A Little Research Goes a Long Way

I know people have been asking you this since you squeaked out your first words, and you’re probably sick to death of hearing it, but what do you want to be when you grow up? Any idea?

I wanted to do two things, Sunshine: I wanted to write, and I wanted to work in criminal profiling and research violent crimes.  They both seemed like the ideal career paths for me. I mean, I wrote all through my teens and early 20s (and then just gave up hope on everything for a good 10 years before trying to give it another go). And I’ve been reading true murder novels ever since I stole my first one from my mother’s bedside table in the 5th grade.

So, in my mid-20s I decided to go back to school and start working towards that whole profiling and research career. I studied Criminology (got my BA.H in that one) and Psychology (my second degree, just a BA), worked as a research assistant for a while, and obsessively read books and papers on murderers. I talked to a professor who was a former RCMP officer (those police officers in Canada that the rest of the world seems to think rides horses all day while they wear bright red jackets and doofy hats), and he told me all the steps I needed to get into the RCMP for a research position.

Dumbest fucking move ever.

You see, he hadn’t been an RCMP officer for a while now. Things change over time, like the qualifications for different positions. He told me I just needed my BA.H in a social science, preferably something where I studied crime (hence the Criminology), and a background in research. He sounded like he knew what he was talking about.

One simple Google search would’ve shut that down real freakin fast!

You see, in order to get the position I wanted, now you have to first BECOME an RCMP officer. Not only do I have no want or desire to do so, but my eyesight is bad enough that it disqualifies me from the position. Like, it is impossible for me to ever get this job, ever.

If I had realized this while I was still in school, there is a metric crapload of stuff I would’ve done differently. For starters, I would’ve done a little bit more research into what jobs my damn degree qualified me for. I would’ve gone for more career counseling, volunteered with different organizations, looked into addition certificates and courses to help me out. I would’ve switched to a double major in something else, got a minor or two to fall back on. Maybe even got a part-time job to fall back on once I was out of school (but that’s a whole other post).

As it stands, I have two degrees I got specifically to get me a job I can never have. They don’t qualify me for much specifically in the town I live in. I work customer service in a ‘spirits dispensary’ who would prefer I don’t name them in blog postings. I have tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt from those degrees, plus credit card bills falling out my ass crack from trying to live on 4 hours work a week for months without falling behind in my rent and other bills. And I have to pay this all off with the CSR wages I’m making now, NOT the profiling and research job and salary I had been working towards.

And this was all totally preventable if I had just sucked it up and done a bit more research.

So, as I say way too much to be healthy for my self-esteem, don’t wind up like me. Do a little work towards the work you want to do.

Check Out the Education Qualifications

If you have a job or career in mind, know what you need to get in order to get hired. You wouldn’t expect to just show up on a movie set one day and say, “I’ve never acted, written, produced, or directed in my life, and I have a degree in forensic science. Let me direct your next big budget movie”, and to actually get the job. Some places or careers require schooling, while others prefer you get experience for yourself.

Want to be a teacher? Find out how much schooling you need for that, what courses and majors you need, how many years you’ll be in school. Want to write? You could go to school for creative writing, or you could just write constantly. Neither one is wrong, but they’ll both take you down different paths. Same goes for other creative pursuits. You may be better off just creating content than getting formal school sometimes, while in some situations an education might give you that little something extra that could land you a position.

Have a Company or Position in Mind?

Study and use LinkedIn like it’s your lover: learn it inside and out, make it the best it can be, make it feel appreciated and wanted. LinkedIn can help you get an in with a company, meet people working there, find out more about the company’s culture.

Most businesses have a website these days too. Ever think to look at it? You can learn a shit-tonne from half an hour browsing a company’s website. Find out what they do, their mission statement, who works in positions you’re interested in, who is in charge of hiring.

Find Out Every Step Needed to Get That Job

I knew I needed to get that honours degree. I had no idea I needed to become an actual RCMP officer, which I physically can’t do. A lot of people see that you need to become an officer before moving on to a different job and give up altogether. They’d rather not spend 5 years working in a remote northern community, far from home and everything they love, dealing with criminals and violence and such, to get a desk job doing research. Hell, even if my eyesight didn’t disqualify me from the job, I probably wouldn’t have gone for the officer position anyway. I was just over 30 years old (and still am, btw) competing with people in their early 20s for a physically demanding position, which I am in no physical shape to hold. I’m a desk job person, not chasing perps through vacant lots and hopping tall fences kind of gal.

There are a gazillion different things that a job could require from you that could wind up being a dealbreaker. Believe me, it’s better to know what these are before you throw down $60,000 in borrowed money for a degree that is going to do you no good once you’ve realized you can never get the job you were getting that degree for.

Basically, you need to go and power up The Googles, as my mother calls it. Start researching shit. Look into the jobs you want, the companies you want to work for, the schooling you’re doing, the people you admire. See if what you want is even feasible, and see if it’s something you can definitely be in for the long-haul.

Don’t wind up like me, Sunshine. I kinda love-hate my job most days. It would be great if not for the crushing debt of the schooling and living I did over the last 10 years. I could make a living off of it if I didn’t have all these damn bills.  Make sure you don’t make the same mistakes as me, Sunshine. Do your damn research. Plan shit for the future.

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Things to Look For/Do When Looking to Rent; Pt. 1

Not that I have actually done most of these things. No woman in my family had ever moved out of the house until they were married, so no one was really forthcoming with advice for me when I announced I was going to move out. So, I basically thought it was going to be easy. I looked at a few places with different friends, and then decided to move into a place with my best friend (and her fiancée, and her mother, and their 6 cats, and their ferret). I moved a few more times in the years after that while in school, and am currently starting the long journey to FINALLY moving into a place that is just mine (no roommates other than my cat). With each new place, I learned from my mistakes. And damn, were there ever a tonne of mistakes.

So, before you actually start physically looking at places, or touring places, here’s a few things you should be considering (which I probably did not):

1 ) What is your budget?

Now, this will be different to figure out, depending on your income. For people who work a set amount of hours every day/week/month, this is simply figuring out how much money you make, and how much you can spend on rent. Many experts recommend looking at your budget as a whole, and working from there. Gal Vaz Oxlade (from tv show Till Debt Do Us Part, and the infuriating to watch yet amazing to gather tips from tv show Princess), has some great worksheets in her Resources section of her website ( http://www.gailvazoxlade.com/resources.html ) to help you do different types of budget and budget analysis.

One of the sheets in this resource section deals specifically with students (the Student Lump Sum Money Worksheet). For many students, the majority of your money for each semester is given to you in one lump sum through your student loans, bursaries, scholarships, and grants. This worksheet can help you work out your total budget for the semester, and break it down into a monthly budget.

Basically, you need to look at your money situation to make sure you can afford the place you want to live in. What would happen if you rented an apartment for $600 a month, but only had enough in your budget to afford $380? That’s $220 each and every month that you would have to make up for in some way, or risk being evicted.

2 ) Pick you basic location

This doesn’t mean “find an apartment building”. This means “look at the area you want to move into, that is most convenient for you”. For students, this is most likely in the immediate area of their school. Take a look through this area and take a good look at the housing situation. Are there more apartments, or private homes being rented? Are things run mostly by rental agencies? Is the area safe? What is around this area?

I know some of this sounds stupid, but hear me out. In apartment buildings, you’re more likely to be able to find a one bedroom or bachelor place, where you can live totally by yourself without any roommates. There’s also the option of a two bedroom place, that you can share with a close friend. House rental could mean renting an entire house with a group of people, or renting a room in a random house that has other random people living there. Also, there are more likely to be things like house parties at houses (obviously) than apartments, meaning there are more likely to be loud nights at your neighbour’s place.

Safety should be a huge concern for you when looking for a place. I don’t care if you’re not even 90lbs soaking wet, or the 350lbs linebacker for the school’s football team: you need to worry about your safety. Many local police websites have a section where you can look at crimes and crime rates throughout the city. Now, no area will ever bee 100% free of crime. It is always a good idea, though, to look at what you may be getting yourself into. Is that nice apartment building you saw surrounded by drug busts in the recent past? 27 murders in the building last year? Or is the worse you would likely see around there probably a loud party, or bike thief? It’s always better to know these things ahead of time, than to just take a place and find out the hard way.

And what is around this area is a HUGE thing you should be looking at. Obviously, if you’re trying to stay close to school or work, they will be near your chosen area. But what else is there? Things you should look for are grocery stores, laundromats, bus stops, restaurants, shopping centres, hair salons, banks, and any other type of business you would need in your life.

3 ) Know what you want.

Now that you know what’s in the area, and the types of places around, and the amount of money you can spend each month on rent, you can start looking at what you want in the area. I suggest looking at ads for a variety of types of places first (rooms for rent, bachelor, one bedroom, two bedroom), just to see what the prices are like. Sites like Kijiji often times have pictures of the properties, so you can see the size and condition of the places you are looking at. Also, they tell you if things like utilities (water, electricity, gas) are included in the rent, or if they are extra. This is SUPER important to know before renting a place, because it impacts your budget hugely.

Now, you can decide what it is you want. What do you want more: privacy, or a cheap place to live. I always went the cheaper route, and didn’t look into things that I now know are essential to me. I would rather give up a little bit of my privacy, for example, and have a roommate if that means I can have A/C in my place. I live in one of the most humid cities in all of Canada, and suffer from eczema that is made worse by sweating in the humidity. I spent one horrible summer in a dingy little apartment with no A/C, because it was an apartment and I only had to have one roommate while I was living there. After that, I moved into a house with 6 other random people just to escape the heat and to live in a basement room with no A/C controls (meaning it was absolutely freezing all year). Right now, I have my A/C and I’m down to 3 roommates (all males) in my current house, plus my cat. While this is not ideal for me right now (I miss being able to watch TV in my underpants and sing in the shower), there are certain benefits to it (A/C, utilities included, everyone loves that cat, house is in good condition, no infestations of any sort, no mould, and I get my own private bar fridge in my room for my wine, cheese strings, and candy bars). I know that I cannot afford all of these things if I were to move into an apartment right now. You need to know your necessities, and where you are willing to compromise. Some people don’t need A/C, or are so frugal with their utilities that they don’t mind paying them separately (many places offer cheaper rent if you will pay your own utilities).

And remember, if you decide you don’t need something, make sure you are really ok without it. If you opt for a place that does not have on-site laundry facilities, for example, you damn well better make sure you have a laundromat nearby that you can easily get to. There is nothing fun about carrying a month’s worth of laundry and sheets on the bus to get to the laundromat that’s too far to walk to.

4 ) Start looking

Now that you know more about the area, what you can afford, and what you are willing to compromise on, you can start seriously looking at places. I’ll have a whole other post on what to do when you’re inside the place, checking it out. Right now, you’re just looking at a bunch of possible places.

You’ll want to look at places that fit your budget (obviously), meet your standards of privacy, are clean and infestation-free, and are in the general area you’re looking in. Don’t get too narrow of a focus (can only look at one-bedroom apartments on the 5th floor or above with a balcony, A/C, and in-suite laundry, for example), but don’t make it too broad either (somewhere, anywhere, where there isn’t a tonne of mould and the neighbours aren’t running a house of ill repute, for example).

Also, you’ll want to look at some rather specific things. If you have a pet, make sure the place is pet-friendly before you decide to go see it. If you have issues with mobility, you would want to make sure the building and apartment/room are accessible to you. Basically, you need to make sure you can actually live in a place before you try to live in a place.

So that’s the basics for part one of Things to Look For/Do When Looking to Rent.  In my next post, I will be going into what you should be doing once you actually pick a few places to look at (yes, you should look at more than one, just in case the one you have your heart set on turns out to be a bust).

Do I REALLY need a portfolio?

In one of my job search seminars (I attend a whole lot of those lately), it was suggested that we each create a portfolio and bring a copy of it to every interview we go to. We were told tales of the people who had done that and were then hired on the spot, with employers impressed by their readiness. After talking with a lot of professionals in different fields through personal contacts and LinkedIn, this seemed a little wonky to me. Is a portfolio really needed?

The long and short answer is: kinda. You should definitely create a master portfolio for yourself, with both an electronic and a printed copy, with the originals put somewhere safe (a fire-proof safe or lock box is ALWAYS a good idea for anyone to have, and the perfect place for original documents). It is always a good idea to have all your documents and proofs in one convenient location, in case you need them.

So what is actually in your portfolio? To start with, put a copy of the resume you applied with. If at all possible, also include the cover letter you used to apply with, even just for your own reference. You should scan copies of any educational documents (high school diploma, GED, degrees, diplomas) and print copies. Any certificates, transcripts, letters of reference, or other documents that prove that you have knowledge are a good idea too. Basically, your portfolio is a presentation of the very best of you (in a professional manner).

But do you need to bring this to every interview? From what I’ve been told, no! Not every employer is going to need or be impressed by this. There will be jobs you apply for that are not interested in everything you have to offer.

So how do you know when to bring it? Easy: check the job ad! Most job ads list the required education, skills, and knowledge needed for a position. Do you have documented proof of these? Then bring copies! If you are up for a creative job, bring examples of your prior creative works! But you don’t need to have copies of EVERYTHING for every job.

Basically, you NEED a portfolio in order to have one file for yourself , even just for your own piece of mind, that shows all of your accomplishments. At the same time, you need to tailor your portfolio to each job you bring it to. A job involving spreadsheets and data entry may not be excited about your experience creating magazine covers for your Creative Media courses, but would love to know that you have certification in Word and Excel. At the same point, a photojournalism job may not require an advanced knowledge of Microsoft Access, but sure as hell needs proven knowledge of photo-editing software.

So yes, you do need a portfolio, even if it’s just for you. You do not, however, need to bring then entire thing to every job interview you go to. Just like your resume and cover letter, you need to tailor it to each specific job.

Your Degree DOES NOT Equal Your Career

There are very few degrees out there where, once you graduate, you can call yourself The Thing. Medical school, law school, engineering school……. that’s most (if not all) of them.  And those are mainly very advanced degrees with years and years of extra schooling on top of the 3-5 most people in University do.

For the rest of us, we are not automatically sociologists, psychologists, accountants, or artists. We have to navigate the world after graduation and prove to others that we are capable and ready to put what we’ve learned to good use.  Just putting “BA(H) Criminology” on a resume doesn’t tell a prospective employer doesn’t tell them anything about what you can do for them.  What did you learn while getting that degree? What skills do you have that would be useful to them? How the hell is a person who studied crimes going to function in an office?

Look through what you did in your educational career. For many people in the social sciences, you can highlight skills such as critical thinking, statistical analysis, and research. Telling an employer “I did research under Prof. Z on internet reactions to series finale episodes” tells them what it is you did, shows you have a strong enough work ethic to commit to (and finish) a project, and may be a good starting off point for you to highlight some of your biggest strengths.

For some jobs, even highlighting certain courses you took that directly relate to the job (such as emphasizing a Philosophy of Law class when applying for legal research positions) shows that you have some background knowledge that can prove to be useful.

So yes, having that piece of paper handed to you while you suffocate in a a shapeless gown and goofy hat is a huge accomplishment. That piece of paper is not the be-all and end-all of what you did with that education. Look beyond the paper and figure out what it is you did that makes you unique and perfect for a position.