Friday, 19 September 2014

The relationship between mindfulness and career objectives

Over the past number of years at CAPS, we have been moving away from using terms like 'career planning' to using terms like 'career engagement.' Today's post, from Justin Pritchard highlights why this shift in the way we approach career development is important in a world characterised by on-going change and complexity.

At the career centre, we speak about your career being ‘now' and also of 'preferred futures.' What are the intersections of mindfulness (now) and hope (future)? As the President of the Mindfulness Meditation Student Group on campus and a Graduate Career Advisor at CAPS, I felt compelled to share my opinions on the relationship between mindfulness and career objectives.

Most mindfulness concepts stem from ancient philosophy but have now been empirically supported by research in many disciplines including psychology, neuroscience, education, leadership development, etc. When thinking about mindfulness and career development, there are two important concepts to note: the attitudes of 'non-attachment' and the attitude of ‘non-striving’.

Non-attachment means that we should not grasp or 'cling' to things, ideas and/or beliefs about ourselves because we are constantly evolving. This concept aligns with the Chaos Theory of Career Development which highlights that life is full of change, uncertainty, and complexity. One of the problems we can run into when we ‘cling’ to our preferred futures is a ‘tunnel vision’ mentality. In my opinion, having a narrow view on life ultimately limits our faculties of self-wisdom. Since mindfulness is the practice of awareness and noticing, it’s not a bad thing to notice a pull towards certain career options. This noticing of preferred career options can lead to career objectives. However, if we become too attached to our career objectives, we may strive too hard to plan out our future and lose our sense of creative exploration. I would argue that this creative exploration is an important ingredient to happiness.

According to some philosophies, lasting forms of happiness come from purity of mind (freedom from hindrances) and purity of view (seeing things in their bare simplicity). These states can relate to concentration, awareness, attention and clarity. The more we focus our attention on being aware in the present moment, the less we ruminate on the past or worry about the future (potential triggers to unhappiness). To me, experiencing purity of mind and understanding the simple fact that everything in life—even our career objectives—ultimately change leads to deeper self-wisdom and happiness, in comparison to being trapped in an endless ‘cycle of searching’ because of hopeful thinking.

We have been trained in our society to value conditional forms of happiness which may result in this never-ending path of searching within our own lives. We are always searching, wanting, craving and seeking for something other than what is here right now.

            Once I make X amount of money, 
            I will be much happier.
I will be the person I want to be 
                                              when I attain my dream job.

These mindsets complicate and distort our perceptions about ourselves resulting in a whole whack of mental clutter. It’s as if we spend so much of our lives running around like a chicken with its heads cut off trying to frantically figure out where to take its next step. Even though life is a ‘pathless path,’ we can experience a cessation of searching by understanding that everything we need is actually right here within us in the present moment. Sharon Sherman, a colleague of mine, presented a wonderful training session this month on career exploration. She closed the session by stating, “Your career is right now.” This statement is the epitome of a ‘mindful mindset’ and highlights a proactive step away from the traditional ‘career planning’ approach.

I believe that there will always be a clash between striving for and attaching to our preferred future and acknowledging that our career is right now. Personally, I value the freedom we have at being able to creatively and mindfully explore different career options, and I worry that this exploration can be stifled by hopeful thinking. I also think that the phrase ‘preferred future’ might perpetuate this tendency we have to attach to the future. I wonder if there is a better way to describe our career objectives that are continually evolving because of change, complexity and uncertainty. Maybe we simply replace the phrase ‘preferred futures’ with ‘evolving career objectives.’ It’s inevitable that our career objectives will always evolve because we will always evolve and to me, that is one of the many beauties about life.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Career mentoring: From novice to professional

The application for CAPS' Career Mentoring Program is coming up so I thought a post about the program and the value of mentorship from a career development perspective would be timely. It comes from Amy Roy Gratton who, among other things, coordinates CAPS' Career Mentoring Program.

Confusion, frustration and anxiety about career options often lead students to explore the CAPS Career Mentoring Program. A mentor can offer clarity and guidance on where you are going and how you might get there. They can give you support right when you need it. The CAPS Career Mentoring Program is different from other mentoring programs in that we don’t require you to choose from  an already existing list of mentors. Instead, we find mentors based on your specific needs and goals.

When starting the program, some of our past mentees had a specific plan about what they wanted to do while others had no plan at all. Yet they all benefited from their participation in the program in both expected and unexpected ways. All of our mentees had the unique opportunity to interact for eight months with their hand-picked mentors, developing knowledge, skills and connections that advanced their careers. Here are just a few of their stories:
  • A year ago Ruslan, a Masters student in Modern Languages and Cultural Studies, thought he’d only start looking for work after he graduated. However, because of the CAPS Career Mentoring Program, he became employed well before he graduated and landed what he calls his dream job and a career in communications. 
  • Yvette, a student in ALES (Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology) felt “utterly confused and frustrated” when she applied to the CAPS Career Mentoring Program. She knew there were career options beyond academia but didn’t know how to match her knowledge with the unconventional career she felt would fit her best. She craved a new perspective and needed clarity on her goals. Her mentor (who had a background in sustainability) helped Yvette learn how to appreciate her accomplishments. Yvette also discovered that pursuing a non-traditional path, which at times can feel like having no clear direction, forced her to be more proactive and creative – allowing her to create her own opportunities and design her desired future.
  • Shahed, a student completing his Masters in Engineering, wanted to develop his soft skills; in particular his relationship-building, leadership and team-based conflict resolution skills. Shahed learned that he didn’t have to be in a leadership position to be a leader in an organization. He discovered becoming a technical specialist could be just as impactful and fulfilling because he would be the person his colleagues and clients depended on to get things done. Shahed also learned how to prepare effectively for meetings and saw how this preparation can lead to results. 
These students had great experiences to share and yet, it’s not just the mentees who benefit from the CAPS Career Mentoring Program. In the past year, the mentors made new friends and colleagues, learned about themselves and their own abilities and were able to understand their professions in new ways.

Both our mentees and mentors offer these words of advice for making the mentorship relationship work:
  • Make mentorship a priority. Even when other deadlines were pressing, our mentees pushed themselves to reach out to their mentors. By reaching out to their mentors in times of chaos, they actually gained confidence in their abilities and found greater motivation to complete the tasks they felt were overwhelming (such as writing or defending a thesis). A mentor can help a mentee develop time management, problem solving and goal setting skills, all of which help make stressful times more manageable.
  • Create SMART goals with your mentor and evaluate your progress. SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Timely. Much of the growth that happens in the CAPS Career Mentoring Program is personal growth, which is not something you can easily measure. Setting a goal like “I hope to feel more confident” can be difficult to measure. Instead, break goals down into smaller goals. For example, if feeling more confident is your goal you might first start with the smaller goals of identifying where you lack confidence (e.g. public speaking) and then identify activities that will help build your confidence. 
  • Practice your professionalism. Mentees can feel uneasy in professional situations. A mentor is a great resource to help you practice skills in a non-threatening environment where mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities. For example, mentees often ask their mentors to help them practice networking. Even if the process is initially awkward for the mentee, these are seen by the mentor as teachable moments rather than career hindrances.
  • Make the relationship beneficial for both the mentor and mentee. Although the mentor-mentee relationship is typically viewed as being mainly beneficial to the mentee, this does not have to be the case. Everyone can add value and our mentees suggest finding ways to share information, skills and connections to demonstrate that you are eager, interested and able to take initiative. Ask yourself, what can I do for my mentor so that they benefit from knowing and working with me? Sharing current and trending information about the U of A, and your faculty and program can be interesting to your mentor and add value to the relationship. 
Admission to the CAPS Career Mentoring Program is competitive since a limited number of participants are accepted each year. Undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdoctoral fellows are eligible to apply. Attend one of our information sessions to learn more about how you can benefit from this program and how to create a strong application. Visit our website to view the deadline date.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Learning from career u-turns

This past Labour Day The Tyee, an independent, online magazine based out of B.C., launched a four-part series called Career 180. Each article in the series profiles someone who has made a major shift in their career. By major shift, I mean they went from doing one thing to doing something completely different, like going from running a wireless products company to opening a bakeshop, from being a media relations manager to apprenticing as a heavy-duty mechanic. In each case, there was something that precipitated the change, such as being laid off or personal health problems. Bruce Grierson, who studied and wrote about career change in U-Turn (2008), is quoted throughout the articles. He found that while a lay-off or other factor (outside of one's control, I'd add) can often be a catalyst for career change, it is not the cause. Rather, a person must be 'emotionally ready' to make a change. "U-turns happen because the tuners are ready for them to happen," he says.

Even though each of the articles profiles someone who had been working in one career for an extended period of time before transitioning to another, I think the series offers something for students who have limited work experience or who are just starting their careers. If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that the approach to career development we take at CAPS is one that recognizes the significant role that chance plays in people's lives and careers. Talk to family, friends, acquaintances about how they got to where they are and you’ll soon see a trend of people’s careers being shaped by unplanned, random and unpredictable events and encounters. 

So we recommend taking a 'planned happenstance' approach to managing your career. This means being open to new opportunities, thinking about and following your curiosities, reflecting on chance events and encounters and asking questions like, 'What possibilities does this create?' By being open, you will discover career opportunities you never knew existed and maybe even create your own.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

From Airport to Internship: How a semester abroad prepared me for work


Today's blog post comes from Nicole Hoffman, CAPS' Communications Intern, who recently completed a semester abroad at Universit√© Catholique de Lille in Lille, France.

When my parents asked me why I wanted to spend a semester in France, I told them “studying abroad will make me more employable.” I had read it somewhere on a travelling website, and at the time I had suspected that it was an exaggerated statement, but it was reassuring to feel that there could be practical value to my trip. When I decided to go, it was to improve my French and to see a bit of Europe, but what I didn't expect was how much studying abroad would change me.

It wasn't until I returned that I discovered how much I had evolved during my exchange, and it wasn't until I started my new internship that I saw how the skills that I’d gained abroad have improved my competence in the workplace.

Adaptability and Openness to Change. On the first day of orientation in my French university, I met a student who was majoring in Languages. He had hardly introduced himself to me before he was complaining about life in France. He hated the food, his residence, the northern French accent, the weather and the university policies. Despite only having been there for a week, he seemed overwhelmed and was struggling with culture shock. He didn’t seem to know how to adapt to his new circumstances, and while I felt for him, I came to think of him as an example of how I didn’t want to spend my semester. If I concerned myself exclusively with the ways in which France was not like Canada, I would be perpetually unhappy, and would be unable to enjoy the amazing, exclusively French experiences. This goes doubly in the workplace, which can often be subject to change. You and your employer will both benefit if you are able to thrive in an evolving work environment, and are willing to try new positions or responsibilities.

Diplomacy and Interpersonal skills. When you’re an international student at another university, your closest friends are likely other international students. Essentially, this means that your friend group becomes a diverse mishmash of personalities and backgrounds. The personality clashes that resulted from this grouping were both frustrating and enlightening. I began to gauge my reactions carefully when speaking with my international friends. What was the source of my reaction? Was it a language barrier? A cultural difference?  How could I explain my position without seeming rude or aggressive? Refining this sort of tact took some time, but the experience taught me to be more open to other opinions. Every workplace is full of people with different ideologies and goals. Rather than allowing these clashes to bring productivity to a standstill, it is important to mediate and compromise with coworkers. After all, the collaboration of different perspectives is an opportunity for the generation of fresh ideas.

Confidence. When I first arrived in France, I discovered that I was nowhere near as fluent as I needed to be. I was embarrassed by my lack of proficiency, and found the idea of speaking to a francophone in their native tongue daunting. It took me a long time to work up the nerve to attempt a conversation with one of my French neighbors, but when I did, I found that she was more than willing to help me practice. She was patient with my clumsy French, and encouraged me to work with her on my speaking skills. The improvement was almost immediate. What I realised then was that I needed to learn to be confident not only in the knowledge that I already possessed, but in my ability to learn quickly. In an interview, an employer needs to be assured that new employees will become an active, growing part of the team. Don’t be shy about acknowledging your strengths, and think about how you can use them to expand your skill set to make yourself an invaluable asset.

Making Connections. I’ve never been one to strike up a conversation with a stranger. Unfortunately, when you have a train to catch and you need to find your platform, you don’t have the luxury of being timid. The ability of approach people was a requirement that, once I got used to it, became a pleasure. I made friends with people that I may have previously been too shy to approach, and every encounter brought me different information and connections from all over the world. It was like a networking crash-course for travelers. By becoming more outgoing, I opened myself up to countless friendships. In the professional world, networking can be invaluable both to yourself and your company. You never know what types of opportunities will arise from the people you meet. Whether they teach you something new, become a good friend, or turn out to be a valuable contact, it is always worth it to take the initial step and just say hello.

Looking back on how different I am now from the person that I was before my trip, it’s strange that I didn’t notice the change until I returned to Canada. While I didn’t truly go to Lille to become a better employee, I came back more open, motivated, independent, outgoing, confident and diplomatic than I ever thought I’d be. While all of these attributes are assets for an employer, they’ve also made me more engaged and happier in my work, which is infinitely more valuable than simply being “more employable.”

Friday, 25 July 2014

Dr. Jim Bright on the Chaos Theory of Careers

I've written elsewhere on this blog (more than once) about CAPS' approach to career development. It is one that emphasizes action over planning, that recognizes the role that happenstance plays in shaping people's careers and that normalizes career uncertainty. These themes are also taken up in many of the guest bloggers who have contributed to this blog over the past couple of years.

Recently, a colleague sent me a link to a YouTube video featuring Jim Bright. Dr. Bright is author of The Chaos Theory of Careers. It is one of the publications that has really informed CAPS' practice. Enjoy!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BL2wTkgBEyk

Friday, 11 July 2014

Publishing opportunities, discovering new interests, finding a mentor and community, and more!


Today’s blog post comes from Monica Chahal, recipient of a Green and Gold Student Leadership and Professional Development Grant. The Green and Gold Grant is administered by CAPS and funded by the University of Alberta Annual Fund. At CAPS, we strongly encourage students to actively engage in their career and follow their curiosities because such action often reveals – even creates – opportunities for them. Monica’s experience shows the career impact of the actions we take and connections we make – in Monica’s case, publishing opportunities, discovering new interests, finding a mentor and community, and more! 

The Green and Gold Grant enabled me to attend the 35th Annual Popular & American Culture Studies Conference.  The reason I wanted to attend the conference was for its uniqueness and the potentiality of including public pedagogy, science fiction and urban culture in the classroom.

The conference itself was a truly unique and extraordinary experience, receiving the Green and Gold Grant gave me a much needed confidence boost and forced me out of my comfort zone. I attended three separate professional development sessions, all of which became extremely important and useful in the months following the conference. For the first time (due to lack of confidence and opportunity), I was able to speak to a publisher, directly, at the session on academic publishing and glean much needed information and direction.  I also had the benefit of being able to chat with the editor of a particular journal, which led to the editor offering to read two abstracts for two different papers in order to provide feedback and guidance regarding future publication possibilities, ultimately resulting in the submission of these two articles to her journal. I was also able to connect with a publisher for Intellect, who was very interested in publishing a journal on Hip Hop Culture and I will be contacting him over the summer to see if I can provide some assistance in the creation of this publication. Currently, Intellect publishes 82 double-blind peer reviewed journals world-wide; to be able to work on this from the ground up would be amazing. Additionally, I also attended a professional development session regarding the job search in academia, my first session of its kind outside of the University of Alberta and hosted solely by American Academics. As an urban researcher, many of my possible job opportunities lie in the United States, and I felt that this session provided me with an immense amount of guidance, advice and information regarding everything from how to write a curriculum vitae, to how to prepare for the interview and the multiple forms an academic contract may take. This session became tremendously important when I had my first academic interview in an American Institution 2 months following the conference.

Next the conference presentations themselves. The presentations I attended were extremely insightful, fascinating and useful to my practice, both as a pre-service educator, academic and beyond. For example, I spent a morning (8:00 am-11:45 am) attending presentations under the heading Rap and Hip Hop Culture 2 and 3.  My own research is linked to my personal interest in marginalized student populations, and as a result I have begun to explore Hip Hop Based Education and Pedagogy.  However, at the University of Alberta, and in particular within my own faculty, I am isolated. This was the first academic session I have been able to attend that focused solely on Hip Hop as an academic pursuit. While attending the first session (Rap and Hip Hop 2) the speaker, a professor from Howard University, offered to mentor my work and research.  Without attending this session, I would not have made a contact that I know I will cherish for many years. 

At the end of the second session (Rap and Hip Hop 3), I received the business card from a professor and journal editor from the University of Maryland. Due to my newly found confidence in networking, I have now submitted an article to his journal and am awaiting a response from another critical contact I had formed. In my final session, I was taught about the Harry Potter Studies, and was able to learn how to integrate a canon that is widely popular among youth of all ages into my own classrooms at the University, while still educating students in science, ethics and morality. Even more beneficial, was the connection, I was fortunate enough to make with the Area Chair for this section, who, after hearing about my focus on marginalized students and white privilege, invited me to submit a chapter proposal for his edited volume. Finally, in between the attended sessions, I was able to further connect with other conference participants inspiring a feeling of community of which I had not felt in a very long time.  Also, as a result of the many contacts I have made, myself, along with colleagues met at the conference, are now leading small publication groups with others at the University of Alberta.

In conclusion, all of this has been immensely gratifying as within my curriculum vitae my weakest section has been that of peer reviewed publications. As a young academic, I have had difficulty in finding a match between my articles and journals, and had become quite frustrated. However, the Green and Gold Grant provided me with the realization that I am supported, giving me confidence and thus encouraging me to put myself forward, ask for guidance, and gain much needed feedback . Consequently, I am certain that as a result of this single conference, I will become a published author.

This was hands down, the best conference I have ever attended. More importantly, it is a conference that has created for me, many professional networks, publication opportunities and a newfound sense of purpose. 

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Labour Market Trends and Rising Stars in Fort McMurray - Part 2


Today's post is from Amy Roy Gratton, Experiential Learning Coordinator with CAPS: Your U of A Career Centre.

I often get the question, “what do you do all summer when there are no students around?” I’m fortunate to be able to explore careers first hand in order to be more knowledgeable about career options and labour market information when I advise students. 

This summer I was thrilled to participate the Oil Sands Careers Education Program hosted by Inside Education where I got to explore Alberta’s oil sands in Fort McMurray. I love Inside Education because their programming includes multiple perspectives. This was particularly important with the oil sands where debate continues daily regarding its environmental and economic impacts. In my last blog post I talked about life as a commuting employee – but that was just half of the experience. In addition the tour also explored educational, government, industry, human resources and labour market perspectives.

The packed two-day tour began with an overview of labour market trends over the next 20 years. According to the human resources professionals at Cenovus, a Canadian oil company employing about 5000 people in Alberta and Saskatchewan, the biggest threat to oil sands production is a human resources problem: not having enough skilled workers to make the work happen. Age-related attrition caused by a retiring workforce means creative strategies are needed to develop flexible work options for retiring employees who are valuable in mentoring new employees. There are also the usual concerns such as turnover; however, it’s not just local competitors offering enticing opportunities, it’s now a global market making offers that can’t be refused.


It seems the most common career shortages that we hear about are trades, science and technology. However, on this tour I was encouraged to see the variety of jobs that exist in supporting roles within the oil sands industry. All disciplines including communications, aboriginal relations, workplace health and wellness, information systems, finance, environmental, policy development and distribution are needed, valued and important.

If you’d like to learn more about the variety of people that make the oil industry work, the May 2014 issue of Oil Week Magazine highlights 12 Rising Stars who are key contributors. Not only did they profile a variety of careers, they also emphasized the career theory CAPS supports: that we are not one dimensional people; we have multiple interests and multiple goals, beyond work, that are just as important as the work that we do.

Although there seems to be an impression that people with less than a high school education can find lucrative work in Fort McMurray; this is a myth. The message we heard over and over again is that oil companies need trained (and trainable) people who can learn fast and who won’t cause costly mistakes. Our first stop, to reinforce this point, was a visit to Keyano College. At the college we received an overview of Heavy Equipment Technician, Power Engineering, and the Crane and Hoisting Equipment Operator and the Environmental Technology Program – which now includes a wildlife component mandated by the courts after the tailings pond incident of 2008. The tour was fascinating for me because of the cross over between our university and college programming.  Louis Dingley, Chair of University Studies Science and Environmental Technology, shared a statistic that surprised me: for every Professional Engineer, three Engineering Technologists are needed to support that role which shows how interdependent colleges and universities really are.

Keyano College bring hands on education to another level with their Oil Sands Power and Process Engineering Lab, a $29-million dollar facility that allows students to operate a plant from start-up to shut-down on a daily basis. At a real plant in Fort McMurray there is no time for emergency shut downs. Real shut downs waste thousands of dollars. This plant allows these emergencies to be simulated and training to be tailored around the student’s skill level to prepare them for any scenario. One of the instructors – a retired Process Engineer, was the perfect example to illustrate the labour market trends we discussed at the beginning of our tour: he had enjoyed an international career and was scooped up out of retirement to pass on his experience to a new generation of process engineers.  

Although technical training like this is important, the ability to communicate was highlighted as the most important skills beyond any other. Complex organizations have a dynamic mix of people making them run effectively. The ability to communicate with inter-disciplinary colleagues and cross-functional teams means everyone from public relations to distribution is working toward the same goal, despite their differing viewpoints. Professionals need to be knowledgeable in their field but also need to understand a problem from multiple perspectives and explain their knowledge in a non-technical way.

Although I was aware that soft skills are important in the workplace, hearing this message from a very technical, industry perspective was great reinforcement for the advising I do. The whole experience was myth busting and enlightening. To challenge your own biases toward the oil industry and create your own memories, consider contacting the University of Alberta Oil Sands Student Delegation to learn how you can explore Fort McMurray and see what the big town that has it all has to offer.