able to find a summer job in their field of choice. However, that doesn't mean there are no career-related benefits from working in another field or even in a job that doesn't require post-secondary education.

All of my summer jobs were physical labour type jobs. The job I had the summer before the final year of my undergraduate degree was with one of the student painting companies that hire a lot of students during the summer. (The outdoor painting season is short in Alberta!) What career-related benefits did I gain from that job, you ask? Lots of transferable skills. For example, over 90 percent of the time I was working with just one other student. We generally saw our supervisor only when we started a new job. My co-worker and I had to decide who would do what and in what order, and we represented the company to the home owner. The skills we needed to do our job well included interpersonal communication, teamwork, time management, organizational skills and customer service skills.

Recognizing the skills you develop through the jobs you do, as well as though volunteer work and extra-curricular activities, is one challenge. Communicating them to potential employers – on your resume and in an interview setting, for example – is another. Too often I see resumes from students that simply state what they did in a job (e.g. painted houses) and don't include anything about the skills they used, the type of work environment (e.g. worked with no direct supervision) or accomplishments (e.g. completed all jobs in less time than budgeted). So when you sit down to write your resume or prepare for an interview, think not only about what you did in your past jobs but also how you did it and what were the results. Ask someone to look over your resume, like a CAPS career advisor. They can help you identify your skills and target your resume to the job you want.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Thinking about work and stress

I recently read an article about’s annual ranking of the most and the least stressful jobs. The lists were compiled by assigning points to a job for the following 11 different job demands: amount of travel required, growth potential (income), deadlines, working in the public eye, competitiveness, physical demands, environmental conditions, hazards encountered, own life at risk, life of another at risk and meeting the public. Making the top 10 list of most stressful jobs for 2013 is:

1. Enlisted military personnel
2. Military general
3. Firefighter
4. Commercial airline pilot
5. Public relations executive
6. Senior corporate executive
7. Photojournalist
8. Newspaper reporter
9. Taxi driver
10. Police officer

And here’s the top 10 list of least stressful jobs for 2013:

1. University professor
2. Seamstress/tailor
3. Medical records technician
4. Jeweler
5. Medical lab technician
6. Audiologist
7. Dietician
8. Hairstylist
9. Librarian
10. Drill press operator

Unfortunately, there is no information provided on about how they determined the number of points they assigned a particular job for each job demand. For example, did they actually survey workers? In the brief article they provide about their methodology they give only the following example: photojournalist was given full points for the job demand ‘deadlines’ while seamstress/tailor was given no points for ‘deadlines’ because that demand is ‘not normally required’ of seamstresses/tailors. Hmmmm…tell that to a seamstress or tailor who makes wedding dresses or graduation gowns! (If you read the articles, be sure to take a look at the comments, many of which are from people who do the jobs on the lists. They provide somewhat of a different perspective as do the posts from people in jobs who didn't make the most stressful jobs list.)

I did a quick Google search using the terms ‘stressful jobs Canada’ to see if I could come up with more scholarly research on the topic. One I looked at was done by the University of Montreal in 2007 using Statistics Canada data (specifically the Community Health Survey of 2003). It found that manufacturing and labouring workers, who don’t appear on’s list of most stressful jobs, were more likely to report poor mental health than were police and firefighters, who are on the list. As a matter of fact, police officers and firefighters, along with managers in natural resources and manufacturing and human resources professions, were among the occupations less likely to report poor mental health according to the study.

The definition of workplace stress used by Statistics Canada comes from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety: ‘the harmful physical and emotional responses that can happen when there is conflict between job demands on the employee and the amount of control an employee has over meeting these demands.’ I took a look at a report Statistics Canada wrote on their General Social Survey done in 2000 with a sample of about 25,000 people. An important point the author notes is that causes of stress can be varied. That being said, a heavy workload and working long hours were the most commonly cited sources of work-related stress. Other prominent causes included fear of accident or injury, poor interpersonal relationships at work and the threat of layoff or job loss. One thing this study shows is that it isn’t just the job (what one does) but also the workplace (where one does it) that can be a source of stress.

Another important point to consider when thinking about workplace stress is what is stressful for one person may not be so for another. One’s tolerance for stress can be influence by a number of factors including one’s temperament. So when thinking about your own career, understanding what causes you stress, as well as what strategies work for you to mitigate and minimize stress and its harmful impacts, is important and will help you in making decisions about work and workplaces that are best for you.