Wednesday, 23 April 2014

I am not at university to get a degree

Today's post is from Kristina Drozdiak, student in the Faculty of Arts and CAPS' Communications Intern for the past year.

I have a number of friends who advocate that university is a waste of time; all you need to get a job (and some lucrative ones at that) is a high school diploma.

When I tell people I am studying English, the number one response is: “What are you going to do with that?”

Valid points and valid questions, but they don’t align with why I’m at university. I am at university to learn. I did not decide to study English to break into editing, publishing, writing. I’ve never consciously looked at the labour market.

I chose to study English because it’s a subject I enjoy. Maybe that’s naive, but I think the best way to be happy in this life is to pursue the things that bring you joy. My English degree has let me stretch my wings and do a lot of things that I enjoy: reading, analyzing and articulating information, critical thinking—the list goes on.

Do I also find it fascinating to examine how Indian writing in English has changed since Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children? Absolutely. I also enjoy puzzling through “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” by reading it aloud, tracing the politics of gender in mountaineering novels, and deconstructing Satan’s rhetoric in Paradise Lost. I have done all of these things while pursuing my degree, and since that’s what people see me doing, it’s easy to understand why they think my degree isn’t relevant to the “real world.”

Just skimming the surface, it doesn’t look like much. The only sensible application seems to be teaching English to others, or perhaps being one of those crackpot writers with more sense for art than story.

But, à la Rafiki in The Lion King I bid you: Look harder. As much as I enjoy listening to The Canterbury Tales on my iPod, what I like most about my degree is the type of thinking I get to do. In lectures, I’m challenged to process information in real-time, identify key points, and record them. In readings, I’m challenged to analyze texts, and in papers I’m challenged to articulate information and present strong, plausible arguments. Maybe they’re over-used buzzwords, but I enjoy critical thinking, problem-solving and articulating my findings.

I get to do all of those things in my degree, and often. I’m not saying those skills are unique to an English degree, nor are they the only skills an English degree can help you hone. But I’m doing what I enjoy, and improving those same skills that make me happy. Our most valuable commodity is our time, and I’ve devoted mine to things that I enjoy. What I enjoy happen to be marketable skills, and if you break down what you enjoy, I bet yours are too.

What do you enjoy? Those, I think, are the skills that will take you to interesting, verdant and rewarding places throughout your career.

Monday, 14 April 2014

“Now what?” What a career change taught me about making “big” career decisions

Today's post is by Crystal Snyder, Coordinator for the University of Alberta's Undergraduate Research Initiative (URI).

As another academic year draws to a close, between the celebratory spirit of the end of classes and the hustle to prepare for final exams, there may be a question lingering on the minds of many students: "Now what?"

I remember being in the final semester of my undergrad degree, counting down all the "lasts" of my program, while growing more anxious at the fact that I had not yet made any firm decisions about what my first step would be post-graduation. The result was rather anticlimactic: I got a job doing research, and my transition from student to employee consisted primarily of moving from part-time research in one discipline to full-time research in another. I never regretted that decision, but even after several years of working in the field and finishing a graduate degree, I still hadn't answered all those deep, lingering questions about what I really wanted to do with my life.

I'd arrived back at "Now what?" and this time, the transition would not be so simple.

I'll spare you the details, but here are the highlights: nothing happened according to my "plan", the work I'm doing now is entirely different from anything I might have imagined I would do, and I have never been happier in my career as a result. That's the good news.

The bad news is that in between, there was no escaping the unsettled, uncertain feeling that I'd landed a starring role in a reality TV mash-up of Groundhog Day and Extreme Makeover: Career Edition. Okay, maybe it wasn't that bad...but I did learn a few things that may be helpful to those of you who are embarking on a career transition of your own:

The best laid plans often go awry...and that's okay.

If there's one thing I wish someone had told me at the beginning, it's that you can't always plan your way into a career. I thought I knew what I wanted to do, and I started planning for that, but I soon learned that planning for change is not the same as actually doing it. Taking the time to prepare and explore your options is important, but so is stepping out of your comfort zone and taking action.

The job I have now didn’t exist when I was making my plans, and when it did come up, I almost didn’t apply because I wasn’t sure I was ready. It's hard to imagine now how things would be different if I hadn't taken the chance anyway – I not only got the job, but I also learned that most people's careers do not follow a set, linear plan. I wasn't alone – phew!

Mentors matter.

One of the hardest things about transitioning out of my career in science was figuring out how to let go of my identity as a scientist. I had invested a lot in becoming a scientist, I was successful at it, and even though it was my choice to change directions, there was still a very real sense of loss, and no shortage of people who questioned the wisdom of what I was doing. Having a mentor who understood and encouraged the changes I was making helped a lot. I think mentors are important regardless of where you are in your career, but during a transition, they can really help challenge you to think about your career in different ways.

Learn from your new community of peers.

The inevitable flip side of losing one identity is that you have to find another. If I was no longer a scientist, what was I, exactly? Some days, I still feel like I'm figuring that out, but the breakthrough came last spring when I attended a conference with 40 of my peers who, on the surface, appeared to have very little in common. These were people from diverse academic backgrounds, working on every kind of student program you can think of, from career services to outdoor recreation – and yet, we all agreed on a common set of skills, values and attitudes that lie at the core of what we do. It made me realize that despite everything familiar I was leaving behind, I had a lot more in common with my new colleagues than our various job titles suggested.

The way you're accustomed to working isn't the only – or the best – way to work.

This might seem obvious, but keeping an open mind about workplace culture will go a long way. As a researcher, I was accustomed to a completely different way of working than the way I work now – and it was a culture shock at first. But having gained a great deal in the adjustment, I must admit I bristle whenever I see another article talking about how employers need to cater to the needs and expectations of Gen Y employees. Sure, maybe workplaces do need to evolve in some ways, but part of the transitional process is learning how to adapt to different ways of working, and I think there is tremendous value in embracing this as part of our professional development.

There are no "wrong" decisions – just different choices

I've realized now that my career has almost come full circle that much of the stress I felt about my career decisions as an undergrad was unnecessary. You'd have never convinced me of that back then, but I've come to view career decisions as a kind of Choose Your Own Adventure story, in which we're constantly faced with different options, but there's no one right way to get from one place to another. So even though the decisions you're facing right now may seem monumental, our careers are really the sum of many smaller choices we make throughout our lives – there's always room to change course if you get lost along the way.

So fear not – and good luck on your exams!

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Even 30 minutes can make or break your career

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

When it comes to engaging in career exploration activities time is important. Every year, CAPS organizes U of A Job Shadow Week, which relies on the willingness of professionals to volunteer their time to support students’ career development. This past February we recruited over 150 professionals to host over 220 students over four days for a workplace visit.

Job shadowing is unique in that it is pretty much an “all access pass” to the workplace. Students get to see the inner workings of an organization through the eyes of their host. Most of our job shadow hosts say they wished they had had these types of opportunities when they were students.

The benefits and outcomes are a great pay off for the amount of time U of A Job Shadow Week takes to coordinate. Recruiting enough people to volunteer as job shadow hosts is challenging and requires the ability to build relationships, negotiate and handle rejection. There are policies, protocols, red tape and administration to negotiate that students would have difficulty navigating through on their own. There are work schedules to arrange and requests to manage so that the job shadowing experience doesn’t become a one-sided activity that only benefits the student.

So as the facilitator of over 220 job shadow experiences imagine my frustration when I was copied on an email from a student to his host asking, “Is it alright if I come [for my job shadow] at nine-thirty as opposed to nine? I'm not much of a morning person and that extra half hour would help.” The sense of entitlement that came across in the e-mail from a student who “wanted to sleep in” made me wonder, was I like that at his age? Sadly, the answer is yes, I was.

I was the young “professional” who showed up two hours late on my second day at my first job because I slept in. At my internship I declined an invitation to an event for all staff members designed to build teamwork by hitting reply-all and saying, “Sorry, but I’d rather sleep in.”

The student’s email reinforced for me that sometimes job seekers can be their own worst enemy by sabotaging their own success. They don’t realize that by asking for these “exceptions” and compromises they may be compromising future professional relationships. His preference to sleep-in over seizing this learning opportunity could have cost him the breakthrough he needed in his career.

There could have been any number of scenarios as to why the host wanted the day to start at 9 a.m. as opposed to 9:30. Maybe the job shadow host had arranged a meeting with his senior administration team to participate in the job shadow process. Maybe he arranged to have all of his staff participate in a morning discussion on teamwork. Getting co-workers all together at the same time and place can be a challenge. I just look to my own colleagues as an example. There was only one other day in the whole month of March when all CAPS staff were available at the same time. One day! Seems ridiculous and yet it’s true!

In addition to coordinating people there are also hands-on activities that require time to plan and prepare. One of our job shadow hosts flew three students from Edmonton to High River to see how the flood of 2013 affected our province. (If you don’t think 30 minutes matters, I guess you’d have missed the flight!) Another host arranged to have the student try hands-on geological tasks, putting their science degree to work on the job. Another had a student develop a graphic design pitch for a client – a real-life client whom I’m also sure has a very busy schedule to maintain.

After getting over my initial frustration, I wondered how I might respond to the student. Do I express dismay and frustration at his seeming lack of professionalism or do I express empathy and show vulnerability based my own mistakes as a young professional? I chose to make it a teaching moment rather than react out of frustration. After calling the student to discuss the e-mail, I came to realize he genuinely didn’t think about how his request might affect others and didn’t think it really mattered. I encouraged him to call his job shadow host and explain the e-mail as an unintended oversight. I then e-mailed the host expressing my apologies for the student’s request. Lucky for the student, the job shadow host was quite forgiving. His response to my e-mail was, “It’s ok, I had a bit of a chuckle and he called me afterwards to discuss. I remember when I was 18 so I can’t be too critical.”

At CAPS we enjoy helping students learn how to present their best selves - from learning how to prepare for a job interview to presenting a professional image online. Even though some of the real life learning opportunities require students to fix their own mistakes, we are eager to guide them on how to do that effectively because we’ve all been there! Thankfully we can all learn from our mistakes so that every moment counts in our career – even if it’s as little as 30 minutes.