Career advice for the student

Unless you know that you want a career that requires a professional designation or deep knowledge in one area, do a general degree – eg General Arts, General Science. Take the courses that pique your interest. See where it takes you.

Your degree does not define you. Sure, it might now, while connecting with other students, helps them fit you into a box. But the rest of the world doesn’t work that way. Your life choices in general define you – i.e. you define you. The sum of the courses, workshops, events, volunteer roles, jobs, travel experiences, passion projects and other life experiences define you. My undergrad was in Biology and Chemistry. It was right for me at the time. But now I do consulting and research on issues facing the nonprofit sector. It’s been a short 13 years since I finished my time at UBC. A lot can happen if you intentionally choose your life.

Negotiate for salary, even your first “career” job. And if that’s not negotiable, negotiate for benefits that fit your interests – vacation time, flexible schedule, support for professional development, etc. Read “Ask for It” by Babcock and Laschever.  Especially women and non-alpha people in general.

Your first job does not define you. My first job was as a high school science and math teacher. It was the right job for me at that time, but it was not meant to be my life’s work. 

Shorten your cover letter. Trust me, it’s too long. And most university students can probably fit a resume onto one page. Definitely don’t go more than two. Don’t.

Don’t do a masters degree right away. Even if you want to go into academia. If you’re worried about your job prospects after an undergrad, getting a masters degree won’t get you any further ahead, you’ll just have spent more money. Choose a masters degree once you have some relevant work and life experience that you bring into a learning environment. You will benefit and so will your classmates. Do a masters degree because of personal interest in learning, or to learn from specific people and classmates. And once you get your footing in the non-academic world, you might find that a masters degree isn’t actually what you need and want. I did an MBA after 5 years experience (and did it while continuing to work full time), and I’m glad I had the perspective of professional work experience.

Look at your resume and cover letter from a few feet away. Can you distinguish different sections? Does it look pretty? Fix it until it does. Don’t use Arial or Times New Roman. Or Comic Sans.

Always pay attention to what interests you. A workshop caught your eye? A person interest you? A book draws you in? A topic got you talking? Even if you don’t know where you want to go in your career, pay attention to your attention, and keep moving forward and seeking out experiences.

While in university, take advantage of the free/organized resources and services and experiences at your fingertips. The world outside university is not as supportive. Join clubs, do co-op, do exchanges, take workshops, run for your student association, volunteer for a variety of experiences. If you keep your head down and graduate as soon as you can, you’ll find yourself with less experience of interest for prospective employers, and less self awareness of what drives you and what you’re good at. One or even two extra years will be a benefit, not a cost.

If everything is easy for you, and you always hear yes, you aren’t taking enough risks. See every opportunity as one of a series of small risks. Many will pay off. Some won’t, but in the long run you’ll come out ahead.

Interview senior people in fields/organizations that interest you while still in university. When it’s clear you’re not currently looking for a job, it’s easier to set up informational interviews to learn from and to be inspired by others. Senior folks are more open to students than they are youngish professionals.

Never stop learning. Read. Listen to podcasts. Watch documentaries. Talk with other smart people. It will make you smarter and more interesting and bring you joy.

It might be wrong. But is it useful?

I took a class on effective instruction a few years ago. The most powerful take away was almost a throwaway quote from one of the instructors.

All models are wrong. But some models are useful.

I’ve taken this thought with me far and wide.

Some people don’t believe in the MBTI. Fine. (I do). But even if you disagree with the underpinnings, is the information, self-exploration, and tips for interacting effectively with others useful?

I’ve read books that I might have previous considered ‘flaky.’ New-agey books about presence and intentions. Do I believe in pseudo-science quantum physics? Hell no. But are some of the exercises and arguments useful? Oh yeah.

Even horoscopes and fortune cookies, which I believe to be utter shite, I can read and find use in. Did it trigger an idea for an opportunity? For a conversation I’ve been meaning to have? Did it put a smile on my face?

I have two friends who own “The Secret Language of Birthdays: Your Complete Personology Guide for Each Day of the Year.” Just because you add “ology” onto the end of something, doesn’t make it legitimate.

But reading it is fun! And I find it useful.

It triggers reflections, which I love because…introvert.

Here are some gems from my birthday page.

Those born on September 9 repeatedly face all kinds of demanding situations, usually more the product of their own complicated nature than of fate. If they could learn to more often take the path of least resistance, and not invariably the most difficulty way, they could lead much more peaceful but perhaps less eventful lives.

Like when I’m doing something and think to myself “there’s gotta be a better way to do this” and I spend 4 hours researching that thing, when it would have taken me just 30 min to do it the first, if inefficient, way.

There is no doubt that September 9 people are drawn to challenges. Easily bored, they find it insufferable to just sit back and do the same predictably rewarding (or unrewarding) things year after year. Consequently, they are either consciously or unconsciously on the lookout for complex people, places and things with which to become involved.

Like why I’m drawn to independent self-employment, seeking out new and interesting experiences to jump in and out of. And how I yearn for more opportunities to be surrounded by intelligent and fascinating people to learn from and be inspired by.

Life can be a constant battle for many September 9 people against their fears and insecurities. Strangely enough, such fears can drive them on to be surprisingly successful. This is another reason why challenges have such a powerful stimulating effect on them.

‘Successful’ is a fluid term. But I’ve done pretty well on my own (work-wise) the past 4 years. I constantly have to push aside insecurities, questions about what people think of me, and just do and achieve. I love taking something I’ve never done before, say “hmm, I could do that” and do it. Even if that thing is springboard diving.

Building your self-confidence is a big item. Allow for reflection; then find your real abilities and act on them decisively. Worry and few will eat you up if you let them; you alone hold yourself back.

As I’ve come to repeat as my mantra: Spend time on your purpose, not your personal issues that hold you back from your purpose.

Irritation is something you do to yourself.

Yes, indeed Birthday book, you’ve given me some things to think about.

What do you find wrong, but useful?

218 content tips for resumes

Just kidding! Not 218 tips. First tip: don’t include EVERYTHING in your resume.

Yesterday I shared tips for resume design. Today: content.


I have some pretty strong feelings to share, with the caveat that I am just one opinionated person – other people are opinionated in other ways, so a perfect resume for one hiring manager is just “meh” for another.

Firstly, I usually don’t read cover letters unless the resume is a good one, so be sure that your resume…is a good one.

There are two things I look for when I review job/volunteer applications. 1) The content 2) The layout

What I look for in content

Basically, does it look like you might be able to do the job I’m hiring for? And have you made it easy for me to see that?

A narrative.

A story that shows me how you came to apply for this job. Your previous experiences (work, education, volunteering, workshops/events attended, etc) have a tie to the role you are applying for. The roles I hire for are usually connected to the nonprofit sector, so demonstrating an interest in the nonprofit sector or civil society is mandatory.

If you are trying to change fields or roles, I want to see that you’ve already started that process. Taken a course. Done volunteer work. There needs to be some connection to the current role. Don’t force me to try to make mental leaps and know what’s going on in your head – I neither the time nor the mind-reading abilities.

Transferable skills are relevant, but don’t bullshit me.

I know working in retail or hospitality gives good, relevant experience to many jobs. But don’t try to over-inflate a role with the dozens of things that you were responsible for, or over explain a role unless it’s something that few people have experience with.

Leave out things that aren’t relevant.

When you’re early in your career, it’s tough…you don’t have much to include. But after a few years, some experiences aren’t as relevant any more. I often don’t include the fact that I was a high school teacher. This experience is important to me, but not necessarily for the contracts I’m pitching for. Every resume I send is tweaked to reflect the role I’m applying for, and I expect the same when I hire. Leave things out that might muddy your narrative.

Chronological, or skills-based?

I prefer a vaguely chronological resume that focuses on relevant skills. Again, I want a narrative that leads up to this current role. Do I get why you are applying? Or does it seem you’re likely shipping the identical resume all over the place?

However, if you are early in your career or are changing fields, a chronological resume can sometimes look choppy or disjointed, and doesn’t share the picture you’re hoping to create. In those cases, an way to make the narrative clearer is to lump your experiences into skills the job requires. For example, I’ve done resumes that have sections for “facilitation,” “nonprofit sector experience,” and “project management” that then list relevant experiences.


Leave out

Career objective. I’ve never understood the use of this. Times change so quickly now–if someone thinks they know where they want to be in 10 years, I’m suspicious that they are deluded or narrow minded.


Relevant experience. This can be divided into work experience and volunteer experiences, but I’m OK with a merged category. Be sure to include personal projects–e.g. I include Quiet Changemaker Project–and course projects if relevant, especially if you’re early in career.

Education. An additional section for professional development is great if you’ve attended workshops, conferences, etc that are relevant.

Maybe include

Personal/professional summary. Sometimes people include a short paragraph that summarizes who they are. Unless this is incredibly well crafted and adds context that your resume can’t explain, leave it out.

Personal interests. This section can help you stand out, make the hiring manager curious. Or it could turn them off. I enjoy vegan cooking, but I’m not going to share that unless I know that’s relevant to the job because I don’t want to be lumped in with negative misconceptions of vegans. Instead, I might add that I’ve taken springboard diving lessons.

Watch your tone.

Keep a neutral, professional tone unless you can find out more from the hiring person (e.g. through Twitter/blogs). Taking a risk with tone is just that – a risk. It could move you to the top of the pile. It could mean you are a quick no. A few years ago I was hiring support for my business, and the job description was written in my person tone. Frank, honest, to the point. Subtle humour. Short, incomplete sentences. One applicant used the same tone for her application, noting in her cover letter that it was a risk. I loved it. She didn’t end up with the job, but it got her quickly into the interview pile. I’ve also received resumes with what seemed like a “braggy” or overly aggressive tone. Those go into the no pile for me (but they may work on others).

One tip to rule them all.

Treat your resume as good design. The best resume is one in which there is nothing else you could take away. Not the one in which there is nothing else to add.

5 design tips for resumes

Earlier this week I gave some advice to young professionals on resumes and cover letters. I have some pretty strong feelings to share, with the caveat that I am just one opinionated person – other people are opinionated in other ways, so a perfect resume for one hiring manager is just “meh” for another.

I usually don’t read cover letters unless the resume is a good one, so be sure that your resume…is a good one.

There are two things I look for when I review job/volunteer applications.

  1. The content
  2. The layout

I’ll cover content in a later post.

As for layout…

Basically, I want to be able to find information easily. I should be able to scan it quickly and get a sense of you. I want resume sections, job titles and organizations, and dates to be easy to find. I shouldn’t have to dig for information.

I also should find your layout pleasing to the eye. I’m often hiring for workplaces that don’t have the luxury of an art/design department, so it would be great if you can create a nice looking document without a designer having step in.

No spelling or grammatical errors.

I’ve been at fault for this…it can be hard when you’re in job search mode and you’ve looked at your resume hundreds of times. I might be able to let one error pass, but more indicates to me that you don’t have attention to detail.

Everything aligns.

There are no errant spaces before a title or paragraph. If any items like dates are aligned on the right of the page, they are all lined up properly. Again, if things are crooked, it indicates you don’t have attention to detail.

The pages aren’t crammed with text.

You’ll hear from most places that resumes should be 2 pages. This doesn’t mean that to make yours fit you should decrease the margins and fonts and stuff a three page resume into two. Margins should be at least 1″, and it’s OK to play with larger margins (e.g. 3″) to create white space and make it easy to read.

You choose fonts well.

In my resume, I use a sans serif font for the headings, and serif font for the content. Serif fonts have bulges at the end of letters in fonts like Times New Roman, Baskerville, Didot, etc. Sans serif means “without serif” and include fonts like Arial, Calibri, Century Gothic, Futura, etc. Mixing two fonts is totally OK (check out your local newspaper – it’s likely that titles and content are in different fonts).

If you only use one font, use bold OR italics (not both) and perhaps different size for headings.

If you don’t have a good design eye, start with a template found online to guide you.

It’s OK to use fonts smaller than 12 pt.

Your resume (and cover letter) is combined in one (1) PDF with a name that makes sense.

DO NOT SEND YOUR RESUME AS A WORD DOC. What looks good on your computer might show up strange on mine. And be sure to name it through the lens of the organization (not what makes sense when you are saving the resume in your job applications file on your own computer). I’ve received resumes that are names things like “Resume 2013” or “Vanessa res -(2)” or “Managing Director resume”. When I download the resume, these names mean nothing. I might use the name “Trina Isakson Application” or “Isakson – Managing Director Application”.

Unless asked for, don’t send a link to LinkedIn or a website.

Can I take risks with layout?

It’s rare, but I’ve seen resumes laid out in newspaper columns, or with interesting colours. I’ve even seen poetry and clip art. I would say risks are OK if all of the three criteria are met:

  1. The hiring manager is the kind of person who appreciates uniqueness (hard to know, but you might be able to find out via the person’s Twitter/blog).
  2. The risk is directly relevant to the role you’re applying for (e.g. if creativity/design is needed).
  3. The resume is still easy to read.

One tip to rule them all.

Treat your resume as good design. The best resume is one in which there is nothing else you could take away. Not the one in which there is nothing else to add.

How to introduce yourself professionally when you’re unemployed

A while ago I ran into someone I had previously interviewed for a contractor position with my consulting business. She was one of the top candidates, and it had been about a year and half since I had seen her last. I asked what she was up to now, and her response was:

Unemployed again.

What a downer. But then she went on to tell me about a contract she had recently completed in her area of expertise and in one of my fields of interest. That would have been a much better opener.

However you respond, open with something positive AND make it clear you are looking for new opportunities. For example:

  • I just finished up some interest work doing XYX. I’m looking for my next project in the area of ABC.
  • I’m doing some volunteering work with Organization Z doing ABC, and I’m looking for work right now in a similar area.
  • I’m taking some courses in ABC, and I’m hoping to find work soon in an organization that could use these skill and my experience in DEF.
  • What I’m hoping to do is XYZ…. I’m currently working in ABC and want to make a move soon because XYZ is really where my passion lies.
  • I’m spending time right now meeting with people who work in XYZ because I want to learn more about careers in this area. I’m hoping to find a role soon doing ABC.

You can also use this conversation as the opportunity to ask if they’ve heard of any recent opportunities or have recommendations for individuals or organizations you should get in touch with. Just be sure to not make the whole conversation about yourself. Ask what they are involved with right now – it might trigger some ideas for you.

Make volunteer training transferable for young volunteers

For many volunteer roles, specific (and often times in-depth) training is required. Rather than making the training just another hoop young volunteers have to jump through to actually get volunteering, create a training program that is bigger than the volunteer opportunity. Sometimes, training isn’t even necessary, but general (and transferable) training could benefit both the volunteers and the program/project they are serving.

What do I mean by making transferable training that is bigger than the volunteer role itself? Here are some examples to illustrate:

  • If the role involves giving presentations, make the training about giving good presentations in general, and not just about how to give a specific presentation.
  • If the role involves social media, make the training about social media strategies in general, and not just about how to use social media to engage the public in a specific project.
  • If the role involves dealing with a vulnerable population, make the training aboutgeneral issues faced by the population, and not just about specific situations the volunteer may run into.

The training can still involve necessary specifics, but as an application of the more general training rather than the entirety of the training itself.

Training that is more general is more transferable, and thus more of a benefit to young volunteers as they explore career paths and develop new skills.

The importance of references to Millennial volunteers

In almost all volunteer role descriptions that I create, one of the benefits for the volunteer that I list (among other like contributing to a cause, connecting with good people, gaining experience in area XYZ) is the provision of a letter of reference (upon request) after successful completion of the role.

For many Millennials, volunteering is not only a way to do something for a mission they care about – the experience is also about career exploration and networking. Help them by making references a part of the recognition and reward of volunteering.

References don’t need to be time-consuming custom reference letters. Here are some ideas to make references less work and more meaningful:

  • Have the volunteer write the reference letter themselves, highlighting what they feel are the most important contributions they made (and that have most relevance to their career goals). Edit it so that it matches your writing style and aligns with your impressions of the young person’s contributions.
  • Provide a LinkedIn reference. A few sentences will do. Less formal than a reference letter, but more public (and therefore, for many Millennials, more valuable).
  • Share positive words via Twitter or Facebook. Link to their profile and say thanks with specific reference to their contributions. If it makes sense to reference their jobs/freelance work/company/website, do that too.