Reflections – My journey towards global relevance

Personal development? Professional development? – These are terms that we hear quite often but what do they really mean to you as an individual? Is it simply about developing your skills or does it entail something more? In this ‘Reflections’ piece, Blessing Obinaju expatiates on this topic by sharing her journey of personal and professional development.

Finding your feet in the murky waters of global relevance.’ I recently read this article again on The Aspiring Professionals’ Hub. I will refrain from rehashing the entire message of the article because I want to concentrate on these particular points;

Begin with the end in mind – This is our mantra on the Aspiring Professional’s hub. In your field of study, area of business interest or chosen career, is there anyone, business or role model in that position you aspire to be in worldwide? Knowing something about the journey to their attainment or achievement could be a starting guide for you to start a plan for your own global attainment. These days it is not so hard to learn about global figures when you have Google and in most cases these global stars are on social media sites such as LinkedIn, Twitter or have personal websites.

Have a plan – of your own for that career, design, business or idea BUT with a global audience in mind. For example, if you are choosing a course at University, think broadly about how relevant that course is another country or even worldwide before deciding. If creating a business plan, can that business service a need in another town, state, country, continent beyond your current location? So we suggest in whatever your goals or targets, THINK GLOBALLY.

Finally, personal development is catching fire within Africa. I do remember when I made the decision to pursue a career in academia; I was in my third year studying for an undergraduate degree. I remember the responses I received when I mentioned I was going into teaching. I also remember that to most of my peers at the time, it was the joke of the century.

What is my point?

I was perhaps fortunate to have found my first footing in the murky waters – deciding for myself what I wanted and who I wished to become. It would have been easy to have abandoned that footing simply because it was criticized. Why didn’t I? Well, I wasn’t looking at the immediate moment, I was looking at the end goal, as the article aptly stated, I was beginning with the end in mind.

So, how did I crack on?

I was privileged to have had close relatives who were already in the field. Thus, it was easy to research the steps required to attain the height I envisioned. I devised my plan (including options for any derailment or obstacles) and relentlessly followed it. Of course, nothing ever goes strictly according to a laid out plot – it wouldn’t be life if it did. However, what happens when you have a plan is, there is a calculated margin of what I love to call “happen-stance”: occurrences that take you by absolute surprise, frustrate and completely throw you off your path. I’ am sure that some of you are stomping your feet at this moment and screaming ‘Provide us with a detailed breakdown.’  I won’t tease you longer. For those of you who are Nigerians, you will be able to follow the path more closely. I wouldn’t be an academic if this piece had no schematics. So, here’s the plan and I am happy to say I am currently in the last phase.

Image courtesy of Blessing Obinaju.
Image courtesy of Blessing Obinaju.

So, how has this impacted me, re: global relevance? First, one of my most cited papers as an academic is the very first article I published shortly after my M.Sc. This and the various presentations at conferences during the Ph.D., have been quite relevant to placing my feet firmly on the cobbled stones that help us cross the waters which divide relevance and insignificance. As an academic or an aspiring academic, you can never attend enough conference, workshops or seminars in your field. More importantly, my academic experience and my ability to continuously adapt my plans to fit my goals – despite challenges that the world would always throw my way –  resulted in a book – The DANCE of Life: A guide to living your best life every day. It has also opened opportunities to share my experience as a STEM ambassador for the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network as well as in several other forums.

There were some critical control steps in my plan;

Location, location, location – Even though I gained my Master’s degree from a country other than that where I currently hold lectureship position, there was no debate over whether or not I should return to my home country upon completion of the degree. It was more of a forgone conclusion because I knew I was aiming for a lectureship position in my home country and that position would pay for the Ph.D.

Think long term – Notice that my very first job was a volunteer opportunity (yes, it was in Nigeria!). The point of this was, while I was job hunting for academic positions, the volunteer position which was still an education role, ensured that there was no gap period on my CV and I gained additional work experience.

My candid recommendation

Never underestimate the value of internships and do not overlook volunteer opportunities either. Just be certain that they are related to or somewhat impact on your end goal. It is also important to state that the most invaluable tool to really finding one’s feet within those waters is, an ability to constantly increase your bank of knowledge and not just in your area of certification. Being well-versed and well-read isn’t just an attribute of the rich and affluent – thanks to technology – everyone can be. It only takes being proactive and of course, actually desiring to reach your envisioned peak, whatever that is.

Blessing Obinaju is an Academic Researcher, Career Counselor, Life Coach and Image consultant. She works in the Department of Biochemistry, University of Uyo, Nigeria. She is also the Principal consultant at La Belle Vie, providing life coaching services to individuals. You can find her on Twitter @ObinajuBE.

Your Job Search – Who you know matters but who knows you matters even more!

Looking for a job can be challenging and an arduous process. It is easy to feel discouraged when things are not working out but please hang in there! In today’s post,  Dr Genevieve Regan, Laboratory Coordinator at the University of the Sciences, Philadelphia,USA shares some strategies for job seekers focusing on the importance of networking.

I should start this with the disclaimer that ‘I am no expert in job searching, career planning, or ladder climbing.’ I am just a person who, after a year of serious searching, has successfully gotten a new position that is better than my previous position and will hopefully lead to better and better things. I can also say that prior to getting my new job,  those qualifications would be all I needed in an author because job searching is gruelling and having gotten a job means something went right for the writer so I would love to hear what they had to say.

In the last 4 months, I applied to 26 jobs, followed up on my application when I could, went to 4 interviews, and got 0 of the jobs I had applied for. My current job came from being in the right person’s mind when a good opportunity became available. Hence my title, “Who you know matters, and who knows you matters even more”.

There are three main points to my networking strategy that I think worked to my advantage. The first is to have a network. You have to think about who you know. I know I lamented, “But I don’t know anyone” but it wasn’t true. I had former classmates and professors, co-workers, and family.

The second point is to have real relationships with these people. I needed to know them but they also needed to know me. Don’t just cold call people and announce you need a job, connect with them. If they are doing the kind of work you are interested in, find out how they got there, find out what interests them about the work, and find out what you can do to help them. Let them know you are looking for work but don’t be demanding about it, give a good picture of your interests and what is going on with yourself. A good relationship needs sharing between both parties.

This leads to the last point; be memorable. People remember people who help them. It doesn’t have to be helping them out with big things, just be a friend or good colleague. Things like sharing an article you think they would like, volunteering to help out on a project or event, or being a sounding board when they need one all can help your relationships.The overriding theme to the strategy would be not to treat it like strategy.  Be the kind of person you would legitimately help to find a job and people will want to help you find a job. They will think of you when they hear of an opportunity the same way you might think of someone else you know when you hear of one. There is an added benefit to my non-strategy strategy. You are connecting with people, and that should be fun. Going for coffee, meeting up at a happy hour, having discussions about topics you both are interested in, these should be fun. In all the job search stress you need fun, so consider it to be part of the process.

If you find networking challenging, you are not alone. Please check out our articles on Networking here and here. If you would like to share an article in The Hub, feel free to contact us @ aspiringprofessionalshub@gmail.com. Follow us on Twitter @AspProfHub.

#CareerChat – Dealing with Rejection

1-rejectionDear Dr A 

Thank you for attending the interview for the above position. Regretfully I am now writing to inform you that, on this occasion, you have been unsuccessful.  I would like to take the opportunity to thank you for your interest in working for our organisation. We appreciate the time and care that you have given in submitting your application and attending the interview, and would be happy to receive a further application from you for any future suitable vacancy. I wish you every success in the future. 

Yours sincerely,

HR

It could come by letter, email or face to face but the emotions you experience are the same. It feels like some of the air has been let out of your lungs leaving you feeling like a deflated balloon. If you live long enough, work hard enough and take enough risks, at some point(s) in your career journey, you will experience rejection. In the last few years, especially since the recession, the employment market has been particularly difficult with new graduates bearing the brunt of it. We cannot count the number of times we have read in the newspapers or watched on television where new graduates discuss their inability to get a job despite incredible effort.  I (Amara)  heard about a lady who applied for over a hundred jobs and was not called to a single interview! Technology has made applying for jobs so much easier, however, this comes with the  increased chance of being rejected.

Rejection does not just apply to employment – it could be a manuscript you submitted to a journal or editor, an application you made to your first choice University or a grant application to fund your great big idea. Regardless of where it comes from, rejection can severely dent confidence as we often tend to equate it with failing and being a failure. However, rejection does not have to be such a negative thing. It can actually become a useful learning tool in our personal and professional development journey. So, when you face rejection, what can you do differently?

Keep things in perspective – You may have failed at something but that does not make you a ‘failure’. An interview result is not an indication of your personal worth. No one likes to experience rejection. The rejection letter you see above was one I (Amara) received  and remember how bad I felt when I read it.  I had been excited to make it to the last 4 out of about 100 applicants to be interviewed. The interview had gone really well (in my opinion) but a few days later, I found out I didn’t get the job. After a few days of reflecting, I chose to see the whole process as a positive not negative experience. No, I did not get the job but I had made it to the last 4 out of 100. The top 5%. This meant that there was something about my CV, covering letter, personal statement and application form that had appealed to the employer. Maybe I just wasn’t a right fit for them. Maybe they made a mistake! Interviewers are human after all. Choose to see being invited to an interview as a plus, regardless of whether you get a job or not, at least, they like you on paper! When you experience rejection, try and think objectively. Choose to see failure as an event and not an identity. 

To thyself be true – This calls for some ‘reflection-on-action.’ Think over your application process again? If you have applied for 100 jobs without a single response, then in our opinion there is a problem somewhere. Are you using the ‘scatter-gun’ approach to your job search? Is there a mismatch between your skills profile and the jobs you are applying for? Do both your CV and personal statement match the person-specification in the advertisement or are you just sending the same documents to everyone? Are there any technical or subject specific skills you lack that could improve your chances at success? Did you follow the journal submission instructions to the letter? Does your manuscript fit the scope of the journal where you submitted it? Do you meet the entry requirements to get on the course you have applied for?

Deal with the issues – When it is difficult to know where things are going wrong, seek expert help. A careers adviser can look at your CV and provide information that can be the difference between getting a job or not. A mentor who is knowledgeable of a field that you are trying to get into can provide invaluable advice or know someone who knows someone who needs someone? Do you find yourself really nervous at interviews? So do most people!  Just try to avoid letting your nerves get the upper hand. This might sound like cliché but Practice does make perfect.  If your CV has looked the same for the last 2 years, is there a course that can help you update your skills profile?

Embrace feedback – When you do receive feedback, please remember it is not personal (at least most of the time!). If someone, has in good faith, taken their time to provide that information, see it as them investing in you. They most likely would not do it, if they did not see something positive in you or your work that needs improvement to make it better. Feedback can be difficult to take but if you can be dispassionate about it, you will find it is essential for your personal development. When you find yourself in a situation where you have not done as well as you hoped, seek feedback. Send a follow up email after an interview when you did not get the job. You will learn and grow from it.

Never give up – You never know how close you are to that Yes! Read the biography of any successful person you admire and you will undoubtedly find a rejection story among its pages. A colleague who evaluates grant applications for the EU shared that sometimes the difference between ‘accept’ and ‘reject’ can be 1 or 2 marks out of 100. She has had to reject a grant application that scored 95 out of 100, simply because another one scored 97! Another colleague had a manuscript rejected four times but finally got her work published in an international journal. The biggest surprise was that it got published in the journal she had sent it to in the first place! Each time she got a rejection letter, she improved her manuscript based on the feedback and submitted it again. She had enough self-belief in her research not to be put off by a few stumbling blocks. Be that way about yourself too. Have enough self-belief in what your skills can bring to an organisation or what your big idea can bring to the world. Be persistent and tenacious. You just never know.

aa-headshotAbout our writer – After completing a PhD in Microbiology, Amara is building her career in academia. She is grateful for every opportunity to teach and mentor a new generation of scientists, undertake research and develop international partnerships. She believes in the combined power of education and productive relationships in building successful careers. Stay connected on Twitter – @amaratweets

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#UniAdvice – Before you choose a course to study at University

We recently attended a series of international Higher and Further education institutions’ education fairs in Nigeria. It was great to meet very enthusiastic prospective students as well as their parents! We did however identify an area of concern regarding ‘course or program choices’ which is something we have also encountered in the UK. The reasoning behind some of the course applications and choice of courses were in some cases worrying while others were alarming! Why did you choose the course you studied (or are currently studying) at University? Are there things you know now but didn’t know then?

Why does course choice matter?

Well if you consider the huge financial commitment required for studying in Higher Education, you will agree it does. Regardless of what part of the world you come from, going to University is an expensive business. This cost often multiplies by several factors if you choose to study in another country as an international student. The importance of course and University choice can therefore not be overemphasised. A colleague with years of experience recruiting international students often asks applicants an important question, “If you are given £30,000 (convert to your own currency), would you or your parents happily pay for the course you have enquired about or chosen? Why? This question provides food for thought and must always be at back of the mind of anyone making an application to study at College or University. Answering this question can allow you reflect on how your course choice fits in with your life/career goals.

In one of our previous articles, we talked about ‘Beginning with the end in mind.’ This is also important when it comes to choosing a course. Would you invest money (insert education costs) into a business which after 3-5 years would yield no profit, no return on investment and require another huge cash injection to ‘hope’ for some level of success? For majority of us, the answer to that question will be a big, fat, No! Perhaps then, what you study should be given the same type of consideration.

For home students in the UK, what is the point of getting into debt (on average £35,000 – £40,000) to fund your education just to find out that you chose a course you actually hate?

Things to consider when making your choice – do your homework!

Prior to applying for and choosing a course to study, it is important to think about the course in careful detail. Seven times out of ten, when we ask Forensic Science students the reason for choosing their course, their response is ‘I love watching CSI! That in itself is not an issue if you enjoy subjects like analytical Chemistry, but if you do not, well, there may be problems on the horizon. Some courses e.g. Medicine or Dietetics have interviews as part of the application process – if you cannot articulate why you want to get on the course, you may not get a place! If you hate Biology and Chemistry and have never done well in them, why do you want to study Medicine?

How would you answer the following questions?

Why go to University in the first place? – Improved earning potential? Pre-requisite for chosen career? Have fun before entering the ‘real world?’ Develop subject knowledge and transferable skills for the future?

Why this course? – What subjects interest me? What are my academic strengths and weaknesses? How does this course fit into my life goals?

What is the course structure? – E.g. what modules/subjects? How many credits?

How will my course be taught – lectures, seminars, tutorials, lab sessions, how many contact hours etc.?

What is the expertise of the staff at the department or faculty that offers the course?

What are the career opportunities after the course?

Is the course accredited or linked to a professional body?

What support (academic or pastoral) do students get on the course or program?

Some of these questions pertain mainly to course choice but others could help you choose a University as well. We would recommend that applicants, their parents or fee paying guardians reflect on the answers to these questions as they navigate the often daunting application process. Use a Careers service e.g. National Careers Service (UK only) or talk to recent graduates.

Oftentimes prospective students as well as parents are uncertain or unsure how much to ask or are scared to ask critical questions when attending an education fair, open days or speaking to college or university representatives. Our advice is to think about that event as going into a BMW showroom to buy a car – you would not spend that amount of money without asking a few questions. University representatives are usually very happy to answer all your questions and provide you with accurate information.

In some cases, we have had students focus more on the night life and the vibrance of the city or town. Don’t get us wrong, these are important aspects too, but quite often, we meet students who at the tail end of the degrees regret the choice or course or are lost as their course choices seem to have limited and often uninteresting career options.

Parental or family influence in choosing

At an education fair we attended, a lady enquired about studying for a PhD and whilst she came across as interested, it soon became evident, upon further discussion,  that she was fulfilling someone else’s desire not to be the only family member without a PhD!

In other cases, parents have insisted their children study courses to meet with a family tradition etc. Coming from an African background, we can relate! Medicine, Law, Engineering, Accounting are the courses that are very dear to our parents’ hearts. From experience, this is due to the fear their children may be stranded without ‘good’ jobs after studying certain degrees.  Providing clear information to parents about what courses consist of, their value and the variety of career paths upon completion of these courses more often than not changes their opinions. This is why it is very important to do your homework!

Get information – A lot of Universities now offer ‘taster’ sessions to provide a glimpse of what studying your course at their University could be like. You may be able to attend a psychology lecture or conduct an experiment in a teaching laboratory! Attend Open Events and Education fairs – the latter being particularly pertinent for international students.

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#MyUniStory – My experience of being an international student

8-studentsI attended a student conference recently where students shared their experiences of being in Higher Education. I was surprised at how inspiring and moving some stories were. ‘Reflections’ is our latest addition to the Hub, here we leave our aspiring professionals to just share their stories. Story telling remains one of our most effective communication tools and we hope you will take something away from each one. In the first article of the series, Ebu will be sharing her experience of being an international student in Canada.

My name is Ebubechi and I am an international student in the first year of a Psychology course at Fraser International College (FIC), Vancouver, Canada. I will be transferring to Simon Fraser University (SFU) this fall (September 2015) for my 2nd year. The programme at FIC has been designed to prepare international students for integration into the Canadian University system as well as preparing for life as a University student. I would recommend a similar pathway to any international students considering embarking on an undergraduate degree in Canada. There is no difference in subject course content between the 1st year at SFU and FIC. The difference lies in how teaching is delivered. My classes are taught in a tutorial style format with smaller classes, allowing more interaction between students and teachers.

My experience as an international student here may differ slightly from other students as my education up to this point has been across two continents! Having started out my primary education in Nigeria, my Year 6 – 6th Form (Primary school – A ‘Levels) was completed in the United Kingdom. I guess this means I could say that I am used to what can be described as a ‘Western Education System.’ This also meant that my whole education had been in English and there were no language barrier to overcome as such. Despite this, there were aspects of the Canadian Higher Education system that were alien to me such as their grading system. Here, your performance in every class contributes to your Grade Point Average or GPA and you have to achieve a certain number (3.0 for Psychology) at the end of the 4 year course to obtain your Bachelor’s degree.

My lowest point was my first week here. I suffered from homesickness and I was surprised by how much I missed my family. I felt so alone, as this was my first time of going to a different country on my own. However, with prayer and the support of my family (thanks Skype!), I was able to overcome homesickness. I am very reserved by nature and it usually takes me a while to develop relationships in a new setting. However, when going to a new school, especially University, you have to remember that everyone you meet is in the same boat as you, i.e. being away from home and not knowing anybody. When I realised this, it was easier for me to start making new friends both in and outside of classes.

I started making friends who shared the same experiences as I did such as moving away from home for the first time and getting used to my surroundings (trying not getting lost so many times), everything started to fall into place and I became more comfortable. I have got involved in my college as part of the Campaign team which means I have to give talks to students on different issues that affect them like study skills and promote the services available from the University. This has helped me learn a lot more about the University as well as develop my communication skills.

For the most part, I have not found much about living here too different. Thankfully the spelling remains the same e.g. ‘colour’ is ‘colour’ not ‘color’! Thankfully, I live in Vancouver where the weather is a lot milder than other places in Canada. The weather is also very similar to London, i.e. rain, rain and more rain. If you are planning on moving to Vancouver, NEVER go anywhere without an umbrella. Please. A surprising discovery was how much everything is taxed here which in my opinion makes things much more expensive. In the UK, VAT is included in the price on the tags so you don’t really notice it. In Canada, like the US, it is not included in the retail price so you have to make sure you have enough money as you do not want to be embarrassed at the till! Generally Canadians are friendly people, of course you will find the oddball here and there but most people are very approachable and accepting as it is a very diverse country with lots of different cultures.

Preparing for life at University is difficult as students have to come to grasp with a totally different way of learning (insert independent!). Doing this in unfamiliar surroundings sometimes feels like an additional hurdle to overcome on the path to succeeding. My advice to international students would be to ensure that you look out for the support available from your University. In today’s connected world it is much easier to stay in touch with family and friends. It is hard but what about life isn’t?

Overall, I would say that I’m happy here and this is for several reasons. Going abroad to study has increased my confidence and independence beyond my imagination. Here, I am responsible for the choices I make and how I choose to conduct myself both at school and socially. Therefore, I would recommend that if you have the opportunity to study abroad even if it’s just for a year, take it. You are going to discover new things about yourself that you didn’t realise before.  Also, not very many people get the opportunity to study abroad and for that I will always be grateful.

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