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How Early Career Researchers Can Offer Useful College Advice for Incoming Undergraduates

What college advice can early career researchers (ECRs) give incoming undergraduate students? For most high school students, summertime means temporary jobs, college visits, and standardized tests. For ECRs, visiting family and friends that are considering college may ask you — a veteran of the collegiate experience — many questions about college decision-making. Considering the current political and economic turbulence, how can an ECR give college advice to high school students looking to major in other areas?

Passion, as well as some smart-decision-making, will lead to a successful college experience. Photo by Ian Schneider.

Focus on certainties

The expectation here might be to start with a discussion of strengths and weaknesses or interests of the student. Instead, let’s take a step back. Almost every student has certain needs: an education and a career trajectory that will provide housing, healthcare, and food. Unless they are independently wealthy, the student needs a plan to provide for themselves. Considering the uncertainty in many job markets today, try to focus on skill development.

There are many transferable skills that are taught in college, such as public speaking, statistics and writing. By emphasizing the importance of skill development, you can confer the value of lifelong learning, and building upon and adapting your knowledge.

While it’s difficult to forecast the job market in the next four to five years there are many stable sectors (such as accounting, nursing, engineering) and technical skills (i.e. administration, business/entrepreurship and computer programming) that are always fundamental to many workplaces and therefore valued. Try working with the student to find a commonality between their diverse interests and guide them to develop skills catered to that interest.

Help define priorities

When choosing a college or a career path, certain priorities need to be considered. Is the college in a good location? Is it important to be close to family, friends, or other support networks? Would it be difficult for the student to start fresh in a new city, region, or country? The ability to retain or develop support structures may make a difference in academic standing or the overall college experience. While the quality of the academic program is important, it is important to remember the student is choosing where to start their next chapter. The setting (urban, suburban, rural), region, and the campus lifestyle will affect many aspects of the student’s daily life.

University of Toronto — St. George Campus. Photo by Victoria Heath.

Does a certain university provide the desired campus life or overall “experience?” Here are some key questions the student should ask a campus representative:

  • Is the university very social or service-oriented?
  • Are you an athelete or a fan of college athletics?
  • Some universities may be known for residential students going home on weekends — is this a “suitcase campus” or “commuter campus”?
  • Does the institution offer research opportunities for undergraduates?
  • What sort of professional development services are available to students?

Reflecting on the overall experience before committing to four years at a certain university is important to helping the student to make informed decisions.

Always aim for the best financial choices

The political climate is tense and federal student loan policies in the United States are up in the air. The discussion around college financing, federal funding, and private student loans are creating more uncertainty around the financial burdens associated with a college education.

It is clear that college is an investment of both time and money, and it’s critical that this investment pay off in the long run. I suggest working with the student to think about their vision for the ideal outcome, post-college. Some things to think about:

  • What is the overall cost of attending this college? Go beyond tuition to look at the average cost of renting an apartment in the area.
  • Is living on campus required or even financially tenable? What is more affordable, on or off campus living? How will this impact future friendships or quality of life?
  • How much would a first job need to pay to begin paying off any loans? Time to do the math.
  • Can you take prerequisite courses at a more affordable institution? Sometimes, completing prereqs at a community college is less expensive and a simple transfer.

For most students, minimizing any student debt is a priority. Speak to students from your personal experience about important topics such as course loads, the value of financial aid, and ongoing burden of student loans to help students make an informed decision on their educational investment. These decisions will affect their financial welfare for years to come.

Suggested Listening: Death, Sex and Money produced a podcast series where individuals discuss the crippling burden of student debt. While not uplifting, it is important listening for incoming students.

Explore career path(s) early

Encourage the student to build connections and explore career options early on in the process. Work with the student to connect with professionals on social media and nudge them to read or write blog posts and join job discussion boards, or reddit boards related to their desired career path or applying to college.

Motivate the student to be a go-getter, and create their own opportunities by connecting with people who have the career and lifestyle the student envisions for themselves in the future.

Great resources for this are social mediums like reddit, Twitter, and LinkedIn. TIP: Check your username and make sure it’s professional.

Take the next step and think about your personal contacts. Do you know someone in their field of interest? If you are willing, connect the student with your friend or colleague and help the student set up an informational interview. Leveraging a personal connection can often make all difference when launching a career.

There are more publicly available career resources and pathways available today than in the past. By focusing on the guaranteed aspects of college, skill development, and networking offer students a fresh perspective on the college experience, particularly during turbulent political and economic times.

Sharing insights from your personal experience as an ECR will start a productive discussion about attaining higher education for young students interested in any discipline.

Do you have some good advice to share? Comment below!

Featured Photo: Rochelle Nicole, Univ of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Photo freely available and licensed under Creative Commons Zero.


Frizell, S. 2014. Student loans are ruining your life. Now they’re ruining the economy, too. TIME. Accessed June 2, 2017.

Tretina, K. 2017. 6 vital things parents need to know about student loans. USA Today. Accessed June 2, 2017.

Yu, R. 2017. Student loan program faces uncertain future amid sweeping proposals. USA Today. Accessed June 2, 2017.

  1. […] If you want to benefit from others’ mentorship, you have to be able to offer something in return. This might be difficult to imagine if your mentor is more senior, but they can probably still learn something from you too. If this still does not apply to you can pay it forward by mentoring other students. […]

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