What now?

A recent grad reflects on her time at U of T

What now?

It often seemed as though this day would never come. Somehow, I managed to survive four years at U of T. Soon I’ll walk into Convocation Hall and receive an incredibly overpriced piece of paper known as a diploma. At the end of my time here, I can’t help but wonder if it was all worth it.

I was obsessed with getting to this finish line, as if graduating with a 4.0 GPA would somehow solve all my problems and kickstart my ‘real’ life after convocation. I imagined fielding job offers, networking, and feeling proud of my status as a U of T alumna. Why else would I have put up with the countless long days and nights spent at Robarts? Why else suffer in the constant hustle to be at the top of the class?

Well… the gates of heaven did not open when I put down my pen after my last exam. Instead, I was filled with overwhelming anxiety. I kept asking myself, “What do I do now?” I’d waited for this moment for years, and now that it was here, I didn’t know what to do or how to feel. The truth is, U of T wasn’t all I had thought it would be. I spent most of my time here cursing its name and counting down the days until I never had to set foot on this campus ever again. But on that last day, I couldn’t seem to leave. I began to realize that my tunnel vision had made me avoid answering a lot of questions about my life and future. But now that there wasn’t anything left to work toward, all those questions came flooding in.

I used to look at fourth year students as though they were the luckiest people in the world. I watched with envy as I saw graduates taking pictures with their regalia in King’s College Circle from the window of the study halls in Gerstein. Surely, I thought, they must know what they’re doing. They must have their whole lives planned out and are just waiting to begin. Now as a fourth year, I feel more lost and confused than ever. Here’s the brutal reality: I still don’t know what I’m going to do with my life; I don’t know what job I can get with my social science degree; and I don’t know if U of T was worth all the stress and money. And I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way.

Undergrad left me with a lot more questions than it gave me answers, but I also think that may have been the point. U of T checked my ego, showing me that I would need to work harder than I ever had to get any recognition for my efforts. It constantly challenged what I thought was normal or acceptable. I was pushed out of my comfort zone every day, and though I hated it, I think I’m better off for it. At least I hope so.

If there is one thing I regret from my time in undergrad, though, it’s that I haven’t enjoyed it as much as I should have. I regret simply looking at this time as a transitory phase, as a holding pattern until my real ‘adult’ life began. I didn’t take the time to make lasting connections. I knew I didn’t want to stay here, so what was the point in getting attached? I missed out on many opportunities because I was always stressed over the next test, the next paper, and whether or not that one “B” I got in first year would be the reason I wouldn’t get into grad school. The reality is that my adult life was, and is, already happening. It doesn’t start the day I get a desk job, and when I do, I will probably regret not having more stories about my life in undergrad beyond my all-nighters in the library. It may sound corny, but I was so obsessed with getting to the finish line that I barely paid attention to the race.

What I can say with certainty now is this: U of T will give you exactly what you give it. No one will hold your hand or act as your guide toward success. It will take a few all-nighters to get that coveted 4.0 GPA, but university is about so much more than that. Challenge yourself on purpose, find new passions, and get involved as much you can in whatever you’re interested in. University isn’t some waiting room to your adult life: it is your life. I spent most of my time resenting U of T instead of appreciating the opportunities it offered. Yes, U of T can be big and scary, but there is so much to discover, if you just go out and look.

Now, I always answer the classic job interview question, “what has been one of your biggest challenges?” the same way.

Going to U of T has been one of my biggest challenges, but I also hope it will end up being the most rewarding. Going here is hard. Not only because the classes are hard, but because growing up is hard. You lose old friends, you make new friends, and you change your mind constantly. It can often feel like school is literally plotting against you. But this is also one of the last times where we have the freedom to explore whatever interests us, where our main goal is to discover who we are, and find out what we want.  

You don’t need to have all the answers by convocation day. What I can say for certain is that I’m not going to enter Convocation Hall on my graduation day as the same person I was on my first day in my first year. When all is said and done, isn’t that the point?

Opinion: Job fairs are useful for getting advice, not jobs

Tips from industry professionals make long lines worth the wait

Opinion: Job fairs are useful for getting advice, not jobs

Finding a job that suits you requires plenty of diligence and patience, as does navigating a job fair. Contrary to popular belief, job fairs are not a waste of time; their true value comes from providing excellent networking opportunities with potential contacts who work in your chosen field.

Chances are that companies tabling at job fairs will only consider offering interviews to applicants with eminent qualifications. In my experience, employers seem unwilling to consider applicants whose backgrounds do not fit neatly into their expected qualifications. This makes the process seem like a waste of time for applicants who may have developed compatible skills through different or non-traditional experience.

A recent job fair I attended consisted of long lines for popular booths, condescending stares from fancily dressed individuals, and the constant bother of receiving pamphlets from employers in fields incompatible to my own. Throughout the event, I had given my job application and information to most booths available and relatable to my field of work. Despite their assurances, I would ultimately hear nothing back from most of them.

Still, this experience was not a complete waste of time. Despite receiving no job offers, I did receive useful information and advice from employers. Some reminded me to always demonstrate enthusiasm, while others gave me tricks on how to hone my various skills and demonstrate my flexibility to stand out more. Perhaps the most interesting and important piece of advice I received, though, was to carry a mini-résumé with me at all times — opportunity may strike when you least expect it.

But when you most expect opportunity to strike — like during a job fair — don’t be surprised if instead, nothing happens.

What comes next?

New graduate professional development program at U of T brings ‘boardroom’ skills into the classroom

What comes next?

In a global market with diverse job opportunities, few PhD graduates ultimately become university professors. In fact, the Conference Board of Canada reports that only 18.6 per cent of PhD graduates become employed as full-time university professors.

Few have embraced this reality more than Dr. Nana Lee, a lecturer at the University of Toronto, and Dr. Reinhart Reithmeier, former chair of U of T’s biochemistry department. Lee and Reithmeier have created a professional development program that will cater to the vast majority of graduate students who will not continue in academia after getting their degree.

For Dr. Reithmeier, it all started when he was compiling outcome data for the graduate students in his department. Of the students who graduated while he was chair, only 15 per cent became professors. The remaining 85 per cent were engaged in an astonishingly broad range of careers, including constituency, law, policy, and communications.

Most faculty and administrators are unaware of the breadth of opportunities available to graduate students. “Some professors — not all of them, but some of them — have sort of a narrow view because… the only grad students that they see or hear about are the ones that go onto [postdoctoral fellowships] or become faculty,” says Dr. Lee.

Dr. Lee completed her PhD in biochemistry in 2000. She spent the next few years in the biotechnology industry, where “it’s not just science,” she says, “but how well you work with people, your communication ability, all these – what we call – core competency skills.”

In 2012, the pair established U of T’s Graduate Professional Development program, a credit course which trains graduate students to be ‘real-world ready’. The program prepares students for the transition between graduate school and the workforce, be it within academia or beyond. During the program, students develop an array of soft skills, including presentation skills. They participate in a Three Minute Thesis, in which they are given three minutes or less to articulate their research to a panel of non-specialists. Through this exercise, students are challenged to grapple with how their research ties into the rest of the world.

Students are also encouraged to extend their networks beyond their supervisors and committee members. They are taught to use social media, cover letters, and résumés to tell coherent stories about their skills and experience.

Dr. Lee says, “We briefly go over the importance of LinkedIn and I check their profiles. We discuss the best way to write the cover letter and résumés using CAR [Context / Challenge, Action, Result] statements for a real job opening or a created opportunity.”

She explains, “Let’s say you tutor high school students… if you implement CAR, you would write something specific such as customized individual lesson plans for three high school students over two years, resulting in a final grade performance increase of 10-15 per cent.”

Dr. Reithmeier now serves as special advisor to the dean of the School of Graduate Studies for graduate skills development and engagement. He says his goal is “to ensure that all U of T graduate students and postdoctoral fellows develop a broad skill set and network to be able to take advantage of the career opportunities available to them in academia and beyond.”

Dr. Reithmeier hopes the postdoctoral fellowship will become a plan B for science PhD graduates.

How to build the ultimate LinkedIn profile:

Dr. Nana Lee, director of the Graduate Professional Development program, lists the following as the three characteristics of a successful LinkedIn profile.

1. Profile picture

The profile picture doesn’t need to be taken professionally, but it should be a headshot -— nice and inviting. Ten percent of students use their Facebook profile pictures, which aren’t appropriate for the work environment.

2. Summary

The summary should have three components: research program, interests and career goals. Dr. Lee says, “I encourage people … to use [all of the headings] to their full advantage and list everything that a potential employer might search for. Because some people just do the bare minimum – PhD student, department of immunology – and that doesn’t give a head hunter any information.”

3. Accomplishments

Dr. Lee recommends students use CAR (Context / Challenge, Action, Result) statements to describe their accomplishments. They should write about the impact they’ve made and the initiatives they’ve created. LinkedIn profiles should tell stories, not just résumés.

What can science PhD graduates do that’s not teaching or research?

For those of you considering a PhD, there’s good news and slightly less good news. The good news is that at 85 per cent, PhD graduates boast one of the highest employment rates in the country. The slightly less good news is that only one in five PhD graduates become full-time university professors. In an increasingly globalized market, most PhD graduates pursue employment in diverse fields such as law, management, health, and communications.

These past few weeks, The Varsity interviewed graduate students, post-docs, and professors to give you five non-research, non-teaching jobs held by science PhD graduates.

1. Data scientist

Data scientists collect and interpret large volumes of data. Hailed the “sexiest job of the 21st century” by the Harvard Business Review, the birth of the data scientist reflects the need to organize and to make sense of the 2.5 quintillion (that’s eighteen zeros) bytes of data we create each day. IBM estimates that 90 per cent of the data in the world was generated in the last two years.

2. Government

Government agencies are responsible for creating and enforcing standards that ensure our health and safety. PhD graduates are often hired as technical experts or advisors in healthcare, resource management, education and environmental policymaking. They work for organizations such as the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Pest Management Regulatory Agency, which draws on ecology research to provide access to safe and effective pesticides.

3. Communications

Scientific research is not always accessible; we need science writers in the media and in scientific journals to interpret research for policymakers, investors, and the public. Medical writers, for example, work with medical professionals to document research and product use in clear, concise ways.

The ubiquity of social media has given rise to digital strategy managers – executives who develop their institution’s digital brand. Science PhD graduates have found work in this vein at the Institute of Cancer Research, among others.

4. Consulting

Medical science liaisons are employed in pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and other healthcare industries to bridge the gap between businesses and medical professionals, who apply the technology. U of T PhD graduates provide environmental and statistical consulting in a variety of firms, including resource management and software companies.

5. Law

At committee meetings, PhD students are challenged to present their data in ways that highlight the significance and validity of their research. It turns out that the skills required to do so are sought after in the practice of law. Many PhD graduates in the sciences or engineering find themselves as technical specialists or scientific advisors at law firms that deal with intellectual property. If all goes well, the firm might even sponsor them to pursue part-time studies in law.

Correction (February 27, 2016): An earlier version of this article listed Dr. Nana Lee as the coordinator of the Graduate Professional Development program. In fact, she is the director.