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Career Advice

Wayfinding and research as key work-integrated learning strategies

People use wayfinding techniques to navigate unfamiliar situations, and university students should be no different.


Before there were navigational tools, explorers used the natural surroundings to find their way around. They also communicated with native populations, because this was more efficient than wandering around blindly. These days, people use wayfinding techniques to navigate unfamiliar situations, and university students are no different – one example would be for them to use wayfinding to refine their educational and career interests.

Universities largely use a herd approach to shepherd students through their education and advancement. Incoming students may have a general idea of where they want to go. Over time they should refine their career direction through specific educational pursuits. Although university education is completely customizable, most students stay on the same beaten track, and then wonder why they can’t find a job after graduation. They don’t understand that the goal of university is to create a value proposition for themselves through educational and experiential refinement, some of which can be offered through research experience.

Informational interviews are a great way to teach students wayfinding. By simply having a coffee with a professional who is on a career track that interests them, students learn about the person’s job and how to pursue it. However, students often find this form of experiential learning difficult, for fear of looking incompetent. Research actually suggests that advice-seeking is an effective strategy for students to exercise influence when lacking authority. This explains why many interviewees invest themselves into the career aspirations of their student interviewers.

Informational interviews are a form of rapid prototype testing. If a student doesn’t like what they hear, they can pivot to a new prototype. Pivoting is a good thing: it helps students to refine the career and educational model. It also helps them to build resilience. Deemed a micro-failure, it’s much better to pivot after an informational interview than after a bigger career investment, such as an internship that is unbearable. This is why design thinkers say it’s good to learn from failing early.

Teaching wayfinding to new undergraduates can also be a strategy to help more students become involved in research. Although students may be comfortable speaking to their own instructors, they are often afraid to engage with professors they don’t know. This is unfortunate because being at the cutting edge of research can be an important career stepping stone. We need to teach new undergrads to get over their fear of professors by teaching them to perform informational interviews. After students experience the kindness of strangers, informational interviews become a tool in their wayfinding toolbox.

Universities should be a safe space for students to practice informational interviewing. Students who are interested in knowing more about a topic, should do their research to find the right professor to engage. They should know the professors’ work as much as possible before scheduling an appointment and should be prepared to provide more information about themselves (transcripts, CVs, etc.) beforehand. This helps professors to frame the conversation by gauging a student’s level of understanding.

Much like informational interviewees, not every professor will make the time. Students should be prepared for rejection – but they should also be tenacious. By casting a wide net, students can capture a professor (or their underling), and turn them into a foothold. After making a good impression, a student may be given the opportunity to become part of a professor’s network. Even if it’s not exactly the right fit, students should pay their dues and pursue it anyways. Maybe their grades or experience are not good enough to get into a “Nobel Laureate’s” network, but a foothold offers the license to engage the Nobel Laureate at a future date.

Unlike informational interviews it’s not inappropriate for students to ask professors for a research position. It’s a free market, so students can cast a wide net and select the research program that most closely matches their interests and career goals. This includes going beyond their home university to find suitable research opportunities.

Recently, governments have begun to push universities to provide students with work integrated learning (WIL) experiences. Having more students involved in university research may be a key strategy to provide these experiences. However, in order to excel with this strategy, it is important to teach students wayfinding.

Derrick Rancourt is a stem cell biologist and professor in the Cumming School of Medicine at the University of Calgary. He is an entrepreneurial scientist and director of Alberta’s Genome Engineering Centre. He teaches biotechnology business and professional development and serves on the Alberta Council of Technologies.

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