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Career Advice

Degree in hand… now what?

University career advisers have some advice for graduating students.


As the semester comes to an end, thousands of students will leave the world of academia behind them. To help you make the exciting – but often nerve-wracking – next step, we asked a selection of university career advisers the following question:

“If you could give one piece of advice to students graduating from university this April, what would it be?”

Here are their answers:

Prepare by asking yourself the ‘why’ questions

“Graduating from university can be an exciting time as you decide the next step in your career plan. Make time to get to know who you are, and explore career options depending on your interests and abilities. Discover your skills, abilities, interests, values and preferences.

While starting your career plan, review prior paid and unpaid work, as well as learning and leisure activities. Be able to answer the “so what” and “why” questions. For example, ask yourself the “so what” of completing an undergrad degree in ABC. What skills, abilities or knowledge did you gain from your degree that can transfer to a potential employer? Asking “why” questions will help you develop genuine and meaningful answers.

Finding a job takes persistence, creativity, and various job search strategies. If you know yourself well, you can narrow your occupational choices, create an effective resumé, and be confident in interviews. Remember the career planning process is a lifelong process. Learn to appreciate the change and uncertainty that accompanies career planning and look for the opportunities that emerge along the way.”

Jane MacDonald is the manager of the Student Career Centre and Co-operative Education program at St. Francis Xavier University.

Don’t discount any of your skills

“Assume all of your skills might be important to employers. Students who have just graduated, especially those with some graduate work behind them, sometimes assume that the skills most clearly related to their academics are the most important. But the skills you didn’t spend as much time on may be the ones that land you your next job. It could be the handful of web pages you designed for student groups or the conference you helped organized, rather than the papers you wrote, that will convince an employer to take a chance on you.

Don’t feel obligated to detail your academic work just because you’ve devoted a significant amount of time to it. Of course, in order to figure out what to emphasize, you need to research the jobs you’re interested in. That consists partly of a close reading of job postings, but also happens through participating in or lurking on relevant professional group discussion boards (such as the kind you can join for free on, joining “real live” professional organizations, and talking with as many people as you can find who are doing the kind of work you think you might want to do.”

Liz Koblyk is the assistant director of the Centre for Career Action at the University of Waterloo. She also blogs on University Affairs’ Careers Café, a blog to help you kick-start your career.

PhDs – do your research

“To the graduating PhDs considering non-academic options: There are many opportunities for flexible thinkers and independent learners in the knowledge economy, but few of these will be found on job posting sites, so don’t spend more than 25 percent of your ‘job search’ distributing resumés online. Instead, invest your time in researching organizations involved in activities that you are curious about. You’ll want to find out:

  • How does information flows – how do they keep up on what’s new and changing?
  • How does money flow in that environment – where does it come from and how is it spent?
  • Who does what – what did they do before this?
  • Who else is doing this – organizations, competitors?
  • What’s working well and what’s not?

With this information in hand, you will have a much better idea if there is a place for someone like you there and whether or not you would enjoy that environment; you can be more strategic about how to get involved – informally through volunteer work, or formally through a job-contract or ongoing employment; and, most importantly, people in that field will know you exist and how to reach you.”

Carolyn Steele is a career development coordinator at York University.

Be open to the unexpected

“My biggest advice for new university graduates is to embrace the chaos that transitioning from one stage of life to another inevitably involves. This comes down to three key points. It’s no longer realistic to expect to have a linear career path, so the first is to avoid overcommitting to long-term plans. In a career context, it’s more beneficial to be short-sighted – to act and react to the variables immediately in front of you. The more skillfully you can navigate short-term goals and contexts, the more likely you are to encounter previously unexpected opportunities.

Of course, being able to recognize and adapt to these unplanned events is crucial, so try to learn to expect the unexpected. This means being open to new experiences and being willing to change direction if necessary. The final ingredient is hope. Without it, the smallest of tasks can seem impossible. With hope comes motivation, perseverance, and action – absolutely necessary elements of any job search. So, to summarize: forget the plan, expect the unexpected, and stay hopeful!”

David Lindskoog is a career adviser at the Simon Fraser University Career Services Centre.

Get moving!

“My one piece of advice to new graduates is “get to work” – quickly! Finding work is a full-time job and often requires some strategic planning and action – and lots of perseverance, tenacity and courage. Be clear about what you are looking for! Don’t be one of the people that say they are looking for anything. Be strategic on how you can get a job. Who are potential employers? Who could you ask for help? Get out there, meet with people and network. Volunteer for an organization or non-profit – this is a great way to network and develop skills while you are looking. Be “doing” along with “looking”. Be flexible with your expectations. Sometimes casual and part-time jobs, term positions and contracts are great ways to gain some experience. Any experience related to your career will set you on the path for a full time, permanent position. Do SOMETHING related to your ideal career, do a great job and more opportunities will follow!”

Marnie Groeneveld is an employment adviser at the University of Manitoba.

And for those who will be back on campus next year, Jane MacDonald offers a tip: “To avoid frustration and to increase success, become an engaged participant in your career planning process early in your degree program. Become a frequent visitor to your campus student career centre.’

We wish all of you the best of luck in your future, whether it’s on a university campus or elsewhere!

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