Monday, 29 October 2012

Learning for learning vs. learning for earning

I was just looking at the results from the annual From Learning to Work survey for 2012, which is a survey of post-secondary students from across Canada. Over 28,000 students responded to the 2012 survey and, consistent with past surveys, the top two responses to the question 'Why did you choose to go to college/university?' were to 'get a good job' and 'prepare for a specific career.'

Now, some people within academia will cringe at these results. They will argue that the purpose of post-secondary education, or more precisely university education, should not be so instrumental. Rather, students should go to university to broaden their mind and develop their moral character. They should pursue learning for the sake of learning. Given that I work in a university career centre - and have since I completed my BA - it may surprise some people that I don't disagree with this perspective. I started off at the U of A in the Faculty of Education with the goal of becoming a teacher. I soon realized teaching was not the career for me. At that point I could have taken some time off to figure out what I wanted to do career-wise with the rest of my life but, to be honest, I really liked being a student. Yes, the end of term was stressful with exams and papers to write but I really did feel like I was learning and growing a lot as a person.

Fast forward 13 years. I'd been working at CAPS since I completed my BA. I decided to start a master's degree education. A number of people asked me why. How was it going to help me in my career? Was I planning to look for a different job when I was done? That was not my motivation at all! I had become interested in adult learning - work-related learning, in particular - and it was an interest I wanted to pursue. I completed my MEd in 2005 - and I am still working at CAPS! And while my reasons for doing graduate work were driven by my interests, one of the unintended outcomes was that much of what I learned has helped me in my work (as well as other areas of my life). For example, assessment of learning, program evaluation and project ethics have been, and will continue to be, areas of focus for me. Through my graduate work I learned about research and evaluation methods, as well as honed important skills (especially critical thinking), which help me with this work.

Now having said all this, I believe that 'learning for learning versus learning for earning' is a false dichotomy. We shouldn't balk at integrating some career education into the curriculum. Certainly degree programs that prepare students for specific professions do this (e.g. nursing, engineering) but it can be done in other programs through things like internships and community service learning. Universities should also provide co-curricular programs and services that provide opportunities for students to explore careers, build skills and make connections. The reality is that most students will enter the world of work after they complete their degree. We can and should help to make that transition a successful one.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Undergraduate research: A question can take you anywhere

This week’s guest post is from Crystal Snyder, Coordinator of the Undergraduate Research Initiative (URI). The URI is kicking off its fall awareness campaign, and will be holding a number of events over the next two weeks. Be sure to check out the URI website and Facebook page for updates! 

When a plant gets sick, does it make its own medicine?

This was the seemingly innocuous question that changed the entire course of my career. It was the fall of 2001, and I was in my second year of studying biochemistry on my way to fulfilling a lifelong dream of going to veterinary school. I knew almost nothing about research, less about plants, and I’d barely scraped through organic chemistry with a C+ average. On paper, I seemed like an unlikely fit for a research project with a natural products chemist studying the medicinal properties of stressed-out plants. But my professor (let's call him Dr. K), had a way of talking about his work that made me want to be a part of it. He was an amazing teacher, and the opportunity to work with him was enough to convince me to take a chance on this project I knew nothing about.

On reflection, I suppose that was lesson #1 in undergraduate research: Find a mentor, not just a project.

Dr. K wasn’t concerned about my struggles with organic chemistry or my lack of experience with plants. I was one of four undergraduate students in his lab that semester, and none of us were poster-children for academic perfection. He assured us that in research, GPA is rarely the strongest predictor of success. He welcomed us into the lab and treated us like partners, each equally invested in the outcome of our work. That immediately made the experience unlike anything I had encountered in the classroom. There was no longer anyone dictating what we had to learn. We were free to start asking our own questions. There was nothing to memorize; everything we learned in the lab, we applied immediately. Chemistry didn't seem so hard when we started using it to solve our own research problems. Sometimes our experiments worked, sometimes they didn't, but that wasn't failure – it was research.

That's lesson #2: In research, you never have all the answers. The real discovery is finding the right questions.

I stayed in Dr. K's lab for another year and a half, working with different students on several projects. I've heard that some researchers discourage undergrads from staying in the same lab for too long, preferring instead that they test the waters elsewhere and explore a variety of interests. I took a slightly different path, participating in a program in which I got to interview researchers and write profiles of their work. I wrote about researchers from every discipline, from education to sociology to astrophysics. It made me realize just how diverse the opportunities were, and how few of my career options I’d actually explored. It made me think twice about vet school. I started considering graduate school. Or journalism. Or maybe even both.

Lesson #3: Trust your curiosity, and don't be afraid to change directions if the right opportunity presents itself.

For me, the right opportunity came in the form of a job that was never posted, which I've since learned is not uncommon in research (yet another reason to get to know a lot of different researchers!). A professor I knew was moving to the University of Alberta, and I'd heard he might be hiring for his new lab. Still undecided about grad school, I sent him an email inquiring about a job. He hired me as a technician, and I ended up working for him for the next eight years. In that time, I traveled to some fun places, met a lot of interesting people, and eventually got around to pursuing a Master's degree. But after almost a decade of doing research, I realized that what I really wanted to do was help others experience the thrill of discovery for themselves. I thought I might go back to writing about research, finding ways to help researchers strip away their jargon and share their passions with students and the broader community.

I never would have guessed that my desire to make research more accessible would lead me to my current position with the Undergraduate Research Initiative. I'm pretty sure that "Undergraduate Research Coordinator" never appeared on any of the career planning materials I'd seen about what you can do with a science degree, and it certainly never occurred to me as a possibility when Dr K first convinced me to take a chance on plant research. And yet everything I've learned since – in the lab and out – made this the right fit at the right time. As author Douglas Adams once wrote, "I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be."

And that was the most valuable lesson of all: In research, a question can take you anywhere.

Where will yours lead you?

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Debunking the myths about Arts degrees and careers

Today's post is from guest blogger Amber Nicholson, Career Development Officer with the U of A's Faculty of Arts.

When I was asked to blog about a career topic for Arts students, debunking employability myths came to mind. As tiresome as myths can be, I think they still deserve a kick in the pants now and then…

The only jobs for Arts grads do not require post-secondary education.

From time to time I hear stories about a friend of a friend who ended up flipping burgers after finishing her or his Arts degree. My response is what does this person’s career exploration and work search look like? Does this cautionary tale, by association, mean there are no jobs for Arts graduates and you, too, will end up flipping burgers? While it’s true that some Arts graduates have a difficult time finding work, the same can be said for a wide range of fields. For example, it’s not always easy to find work as a teacher; or when the economy takes a downturn jobs for engineers can be in short supply.

In the past couple of weeks I visited current Arts undergraduate students who are working in a variety of internship positions through the Arts Work Experience Program. Their job titles and responsibilities include: a Business Analyst reviewing emerging market opportunities for a manufacturing company in the oil and gas industry; a Legal Assistant who works on high level legal research; Student Recruiters who travel around the province delivering presentations and independently manage complex schedules; and a Research Intern who communicates directly with government ministers. Why am I telling you about these students? Because instead of thinking of your friend’s friend, the burger flipper, think about them. Think about the vast number of success stories of people who take chances, take advantage of opportunities that present themselves and are applying their education in meaningful ways.

As an Arts graduate myself and now, working in career services with Arts students, I appreciate the challenges involved in deciding how to apply your degree in the workforce. Let’s face it, if you take nursing or mechanical engineering, your career path is much clearer and there isn’t a lot of room for ambiguity. It’s true that broad undergraduate programs lead to a number of undefined career options and that can seem overwhelming but, looked at another way, the endless possibilities can also be exciting.

Beyond reviewing employment statistics that clearly state that Arts graduates do, indeed, find work (see University of Alberta Graduate Survey, Alumni Employment Surveys), talk to people who have been successful. Plan to attend the Arts Career Fair, listen to an alumni panel presentation at a Career Forum, attend a Career Chat or take advantage of Career Exploration Programs, like Job Shadow Week. The highly successful professionals who participate in these events are using applying their degrees in a wide range of fields. They have Arts degrees and are gainfully employed. You can be too!

There is no association between what I’m learning in class and what’s needed in the job market.

As part of the Arts Work Experience Program, I ask interns students to reflect the relationship between their academic experience and the applied experience of their working environment. Without fail, these students comment on how their degree helped them to develop skills they use every day on the job. These skills include: time management/organization, the ability to communicate ideas, effective writing, the ability to collaborate and work independently, etc. The interesting thing is that their supervisors also comment that these broad, yet hard to teach ‘on the job’ skills, are the reason they targeted Arts students for their work experience opportunities. Although these students learned their specific job tasks at work, they learned how to approach learning, problem solving and decision making in their degree program.

Finding a job is all about who you know, I don’t know anyone in my field, so I’m never going to find a job.

Okay, so this bit of despair isn’t specific to Arts students, but I think it’s worth mentioning. Are most jobs found through personal and professional networks? Yes, a good number of them are. In fact some sources report 80% of jobs may be found through networking. Does that mean if you don’t have professional connections, you have no way to make them and will, in turn, be living in your parents’ basement forever? Absolutely not! There are a vast number of opportunities to explore career options, build your network and get relevant workplace experience while you’re a student.

For Arts students, consider attending the Arts Career Fair next week to learn about the range of jobs participating employers have to offer. Do your research and approach employers with well thought out questions…they love that! If a career fair setting is not for you, consider attending a discipline specific career forum, find a mentor, or conduct a career information interview with a professional in a job that interests you. Earn money while volunteering through the SCiP Program, take a Community Service Learning course, get involved in undergraduate research or join a student group. Basically, get out there, meet people, take advantage of opportunities that present themselves and take an active role in your career exploration!