Real Advice from Real People

By Tom Loughin, Professor of Statistics, Simon Fraser University

I’ve been a professor in statistics for over 25 years and have been asked by students many times for advice on jobs, careers, and personal development within their chosen discipline. While I did work in the pharmaceutical industry for a few years between my Master's and Ph.D., that was more than 30 years ago.  Nonetheless, I have had lots of opportunities to keep myself informed about which skills are needed to survive and thrive in today’s work environment.

I was Department Chair from 2014-2019, and, as part of my job, I kept my eyes and ears open to what students needed and were doing when they left SFU. During this time, we introduced the Data Science program to directly address a massive and growing demand for skilled workers on the interface between computing and statistics. From 2007-2013, I was the coordinator of the Management and Systems Science (MSSC) program, the program we retooled to become Data Science.

One of the features of the MSSC program that we have retained in the Data Science program and added to the Statistics program was a 1-credit seminar class. When I ran the seminars, I invited real people with real jobs to come in and talk to our students about their careers, their education, their lives, their organizations, or whatever else they think might be interesting and/or useful for the students. We heard from computer programmers, product managers, scientists, statisticians, engineers, and people on many other career paths. We had visits from CEOs and new hires and everything in between: middle-managers and independent business owners, workers in large companies, and entrepreneurs. It was an amazingly diverse group of speakers with huge variability in backgrounds and experiences. And, as the instructor for the course, I had the benefit of sitting in and listening to each speaker’s perspectives on many topics.

Speakers’ opinions varied on some things, but on certain others they spoke with a single voice. I was initially surprised -- and eventually amused -- as speaker after speaker stressed the importance of the same fundamental skills, without prompting from me. The surprise came because the skills that they stressed were not  the academic ones, the things that the program designers hold dear as the core curriculum of the program. Rather, they stressed the importance of skills that we normally think of as peripheral, things that we don’t often emphasize within our otherwise rigorous programs.

I can now summarize the items that these 50+ speakers nearly unanimously identified as important things for students to work on while still in university. Think of this as Real Advice from Real People, things that will serve you well no matter which direction you choose in your own life and career path.

  1. Build your communication skills.  Unless you live in a plastic bubble, you are going to need to work with other people. You may be great at coding and analysis, but you do not create your own work and you are not the final consumer of your results. You will be given tasks by other people, collaborate with other people to achieve those tasks, and ultimately have to report the results of your work to other people. You need to be able to speak clearly and concisely, listen carefully, write well (and quickly), and give informative and interesting presentations. Contrary to popular belief, the person who learns to do these things well will advance further than someone who has better technical capabilities but poor communication skills! Management usually can’t tell the difference between a good statistician and a great one, but they can see immediately who communicates their results well and who does so poorly. The good communicators will receive most of the praise and promotions.  

    Unfortunately, most university environments stress working alone and in isolation, completely the opposite of what life will be like on the other side of graduation. You need to take actions to ensure that your communication skills are sharpThese actions can include: (i) Taking a writing class, especially one that stresses technical writing, which has a completely different flavour from essay writing; (ii) Taking a class in verbal communication, in particular one that covers the fine art of making and delivering presentations; (iii) Taking business courses, especially those in business communication and organizational structure and behaviour, so that you can better understand your audience and learn to tailor your communication accordingly; (iv) Seeking out courses that expressly advertise group project work and/or presentations, even (especially!) if these things scare you. All of our speakers indicate that anything that you can do to practice your communication skills will have a positive effect on your employability and advancement.
  2. Network like mad.  It’s a simple fact that most of the speakers I’ve talked with got their jobs because they knew somebody at the place where they were hired.  It wasn’t that they had successfully sucked up to the owner or their future boss, but maybe a friend or a former classmate or coworker already worked there and recommended the current job to them. (That’s exactly how I got this  job!). The more people you know, the better the chance that one of them will someday happen to show up in a position to be of some help to you.

    That’s the real essence of networking. It’s not about using people to climb the proverbial ladder of success or learning to kiss peoples’ … um…rings. One of our most popular speakers was Sam Thiara, a motivational speaker, life coach, and the former Associate Director, Undergraduate Community Relations and Manager Student Engagement for the Beedie School of Business at SFU. Sam is essentially a "professional networker".  Part of his job is to get to know people in the vast world of business outside the university and to help to bring these groups together. Sam hates  the word "networking" because it brings forth that negative connotation of getting to know people just so you can use them later for some kind of gain. He tells the story of seeing some students at a business fair shaking hands and exchanging cards with people at an almost frenzied pace, as if it were a contest to collect as many business cards as possible and there were some sort of prize for the winner. Weeks later, none of those students would really remember the business people they met, and, much worse, the business people they met would remember nothing about them. No one left a special impression!  

    Sam instead refers to the process of relationship building. The whole point is not to acquire business cards, but to acquire relationships: people you could bump into and say "hi" to, people you could meet for coffee, people you could e-mail an honest question to, or whose questions you could answer. People you might eventually call "friend”"if circumstances bring you together in the right ways. You don’t just seek out people "above" you, but rather anyone you can enjoy a conversation with. "Talk to strangers" is the advice Sam gives. You will never know if a stranger has, or will someday have, the key to an opportunity for you if you don’t get to know her or him. Look at it another way: think about the person who is now your best friend. Unless you were born together, at one point in your lives you were strangers! So don’t be afraid to talk to the person next to you in class or at a club meeting or in the store.
  3. Branch out.  Everyone I have talked to about this agrees: Companies would rather hire a student with good technical competence and a wide range of experiences outside the classroom than a student with a 4.0 who has done nothing but schoolwork. This is probably the most surprising thing that the students in our seminar series have heard. Practically speaking, it means that you are better off spending a few hours each week or month getting involved in social, athletic, or community activities -- and losing a few tenths of a point off of your GPA -- than you would be by spending all of your available time studying. Put down the books and get out there! Join a club. Start  a club if you can’t find one to join.  Dust off your musical instrument and play it in the community band. Sing in a choir. Play soccer for a local team. Or, best of all volunteer.

    Volunteering is a win-win-win activity
    says Sam Thiara. It’s good for the person doing the volunteering because there is a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction that comes from volunteer service that you can’t really get in many other ways. It’s good for the organization that you choose to help. And, interestingly, it’s good for the future employer who hires the community-minded, broad-thinking worker who is likely to make positive contributions to the organization beyond just clocking in and clocking out.

    As a side benefit, the director of the organization you choose to work for will eventually be an excellent candidate for a job reference, but that’s not the main reason for volunteering. The important thing is to pick something that you will enjoy doing, something that you feel a strong affinity for, and not just something with which to pad your résumé. The benefits will follow naturally, especially if you work your way into a position of leadership. So go spend some time at a homeless shelter or a food bank. Be a student ambassador or serve in student governance at your university. Coach a youth soccer or hockey team. Be a Big Brother or Big Sister. Clean up a highway or a public park. Help out at the local zoo. Contact your local volunteer clearinghouses for ideas (I just googled “volunteer bc” and found tons of volunteer opportunities near where I live). Whatever it is that you do, just make sure that you do excellent work!

I should take a moment to point out that what business employers look for in people and what graduate schools and university employers look for are different things. For positions where learning and research are the main focus, like grad student or professor, technical competence is primary. The student with the 4.0 in subject-area work will probably be more impressive than the one with the 3.0 accompanied by a mastery of PowerPoint and a long history of volunteerism, unless the latter student can somehow demonstrate comparable levels of competence (which is a lot easier if s/he knows someone at the university being considered!). Nonetheless, you will eventually be looking for a job somewhere, and these skills and experiences will surely serve you then.  

There is no magic formula for success. There is no guarantee that you will land your dream job even if you do all of these things. But you can certainly increase your chances of getting to where you are comfortable and happy in your job and life by acquiring excellent communication skills, actively building meaningful relationships, and being more than just a bookworm. The opportunities for developing these traits decline as you go further into your life and education. So now is the time to act!