U of T students pack conference centre to learn about their Next Steps

Location, location, location. Last year the Next Steps Conference for forward-looking students and recent graduates was divided between three sites on the St. George campus. But the 2016 edition went downtown to the Chestnut Residence and Conference Centre near City Hall, a University of Toronto property that used to be – and still resembles – a hotel with meeting facilities.

The idea was to give students a sense of transition to the outside world. Another imperative was to accommodate more than 450 young people seeking advice and feedback on what follows graduation – not to mention almost 200 alumni and 50 student and staff volunteers.

“U of T is one of the top ten universities in the world when it comes to the employability of its grads, according to the 2015 Global Employability University Ranking,” noted Heather Kelly, senior director of student success at U of T's Student Life office. “I hope that every Next Steps participant shares a sense of optimism about graduating with a U of T degree."

The mood was upbeat and the place was packed. A ballroom was needed for a discussion titled “So You Want to go to Grad School?” Five panelists unanimously advised students to pursue their passions but also urged them to look beyond their undergraduate majors.

“I wish I could tell you I had this all planned out,” said Stéphanie Walsh Matthews, who studied semiotics and French at U of T and now researches autism as an associate professor at Ryerson. “I wanted to be a cop until I was 16.”

Savo Lazic, who moved from mathematics to developmental biology in his U of T career, recommended networking early and often in the hunt for a PhD position. Emails often go unanswered. “Knock on doors, literally,” he said. “Don’t apply cold.”

Matthews urged students to apply for scholarships and grants even if their qualifications seem less than perfect. You never know.

All agreed that a sincere rather than generic personal statement is an important prerequisite. A chat with an admission officer would not be amiss. Marginal marks from your first year need not be fatal if you can make the case that you started in the wrong program.

Lee-Chia Huang (pictured at left),19, a second-year St. Michael’s College student with majors in statistics and human biology and a minor in physiology, found this session useful. She is not only toggling distinct academic interests but weighing the benefits of staying in Canada or returning to Taiwan.

“The panel speakers came from so many disciplines,” she said. “I liked how a lot of them are doing things they didn’t start off doing. They talked about how to make that transition. And how to make connections you didn’t think of before.”

Three students on the verge of graduation formed a panel on “Making the Most of Your Final Year.” Jasleen Arneja, a human biology major, and Therese Owusu, in book and media studies, suggested working on an independent studies project, whether college- or department-based. Jesse Adigwe, in anthropology, regards his academic year abroad in Singapore as a great highlight.

Arneja cautioned against too many clubs and extracurricular activities, but had no regrets for having served as science editor of The Varsity. “I learned so much,” she said. “I honed my writing skills. And it is such a community.”

Saturday was devoted to industry panels on scientific research, the not-for-profit sector, education, government, health care, banking, marketing and media. The panel on research advised young scientists to be prepared for change in a volatile world. You can be laid off or outsourced on short notice.

Patience is important. “Ninety-nine percent of geology projects fail to become a mine,” said Alexandra Marcotte, an independent consultant who earned her MSc from U of T. Many of her fellow geologists have become de facto software engineers.

Necessity, she finds, remains the mother of invention: “Usually you are working on something and say, there has to be a better way.”

While some of the panellists suggested trying both government and industry employment before deciding on which path to take, there was a consensus that scientists who want quick results are better off in the private sector, where budgets are not fixed.

Akshay Kalle of Pathway Communications, with an BSc and MSc in mathematics from U of T, said that opportunities are still plentiful for smaller operations.

“When you  identify an opportunity, that means the multinationals aren’t dealing with it,” he said. “It doesn’t really fit their model.

“That is where we fit it. You identify the gaps and fill them more quickly than a big company would.”

Software competence is essential, Kalle added. And be open to the private sector. The academic research world, in his view, is saturated.

There were two keynote addresses, by Rahul Bhardwaj (BA 1987 Innis) on following your passion and Zan Chandler (BA 1989 Victoria) on transforming a linguistics degree into a career path leading to independent film production and work in the Department of Canadian Heritage. A reception, continental breakfast and lunch provided opportunities for students and alumni to interact.

“The Next Steps Conference is a prime example of the many ways alumni support the university and its students every day,” said Barbara Dick, U of T’s assistant vice-president of alumni relations. “The conference could not succeed without alumni volunteers who provide tremendous value to our students and recent graduates by sharing their personal experiences and insights.

“We hope that by attending the conference, delegates realize they are a part of a global alumni network more than half a million strong and that U of T can be lifetime resource of ideas, networks, connections and support.”

The conference was a joint project of U of T Alumni Relations, the Career Centre and the Faculty of Arts & Science. For a video on the 2015 conference go to http://alumni.utoronto.ca/nextsteps/.

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