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Career Services Informer

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Archive for December, 2010

Dave’s Diary: An Alternative to “Selling Yourself”

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

This will be my final blog entry of 2010, as the holidays loom closer and closer, seemingly with more rapidity every year.  It’s been quite pleasant writing here weekly over the past few months, and I hope to continue making a regular appearance in the New Year.

Have you ever been told that you have to “sell yourself” in order to succeed in finding a job?  Are you a reserved, overly modest introvert who shudders at the idea of “talking yourself up” to others?  If yes, then you’re in the same camp as me, and a whole lot of other generally nice, well-meaning people.  Additionally, you’ve probably wondered if there’s any alternative to the “sell yourself” mantra that so permeates the world of the work search.

Fear not – today, semantics comes to the rescue

*     *     *

There is an alternative way to think of the self-promotion aspect of the job hunt – one that may have a larger appeal to the modest introvert crowd than the idea of “selling yourself.”  It’s a subtle word swap that nonetheless has significant influence on the meaning of the phrase.

It’s time to shift from “selling ourselves” to “acknowledging ourselves.”

I knew from the first time the distinction was made to me that I would never think of that feared, self-aggrandizing, seemingly shameless self-promotion that until then was an inherent part of all job applications, the same way.

“To sell oneself” has a good many connotations that I’m not a big fan of, many of which revolve around the consumerist ideals that fuel our incurable western affluenza.  I start to think of car dealerships, cell phone providers, and Jehova’s witnesses.  People trying to convince me that I need something that, really, I don’t.  It’s aggressive.  It’s adversarial.  It’s cutthroat.  It’s you saying, “Hey! You! Look at me!  Look at how great I am!  I’m what you need!  BUY ME!”

And maybe that works for you.  There are a good many industries in which you likely have to embrace those kinds of attitudes to succeed.

But, it’s hard for a person that values modesty to throw that value out the window in the job search.  It’s become quite clear that applicants’ values and their fit with those of the organization are an important consideration in employers’ hiring decisions.

“To acknowledge oneself” brings to mind connotations of integrity, honesty, and self-affirmation.  There is no argument or attempt to convince anybody of anything, rather a simple recognition of what you’re bringing to the table.  A confident assertion made after a self-reflective process that says, “I know that I have value.  These are some of the ways I think I could be of value to you.” This kind of attitude masks no insecurities, it is immune to counter-argument (because no argument is being made), and it sounds collaborative as opposed to adversarial.

Brad Pitt at the Burn After Reading premiere

Image via Wikipedia

You’ve probably seen the movie Fight Club.  The “acknowledge yourself” attitude is the Mickey (Brad Pitt) of Fight Club, exuding a quiet confidence and knowledge that the skills you have will get you through at the end of the day.  The “sell yourself” is the Brick Top of Fight Club, living high stakes, making sweeping claims, using scare tactics, etc.  And anyone who’s seen the movie knows who comes out on top.

Happy holidays!

David Lindskoog is a career advisor with SFU Career Services, and Dave’s Diary is an ongoing series of journal entries touching on various aspects related to careers and well-being. Look for updates every Friday.

Want to hear my thoughts on a particular topic? Send me an email, and I’ll do my best to include it in my next post!

Dave’s Diary: Postmodern Career Theory – Your Lifeline

Friday, December 10th, 2010
The Theory logo

Image via Wikipedia

Most university students are probably very familiar with the word theory.  Doesn’t matter if you’re in sciences or arts, doesn’t matter if you’re in first year psychology or senior fourth year theoretical physics – much of the work of academics is developing theories in an attempt to explain something.

Theory is also a word that those in the career development and counselling fields are very familiar with, as we attempt to come up with explanations for why people are the way they are, what makes them change, and how to best explain the development and role of careers in people’s lives.

Early theories in the field of career development were heavily influenced by thinkers who essentially posited three things: (1) people have unique, measurable traits; (2) careers also have unique, measurable traits; and (3) the best career for someone is one whose traits match up the most with that person’s traits.  It may sound overly simplistic, but there was a time when the idea of measuring things like interests, skills, and values and matching those results with careers was quite revolutionary.  Many assessment tools used in career counselling today are derived from those early theories, including the Self-Directed Search, the Strong Interest Inventory, and to some extent the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory.

Frank Lloyd Wright

Postmodern architecture (Image by fensterbme via Flickr)

As is often the case in the world of theory, it wasn’t too long before some people in the career development field decided that these theories weren’t quite cutting it.  While the advent of postmodernism following the Second World War to present led quickly to some pretty radically new theories in areas such as literature, art, and architecture, its influence on career development theory was only a pretty recent development.  It didn’t take long, however, for a great many new theories to turn up on the career development scene, including social learning, cognitive, humanistic, etc., and myriad combinations of those listed, including one that has a large impact on how we understand career development here at Career Services: the Chaos Theory of Careers.

 

Postmodern theory itself can be a very confusing topic, and I’ll probably only make a fool out of myself by making any attempt to discuss it in a public forum, but I wanted to share an example of an exercise that you could do that could very well take place in a career counsellor’s office were you to go.  It’s taken from Pamela Brott’s “Storied Approach” to assessment.  The exercise is called the “Life Line,”and is meant to illuminate how our lives can be co-constructed, de-constructed, and ultimately constructed again.  It’s a great tool for self-reflection.  It’s meant to be done with the assistance of a professional, but I think it’s easily adapted to be able to do on your own, as I’ve outlined below.  Enjoy!

Life Line

  1. Get yourself a blank piece of paper or newsprint and a whole bunch of coloured pens, markers, or crayons.  In the middle of the paper, draw a horizontal line and place an arrowhead at the right end of the line.  This arrow head represents the present day, so mark the current date by it.  At the left end of the line, write in your date of birth.
  2. Mark along the line any significant dates you can remember, such as when you started and finished different levels of school, graduated, started working, were laid off, got married, began/ended serious relationships, etc.  Don’t restrict yourself to these events.  Think of the different markers on your line as if they were the beginning and ending of chapters in your story.
  3. Try to recall an early memory, and place a notation on the life line around the point where it occurred, along with any significant information you can recall about what that experience was like: What emotions did you experience? Where were you living? Who were the other people present in the memory (the ‘supporting cast’)?
  4. Continue with #3, preferably until you have at least one memory on your life line for each chapter of your life thus far.
  5. Take a close look at your lifeline.  What patterns do you notice?  What does it say about what’s important to you?  What significance do these moments have in your life today?  What have you learned from this experience?  What keywords or adjectives come to mind when you focus on each chapter?
  6. Try to give a title to each chapter that best sums up your thoughts from #5.
  7. Try to adopt some alternative perspectives or viewpoints when looking at your story.  Are there any noticeable exceptions (times when you didn’t follow an identified pattern)?  If different people had been present for each chapter, how would it have been different?  What would your life be like now if you had made a different choice in a certain chapter?
  8. Now it’s time to look towards the future.  What do you think the next chapter of your life holds?  Are you moving in your preferred direction?  Are there two or more clear alternatives open to you?
  9. If you are up to it, take another piece of paper and dray another line with today’s date on the left side of the line.  If you have a goal that you are thinking of moving towards, mark that goal somewhere on the new line at a point where you think it could be accomplished.
  10. Finally, title your new chapter.
  11. Reflect on the exercise as a whole.  You’ve just told your story – does it represent you well?  If not, how would you like it to be different?

The theory here is that knowledge is co-constructed, and that there is no such thing as a universal truth (because we all perceive and think about the world differently, through our own subjective lens).  It is because of this underlying theory that we can use an exercise such as the lifeline to look at ourselves and see if we can begin to discover new truths, or at least different ways of seeing certain things in our lives.  If you have some spare time this holiday season and you’re feeling in the mood for some self-reflection, give it a try!

David Lindskoog is a career advisor with SFU Career Services, and Dave’s Diary is an ongoing series of journal entries touching on various aspects related to careers and well-being. Look for updates every Friday between September and December.

Want to hear my thoughts on a particular topic? Send me an email, and I’ll do my best to include it in my next post!

Peeriodical: The Beginning Is All or Nothing

Monday, December 6th, 2010

Has someone ever told you that your cover letter needs to have an “eye-catching” and interesting beginning? Well, this is no myth.  Recently, my sister who works in Human Resources has told me horror stories about the cover letters that she is subjected to reading.  Her complaints extend to “unbelievable” and “cheesy” opening lines that deter her from reading the rest of the candidate’s cover letter.

My personal experience with cover letters extends from currently being a seeking Co-operative (Co-op) Education Program student. Now, if you have ever heard of Co-op, it is likely that you have heard stories about how applying to jobs is like taking another course.  This has some truth to it, but it really depends on how comfortable you are with writing your resumes and cover letters.   Volunteering with Career Services has made this process drastically easier for me.  I initially thought that I would have to apply several times throughout the semester before I would get an interview, similar to other people I know in Co-op that have applied to 20+ job postings.

Now, you’re probably wondering how many job postings I applied to.

Well, before I share that, I would like to share some personal tips on how to create that crucial first sentence.

Tip #1 – Avoid “cookie cutter” lines

“I’m applying for the __________position because I want to gain experience” is not going to cut it in trying to entice your reader into reading the rest of your cover letter.  Imagine reading 100+ cover letters that start off this way.  How would you feel? Bored perhaps? Try the next few tips to avoid these standard lines.

Tip #2 – Think about: Why you really want the job.

Is there an intrinsic reason why you want the job? E.g. I applied for a position in Johnson & Johnson company because I want to work for a company that works to help other people.

Tip #3 – Do your research. Is there anything that connects you to the company?

This is especially important to show the employer that you care about the company and that it’s more than just a job to you.  E.g. Since I wanted to work for this Johnson & Johnson company that wants to help people, I did some research.  I found that this company has a credo that works to help people with specific diseases.  Maybe that’s something worth mentioning.
Now, that you know some tips that I personally use when I write my cover letters, I won’t keep you in suspense any longer.  I had applied to two jobs in the span of two months.  Out of those two applications, I had received interviews from both companies.  In late-October I had received news that I had been a successful candidate from my application. I was in disbelief.  Of course, I cannot attribute my success of getting interviews to just the first line on my cover letter. That’s just not logically feasible.  Having a well-written document is just as important.  However, if you really take the time to think about a good, but not cheesy, way of grabbing the employer’s attention, it is more likely that the employer will be willing to listen to what you have to say.

Stephanie Juy

Career Peer

Dave’s Diary: Transferable Skills Pay the Bills

Friday, December 3rd, 2010
Paying The Bill, Lee's Restaurant, February, 2010

Image by Maggie Osterberg via Flickr

Last week I wrote a little bit about my experiences working in restaurant kitchens part-time during my undergraduate degree.  While I do enjoy reminiscing about those times, I’m also aware that not all readers will necessarily benefit from such a personal discussion.  Who wants to read about some guy washing dishes 8 or 9 years ago, anyway?

Nonetheless, the crux of the post was meant to be encouraging, uplifting.   My relentless optimism was shining through, and its light was meant to illuminate a basic concept that I believe gets very quickly overlooked by many students and recent graduates in their job search: transferable skills.

This week, you’ll get to read a little bit more directly about the concept, and how you can use it effectively in your next job search.

*     *     *

What is meant by the term “transferable skills?”  Simply and intuitively speaking, the phrase refers to a group of skills, or abilities, that you can use across a variety of (employment) settings.  Often, these broad skills form the basis for the development of narrower, more “advanced” skills.  For any video game/Dungeons and Dragons nerds out there (yes, I reluctantly admit that I include myself in these categories), this is equivalent to a set of basic skill or attribute areas that you must first “level up” in before being able to use the really awesome moves that allow you to efficiently destroy large numbers of enemies.

There are many categorizations of transferable skills out there, but one of the most commonly referred to in the career development field is the rather epically named “Employability Skills 2000+.”  They group skills into 3 main categories: Fundamentals, such as communication and problem solving skills; personal management, such as positive attitudes, responsibility, and adaptability; and teamwork, such as working with others and participating in projects and tasks.

There are lots of other categories that one could see as valuable across situations.  For example, research and planning/analytical skills, leadership skills, interpersonal skills, organizational skills, time management skills, etc.

I have a sense that that’s not really new information to anybody.  However, I’ve talked to quite a few very intelligent, eager students that fall into one of 2 categories:

  1. Student who wants to find a job in their field, but thinks they have no related experience on their resume
  2. Student who has lots of experience, usually pretty confident, but doesn’t contextualize the claims they make on their resume

Wait a second.  I thought you were talking about skills, Dave – why the sudden shift over to “experience?”

Well, it’s not a huge logical leap to see the connection between skills and experience.  We need experience to gain and build skills.  We need those skills to obtain experience with which to use and improve those skills.  On and on it goes.

This is intuitive and I don’t need to explain the concept any further – it’s just common sense.  But there’s often a huge gap between what we see as common sense and what we actually put on our resumes.  We know there’s this connection between skills and experience, but most of us won’t explicitly make that connection on our resumes.

Anybody can make the claim that they’ve got great communication/organization/interpersonal/etc. skills on their resume.  Anybody.

So what use is that information to me as an employer?  The answer is not very much, in and of itself.  All I know for sure from such a statement is that you think you know what I want to hear.  I can’t count the number of resumes I’ve seen where this kind of claim is made, without any context provided to back it up.

Context

 

— n

1.

the parts of a piece of writing, speech, etc, that precede and follow a word or passage and contribute to its full meaning: it is unfair to quote out of context

2

the conditions and circumstances that are relevant to an event,fact, etc.

It’s a very simple solution.  For the student who thinks they have no relevant experience to their field, looking at those transferable skills that are relevant to whatever job they are applying to and contextualizing them on their resume with whatever experience they have opens up a world of relevance and possibility.

Resolution - better time management

Image by vpickering via Flickr

A personal example: I learned excellent time management skills during my time as a prep cook.  In order to get everything ready for lunch/dinner service, I had to know what needed doing next, how much time it would take me to do, what needed to be prioritized, and when to ask for help.  Without time management skills, I wouldn’t have been a good prep cook at all.  I know that (hopefully) my next job is not going to involve making sauces in giant batches or cutting 20 lb boxes of vegetables into square inch pieces, but it sure will draw on those same time management skills.

But unless I made that connection explicit on my resume, how would an employer know?  Do you want to take the chance of forcing them to connect the dots, to see why what you’ve done in the past is relevant?  Simply stating that I developed great time management skills isn’t good enough.  The best policy is to make it clear how you used those skills and why they ultimately helped the company.  Talk about specifics.  Talk about outcomes.  The relevance will be obvious.

The same applies for student type number 2, who has lots of relevant experience but doesn’t think they need to provide any specific context.  The employer might have an idea of why a certain experience would be relevant to them, but you’re still missing a huge opportunity to influence (in a good way) how they interpret your experience if you don’t make direct connections between what you did and why it mattered that you did it.  This also has the added benefit of saving them from the mental work of thinking about why something might be relevant, and that’s always a good thing.

We all have transferable skills.  Perhaps that’s why it’s of very little value to simply state that you are great at a certain skill, because there’s bound to be a whole bunch of other applicants who’ve said the same thing.  Only you have your unique combination of skills and how you’ve applied them within certain experiences.

David Lindskoog is a career advisor with SFU Career Services, and Dave’s Diary is an ongoing series of journal entries touching on various aspects related to careers and well-being. Look for updates every Friday between September and December.

Want to hear my thoughts on a particular topic? Send me an email, and I’ll do my best to include it in my next post!