A tentative guide for new student employees

For you long suffering readers of this blog (this is year 17) you know that my blog is often just where I keep my notes. This one is going to be my ‘working with dave’ notes for new student employees.

I have been fortunate to work with a fair number of excellent students on a number of different projects over the years. At UPEI I worked with the student union for a number of years to introduce some basic project planning and management. I led New Student Orientation for a couple of years, and had some students working for me full in a number of previous roles. In the last two years (’cause Covid) that number has shot through the roof as I’ve had about 80 CoOp students working with me in the Office of Open Learning.

It’s an interesting group to work with. I’ve only got them for four months and, for many of them, this is the first job where they are expected to do things beyond simply repeating a pattern they’ve been given. This term I have three students, two of them are returning from previous CoOp terms. It means that instead of allowing the ‘this is how we do stuff’ to come naturally through conversations, I’m going to do some one on one training with the new students to avoid forcing the returning students to hear all my introductory advice again. In preparation for that, I thought I’d jot down some notes.

Would love some feedback on this so I can turn it into a long term document.

Choosing to be interested

One of the challenges for CoOp students who are working with us in the department, is that they would not have (with a few exceptions) ever have imagined working in education. They are predominantly engineering students who have been unable to find in-field CoOp placements because of the pandemic. Many students (and not just engineers) have been sold the fantasy that they can go to school to get a job that is going to be easy to love.

I mean, that can happen, I guess. But it probably wont. Liking the work you do is mostly about mindset. It’s something I was fortunate to learn in my house when I grew up. My mother can have fun peeling apples. Or raking the lawn. She turns things into a game for herself (and others), tries to get better at it. Tries to do it more efficiently. That mindset is a critical one to develop for people to live happy lives. Most of us have to work. Most of us will never have jobs that are ‘fun all the time’. Learning to find things to like in your job is critical. Even if that thing you like is playing cards at lunch with coworkers (I learned to play 5-way cribbage working at a lead-silver refinery)

I approach this in a number of ways. I try to bring a positivity and enthusiasm to our staff meetings. Try to model it. More importantly, I talk to students about finding a project during the term that they can invest in. Something that they can find interesting that they are responsible for. That they can take pride in doing well.

You need to choose to be interested.

(but not all tasks are going to be interesting)

Being prepared

Such an easy thing to do. Such an obvious oversight if you don’t do it. If someone says “read this over” then read it. Yes. But read it to the point that you have an opinion about it. Come to our meetings with thoughts about the work that you’ve been given.

You could even read around it. A 2 minute google search where you’ve looked at what other people have done or checked the meaning of an industry term can make all the difference to you enjoying the next meeting.

Be prepared

(it doesn’t have to be a big thing. Just think about the work BEFORE the meeting)

Handling multiple tasks

I have consistently seen students struggle managing multiple tasks. If I forget (early on in the term) to say “hey, when i give you a new thing to do it doesn’t mean you stop doing the other one” I will have at least one project totally fall off the radar. Students have had their lives jammed into 60 minute sections (classes) for basically all of their lives. They are accustomed to being TOLD when to work on things, and when to change tasks.

This is super easy to fix. You just have to say “look, segment out your day so you can keep working on different projects.”

Be conscious in managing your work day.

(this might take a while to get used to)

Learning to prioritize

“Wasn’t it obvious that this was more important? The VP asked for this!”

This is something I once found coming out of my mouth before I stopped and realized that, obviously, if my employee didn’t understand the priorities, it’s because I never explained them. A big part of working with student employees is to pass along these cultural norms, but you need to say them out loud. These are very different based on cultural backgrounds.

I like to think of it in terms of ‘right now’, ‘next 24 hours’ or ‘next two weeks’. YMMV. But a big part of the job is to get students thinking about how they are prioritizing their multiple projects. Talking it through… “hey, i know you’re working on three things right now, how have you got them mapped out?” really helps.

Some things are going to be more important than others

(You don’t have to do everything at once, you just have to keep track)

Managing up

This might be the most important piece. We often hire students to do projects that we don’t want to do. We also hire them to do things we don’t necessarily know HOW to do. So many students end up working for people with very little management experience or, worse, for people who think management is some kind of guessing game where they say ‘go do stuff’ with some expectation that students know what’s hidden in your brain.

I talk to my students about how to manage me. I can get a little scattered, so I tell them it’s perfectly ok to remind me that I said I would send them something or to answer their questions. You can ask me questions about what I’m asking you to do, but I’d like it if you read everything first and get a sense of what’s happening before you ask.

That’s the way I like to work. But one of the biggest jobs of any employee is to figure out how your boss ticks. I mean, some of them are just jerks, BUT we all have to work. Learning to manage your boss in a way that allows you to find out what success looks like is going to make you happier and make your boss happier.

You need to manage your boss, as much as they need to manage you

(figure out what success looks like, it’s almost never obvious)

The project charter

I love me a project charter. It’s just a document that lays out what a project is and keeps track of high level issues. The beauty of your average project charter is it gives you a place to put decisions, to clarify outcomes and timelines and to keep track of risks and scope creep.

It becomes the official record of the project and gives you something to go back to. To make sure everyone’s on the same page. I use various versions of this one, which you are free to steal.

Filling out a project charter is also a great way to frame your questions for your boss (see managing up). “hey i was just going through my notes and realized I don’t think you ever told me when you needed this finished”

Keep track of what you’ve been told to do

(and everything else that’s been said about your project)

Dealing with uncertainty

This is the hardest. When I ask a student to do something or I ask them for their opinion, they almost always assume that I already know the answer. 15 years of school has told them that it’s what adults do. They ask questions to test you.

It takes a lot of convincing from me to get students to realize that when I ask them a questions it’s because I DON’T KNOW THE ANSWER. It’s one of the things that slows down the work the most. Students think they are trying to figure out what I’m withholding and I’m waiting for the work to get done. It’s bad for everybody.

There is not a ‘right way’ to do most things. There are local customs at different places of employment that you need to follow, but a lot of the time you just have to make choices AND learn to be ok with being wrong sometimes. It can take a while before a student gets their mind around that. It requires patience.

Face uncertainty, make decisions

(just not decisions that can get you into too much trouble 🙂 )

Learning to be wrong and to fix it

Today I showed the edit that my own supervisor did on a grant application I wrote. It was GLOWING it had so many edits. Students have been trained to believe that they get one chance to submit something and that if there’s anything ‘wrong’ with it, that they have failed somehow.

Real life is mostly not like that. You need to get used to the fact that your supervisor is going to ask you to change things… sometimes in ways that you wont like. You can certainly talk about why you made those decisions, but being open to critique is a necessity.

Be open to critique

(just bring it back better next time)

Talk about what you don’t know

This is a touchy one. I want students to tell me when they don’t know how to do something, but I also want them to try and figure it out. It’s a delicate balance. If you ask me a simple question you could have easily found the answer to, I’m just going to send you a lmgtfy. So, as a student, you need to try something first. Asking questions without trying just leads to bad questions.

But. If you don’t know how to do something, or you don’t understand the scope of something… your work is going to suck. And people are mostly bad at telling students what to do. That means that students need to advocate for themselves. They also need to make an effort to learn the stuff they don’t know on their own.

Working is all about learning.

(sometimes that learning is your job, sometime’s it’s your boss’ job to help you)

Overall…

Working is hard. You’re going to find, a lot of the time, that you aren’t sure what you’re supposed to be doing or how to do it well. Figuring out the job is a big part of getting good at it.