When I embarked on my education, I assumed I’d become career-ready by acquiring information and developing skills related to my field (as an English major: reading literature and writing criticism). The “in-between moments”—late nights prepping for my week, writing emails, cleaning my study space, reading uninteresting books for uninteresting program requirement courses—felt like a means to an end, a necessary-but-subjacent step toward meatier accomplishments. Then, after I graduated, I discovered that, strangely, all the organizing, side-duties, and work-life balancing played a crucial role in my ability to write a cover letter, prep for an interview, and work alongside employers. I imagine this is obvious for many, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll find it easy to grow impatient with the “secondary” labours of education. So here are some of the secondary labours and habits that have helped me on my career journey.
- Writing in different forms. Maybe you’re a pure-blooded numbers person. Perhaps you feel comfortable writing only in specific registers and formats. Regardless, most of us have to write cover letters, resumes, emails, proposals, etc. In high school, I wasn’t taught how to write a professional email. This skill came in university. And it was only after writing hundreds of emails to professors, students, peers, and administrators, that I began to feel comfortable using email to communicate on a wide range of situations, including conflicts and misunderstandings requiring nuance and careful language. Having spent time teaching and knowing many teachers, I can attest that students who write professional, clear, and polite emails leave powerful impressions. Moreover, in the job market, where employers aren’t required to keep you around, emailing could make or break promotions and hirings. Or consider cover letters. Honestly, cover letters are the hardest things I’ve had to write. I’m perpetually asking: What should I focus on? How do I stand out from the crowd? How do I highlight my skills and successes without sounding arrogant? How do I compensate for lack of experience without sounding desperate? Luckily, I can draw on my time applying for scholarships. University has also given me lots of practice writing when I don’t know where to start or finish. I know I should begin first thing in the morning with my coffee when my mind is fresh and sharp. I know I then have a few solid hours before I feel frustrated. At that point, I’ll have to make toast or get exercise before getting back at it. I know when to push through, keep momentum, and leave sloppy sentences for revision; I know when to slow down and take things word-by-word. Postsecondary education is a training ground for the tedious, difficult writing that accompanies career searching.
- Working with different people. Postsecondary education is a training ground for communication in general. It’s a rare gift: you learn to work professionally with various people while having room for error. (Unless it’s serious, you won’t be fired). A talk with a professor mirrors a talk with a boss; a university presentation mirrors a job interview. Working through problems with an institution’s administration may continue into your career. When I go into a job interview, I take the same approach for a university committee meeting or a tutorial lecture. I ask myself, "Who is my audience?", "What are their expectations?", "What do I have to offer?", "What is the major point I want to leave?", "Should my tone be formal or casual?" As a teaching assistant, I talked to students who were angry with their marks. These situations required attentiveness, care, and sympathy on one hand; on the other, the strength and confidence to articulate my reasons for giving the mark. During my employment, I’ve come back to these experiences, again and again, as a way of remembering how to balance listening and speaking, taking, and giving. I like to think that it’s helped me establish strong, fruitful relations with employers and colleagues. Postsecondary education is more than secluded studying and good grades; it’s a communal experience demanding good interactions with a host of people and situations. Hopefully, it will provide the interpersonal skills needed to build a meaningful career.
- Keeping focus: Every student post-2000 has spent workdays that are 20% work and 80% YouTube, social media, and Wikipedia rabbit holes. We’ve all had to find ways of remaining productive in a digital age, whether through timers, web-blocking programs, personal reward systems, or device-free study areas. These same tricks and practices are needed when scouring countless job boards, writing countless cover letters, and sifting through countless lists of qualifications, duties, and company values. It’s mentally and emotionally exhausting. Believe me, after a few days of job hunting, that Netflix icon has never looked so tempting. If you’re looking to break into a tough job market, if you experience a series of disheartening rejections, the tenacity and focus of academic work are needed. Like student life, career-building requires self-motivation, work done on your own time, and attention to your mental health.
- Planning your day and week: For most students, a successful postsecondary education demands organization and planning. As mentioned earlier, career searching often involves the same self-imposed deadlines, goals, and schedule. To avoid the slippery slope of distraction, get some productive momentum by setting weekly/daily targets: apply for five jobs a week, research one prospective field a day, take a day off each week to recharge. As I hinted above, I treat cover letters like essays. I set a deadline, write when I’m freshest, take breaks, and have someone look it over (for further motivation, I tell the person when they can expect it). For me, this is how it won’t forever plod in limbo.
Ultimately, I want to promote a holistic understanding of education. Nothing’s wasted; everything matters, even the small things, even the seemingly insignificant, mundane parts of the student grind. As you embark on finding a meaningful career, remember the skills and habits that have helped you succeed during your education and find how they transfer to your new context. For me, keeping some of my student mindset has made job hunting far less stressful.