Recognizing, building and articulating skills: The Foundations experience

Professional Skills Foundations logo.

In summer 2019, Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs celebrated the first completions of Professional Skills Foundations (Foundations), including those by Irina Oltean and Swakshar Saha.

Foundations is a free credential program designed specifically for University of Waterloo master's and doctoral students, offering broad exposure to and experience in four key skill areas: career preparation, communication, leadership and personal effectiveness. The goal of the program is to encourage graduate students to hone current skills, develop new skills, and increase their employability post-graduation.

To learn more about what it’s like to participate in Foundations, I checked-in with Irina and Swakshar to hear about their experience. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What is/was your program and research focus?

Irina: I was a student pursuing my Master of Science (MSc) through the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo. My research interests include psychiatric epidemiology, health service utilization among pediatric populations, and retention of primary health care providers. Currently, I am searching for work as a Research Associate or Analyst within the private and public sector.

Swakshar: I just finished my Master of Applied Science (MASc) in Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) at the University of Waterloo. I am currently working as a research mentee in CEE. I have been working on resource recovery from solid waste and wastewater, and solid waste and wastewater treatment for the last two and a half years and want to pursue my career in solid waste or wastewater treatment in the solid waste and wastewater industry.

Why did you decide to participate in Professional Skills Foundations?

Irina: I saw it as a great opportunity to differentiate myself from other potential candidates when competing for similar positions. I liked the program’s novelty and structure, which enabled participants to choose relevant workshops and brainstorm activities that would complement and enhance their current professional skills.

Swakshar: Being in academia for too long, I felt that I became too technical. Even when my friends asked me what I was doing in my MASc, I often used technical terms, which most of them did not know. This made it very difficult for them to follow conversations. Moreover, I was not sure how to search for jobs or approach employers effectively with the skills I developed during my studies. I wanted to have professional advice to break the shackles.

Professional Skills Foundations allows participants flexibility to decide what workshops and activities they would like to participate in. What was the most interesting activity or workshop that you participated in as part of Foundations?

Irina: The “Essentials of Productive TeamsMitacs workshop facilitated by Corey Atkinson. The facilitator made the content easily understandable, engaging, and recommended that we participate actively. I learned the competencies of productive teams such as clarity, identify, and address. I developed an awareness of the factors that drive team behaviour, understanding of the various work styles, and how to set feasible expectations in the work place.

Swakshar: Participating in the Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. It helped me develop my communication skills with non-technical people, as well as my time management skills. I might not have participated in the 3MT if it were not for the Professional Skills Foundations program.

Swakshar Saha presents his research at teh 2019 3MT competition.

Swakshar Saha presents his research at the 2019 Civil and Environmental Engineering Three Minute Thesis heat. 

Professional Skills Foundations encourages participants to become familiar with, and utilize, professional development resources on campus. What professional development resources on campus do you think all graduate students should be familiar with?

Irina: In my opinion, two professional development resources that all graduate students should be familiar with are the Essentials of Productive teams workshop led by Mitacs and mock interviews. The in-person workshops facilitated by Mitacs are very engaging and I networked with other individuals during them as well. The mock interview process was extremely helpful in practicing my responses to various behavioural, traditional, and situational-based interview questions with immediate feedback. Regarding Foundations staff, Justine Salam was an excellent example of an individual who was knowledgeable about the workshops and selected the most appropriate ones when formulating my individual development plan (IDP).

Swakshar: It is very hard to specify what graduate students should explore. All the workshops are very well-organized and serve their purpose very well. Moreover, the career-advisors are very willing to direct you to the right path. I would suggest exploring every opportunity and resources the campus offers while you are student. After that, you will not get them for free.

What did you find most valuable about your participation in Professional Skills Foundations, and why?

Irina: It was the fact that I got involved in each stage of this well-organized program, beginning with the introductory workshop, consultation with an advisor for the IDP, four different core workshops (e.g., career preparation, communication etc.), and the mock interview and takeaways. I appreciated the ongoing support offered by advisors throughout the process to ensure that I completed the program early and satisfied all conditions to graduate. I really valued the structure of the workshops (e.g., in-class activities, networking etc.), self-reflection through written activities, and that I had the ability to apply my newly developed skills in relevant settings (i.e., personal and professional life).

Swakshar: To me, the journey was most valuable. This program is structured to finish in a year, but I had only a few months before my convocation. Still, I was able to finish it within the allotted time. This gave me the confidence to achieve anything if I am determined. Last but not least, it is something to brag about to my employer.

If another graduate student asked you about why they should participate in Professional Skills Foundations, how would you respond? 

Irina: I would respond that they definitely have to participate because the program is personalized to cater to your career interests and needs, the staff who facilitate the program and workshops are easily accessible, kind, and passionate about their work, and the written exercises within the workbook enable you to apply the lessons learned in a relevant manner to help prepare you for a future career in your chosen field. Lastly, you get the opportunity to tie all the lessons together by participating in a mock interview with a trained professional who can provide timely feedback about your interviewing abilities. 

Swakshar: Actually, I would say, it should be a mandatory program for graduate students, as it will help you find the real you and your priorities in life. It assists you to recognize all the skills you are developing during your studies and convey them to your prospective employers. 

Are you interested in participating in Foundations? Learn more about the Foundations program and register today to be notified when the next Introductory Workshop is scheduled. 

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