FAQs for Every Stage of Your Experiential Learning Placement
Whether your work placement is part-time or full-time, it will unfold in a series of five stages:
- Day One—Your first day on the job, when you’ll be introduced to colleagues and the work you’ll be doing. Some employers may also use this time to guide you through a formal orientation process.
- Onboarding—The gradual process of integrating into the workplace so you become one of the team and start making a meaningful contribution. Depending on the situation, this could take a couple of days or several weeks.
- Settling In—The phase when you feel you’ve arrived. Your supervisor and colleagues treat you like one of the team and expect you to contribute as if you were a regular, junior-level employee.
- Tracking Your Learning—Now that you’ve settled into your role, you challenge yourself to achieve the learning goals you and your employer have agreed on, using self-reflection as a tool.
- Wrapping Up—As you prepare to exit your position, you consider how to use your work experience to explore or pursue career options.
Below you’ll find FAQs to help with each stage of your experiential learning journey.
For details about specific documentation or activities required by your university, please reach out to your Office of Experiential Learning/Education. They’re just an email or phone call away, and they can answer any of your questions that aren’t covered in the FAQs.
During your first one or two days, your supervisor may not assign you “real work,” as your main job may be getting to know your way around—setting up your work station, meeting colleagues, getting familiar with policies and procedures, and learning software applications.
If by your third day you haven’t received any work assignments, then you might want to schedule a meeting with your supervisor to discuss your role. Simply let them know how keen you are to start digging into your tasks and achieving the outcomes associated with your placement.
If your supervisor is reluctant to meet with you, or if they don’t seem to have any solid plans for your position, then it might be time to reach out to your Office of Experiential Learning/Education for help clarifying the vision for your placement.
First, determine whether your boss really needs to know the information. Will your disability or medical condition noticeably impact the way you do your work? If you don’t require an accommodation of some sort, then you don’t need to share personal information that’s not relevant to your job performance.
If you feel your boss does need insight into your medical profile, then you’ll want to arrange time for a private conversation that won’t be rushed. The best way to do that is to ask your boss to schedule some time for the two of you to talk. You might do that by saying something like this: “There’s something I’d like to speak with you about. Could we find 20 minutes on the calendar sometime this week?”
When you meet with your boss, here are some pointers to guide you through that conversation:
Before the meeting, decide how much detail you want to share. Do you want to talk in general terms or describe your particular diagnosis? It’s up to you how much information you choose to share with your employer. They need to know about any limitations or restrictions on your performance but not your whole medical history.
If you decide to discuss a specific diagnosis, you may want to explain what the diagnosis means in detail so you dispel any preconceptions your boss might have. For example: “I was diagnosed with panic disorder. This means when I am under extreme stress, I have trouble breathing, and I get nauseated and confused.” If your condition requires some kind of accommodation, then be aware that you may need to provide medical documentation in order to get the accommodation.
- Start on a positive note. For example, you could state something you enjoy about working for the organization or express gratitude for the work opportunity.
- Use a matter-of-fact tone. Describe the disability or medical condition in a neutral way. Avoid sounding either apologetic or confrontational.
- Explain how you’ve been managing so far. For example, you might mention that your condition is normally controlled by medication or that you’re in the habit of taking short, frequent breaks rather than a long lunch break.
- Describe symptoms your boss should be aware of and specific steps they can take if you need help. For example, if you suffer from panic attacks, your boss could remind you take deep breaths and give you access to a private room until you calm down.
- Close on a positive note. Thank your boss for meeting with you and supporting you in a way that will enable you to strive for peak performance.
Start by asking for a short, private conversation. You can set this up simply by explaining there’s something important that you’d like to chat about as soon as your boss can find the time.
Here are some tips to help you lead the dialogue with your boss:
- Start on a positive note. You might, for instance, say thank-you for the job opportunity or mention how much you’re enjoying the role.
- Use a neutral tone. Don’t apologize for bringing the concern to your boss’s attention. At the same time, be aware that cultural matters can easily trigger emotional reactions. You’ll likely get furthest with your boss by keeping your tone non-confrontational.
Clearly state what you need and why. For example: “I’m a practicing Muslim, and my religion requires me to pray around noon and the middle of the afternoon. I’ll need to take a 10-minute break around these times and to spread my prayer mat in a quiet, clean place facing northeast.”
Take a matter-of-fact approach, keeping in mind that the New Brunswick Human Rights Act places on employers a duty to accommodate “protected characteristics,” which include creed or religion, race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, national origin, and social condition.
- State a specific request. For example, to complete the above statement, you might add: “Where would be a good spot for me to pray?”
- Suggest solutions. Your employer has a duty to provide a reasonable accommodation for your situation, but not necessarily the perfect accommodation you have in mind. Engage in collaborative solution-finding to create an arrangement that will work for both of you.
Before you jump into a confrontation with your manager, start with some analysis. What, exactly, are your expectations, and where do they come from? If the job ad or job description lists specific duties, that’s a good place to start. You might also reflect back on your interview and write down any specific expectations you took from that meeting.
Given the actual information you’ve received, how reasonable are your expectations? Is there truly a misalignment between what the employer has told you and what you’ve assumed?
- Then, consider the work you’ve been assigned with regards to a broader context. How could the tasks you’ve been doing be relevant to the job duties you’ve been expecting? Could they, for instance, form part of a larger task? Could they be “test” tasks your supervisor is using to assess your ability to perform more challenging responsibilities?
If you can’t see a direct link between the work you’ve been assigned and the work you expected to do, then it might be time to chat with your supervisor. You can simply ask for a meeting to clarify your role and responsibilities. You might explain that such a conversation will enable you to better contribute to the team.
Enter this meeting with an open mind. In the world of work, circumstances often change rapidly, so it’s possible your role may need to evolve in response to events or pressures you’re unaware of. Listen for opportunities to show your adaptability and find meaningful ways to contribute. Keep in mind your learning goals for your placement; in the end, finding ways to fulfill those will be more important that sticking to the letter of your job description.
If your supervisor isn’t able to explain the discrepancy between the work you’ve been assigned and what you’d been led to believe your role would look like, then you may need to politely express your frustration.
The most effective way to do that to use non-accusatory “I-statements,” such as “I’m feeling confused about my role because my job title is Junior Accounting clerk, but I’m mainly working at reception,” or “I understood from our conversation during the interview that I would be mainly doing accounting tasks.” Avoid making statements that project blame, such as “You told me I’d be doing accounting, not answering the phone!”
If you and your supervisor aren’t able to agree on expectations for your position, then it’s time to call on your Office of Experiential Learning/Education to help resolve the situation.
Ask! People inside an organization often don’t realize when they’re using terms unfamiliar to newcomers, so you’ll need to let them know when you need a term defined or spelled out.
You can do this without interrupting the flow of a meeting. Here are some strategies that might work for you:
- Ask about a list of acronyms. Some organizations have an “acronym dictionary.” In other cases, it may be worth your supervisor’s while to scratch down a list of the essential acronyms you’ll need to know to perform your duties.
- Keep a list of acronyms and terms you don’t understand. After a meeting, or the end of a day, ask your supervisor or mentor to explain the items on your list.
- Use the Internet. If you’ve entered an industry that’s new to you, you could try Googling “[industry] AND jargon.” You may find online lists or dictionaries that could quickly bring you up to speed.
When you ask for help understanding the organization’s “insider talk,” be sure to frame your request in a positive way. For instance, you might emphasize that you want master the professional language so you can learn your role quickly and perform your tasks efficiently.
The clothes you wear communicate your personality, and dressing professionally shouldn’t mean having to sacrifice your self-expression. At the same time, norms concerning dress play a significant part in workplace culture, so as you integrate into your workplace, you may want to consider how you present yourself through your wardrobe choices.
Cultural expectations regarding dress can vary widely from workplace to workplace, even within the same industry, so you may have to do some detective work. Here are some things you can do to figure out what the standard style of dress is in the organization you’re entering:
- Contact the person who coordinated your interview and hiring process and ask them whether there’s an office dress code. Although few organizations create a formal code, there may be unspoken “rules,” such as no flipflops, no shorts, or casual clothes on Friday.
- Think back to your interview. What were the people interviewing you wearing? You might be able to take your cue from them.
- Check out the organization’s website and look for photos of team members in the workplace. You may find these on the About Us page, a page featuring news stories, or a blog. You may also want to check out the organization’s Facebook presence if they have one.
- Work the grapevine. Do you know someone who has worked for the organization, interviewed with them, or done business with them? You might ask them questions about the work culture and style of dress.
If you can’t get specific information about clothing expectations, don’t sweat it. Here are a few general principles to help you convey a professional presence:
- Err on the side of formality. In most situations, it’s better to be slightly overdressed than underdressed.
- Avoid athletic wear and lounge wear, such as sweat pants, hoodies, and athletic leggings.
When in doubt, “business casual” is usually a safe bet. These days, few work environments require formal business attire (suit-and-tie for men and suit or dress for women). If you aim for business casual, you’ll fit into most contexts.
Business casual does NOT include jeans. For men, it means a collared shirt and casual (unwrinkled) pants. For women, it means a modest blouse or sweater plus casual pants or skirt, or a casual dress.
Stay to the modest side. If your grandmother wouldn’t approve what you’re wearing, your workplace might not either.
If you’re working in the summer, check with your supervisor or colleagues about the office policy concerning shorts and short skirts, shoes without socks, and sleeveless tops.
- Take care with your grooming. You don’t need designer outfits to make a great impression, but clean hair and nails will give you professional polish.
Remember, your aim on Day One is to make a great first impression, so it’s worth taking care to dress your professional part. As you relax into your job and the work culture, you may find that your style of dress also relaxes slightly over time.
Here’s a baker’s dozen of practical matters you’ll want to get a handle on by the end of Day One:
- How will I access the office? (Find out about keys and/or access cards.)
- Where can I get office supplies?
- What is the office layout? (Be sure you can find your way to the restrooms, the break room, and the printer. If no one offers to give you an office tour, ask for one.)
- Where will I be working?
- How do I get access to the technology I’ll need to do my job?
- Who can I ask if I need tech support?
- Who can I talk to if I have questions about assigned work?
- When do people take breaks and lunch?
- Whom will I be working closely with? How can I meet them?
- Are there any documents I should read to get oriented to the organization and my role?
- What should I do if I’m unable to report to work because I’m unwell?
- What will I be working on this week? What specific outcomes do I need to achieve?
- What’s the best way to communicate with my boss? How often does my boss want to hear from me?
Every workplace has its risks, so the first step is to make sure you understand the hazards associated with your work:
- If your work involves physical risks (such as contact with chemicals or the use of heavy equipment), read and follow the safety guidelines provided by your employer. And be sure to speak up when you have any questions or concerns. Many accidents could be prevented by employees looking out for one another.
- If you’re working an office job, pay attention to ergonomics. Make sure your computer, monitor, and chair are placed so that you avoid muscle and eye strain. Combat fatigue by taking regular breaks to stretch and refresh your vision.
- Be alert to common causes of stress, such as conflict with colleagues and overtime work. When you can’t avoid such stressors, practice stress management, a skill you’ll need to protect your physical and mental health throughout your career.
In most North American workplaces, everyone from the CEO down goes by their first name. Exceptions might be work environments where people have special titles related to their training or rank, such as Doctor, Professor, Reverend, Constable, or Captain.
If some of your co-workers are based overseas, however, then you may find they prefer to be addressed by their last name, at least until you know them well (e.g., Herr Schmidt or Mrs. Olumi.)
Don’t press the panic button right away. In some organizations, it can take longer than expected to procure basic equipment and supplies. Calmly ask your supervisor when you can expect to get set up in your work space, and work with them to brainstorm solutions for the meantime.
If it looks like there’s no real plan to find you space and supplies, then you may want to have a conversation with your Office of Experiential Learning/Education, sooner rather than later. They may be able to help your employer navigate some of the logistics necessary to get your placement off on a strong foot.
Think about how to frame your request in a way that will emphasize the benefits to your employer. How will getting physically closer to the team make you a better performer? Maybe moving closer to the action will enable you to communicate more efficiently with colleagues, to learn more quickly, or to avoid getting stuck when you’re working on a new task.
Present your request as a solution. Your desk may be set apart because your supervisor couldn’t see an easy way to position you closer to colleagues. Come up with a creative option or two that would enable you to join the rest of the team without disrupting the work flow.
Onboarding is a two-way street with shared responsibilities. It’s your employer’s responsibility to give you guidance. And it’s your responsibility to let your employer know how much guidance, and what kind of guidance, you need.
Here are some ways you can clarify directions when you first receive them:
- Check your understanding by summarizing what you’ve heard. For example: “So, you want me to highlight all the account receivables in orange. Is that right?”
- Find out how you can get help while you’re performing the task(s). For example: “Will you or Sue be around if I have questions about how to make the highlighting function work?”
- Ask about the timeline and/or priority. For example: “When do you need me to email the results to you?” or “Should I do this before or after the task you gave me yesterday afternoon?”
- Take notes. Don’t rely on your memory to guide you. If you need to ask your supervisor to slow down a little when delivering instructions, just let them know that you’re taking notes so you can avoid interrupting them with questions later on.
- Ask about additional resources. If your supervisor assumes you have knowledge or skills you haven’t yet developed, ask whether they can recommend any resources to help you build the foundation you need.
- Ask for specifics. Supervisors tend to be high-level thinkers, so you may need to bring them down to ground level with questions about specific task requirements. For example:
- “Would you like this in Word or Excel?”
- “You said to provide ‘a few examples.’ Do you think four or five would be enough?”
- “Do you have an example of a report that I could use as a model?”
If you and your boss seem to be having trouble communicating about task requirements, you might need to chat about that. You could simply ask for a short conversation to help the two of you work together more productively.
If your boss isn’t willing to meet, you may want to reach out to your university’s Office of Experiential Learning for advice.
Sounds like you have a great chance to show how proactive you can be. If you’re not sure whether “no news is good news,” you can ask for clarification. Here are three different ways to do that:
- Option #1: Request a short meeting with your supervisor to discuss your performance to date. Explain that you want to make sure you’re pulling your weight on the team and would appreciate the opportunity to know what you’re doing well and what you could improve upon.
- Option #2: Ask a team member for feedback. This could be a mentor you’ve been assigned or simply someone you work with on a daily basis.
- Option #3: Refer to performance objectives. Some employers regularly evaluate performance according to specific, measurable criteria. If your supervisor has shared with you goals or outcomes associated with your position, you can use those to reflect on and self-assess your own performance.
While feedback plays a vital role in professional development, be aware that feedback in the workplace may not be as regular or detailed as the feedback you’re used to getting on your course assignments. Part of adjusting to the world of work is learning how to monitor and adapt your own performance to help achieve team goals.
Given that you’re now over the hump of your first few days, you have a couple of choices:
- You can decide to accept the situation and make the most of it. After all, learning opportunities present themselves in all situations. While you may not achieve all the goals you’d planned for your placement, you may discover unexpected chances to develop new skills and abilities.
You can try negotiating with your supervisor to adapt the position. As with any negotiation, your key to success will be understanding the other party’s point of view so you can propose a solution that works for both of you.
Viewing the situation from your supervisor’s perspective, what are the outcomes they need to get from your placement? What constraints are they up against? You may need to ask some polite but probing questions to find out about hidden pressures that are shaping your roles in ways you didn’t expect.
From your perspective, consider “tweaks” you could make to customize the existing role to your learning goals. Perhaps you could suggest a project that would interest you and provide lasting value to the organization. Maybe there’s a gap you’ve noticed in the team’s skill set that you could help fill.
Think win-win. What tweaks to your role would enable both you and your supervisor come away from the placement having considered it a success?
If neither of the above options seems doable, then it may be time to get in touch with your Office of Experiential Learning/Education. They may be able to help you brainstorm alternative solutions or guide you through a discussion with your supervisor.
Sounds like you’re already halfway there because you’re thinking proactively about how to support your team’s efforts. Now is a good time to practice your entrepreneurial mindset and look for creative ways to add value. Here are some things you could do to identify opportunities:
- Ask team members whether there’s a task they could use help with.
- Propose an add-on to a task you’ve recently completed.
- Look for bottlenecks in your team’s workflow. Is there a way you could help the work progress more efficiently?
- Consider ways to use your research skills. Is there an issue that’s going unresolved due to a lack of information?
- Keep an eye out for skill gaps. Do you see the team struggling in a particular area where you have untapped skills (which your manager may not be aware of)?
- Listen to feedback from customers or clients. Are they asking for any improvements to products or services that you could help create?
Besides actively scouting for ways to contribute, it’s also a good idea to schedule time for a chat with your supervisor. You may be working more quickly than expected, and your supervisor may need to adjust the kind and amount of work they assign. If they don’t have time for much day-to-day contact with you, the two of you may also need to do some longer-term planning so you have a robust to-do list to get you through a week or more at a time.
This is a common conundrum. Here are some strategies that have worked for other students during their placements:
- Take short breaks. You’ll be more productive if you get up from your chair and stretch every 20 to 30 minutes.
- Turn your work into a game. Break your task or tasks into small pieces, and give yourself a reward after you’ve completed a certain number of the pieces.
- Make lunch plans. Use your lunchtime to connect with colleagues. Find out where people gather at lunch and hang out there. Or you might invite a colleague to join you in trying some take-out from the restaurant around the corner. If you include some social interaction in your workday, you’ll find the rest of the time less lonely.
- Remind yourself of how your work fits into the big picture. Remember that your solitary work contributes to the work of the team as a whole. If you’re not clear how your tasks fit into the big picture, ask your supervisor to help you understand that. Asking for such context doesn’t make you nosy—it makes you a proactive team player, someone who’s keen to align their efforts with organizational goals.
In your first few days on the job, the amount of information you must absorb in order to get up to speed can be tremendous. The most efficient way for your supervisor to share all the material you need to learn may be to give you a stack of reading material.
However, within your first few days, you should also have the opportunity to observe and/or participate in real work tasks. If you’re on day three or four and you’re doing nothing but reading, then you may need to proactively seek ways to jump into the action. Let your supervisor know how much of the reading material you’ve processed and how keen you are to start putting your new knowledge into practice.
If you’re used to working in an environment where people are paid by the hour, then you may find that working in a place where that’s not the case feels unstructured. Ask a colleague or your supervisor about expectations concerning breaks. You may find that there are no set break times but common periods of downtime. For instance, most people may take a few minutes for coffee around 10 or 10:30 or step out for lunch sometime between 11:30 and 1.
If you have complete flexibility concerning breaks, then it’s a good idea to create your own work routine. Scheduling a regular lunch hour, for instance, will provide a comforting sense of rhythm and also ensure that you keep your energy high.
If your work involves a lot of computer time, you may want to schedule micro breaks throughout your day, such as five minutes at the top of every hour. Take these times to get up from your desk, stretch, and look out a window so you refresh your eyes as well as your muscles.
Have you received any written policy documents, such as an employee manual? If so, you might find working hours specified there. If not, ask your supervisor what time you’re expected to report for work and what time you should expect to wrap up your day.
Your supervisor may give you a range of times for starting and ending your day. For instance, they may say something like this: “The office is open at 8, so if you show up any time between 8 and 930, that’s fine with me.” If that’s the case, make sure you stick within the range. You might also ask your supervisor if they’d find it helpful to know the day before what your rough arrival time will be. One of the worst workplace scenarios you can imagine is a supervisor looking for an employee who’s not available when expected!
As the new kid on the block, you may need to take the initiative. A good first step is to smile and say hello whenever you pass someone in the hall. And whenever you meet up with a colleague one on one—at the water cooler or the photocopier, for instance—take the opportunity to introduce yourself and ask their name.
Here are some other steps you might try to ease your way into the team:
- Use your break times to mingle with your colleagues wherever they tend to gather.
- Offer to help with a work task.
- Suggest coffee, lunch, or an after-work meetup.
- Notice something about a colleague’s work space. If they have a picture of a dog on their screen saver, for example, you could start a conversation about pets.
- Bring some food to work to share. (Remember to be sensitive to common food allergies.)
Smart employees ask “stupid” questions. As you approach your work tasks, you’ll find that the burden is on you to figure out what you need to know and how to get that information. So questions are essential tools you need to do your job!
If you’re feeling timid about asking questions, here are a couple of tips:
- Ask your boss to help you identify co-workers who can help you with questions about different topics.
- Start by approaching a co-worker you find friendly. Ask them for tips on approaching other colleagues.
- If you don’t enjoy thinking on your feet, prepare for a conversation by writing out your questions in advance.
First, determine what you’re really missing. Are you having trouble following instructions, fitting in with the team, or making progress toward your learning goals for your work placement? If you are thriving in all those areas, then perhaps your supervisor is letting you work independently because you’re proving yourself highly capable and don’t really need a mentor to perform your job duties.
If, however, you’re facing a specific challenge, then consider some of these potential solutions:
- For trouble following instructions—Ask for clarification, using some of these strategies.
- For trouble fitting in with the team—Start by making an effort to get to know just one of your colleagues, maybe someone who sits near you or someone who’s close to your age. If there’s an office manager, you might also try to connect with them as they’ll know a lot about the way things get done in the organization and could be a good person for you to approach when you have questions about policies and procedures.
- For trouble making progress toward learning goals—You probably need to set up a time to chat with your supervisor. Before you go into that meeting, take time to prepare. Be clear about what you agreed on at the beginning of your placement, but also recognize that you might need to be flexible in order to make your placement a win-win for the employer and you.
What if you don’t technically need a mentor to perform your job, but you’d really like to have one as part of your experiential learning placement? Here are a couple of things you could try:
- Get to know a colleague, who might become an unofficial mentor. You don’t have to buddy up with a VP to experience mentorship. You might find an unexpected mentor in a junior employee who was in your shoes just a few years ago or a middle manager with a range of experiences in various organizations.
- Examine expectations set out in your employment agreement. Does your university require mentorship as part of your placement? Or is mentorship a nice-to-have feature of a placement rather than a requirement? If you have questions about the employer’s responsibilities, get in touch with your university’s Office of Experiential Learning.
Start with a gap analysis. For each skill you need to develop:
- Identify the precise skill you need. For instance, rather than saying, “I need to learn Excel,” say, “I need to learn how to use basic statistical functions in Excel.”
- Describe your current level of proficiency. For example: “I know how to format a spreadsheet, but I don’t know how to automate mathematical functions.”
- Brainstorm ways to close the gap between what you know and you don’t know. Some options to consider include how-to books, online video tutorials, online courses, training offered by your employer, and mentoring from a colleague.
Once you have some specific ideas about how to raise your performance level, consult with your boss to determine the best path forward. If the job ad identified the skill as a job requirement, then your employer may expect you to develop it on your own time. However, if your skill gap has emerged as your job duties have evolved, then you can expect your employer to provide some resources (such as work time, training, or a mentor) to help you close the gap.
In the workplace, few opportunities are given—but you’ll discover many ready to be seized.
You can create your own opportunities to shine, following this two-step approach:
- Succeed at the tasks you’re assigned, no matter how trivial or menial those seem. Initial job assignments often function as a kind of test, not just of your abilities but also of your attitude. Are you a true team player who will cheerfully pitch in and do what’s required in the moment? Or do you resent having to do tasks that don’t fit your ideal job description?
Suggest ways that you can add extra value to the work you’ve been given. For instance, let’s say you’ve been asked to proofread a report, and you’d like to show your boss your skills in graphic design. You could volunteer to create a professional-looking cover page or add some pizzazz to the internal layout.
The key is to add value that’s meaningful to your employer, not just to you. If your employer has no interest in creating a beautiful-looking report, then you’re not really adding value by enhancing the graphic design. Pay attention to the big goals your supervisor is interested in pursuing and figure out how you can help achieve those by going “above and beyond” your assigned duties.
Goal-setting should be a joint effort with your supervisor because your personal objectives will need to align with organizational objectives. Here are some questions to help you determine what it will be feasible for you to achieve within the scope of your job role:
- What outcomes has your employer specified for your placement? (If you can’t answer this question, then your first step is to set up a conversation with your supervisor to talk about it!)
- What knowledge, experience, and skills were you hoping to gain from the position when you accepted the job?
- What opportunities to develop knowledge, experience, and skills present themselves in the run of a typical week?
- What other developmental opportunities could present themselves through your own initiative (through volunteering to do a special project, for instance)?
- How would seizing specific developmental opportunities enable you to add value to the work your team does? To the organization as a whole?
Consider how your employer’s objectives, your personal learning objectives, and your job responsibilities intersect. Achievable goals satisfy all three of these elements and deliver value to the organization.
Try to identify why you’re feeling overwhelmed. Are any of these possible factors contributing to your distress?
- The pace of the work?
- The kind of work?
- Lack of background knowledge?
- Lack of skills?
- Unclear instructions?
- Conflict with co-workers?
- Lack of interaction with co-workers?
Before taking your feelings to your supervisor brainstorm possible steps you could take to alleviate your situation. For instance, if you’re feeling disconnected from the rest of the team, could you start eating your lunch in the break room or invite a colleague for a “virtual coffee”? If you find instructions unclear, can you start asking for clarification?
If you feel stuck and can’t think of a solution on your own, then do set up a private conversation with your mentor or supervisor. You can enter the conversation with confidence because most managers are happy when employees speak up about a challenge they’re encountering—that’s the sign of someone who wants to do a good job.
If your manager doesn’t have any helpful suggestions, then you might want to check out some of the mental health resources available to you. For example:
- Your HR (Human Resources) department or staff member
- Your university’s health and wellness centre
- The Chimo Helpline
In Canada, all employees, regardless of their citizenship, are guaranteed the human rights covered in The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These include:
- Religious freedom
- Freedom of conscience and religion
- Freedom of thought, belief, opinion, and expression
- Freedom from discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age, disability, or sexual orientation
As well, each province has its own human rights law that would apply in the employment sector. In New Brunswick, the New Brunswick Human Rights Act applies to provincially regulated employers (hospitals, restaurants, stores, etc.), while the Canadian Human Rights Act applies to federally regulated employers (air transportation, banks, etc.). Human rights legislation provides protection on the basis of several grounds including, but not limited to:
- Physical or mental disability
In addition, each province has its own labour laws. In New Brunswick, the Employment Standards Act applies to two main aspects of experiential learning work placements:
- Hours of work and compensation
As an employee, you have a right to:
- At least minimum wage for every hour worked
- A 30-minute break period after 5 hours worked
- A rest period of at least 24 consecutive hours each week, on Sunday if possible
- Prompt payment of wages
- A pay statement on each pay day
If you’re paid an hourly wage below a certain amount, then you also have the right to overtime pay (not less than 1.5 times the minimum wage rate) when you work more than 44 hours in a week.
- Occupational health and safety
As an employee, you have a right to:
- A safe and healthy workplace
- Training to do your job safely
- Information about workplace hazards, safe work procedures, and emergency procedures
- Safety from hazardous substances and dangerous machinery and equipment in the workplace
- Freedom from harassment
You also have the right to participate in identifying and solving health and safety problems and to refuse work if you believe it’s dangerous to your health and safety.
Some labour rights are determined by factors such as the industry you work in, the type of work you do, and the way you get paid (by hour or by salary). For more information about your rights, check out these resources:
- Government of NB fact sheet on employment standards
- Employment Standards on the website of the Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour (PETL)
- Employment Standards Act
If you believe your rights as an employee have been violated, get in touch with your Office of Experiential Learning/Education right away. They should be your first point of contact before you consider taking any kind of action through government channels.
Harassment is a serious workplace issue, but not all unpleasantness at work constitutes harassment. Criticism from your boss delivered in a blunt or harsh way may not, for instance, qualify.
Here’s how Worksafe NB defines harassment:
any objectionable or offensive behaviour that is known or ought reasonably to be known to be unwelcome, including bullying or any other conduct, comment or display made on either a one-time or repeated basis that threatens the health or safety of an employee, and includes sexual harassment, but does not include reasonable conduct of an employer in respect of the management and direction of employees at the place of employment.
If you believe you’ve been subjected to harassing behaviour, make sure you document the incident or incidents. Take detailed notes so that you’ll have a record of the events at hand once your memory of them starts to fade.
Then consult your employer’s written code of practice for harassment. (They’re required by law to have one.) In the code of practice, you should find a step-by-step procedure for reporting an incident of harassment.
Further, harassment based on any of the protected characteristics found in either the New Brunswick Human Rights Act or the Canadian Human Rights Act, would be considered discriminatory under those acts. If you believe you are being harassed/discriminated against on one of the protected characteristics, you should contact the New Brunswick Human Rights Commission if you are employed by a provincially regulated employer or the Canadian Human Rights Commission if you are employed by a federally regulated employer. Note that there are specific time limits for filing complaints.
You can also find detailed information about workplace harassment, including examples, via the Public Legal Education and Information Service of New Brunswick.
Before proceeding to report harassment, however, you should consult with your Office of Experiential Learning/Education. The staff there can support you through the reporting process and, if necessary, mediate conversations with your employer.
Before you make your request, find out what the organizational policy is concerning days off or “leave.” Make sure your request falls within those guidelines and that you present it in the expected format. (In some organizations, you may need to fill out a form.)
Time your time off with consideration for the work flow and workload of your co-workers. When you make your request, present a suggested plan for dealing with your absence so that deadlines and deliverables will still be met. You want to show up as a problem-solver, not a problem-maker!
Kudos to you for taking on the challenge of integrating a work placement with your full-time studies. Here are some tips to help with your juggling act:
- Create a master schedule that shows all your classes, course assignments, and work commitments in one place.
- If you’ve never used an electronic calendar, now might be a good opportunity to try one out. Tracking your weekly schedule electronically allows you to see your work and academic commitments at the same time or separately. It also enables you to set up reminders and “alerts” to notify you of upcoming events.
- Keep your two worlds separate—don’t try to study during work hours or to do work assignments during your study time.
- Communicate openly with your manager and your professors; let them know well in advance about any scheduling conflicts.
- Practice self-care. In your master schedule, schedule time for physical activity, healthy eating, and social time with friends.
Consider how you’ll deal with both visual and auditory “noise”:
- Visual noise includes anything that distracts your eyes from your work, such as nearby co-workers and their monitors. As an antidote, try placing a plant on your desk to create privacy. Ask for permission to go to a private space, such as a board room or quiet corner, when you need some intense focus time.
- Auditory noise includes conversation among co-workers, phone calls, and the constant hum of electronic equipment. Noise-cancelling headphones can block out much of the background chatter. It’s also important to find out what signals your office mates use to indicate they’re in Do Not Disturb mode. You can adopt similar behaviours when you need to work without interruption. You may also be able to use a private space when the common area becomes too noisy for you to be able to work productively.
Not all conflicts require the same treatment. A one-time conflict with a co-worker can probably be resolved through a conversation between the two of you. On the other hand, a persistent conflict, or a conflict involving harassment, may require mediation by your supervisor or someone from your Human Resources department.
Gossip is the enemy of conflict resolution, so avoid griping about the situation with other co-workers. Also, avoid procrastination because waiting doesn’t make conflict go away—putting off dealing with conflict just allows sour feelings to ferment.
When it’s time to tackle a conflict with a colleague, keep these tips in mind:
- Hold the conversation in a private place, where your colleague will feel secure from eavesdroppers and prying eyes.
- Thank your co-worker for investing time in the conversation. A sincere expression of gratitude will get your conversation started on a positive note.
- Approach the situation in a spirit of collaborative problem-solving. State the “facts” of the situation as you see them and ask for your colleague’s perspective.
- Keep the conversation in the present. Deal with the current situation, and avoid listing past grievances.
- Use I-statements. To avoid pointing the finger of blame, steer clear of accusatory statements starting with “you.” Instead of saying, “You embarrassed me when you mentioned my mistake in front of the whole team” try this: “When you mentioned my mistake in front of the whole team, I felt embarrassed.”
- Practice active listening. Resist the urge to interrupt, and pay close attention to what your co-worker is saying, even if it’s hard to hear. Confirm understanding by paraphrasing what you’ve heard. For example: “I think I’m hearing that my mistake personally caused you a lot of frustration. Do I have that right?”
- Find common ground. Solutions emerge when two parties find a starting point they can agree on. For instance, maybe you can both agree that accuracy is an important team value. That shared value could point the way to understanding.
- Be open to creative suggestions. Keep an open mind and be willing to consider solutions you hadn’t thought of on your own. Together, you and your co-worker may arrive at a resolution you couldn’t have imagined.
Tracking Your Learning
Start with the people you find most approachable, and build from there.
For instance, if there are other students working in the organization, you might begin by getting to know them. Also cultivate your relationship with your supervisor and anyone who’s mentoring you.
As you become friendlier with your colleagues, they may naturally suggest people to whom they could introduce you. Or you might find an opening to ask for a specific introduction.
Keep in mind, though, that the strongest network ties form organically. They happen through genuine relationships, not just exchanges of contact information.
One of the best things you can do to grow your professional network is to develop your conversation skills. Challenge yourself to make small talk with colleagues in the kitchen or the elevator. Become an active listener. Ask sincere, thoughtful questions.
You’ll also want to follow through on relationships you develop by connecting with people through LinkedIn. If you don’t yet have a LinkedIn profile, use this checklist from LinkedIn as your guide, or reach out to your Office of Experiential Learning for help.
When you and your employer first agree on learning goals for your placement, you’re facing a lot of unknowns. It’s impossible to predict exactly how your work experience will unfold, the strengths you’ll discover, or the opportunities that will present themselves.
So assume you’ll need to revisit, and likely adjust, your goals part-way through your placement. (A good time to do this is when you’re about a third of the way through your placement.)
Here’s a simple process you can follow with your supervisor:
- Review your initial goals. How well do they fit your actual work situation? Are they both relevant and realistic in the context of the work you’re doing?
- Revise goals that are either irrelevant or unrealistic. This is a good opportunity to demonstrate a key competency for the 21st century: flexibility. How can you adjust your focus or desired outcome so you learn within the constraints of your work environment?
- Measure your progress. For the goals you’ve decided to continue to pursue, take stock of what you’ve achieved and what you have left to do. Create action steps and timelines to make sure you finish what you’ve started.
Plan another review session. To keep yourself on track, book a date in your calendar to revisit your goals again before the end of your placement. (If your first review session happens a third of the way through your placement, you might schedule your second session for the two-thirds mark.)
For instance, let’s say your initial goal was to master Adobe Photoshop, but the organization hired a full-time graphic designer two weeks after you began your placement. Is there another piece of software you could learn to enhance your digital proficiency? Or could you develop a different set of design-related skills, say by helping the graphic designer prepare a design brief for a complex project?
As you revise goals, be sure to make them specific and measurable, and give each goal a deadline. You’ll also want to create action steps leading from your present state your end result.
Reflection means more than simply documenting what happened or stating your “lessons learned.” Reflection is a multi-stage process that enables you to recall and interpret an experience so as to extract meaning from it.
Many students find it helpful to reflect through writing. You might want to keep a reflection journal for this purpose and schedule time to write in it at the end of every day or week.
One easy way to structure a written reflection is to follow the acronym DEAL:
- Describe the experience—Use plenty of detail so that you bring the event(s) clearly to life on the page. Describe your thoughts and feelings as well as what happened and who was involved.
- Evaluate your thoughts and feelings—Analyze what was going on inside of you during the experience. What were you thinking at the time of the experience? What were you feeling? How did your reaction compare to the way you’ve reacted to similar experiences? Why do you think you reacted as you did?
- Articulate your Learning—What practical lessons did you learn related to your job? What new skills or attitudes did you master? How does what you learned through the experience relate to other knowledge or skills you’ve gained in other circumstances, whether on the job, in the classroom, or through volunteer experience? If you were to face the experience again, what would you do differently?
If written reflection isn’t your thing, then you might try reflecting by talking through an experience with a colleague, your supervisor, or a friend. (You can use the DEAL method to make your conversation productive.) You can also reflect by creating art, such as a sketch, painting, or photo essay.
Values provide the link between work and personal meaning. When your personal values align with the organization’s values, your day-to-day responsibilities feel meaningful. To find that alignment, follow these steps:
- Articulate your personal values. You may find this online assessment from Psychology Today a helpful place to begin.
- Compare your personal values with the values of the organization you’re working for. Consider explicit values, which you’ll find in the organization’s mission statement or the About Us section of their website, as well as implicit values, which you can determine through observing the principles that guide decision making.
Find the points of similarity between your personal values and the organization’s values. Try to find ways to spend more of your time on activities that involve the points of similarity.
For instance, let’s say you discover that the organization and you both value social impact. Is there a way that you could contribute to activities that result in direct impact to your community? Or perhaps some of the activities you’re already doing are supporting the organization’s social impact. How could you become more aware of and intentional about your contributions?
What if you can’t find any common ground between your values and the organization’s values?
You can still create meaning from your workday. Try some of these possibilities:
- Turn your tasks into a game. Reward yourself whenever you reach a milestone.
- Keep the big picture in mind. Consider how your day-to-day tasks are contributing to the organization’s strategic priorities. If the connection isn’t clear to you, as your boss to explain it.
- Appreciate learning opportunities. Stay alert to opportunities to develop skills, attitudes, and knowledge you value.
- Celebrate successes, however small. Engaging in reflection can help you appreciate your personal achievements and take meaning from them.
- Enjoy your co-workers. Take advantage of the opportunity to join the professional community of your workplace. Keep an eye open for developmental opportunities offered through mentorship, job shadowing, and casual conversations around the worktable. You may also want to consider joining a professional association related to the industry you’re working in.
Ask your mentor, colleagues, or boss to recommend online courses and other learning opportunities related to the specific competency you want to work on. Here are a few possibilities to get you started:
Honesty is the best policy.
Say how grateful you are for the opportunity to spend your work placement with the organization and learn valuable skills. (The more specific you can be about what you’re grateful for, the more sincere your thank-you will sound.)
Then explain that you’re still exploring career options before you make a decision about post-grad employment. A good employer will appreciate your quest to expand your horizons; if you decide to return to them, you’ll bring new skills and knowledge with you.
Finally, suggest that you stay in touch. Make sure that you keep the employer’s contact information on file, and connect with your supervisor and colleagues on LinkedIn.
From time to time, touch base with these contacts. For example, you might send them a holiday card. Or you might send them a friendly email or LinkedIn message when you see a news article that could interest them and help them with their work.
Start with the work stories that stick out in your mind:
- What achievement(s) are you proudest of?
- What experiences will you recall as highlights of your placement?
- What failures or embarrassing moments did you bounce back from?
- Which events or situations provided the richest opportunities for learning?
If you’re having trouble recalling specific events from your placement, you might try creating a calendar of your work experience and filling it in with key experiences. For a summer placement, for example, you might try to recall one to three significant work experiences that occurred each month.
Work stories provide raw material, which you can then convert into the format appropriate to your resume. Here are some tips to help you do that:
- Extract specific skills from your experiences. For each experience you document, ask yourself, “What did I learn?”
- Document your experience by using specific language (quantitative language wherever possible). “Completed five engagements with clients from the energy sector” is better than “Completed several client engagements.”
- Leverage the power of verbs. Present your achievements using action words, e.g., delivered, created, presented, researched.
Your university’s Office of Experiential Learning/Education can point you toward additional resources that can help you turn your work placement experiences into dynamite resume content.
If your supervisor hasn’t already scheduled an exit interview (parting conversation), then ask for one. You could simply say something like this: “Could we schedule a short chat sometime before I go? I think it could be helpful to both of us to debrief the work placement.”
During your exit interview, here are some points to address:
- Thank your supervisor for the work opportunity. Be specific about what you’ve enjoyed and appreciated about the job and the organization—including the opportunity to contribute to the team’s success.
- Identify specific ways you’ve added value to the team and the organization. Express gratitude for the opportunity to learn, to develop new skills, and to make an impact.
- State your interest in work after graduation. Let your employer know how much you’d appreciate the opportunity to contribute to the team on a full-time, permanent basis. Ask about the best way to keep in touch so you can be considered for any job opportunities that open up. If your employer is in the private sector, you might suggest connecting via LinkedIn as a start.
A work journal is a great tool for recording, and reflecting on, events that happen during your work placement. Make it a habit to spend just 10 minutes writing in your journal at the end of each day. Note anything interesting that happened during the day, describing the incidents in detail as well as your feelings about them.
At the end of each week, take a half-hour to review your journal entries and reflect on your what you’ve learned. Consider such questions as:
- What was your biggest achievement this week?
- Your biggest challenge?
- What’s the most important thing you learned during the week?
- What’s the most surprising thing you learned?
- If you could have done one thing differently during the week, what would you have done?
At the end of your placement, you can “translate” material from these reflections into evidence to support general statements about your skills, strengths, and experience. Such evidence will serve you well in interviews and give you compelling content for cover letters and resumes.
Start by identifying your future career goals:
- Where do you see yourself five to 10 years from now?
- What is your job role and title? What kind of organization do you work for? (Or do you work for yourself?)
- What have you achieved in terms of your lifestyle and financial goals?
Need help identifying the specific qualifications your target career requires? The Government of Canada’s National Occupational Classification database is a great place to start. It lists job titles, job duties and employment requirements for almost any career path you can name.
List the education and work experience you’ll need to achieve your career goals, and then ask yourself these two questions:
- How does the experience you gained through your experiential learning placement satisfy some of the requirements?
- How can you use your work experience as a bridge to other experiences that will get you closer to your career goals?
Create a one-page career plan in which you:
- Describe your long-term career goal (five to 10 years into your future).
- Identify requirements (education and experience) for achieving that goal.
- Take inventory of the requirements you have already fulfilled or are in the process of fulfilling.
- Set interim goals that will enable you to achieve the remaining requirements (goals at the one-year and three-year mark, for example).
Here’s an example of a career plan for a third-year student who wants to become a lawyer:
My five-year career goal: To become a lawyer specializing in environmental law
- Undergraduate degree
- Law degree
- Strong communication skills (written, oral, interpersonal) in English and French
- Excellent research skills
- Critical thinking
- Digital proficiency with standard office software and specialized research databases
- Bar exam
- Licence to practice in New Brunswick
Requirements I’ve already achieved (or am in the process of achieving):
- Undergraduate degree
- Strong communication skills (especially writing) in English and French
- Critical thinking
My interim career development goals:
- Complete an internship with a law firm in Fredericton (2021)
- Volunteer with the Centre for Ecological Advocacy (2021-2022)
- Complete philosophy course, Ecology and Justice in the Age of Globalization (2021-2022)
- Complete BA in Political Science (2022)
- Complete a law degree from the University of Western Ontario (2025)
- Obtain an articling position with an environmental law firm in New Brunswick (2026)
- Pass the bar exam and obtain a permanent position with an environmental law firm in NB (2027)