What can you do with your degree?

Brigitte Dreger-Smylie
Brigitte Dreger-Smylie (biology) worked as a grizzly bear habitat research assistant in Banff, Yoho and Kootenay National Parks.

It's a question we hear often at Co-op and Career—"What can I do with my degree?" Your experience at university is an exciting time for career development. Where will your degree take you? You can use the resources in this section to:

Explore possible career paths

Curious about popular career paths for graduates of your program?

Discover career possibilities, hands-on learning opportunities and more!

How did you end up on your career path? How difficult was it for you to land a job after graduation? Advice from past WCYDWYD panelists:

Lisa Reynolds (Zoology, U of Manchester) - Assistant Professor, UVic Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology

Can you briefly describe what you do in your current role?

I am an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Microbiology at the University of Victoria.  My role has both research and teaching responsibilities.  I run a research lab of ~8 people, which is made up of graduate students, research technicians and undergraduate students.  The goal of my lab is to better understand the regulation and functioning of the mammalian immune system, particularly at mucosal surfaces such as the intestinal tract and lungs.  To achieve this, we are studying parasites and bacteria that live in the mammalian intestinal tract, which have evolved many mechanisms to manipulate their host’s immune system. I also teach undergraduate courses in immunology and molecular microbiology.

How did you end up on your career path? What was most helpful in guiding you along the way?

I completed an undergraduate degree in Zoology at the University of Manchester, UK, which is where I first became fascinated by parasites. My degree program allowed the option of working for a year in a research lab, which I took advantage of, and ended up working in a cancer research lab at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida.  This opportunity gave me my first training in a research laboratory setting, made me realize how much I enjoyed working in research science, and made me aware of the vast array of opportunities that exist around the world, making me keen to pursue international opportunities in the future. After my undergraduate degree I completed a MSc and PhD at the University of Edinburgh, UK.  My PhD was in the field of parasite immunology. I then moved to Vancouver, Canada to complete a postdoctoral research position at the University of British Columbia, where I developed further expertise in microbes and how they influence immune responses. My combined experience in immunology and microbiology allowed me to apply for an advertised Assistant Professor position at UVic, where they were looking for a candidate with a research focus in this area.  I joined UVic as an Assistant Professor in 2017.

What are one or two pieces of advice you have for students interested in working at your organization? 

The laboratories in our department (and in my research field in general, even at other institutes) are almost always on the look-out for motivated students that are interested in working for them: whether that be as an undergraduate volunteer, Honours or Directed Studies student, co-op student, technician, or graduate student. If you think you are potentially interested in a career in a research laboratory, I would advise seeking out opportunities as early on as you can. The more hands-on experience, and the more diverse your skill set is when applying for a position, the more valuable you will be as a potential employee! University department websites usually list the types of opportunities available for undergraduates.  However, more often than not, potential undergraduate or graduate positions are not advertised. For this reason, if you are interested in finding an opportunity in a research lab, I’d strongly advise looking through the department website to find out what the research focuses of each laboratory are, and then directly contacting the laboratory head to find out what opportunities are available in their labs.  Remember to explain in your email your own background and why you are interested in working for them!

What do you wish you had known looking back (just after graduation)?

You should actively reach out to people working in the areas that you are interested in.  Most people are willing to give advice about how they got their current position, and/or may help in connecting you with others that are hiring. In summary- you need to actively pursue opportunities, and not wait for opportunities to present themselves to you.

Do you have insight, advice, or encouragement for students looking for work in your field?

If you have the chance and are able to move and work internationally, go for it! Working in a different country/city, even for a short period of time, really gives you exposure to completely different cultures, working environments and ideas. If you can’t relocate, then I would still advise people to get experience working in as many different laboratory settings as possible.

Research laboratories vary so much in their size, management style and lab culture, and you need experience in a variety of settings to know what works for you. Experiencing many lab ‘flavors’ also helps you to develop and decide on your own management style, if your ultimate goal is to run a research team.  I would also encourage people to not be discouraged if they have had a less than favorable experience working in a particular lab.  If you are still excited about the science- try a different lab!  There are so many types of lab out there- so stick with it and try a different lab if you still like the science itself!

Do you have any tips for resumes, cover letters, or interviews?

Your cover letter/email is critical.  Labs often get overwhelmed with applicants- and CVs often look very similar. Lab heads can get hundreds of emails a day, so unless your CV and email stands out, they will be low on the priority list to respond to. Make sure you clearly state in your cover letter 1) why you want to work in a particular laboratory and 2) why you think you should be considered for the position.  If you are interested in graduate school, this should be a lengthy and well-considered letter.  Remember, your potential lab head will likely be spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on your research costs over the several years of graduate school, so if you are serious about wanting to work in a lab you should take the time to convince your potential supervisor that you are worth the time and money investment! Make sure your CV clearly states your achievements/experience. For example, instead of just saying you got X award- also explain the significant of this award, whether or not it was competitive, etc. The more detail you can include about prior laboratory experience, the better.  For interviews, it is critical that you read the latest publications from the lab you are interested in.  This will show your dedication, and also, it is important that you do this to find out for yourself if you are truly interested in the work of that particular lab.

Niki Andresen (Government and International Relations, Griffith U) - Product Development Coordinator, CanAssist

Can you briefly describe what you do in your current role?

I work at CanAssist, where our products are designed to help people facing barriers to improve quality of living and maintain independence. As Product Development Coordinator, I am involved from the generation of an idea to the evaluation of the resulting product - and everything in between. This involves conducting market research, building and distributing surveys, facilitating focus groups, presenting findings, discussing features, and recruiting testers.

How did you end up on your career path? What was most helpful in guiding you along the way?

My university education really helped me to think critically about problems, which is very useful when looking at designing products to overcome common problems. Through my studies I became quite dedicated to producing well-researched papers packed with credible sources, I find those research and presentation skills are a strength of mine in my role at CanAssist.

I had a lot of prior experience working directly with seniors and people with disabilities on a very person-to-person level. That experience gave me a great understanding of some of the challenges that regularly impact the communities I am now focused on serving with assistive technology. I also have worked teaching English as a second language which lends nicely to my communication and interpersonal skills.

What are one or two pieces of advice you have for students interested in working at your organization? 

I think it’s definitely a standout to see candidates who have demonstrated their passion outside of the working and schooling worlds. I am thinking of students who work on their own projects at home in their spare time, or they are out there volunteering for an organization that serves clients with disabilities. I am a big fan of LinkedIn for networking, it doesn’t take much time but it pays off in the long run to build a strong profile.

What do you wish you had known looking back (just after graduation)?

There is an assumption that a specific degree is the only way to show you have skills in a specific area. So many of the skills you pick up while studying are applicable far beyond that field. There are also endless opportunities to be developing new skills – follow your interests and seize those opportunities!

Do you have insight, advice, or encouragement for students looking for work in your field?

I would advise students who are interested in working with assistive technology to get involved with disability organizations, particularly volunteering. You will learn so much, and in exchange you will be contributing your time and expertise. There are also so many opportunities to start generating ideas, or building prototypes while you’re still at university – check out the IDeA student competition and UVic’s BMed Team.

Do you have any tips for resumes, cover letters, or interviews?

For resumes, make sure you have a couple of points about what you did in each role, and include at least one point that would be relevant to the position you are applying for. Definitely, go broad with your skills since experience from one position likely overlaps with the position you are applying for. Share your passion for the industry in interviews, it shows your dedication goes beyond acquiring the position.

Anything else you’d like to share?

I would also recommend cultivating some skills that are generally unique for people in your field. When we have projects or processes that happen intersect with a staff member’s hobbies and interests that makes them an asset. We have seen the value of staff members who bring with them a passion for photography, sport, music, social media, even sewing.

Jessica Woollard (English, History) – Communications Officer, Greater Victoria Public Library

One piece of career advice you would give to your undergraduate self?

I would tell my undergraduate self to take advantage of opportunities to gain professional experience at university. I focused on my studies — which is very important and helped me get scholarships for graduate school — but I wish I had made time to write for the school paper, have a radio show, run for student union. Once you’re in the working world, these kinds of opportunities are harder to come by. At university, they are there for you on a platter. If, for example, you ever think you’ll be interested in doing a radio show, don’t wait till you’re out of school and “have more time to fit it in” — you won’t. Do it now!

How did you end up on your career path? What was most helpful in guiding you along the way?

I had been leaning toward a career in education when a chance encounter in my undergraduate degree set me on my path to work in communications. I took a film studies class in second year and met a mature student auditing the class. I bumped into this woman at a Blockbuster the summer after the class had ended, and she offered me a job on the spot. It turns out she owned a private business school that helped people start their own businesses, teaching them about writing a business plan, marketing, bookkeeping, accounting, and everything you’d need to know to become an entrepreneur. She remembered how I conducted myself in class and the kind of work I produced and felt I’d be a great fit with her office. I became a marketing assistant for the school and worked there for three years before I moved out west to go to graduate school.

What has been most helpful to guide me along in my career is to always put my best foot forward — be professional, be reliable, produce good work, accept criticism with grace, and yearn to learn more.

How difficult or easy was it for you to land your first co-op or your first job after graduation?

Once I finished my Master’s, I started freelance writing to build my portfolio and gain more experience in professional writing, so I could land a job in communications. Then, an opportunity came my way to teach high school at an independent school. I thought carefully about the chance that had presented itself. I didn’t have a teaching certificate, and I was being given this opportunity. I said yes. After my year of teaching, I decided my instincts had been right; I wanted to work in communications. My first job in the field? Working for an independent school, a job I might not have gotten if I hadn’t had the year of teaching experience at an independent school.

Nathan Müller (Engineering) – Mechanical Engineer, StarFish Medical

How did you end up on your career path? What was most helpful in guiding you along the way?

The ability to integrate new practices into what was a standard degree. I followed my passion and adjusted my mechanical engineering path to include biomedical, and this opened new doors and got me where I am today. 

Who has inspired you? Were there any important mentors you had along the way?

My professors through school and my managers at my co-op placements and beyond. I appreciate their patience with my unexpected questions and their willingness to pass on their knowledge and advice.

How difficult or easy was it for you to land your first co-op or your first job after graduation?

Difficult to get a lead, but I was lucky that my previous co-op placements suited my passions in my field, and this lined me up to get my current job during an informational interview.  

What kind of personality do you like to hire as an employer (or if not applicable, what personality traits do you think have helped you in the workplace)?

The ability to work together in a team to accomplish difficult and challenging projects to a finished state, with a satisfied client, is the goal. Traits include the ability to work with people from all backgrounds, encourage others ideas while advocating their own, confidence in their own abilities with the drive to learn more.