work relationships

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How joining a students association can help you get the most out of your bachelor’s degree (Part 1)

Posted January 12, 2017 — My last post was the first in a short series I have planned for the first few weeks of 2017. The aim is to motivate college and university students who worry about potential career paths to do something about it. To gather the resources and assistance necessary to garner the best information and insight available.

The first step, as always, is simple and not particularly original: Consult the career-counselling services available at your institution. You might find the answers you need, or at least get much closer. But you might not. This is somewhat understandable, as you cannot expect to get all the time, attention, and personalized advice you want from a career counsellor who also has a schedule of appointments with other clients. Not only that, but despite what many students mistakenly assume, career counsellors are typically not industry specialists. This means that while they may be very helpful in getting you started with the process of researching different career options, they often lack the special insights of a true “insider.” By insider, I mean someone who actually has a career in an area of interest to you.

Many insiders were once undergraduate college or university students themselves, who somehow progressed from that stage in their life to later having a fulfilling career. The more insiders you talk with about how they did it, the more you realize that there is no typical, standard route to career success from undergraduate school. Just as importantly, the more you learn about the diverse experiences of industry insiders, the easier it is to appreciate the full range of career options that are potentially accessible to you, and to plot a potential path for yourself.

The career counsellors may be able point you in the direction of career-related books and web resources, but those sources of information fall short in terms of actual usefulness compared to the special insights, tips, and strategies that you can get from someone who has had success in getting from where you are now to the kind of place you would like to be yourself someday.  Even after getting everything you can from your school’s career counselling services, you are likely to still have many questions and much uncertainty — and flashes of anxiety — over your future.

My advice to students who find themselves in the situation I just described is to take matters into their own hands. To fill those information gaps that are left unfilled by career counsellors or academic advisors, or even the best career-related books or websites. If you are a student who needs help with this process, the main points I hope to make for you today is that you don’t have to do it alone. There are many many other students in the same boat as you. You probably pass some of them in the hallways at school every day. If even a small group of you can get together and coordinate some efforts, you can get the insiders’ insights you need.

The following guest-commentary was written by someone who has experienced first-hand the benefits of working with other students. She is Samantha Briand, and she has been the president of the Concordia University Psychology Association for the past two years. She comments on some of the benefits she has personally experienced, but also to the widespread lack of initiative displayed by the vast majority of students. I hope her words will inspire and help compel you to action.

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If you’ve ever wondered how someone can be a full-time university student AND work 40 hours a week, ask any student rep. The young men and women who decide to join student associations do so for free and of their own volition. But how can anyone be crazy enough to sacrifice their time, sweat and money for a bunch of students they don’t know, you may ask? Spend days and nights planning and promoting events they’ll be too busy to enjoy? Well, the answer is simple…

Because someone has to.

I ran unopposed as President of the Concordia Undergraduate Psychology Association (CUPA) for two years in a row, as did many of the executives on our 2015 and 2016 teams. Although we all decided to run for different reasons, most of us agreed that we wanted to make a difference in the lives of students and CUPA was our best way to do that. With each event, our presence on campus grew and we were over the moon when our first ever winter getaway sold out in less than 8 hours. People came up to us and thanked us for all our hard work, and told us what a difference our events had made in their lives. Some people even made friends that they’ve kept to this very day. We made that possible. CUPA made that possible. And it’s those moments that make it all worth it. But I can never stop myself from thinking, what would happen if I chose not to be a part of my student association. If I decided that my time was better spent studying or making money. Then who would take my place? Considering that I ran unopposed…twice… I would say no one. And since that is the case for more than half of the people on my current executive team, there wouldn’t be enough people to even justify having a student association if we decided not to run. So, all of those students who benefitted from our events would just have to deal with it. They would lose all of the opportunities that CUPA can provide, all because I want more time to sit around and watch Netflix all day? It is a sacrifice we make willingly, because we know that our efforts can make a difference. That CUPA is bigger than us, as cheesy as I may risk sounding. But please don’t feel bad for us, because we would gladly make the same choice time and time again. As hard as it may be, we love what we do and we’re happy to do it. So, if you’re looking for a way to make your university experience more than just a quest for a decent GPA; or if you want to meet a bunch of strangers who will grow to become some of your best friends, then I urge you to join your student association. There is no better way to pay it forward than by giving your time to others. And if you’ve got it all figured out already, then this is your chance to share that knowledge and wisdom with younger students. And if you don’t, then hey, join the club! As a 2017 graduate, I can tell you how proud I am of what CUPA has accomplished over the past 2 years and I hope to leave it in good hands. So I challenge you.

I challenge you to take a leap of faith.

To spread yourself too thin.

To bite of more than you can chew.

Why? 

Because you might just surprise yourself.

Best of luck, 

Samantha Briand

President 2015 – 2017

Concordia Undergraduate Psychology Association
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I am grateful to Samantha for passing along these words of wisdom. Not everyone has her level of energy and enthusiasm, and many students have important extracurricular activities or other commitments that limit their ability to spend as much time as Samantha has organizing useful activities for the benefit of hundreds of student peers. But, you don’t need to have her level of enthusiasm or dedicate as much time and effort as she has. That’s the whole point of working with others toward a common goal — just like student associations are able to do. Still, you have to get off your ass and show some initiative.

There are additional benefits to getting involved with your student association beyond those pointed out by Samantha in her guest-commentary. I believe some of those benefits will likely play out for her over the coming years, in ways that enhance her early career development. I will explain in my next post.

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Letters of Recommendation for Graduate School: Who Are the Best Sources?

It is now November, and if you are facing graduate-school applications deadlines anytime between mid-December and early February, it’s time to get serious about arranging for your letters of recommendation. As with the other components of a grad-school application, there are many pitfalls that must be avoided, and my goal with today’s post is to help you avoid some of them. The focus here will be on one key question: Who should be asked to provide a letter of recommendation?

College or university professors who know the student well are nearly always the most appropriate sources for letters of recommendation to support a graduate-school application. If an application requires three letters of recommendation, then it is usually best if all three letters are from professors. There are exceptions in some fields, however, and all applicants should make sure they know what is normal in their field of study. For example, someone applying to a master’s program in counseling psychology or social work should have a letter from someone who has supervised his or her volunteer work in some type of support or helping capacity. Also, some programs have special expectations when it comes to the sources for letters of recommendation, so it’s important to carefully read all instructions. For example, some clinical psychology programs ask for at least one letter from a source like that which I just described, but many do not; if they don’t specify, then all of the letters should come from professors.

The source of a letter (i.e., the “referee”) can influence it’s effectiveness in at least two ways: First, referees are expected to indicate in their letters the capacity in which they have known the student, and they should be able to demonstrate that they know the student well enough, and in an appropriate capacity, that would enable them to evaluate him or her on several relevant dimensions. A professor who taught a student in a junior-level course would be expected to have little insight into his or her true potential, whereas a professor for a senior-level course, who gave the student a very good grade for substantial written work, or for oral presentations, might be a better judge. If the student is in an Honors program with a thesis requirement, the thesis supervisor or the director of the Honors program should be in the best position to provide a comprehensive evaluation

A mistake many people make is to assume they need letters from someone who can testify that they are very smart and capable of very good academic performance. Transcripts and standardized test scores already serve that purpose, and letters of recommendation need to evaluate the applicant on dimensions that are actually more relevant to success in graduate school than a person’s scholarly abilities.

Another factor that can influence the effectiveness of a letter of recommendation is the credibility of the referee, which is related to several different factors. As already mentioned, your referees will probably be asked to indicate how long they have known you. If they have only known you for a few months, some people will assume that they probably don’t know you very well. The referee’s credibility is also related to how much academic experience he or she has; that is, how long this person has been around, and therefore, how much experience he or she has at assessing the potential of students for success in grad school. All else being equal, professors with several years of experience are generally viewed as being more highly referees. Compared to a junior faculty member who has been a professor for only a year or two, senior faculty members will have more experience writing letters of recommendation, and therefore, they may do a better job of it (although there is no guarantee of this).

Be careful not to assume too much about someone’s relevant experience from the amount of gray hair they possess. Age alone is not a reliable a predictor of how much relevant experience a potential referee has at evaluating potential graduate students and writing letters of recommendation.

It’s possible to make reasonable inferences, however, from considering a professor’s academic rank, because this is influenced, at least in part, by how long someone has been employed at a particular institution. Some colleges and universities hire part-time faculty to teach undergraduate courses on a temporary contractual basis; they may, or may not, be given the rank of adjunct professor. Regardless of how experienced (or old) a teacher for one of your introductory-level courses appears, it’s important to keep in mind that your letters for grad school should be written by people who have experience at supervising their own graduate students, and who are, therefore, more likely to know what should be in it. Full-time professors who teach and conduct research are the most likely to have the right types of experience.

Newly-hired, full-time faculty members usually have the rank of assistant professor. After a few years, most are promoted to associate professor; this promotion may be accompanied by granting of tenure. Promotion to (full) professor usually comes after several more years of strong research, teaching, and service. One can assume that an associate professor or full professor has a significant amount of experience at writing letters of recommendation for grad-school applicants.

The academic rank of a referee, while important, is still secondary to what that person has to say about you. Accordingly, the professor who knows you best will usually be your most important referee, even if that person is a junior faculty member or even a part-time instructor. One exception to this is if you are applying to a research-oriented graduate program — university and college teachers who are not active researchers are not be the best referees for evaluating your research potential.

There are obviously many important things to consider when deciding whom to ask for a letter of recommendation, beyond just a potential referee’s credibility. You have to ask people who know the right things about you! Here are some of the dimensions on which you should expect to be evaluated:

ability to work with others
ability to work alone
communication skills (both oral and written)
creativity
dedication and persistence
independence
industriousness
initiative
intellectual ability
integrity
judgment
leadership
maturity
organizational skills
originality
teaching potential
social skills

Now that you know what kinds of things are discussed in a letter of recommendation for graduate school, do you feel confident that you can get the letters of recommendation you need? Anyone out there have a question about selecting potential referees?

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“Sleeping” Your Way Into Graduate School

Note the quotation marks around the first word in the title. They are there because the topic today is NOT how to stay in bed until late morning, snooze at the back of the lecture hall during classes, and still get into grad school.

Many college or university students enjoy getting to know certain professors on a personal level. It can have payoffs, such as providing opportunities for professional or academic mentoring. It can also be critically helpful for students who later need letters of recommendation to support applications to graduate school, for scholarships, or for job applications. A good rapport and significant interaction is necessary if someone is to get to know some of the important things about your character and personality.

Some professors are known for keeping a distance from their students, whereas others are more sociable. Students also vary along the same dimensions. There is nothing wrong with this variation, of course. There is no “right way” or “best policy” that should apply to all students and professors when it comes to the kinds of interpersonal relationships they should maintain – as long as there are no breaches of any student or faculty code of conduct, no laws are broken, no one abuses power or authority, or otherwise behaves unethically. College-aged students are adults, and so are their professors. It is not surprising, therefore, that some students and professors will occasionally find themselves in “adult situations”, which provide certain opportunities and temptations.

Whether or not either person’s behavior violates the abovementioned conditions for an acceptable relationship is not the issue I want to address. Instead, I want to comment on whether a student could conceivably use sexual charming to manipulate certain situations in a way that helps him or her get into graduate school.

Frankly, I have no doubt that it can be done and it has been done many times. There are hundreds of thousands of college students out there and tens of thousands of professors. With such numbers, it’s safe to assume that some of those students engage in extreme flirting and even unabashed seduction of professors. There can be all sorts of motives (including love) but can sex actually be used as a tactic for getting a good reference letter, or even just a good grade?

Using such unscrupulous tactics to get ahead in the academic world fails in the vast majority of cases; in fact, it often backfires. I have seen it happen more than once. Not the successful attempt to get ahead by screwing the right person – I mean the destruction of a student’s chances of getting into grad school because of promiscuous behavior around professors. In each case, the student was not even trying to use sex to manipulate anything, such as a grade or a letter of recommendation, and there was no clearly unethical behavior by either professor or student. Still, the student’s reputation was trashed because other people either witnessed inappropriate behavior, or else heard gossip.

Some professors may be disdainful of colleagues who get involved romantically with students, but the truth is that there are usually no significant long-term consequences for a professor who engages in mild indiscretions, as long as he or she stays within certain ethical boundaries (never messing with your own students, for example).

For students who openly flirt with professors, on the other hand, the damage it causes to their reputation is usually severe and lasting. Some people might wonder whether the student manipulates people this way in order to gain some personal advantage; others just assume the student has bad judgment. Invariably, those students’ tarnished reputations overshadow any real academic or scholarly strengths they possess, so no one ever really gets a strong and positive impression. Without the respect and support of professors who know them, most students have little chance of receiving effective letters of recommendation and being accepted into a good graduate program.

The take-home message is: Licentious behavior can color a student’s reputation, which may be a significant problem when it comes to asking professors for letters of recommendation. My advice to students who like to flirt: You have too much to lose by playing promiscuous games with professors, so you really should limit that kind of thing to your fantasies.

Article is courtesy of Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D. : http://mygraduateschool.com/author.html

Image courtesy of Sarah G…’s : http://www.flickr.com/photos/dm-set/with/4069322681/

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Undergraduate Research Experience: Not Only Valuable for Students Thinking of Graduate School

I was compelled to write today’s blog because I was discussing academic matters with a student this morning, and an issue came up that I just had to write about.

The student I was talking with is in a Psychology Honors program, but she wants to get out. She still wants to get her baccalaureate in Psychology, but she does not plan to go on to grad school, so she has decided that there is no point in doing the research thesis that is part of the Honors program. She just wants to graduate as a Psychology major, then go out and get some kind of job. She has no illusion about the unlikely chances of ever having a job in a psychology-related field — she knows you have to go on to grad school and get a Ph.D. to become a psychologist. She feels that she has been in school long enough, and its time to join the “real world.”

I certainly understand her position. Grad school is not for everyone; in fact, it really only makes sense for a small minority of people, whereas most college-educated folks are better off just entering the workforce (or trying to) after they get a bachelor’s degree. I have no doubt that the student I was speaking with this morning is making the right decision about not pursuing grad school after she finishes her undergraduate program.

But, she is dead wrong about one thing, at least. She’s wrong about the notion that undergraduate research experience is valuable only for those who are planning to go on to graduate school. In fact, I would argue that the benefits of a substantial undergraduate research experience (like that which comes from doing an Honors project and writing a thesis) are just as significant for those students who simply want to find a good job after college.

Why? Because most employers are not only interested in finding job applicants with a college education, they are most keenly interested in hiring applicants with certain abilities or talents, a good work ethic, and strong interpersonal skills. There is no better way for students to demonstrate that they have these qualities than by getting involved in the research being conducted by their professors. When a student carries out an undergraduate research project and writes a paper or report, it usually provides at least one professor a chance to evaluate the student’s work ethic, ability to work with others, ability to work independently, emotional stability and maturity, integrity, intelligence, personality, and other good qualities that employers are looking for in job applicants. Without significant undergraduate research experience, on the other hand, most students who graduate with their baccalaureate will finish college and begin looking for employment with no advantages over their peers. And one definitely needs advantages in the job market these days.

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It is simply not enough to be smart: How you come across as a person makes a big difference

One major difference between undergraduate and graduate school is the nature of the interpersonal and work relationships that students have with faculty members, and with student peers. In graduate school, you may need to work closely and cooperatively with others – with other students, or with one or more professors, for example – and your overall success may depend on how good you are at working with others. You will be around certain other students and professors on an almost daily basis, and for a few years. You will likely get to know some of the faculty members well enough to be on a first-name basis with them. Even the ways in which you deal with secretaries and other university staff might be different – probably more friendly – than when you were an undergraduate.

There may be a significant amount of independent work involved in earning a master’s or PhD, but it is not generally possible to avoid certain situations, from time to time, in which good interpersonal skills are essential for success.

In graduate school, you will be part of a special community within your academic department, and how you fare will depend to some extent on how well you get along with others. You will be highly visible much of the time, unlike most undergraduate students who may feel more or less anonymous among the crowd in large classes, without ever having significant contact with any of their professors. In graduate school, certain professors, and other graduate students, might get to know you rather well, and they are likely to develop opinions about your personality and character based on the cumulation of all the interactions they have with you. It is difficult to blend into the background when you are a graduate student, so the social environment of graduate school favors people who are reasonable, likeable, and who communicate well. Admissions committees and other graduate program faculty members want to fill their programs with students who fit this bill.

It is simply not enough to be smart. Unfortunately, this fact is largely unappreciated by the majority of applicants, who pay little or no attention to how they come across as a person to those who will be making decisions about their application. Like it or not, your interpersonal skills will be on display at several different points in the application process. The fate of your application will depend largely on how these skills are perceived.

Most importantly, your chances of being successful in the long-term – even after you get your PhD – will depend, to a significant extent, on whether certain people you meet at graduate school like you, or not. It is a frequent occurrence during most academic careers, for example, to come into professional contact, in any of a number of ways, with one’s former grad-school peers. The other person can sometimes be in a position to either help you with something or not, or they could either put in a good word for you or discredit your character. This kind of situation arises more often than you might expect. For at least a few years after receiving a PhD, people are extremely dependent on positive references from faculty members who knew them when they were in graduate school. Just as you need effective letters of reference from the right people in order to get into graduate school, you will also need those kinds of references when you look for a job, after graduate school. Most employers will be just as interested in your ability to get along with them, and with other employees, as in the specific skills or knowledge you possess.