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.