An EAS Student’s Reflection on a Backpack 2 Briefcase Alumni Career Panel

What can we do with a humanities degree? Do we have any competitive advantage in finding a job after graduation? How do we become successful in career advancement? These are common questions for students who study humanities at the undergraduate level. Unlike business students who tend to work in financial services or engineering students who can practice and apply their learning skills in workplace, art students face more uncertainties in terms of exploring job opportunities that fit their competencies and interests.

On Jan 22, 2015, I went to listen to the Backpack 2 Briefcase session organized by staff members from the Faculty of Arts and Science. It was a short but enjoyable night. Four U of T alumni were invited to share their career stories with us. Although they all graduated from humanities degrees, it was interesting to see that when it comes to making career decisions, there are many possible career pathways. We often assume that students who study humanities would probably go to grad school after a 4-year undergraduate degree and end up with an academic job as a professor or lecturer. However, the truth is there is no such a guarantee to one straight road. Yesterday there was a guest speaker who is currently working as a Web Designer! What I learnt from the 1.5-hour session is to never stop learning and networking. I summarized a few key points that were provided by the alumni:

  • Practice Business Writing – This is a must skill and it is highly recommended by the alumni. Writing professionally and making an idea clear is so important in any organization and this kind of writing style is very different to what we often practice at school (academic writing). Short sentences sometimes triumph over long sentences in business writing. Students should be fully prepared for any kind of business writing upon their graduation.
  • Informational Interview – At school, there are lots of career-related workshops or events where students can network with employers. Make good use of these opportunities and don’t forget to follow-up. The alumni suggest that it is very useful to talk to employers and ask for more information through phone calls. Show passion and confidence during the talk so the employer can get to know us more. Also, don’t hesitate to send a message on Twitter if we find the contacts of employers. Social Media is a powerful tool to be recognized!
  • Transferable Skills – Learning a second or third language could be very useful for finding a job. Take some elective languages courses at school and enhance communication skills. It is also very important to have technical skills such as working on Excel and Word. It is an asset if students can master these applications.
  • Recommendation – This is EXTREMELY important. One of the alumni works as a hiring manager and he admits that although he carefully reads all resumes, he feels better about the candidate who is referred by someone he knows about.
  • Entry-level Job – It is usually very hard to get a right position in a right place at the beginning and the alumni suggest that it might be a good strategy to start with an entry-level position in an organization. Even working as a receptionist can help us learn lots of things about the company and build up relationship with peers. It becomes easier to get to a higher position if we get more familiar with the workplace.
  • Give yourself some time – After graduation, give some time to think about the future. Don’t be rushed or panic because everyone is just as confused as you when it comes to making career decisions. Try to list all kinds of options for yourself and never give up researching opportunities. Be patient, and be confident!

These are the lessons I learnt from the career panel and I hope people can benefit from my notes.