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Careers Café

A little non-academic experience helps


I just came back from the Education at Work conference, which wrapped up with an employer panel. I like employer panels – they give me a chance to test out whether I actually know what I’m talking about, or whether I’ve developed an artificial, Disney-esque view of the way one goes about finding a job.

Good news for me – I don’t have to buy any mouse ears yet. The advice offered by the employers on the panel sounds largely like what you’ll read in any of the Careers Café posts by any of the blog authors.  Along with a few messages that might not inspire a Careers Café blog post (Don’t tweet about your sex life! Wear interview-appropriate clothing!), there was plenty that will look familiar to you. That advice included researching organizations you’re applying to, talking openly about your accomplishments, and having some experience outside the classroom. Not a boatload of experience – actually, in the words of one of the employers, “any experience.”

There’s nothing wrong with what you learn in the classroom or while completing your dissertation. But, once you’re enrolled in an academic program, it’s hard to get kicked out for reasons that would make one a problematic employee – such as having an abrasive communication style, failing to meet deadlines, or putting personal advancement ahead of organizational goals. Having even small pieces of experience working for someone who has the option of firing you shows that you could meet that person’s expectations of what needed to be done.

Of course, it also gives you a wider range of experiences to draw on in your interviews, a broader range of skills to highlight in your résumé and cover letter, and a bigger network to draw on when looking for job leads – as well as more information about what you like and don’t like when you’re evaluating your career options.

That said, you don’t have to say yes to every opportunity to try something new. If you’re feeling anxious about your career future, it can be tempting to try to follow every bit of career advice to the nth degree. You don’t have to leap into gathering experiences – you can step into the process, one foot at a time.  Jo Van Every’s advice on handling career suggestions applies to ideas that come from you, as well as those that come from other people.

So, allow yourself the luxury of considering the experience you might embark on, whether it meets your priorities and how much of your time it’s likely to take. And, worst case scenario, if that experience doesn’t give you what you’re looking for, you’ve ruled something out, and altered your criteria for how to pick the next experience you’ll add in your career.

Liz Koblyk
Liz Koblyk is the associate director of the Wilson Leadership Scholar Award at McMaster University.
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