Category Archives: Careers / Work

Interview Tips

Over the summer, I had the excellent opportunity of interviewing a dozen or so applicants for our volunteer program. Sitting on the other side of the desk was a fascinating experience in finding out what an interviewer really sees and thinks. To that end, I’ve decided to put together a few of the most obvious, and yet most frequently unobserved, do’s and don’ts:

1. Arrive 10-15 minutes before your interview.

Being early indicates that you planned ahead and have good time management. While there is nothing wrong with arriving on the dot, it cuts too close to the chase for my comfort, and as for being late… well, let’s just say that an interviewer will notice if you are late.

2. Dress like you mean it.

One of the tips that Co-op taught me was to dress one level above the position you’re applying for. I personally prefer to go by the rule of dressing in business attire no matter what — the worst that can happen is appearing overdressed and ultra-serious about a position, which is no bad thing. Mini-skirts and flip-flops, on the other hand, are not appropriate interview attire, even for volunteer positions.

3. Do your research.

Be able to tell the interviewer what the organisation is about in more detail than what was indicated in the job description. Interviewers want to know if you’re serious about joining the specific organisation or if you’re just looking around for any opening that will take you. The more competitive the program, the more prepared you’d better be.

4. Always have questions.

Most interviewers will give you an opportunity at the end to ask them questions. Don’t say you don’t have any — this just reeks of general, uninterested applicant. I personally didn’t care if an applicant had a list in hand or memorised their questions, but I did mind if they never asked specific questions about the position, expectations, or what the experience will be like.

5. Send a thank you note afterwards.

While I always used to send follow-up emails to thank my interviewer and reaffirm my interest in the position applied for, I am now a converted believer in the power of the handwritten thank you card. One of my interviewees left me a card a few hours after I’d interviewed them, to my pleasant surprise and delight, and further raised my already positive impression of them. In a world where electronic convenience reigns supreme — and where, even then, no one else said thank you or sent any such follow-up — the extra effort goes a long way to contrasting you with your fellow applicants and making a positive, lasting impact.

Do you have any others that you’d like to share?

Well, what do you know…

Sorting through my notes from last year to decide what to keep and what to discard, I found a few scribbled sentences from a mental health conference I attended in October. One that caught my eye was:

Helping someone else produces endorphins in the helper — helping others helps you cope with your problems.

While the happy feeling you get from helping someone else is not news to me, it’s interesting that helping others also increases your capacity to handle your own issues. (Unfortunately, I can’t place who said that or where that comes from, but I’m sure someone can correct this statement if it’s far off.)

Have you found anything lately that surprised you?

(And this was too good not to share…)

Character 1: "Hello. Oh, so you are angry? I know how to deal with grumpy people! Take this!" The two hug. Character 2: "I'm confused." Character 1 (while hugging): "Die, bitch!"

On another note, are you looking for well-paying jobs on campus? Find out about Work Study (for domestic students) or Work Learn (for international students) on the Career Services page, including eligibility criteria, and apply early through CareersOnline.

You can also take a look at the post I wrote last year on Finding Work On Campus for other ideas if you don’t manage to land a Work Study/Work Learn position (these are fairly competitive, after all).

Knock, knock

I know who’s there; I’ve looked through the peephole. But I don’t open the door, because I’m busy with exams and papers, and they should know that. They can hear me rattling away in here, with the occasional wail of ‘I’m so tired!’ At times like that, they leave me in peace — but they don’t go, oh no. They’re sitting right there on the doorstep of my mind, waiting for moments like these when it’s temporarily quiet within, and then the knocking begins again.

It’s not that I don’t want to let these thoughts in — I do. I want to give each and every one of them the time and attention they deserve, as a proper hostess should, but I’m afraid I haven’t got enough to spare, not for all of them at once.

I’m afraid opening the door a crack will let the whole lot in, and that’ll be the end of my GPA as I know it.

(I’d really like to know when I started caring about my GPA so much. It’s not as if it reciprocates.)

But my visitors are accumulating and I think I should let one of them in. Just one, for now. Maybe if they know that each of them will enter in time, they won’t try to ram the door?

My first guest brings with her a smile and a memory that has me smiling away, too, at least at first:

About a month ago, I was sitting in one of my classes just loving the lecture that was happening before me. I was so very pleased with myself for taking this class to begin with; it was exactly what I’ve wanted for four years.

For four years. Isn’t that a long time to wait? something whispered inside me.

And that quickly, I couldn’t let go of the thought: I could have spent the last four years doing the things I really care about.

Let me throw in a couple of caveats here to explain what I mean: my life is not one long story of doing things I don’t care about. As a general rule, my UBC experiences and my degree are in areas I love. There are plenty of things I wouldn’t change, and I think one day I’ll have to write it all out, to explain the other side of the story, of why I did what I did.

But this side of the story is the one that says why I didn’t do the things I care about. This isn’t a matter of ‘I wish I’d found this sooner’, which depends on luck, but a matter of not doing the things I knew I cared about all along. Oh, I had my reasons. We all have our reasons. Sometimes these are legitimate, like financial, y’know. When we get right down to it, though, mine were all to do with fear: with being too afraid of potential failure to dare to try.

What did I really have to lose, though? Watching my dreams crash and burn, I suppose. No one voluntarily signs up for that. Except I have now lost four years’ worth of time I could have spent working hard at what I like doing, at building up my own skills, at really changing and improving and shaping myself to be what I wanted to be. And while just trying your best doesn’t always mean that things work out, I’m now feeling the edge of the cliche (or rather, its absence), of being able to say, ‘At least I tried.’

This kind of miserable thought triggers other miserable ones, such as thinking of all the things I haven’t done in the past few years that I was so intent upon in my first eager, hopeful year:

  • I haven’t written or painted or played the piano nearly as much as I wanted to — heck, I haven’t touched a paintbrush in almost six years, even though this was one of the things that made me deeply happy once upon a time.
  • I haven’t explored Vancouver nearly as much as I wanted to, despite my best intentions.
  • I haven’t gone dancing.
  • I haven’t gone to poetry slams at Cafe Deux Soleils.
  • I’ve yet to make a trip to the UBC Farmers’ Market in the summer.
  • I haven’t walked along the beach, haven’t gone biking frequently, haven’t gone swimming, haven’t sat and read on Granville Island, just listening to the music, all summer long.
  • I haven’t read all the books accumulating on my shelves.
  • I haven’t become an amazing cook or baker; I still don’t know how to make my mother’s dumplings.
  • I haven’t been brave, haven’t taken risks or pushed myself out of my comfort zone nearly enough times to even register on my mental radar.
  • I haven’t become the person that I wanted to be by the time I’m 21. I’m not even 21 anymore.

This isn’t generally an exercise I encourage anyone to do, by the way. It makes you sad. But I really wish I had thought a little more about what I wanted to achieve while I was in university before I got here — not a detailed list to follow stubbornly, because that doesn’t allow for the change that inevitably happens, but some general articulation of what I would like.

I’ve thought about making this list for the time I hit my next milestone age of 30, but that’s a whole lot trickier… How do I plan things that I want, like a family and a career, when one is not entirely within my control and I don’t even know what I want the other to look like?

The older I get, the younger and less sure of myself I feel. All the clear-cut plans I had in first year have dissipated and I’m now evasive when asked what I want to do. I don’t know what I want to do.

I wonder what the future holds for me. It's terrifying, honestly.

Or how. How will I combine and/or balance what I want with what I need? How do I pay my rent and feed myself and buy some new clothes to replace the ones I’m always mending now, and still be happy doing what I do? Aren’t these the questions facing most graduates, anyway?

I still want to do that list of things I haven’t done, to feel a little less bad about myself a year from now, when I’ll be graduating and there really won’t be another chance to change my Vancouver story.

I also want to not be thirty years old and looking back at the last decade of my life, wishing I’d taken the risk to do the things I care about, after all.

How I manage my time

Usually, I’m the type of person who can remember all the tasks she has to do by when without having to write them down. I have a list of homework and when they are due in my weekly planner which I refer to once in a while, just in case, but it’s usually not necessary.

Lately, however, this ever-growing to do list has got to the point where I can’t process it all anymore, and I’ve started to plan my weeks out using a weekly planner template taken from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Sean Covey, and put together by Ammon, the owner of the blog I originally found the PDF on.

7 Habits Weekly Planner image

Those of you who’ve read The 7 Habits will be familiar with this layout, but in case you aren’t, here is how I use it:

1. Identify your roles in life

Typical roles include one’s role as a spouse, parent, student, worker, etc. My roles are those of a daughter, sister, friend, student, employee, and Speakeasy team leader. Depending on the week, I fill out these roles a little differently: this week, for example, each of my classes gets its own arrow, I am a team leader, and I have an arrow for myself.

I like to colour code each of my roles to make it easier to see across the page, as well.

2. Identify the weekly goals you want to achieve for each role

Break down what you want to achieve in each aspect or role of your life. For example, this week my chart looks like this:

Myself: piano, art, blog, write, EndNotes conference (?)

CRWR: get notes for missed classes, study for quiz

Thesis: reread forage, analyse 1-2 poems, update supervisor, email second reader

FNLG: write script, translate script, memorise

FNSP: readings, journal entry, research paper sources

TL: get materials for year-end event, do budget before April 5

When I’m done with my list, I like to number each of them off to make it easier for the next step.

3. Fill out each of these goals across the week for when you want to do them

Decide when you need to do each of these goals. I like to put these in both ‘Today’s Priorities’ and at the exact time I want to do them, if possible, e.g. my priority tomorrow is to complete my journal entry for my FNSP class and I want to do that at 4 pm, after I finish work and pick up some materials for the year-end event.

I also fill out other things across my ‘Appointments/Commitments’ timetable that aren’t necessarily in my goals list in terms of my different roles, but which I need or want to do for one reason or another, such as laundry, groceries, cleaning the bathroom, etc.

The evening/notes section is usually full of reminders to myself of things I need to do at some point, e.g. pick up newspaper to clean bathroom mirror.

What’s this ‘Sharpen the Saw’ business?

Sharpen the Saw is a reference to Habit 7 of The 7 Habits (which I do recommend reading for its many useful and important ideas, not least on time management and interpersonal communication), which is about taking the time to maintain one’s physical, mental, spiritual and social/emotional well-being in order to be at your best.

To be honest, I’m not filling this section out at all at the moment. A need to engage in more self-care? Probably, but I am also at my limit this week in terms of what I can do for myself while completing everything else I have to do… so while it’s not ideal, self-care is taking a bit of a backseat again this week. But it’s okay, I tell myself, just one more week of pulling through and I’ll be able to breathe a little more next Sunday.

Just a little more.

In terms of how well this works for me

I’ll be honest, I didn’t finish everything I wrote down for last week, and there were days when I didn’t do what I needed to do and had to catch up other days in other ways (read: less sleep). But I did manage to complete three quarters of what I originally set out, which is more than I would probably have achieved had I not written it all out. So that’s something.

My biggest problem with this method is that I end up feeling very stressed at the beginning of each week as I look in despair at the schedule I’ve made for myself and calming down as I slog through the days — which may not be so much an issue with time management as it is with my stress management.

Regardless, I’d like to hear how other people manage their time, should there be something better suited to me floating around out there.

And now I am off to lose more sleep. It is sad when you can’t even catch up on sleep over the weekend.

On an unrelated note, I’m reading Mary Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese’ over and over again. It’s my mental breathing space.

Lessons Learned in 2010

Sign: I wish that I could have been warned

Academic education aside, I’ve learned a lot about what not to do in this last half year by doing everything wrong — even the things I already knew were bad ideas. Apparently, I sometimes make the same mistakes just to remind myself why they’re mistakes in the first place.

So some advice to myself and to you for the rest of our university careers (and perhaps beyond):

1. Don’t do three part-time jobs while in school.

This is key. Full-time school and essentially full-time work do not mix. There are only so many hours in the day. Something has got to slide, as my schoolwork did slide in the month of September when I was busy burning myself out.

Oh yes, and I have volunteer commitments on top of all that. I tend to overestimate how much I can take on at a time — for some reason, I thought I could handle it for a few weeks, and I did, but continued to suffer for it in the long run.

2. Don’t get more than a week behind in school. (Two, if it’s an actual emergency.)

This guidelines applies if you’re aiming to do well in school or if you’re particularly struggling with a course. If you’re just aiming to pass and you’re not genuinely afraid of failure, then you’ll live.

It’s not to say that you can’t do well if you fall more than two weeks behind in school — just that it’ll be very, very difficult. If you’re a week behind, you can spend a couple of weekends playing some intense catch-up. A month behind, as I was at the end of September and two jobs, just meant playing exhausting catch-up for the rest of the term as readings continue and midterms and assignments pour in.

3. Most importantly, don’t ever give up food and sleep to ‘cope’. Seriously.

I can’t reiterate this (to myself) enough: sufficient sleep, nutrition and exercise are essential to managing life well.

Because I was rushing around so much, I had cereal in the mornings, sandwiches while commuting, and collapsed in my chair in the evenings with too little energy to make myself a decent meal, or even chew. Definitely not enough nutrition for what I needed to do.

Then I fell into the college trap of sleeping less in order to accomplish more. People are often telling me how little sleep they get, as a sign of how hard they work. Why not join the crowd of four-hours-a-nighters?

Because it doesn’t work for me and, I suspect, doesn’t work for others either. They just say it does.

Mid-October, there were days I literally could not get out of bed without being sick if I woke before my body wanted to. I spaced out and/or fell asleep in the most inopportune places. I missed classes and mixed up the timelines for my readings. Most depressingly of all, I was trying my hardest but my grades were telling me that I was still doing a whole grade lower than when I was getting food and sleep and not even trying all that hard at school.

It wasn’t until I made the conscious commitment to eat and sleep properly again (screw the grades) that I began functioning and doing better. Sleep and food are what saved my GPA from falling into the abyss this term, not quitting on them.

4. Don’t lose touch with the people and things that are important to you.

When you do badly physically and mentally, you can feel pretty badly about yourself. At times like these, you might feel like you don’t want to see anybody, or you feel guilty when you do things for pleasure because they’re ‘wasting’ time you could be using to catch up.

I gave up playing the piano, reading for pleasure, writing emails to long-distance friends, and hanging out with Vancouver ones because I ‘didn’t have the time’.

You have to make the time. Take short breaks doing things you care about to refresh your mind and spirit. Force yourself to get emotional support from your friends and family when you feel badly about yourself. You need them most when you want them least.

5. Don’t beat yourself up.

Understand that you are doing your best, no matter how much you dislike where you are at the moment. It’s easy for other people to tell you what you should do, but no one really knows the full extent of the problems you’re facing or how limited your resources for coping may be. Even comparing yourself to your past self can be counter-productive — you are not in the same place you were and can’t necessarily expect yourself to achieve the same that you used to (at least not right now). So don’t even think about comparing yourself to others. You will get through this if you give it time and keep up the effort. You just need to be kind to yourself.

Have faith that things will improve. Because, as I can tell myself now, they do.