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Photo of a small section of a job posting  noting “Duties” and “Skills Required”

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In my role in the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Arts, I hosted an online question-and-answer session for graduate students several years ago, so that they could ask questions of a colleague of mine who was hiring two graduate research assistants. My colleague worked in enrollment services, and one of his two hires was going to be tasked with researching and developing online training that would help application reviewers better understand why Black Canadian students may have leadership profiles that look different from their non-Black peers.

This role was described in a conventional, two-page job posting, and we were trying to encourage our students to apply by hosting this Q-and-A. In the registration form for the event, I invited students to share a question that they might ask of this employer.

One Ph.D. student registrant wrote: “This sounds like a wonderful opportunity for community, advocacy, leadership and mentorship—are successful applicants expected to have expertise in equity, diversity and inclusion within bureaucracies, or is experience with antiracism activism and lived experience sufficient?”

What struck me at the time—and what stands out to me now, as I’m re-reading this question—is that this student felt that they needed permission from the employer to apply for this job. They had lived experience as a Black Canadian person, they studied Black Canadian artistic productions for their graduate degree, they had been involved with antiracism activism, and they still weren’t sure if they would be qualified for this student job. They felt they needed to be told it was okay to apply. They didn’t know that they could argue for the relevance of their experience and expertise in their application materials.

People in positions like I held then—people who support graduate students with their career development—don’t know how many of our students self-exclude from applying for a job. We can’t track numbers of applications not submitted. As work experiences become an increasingly prominent approach to professional development for graduate students, it is our obligation to ensure that our students aren’t encountering barriers to accessing relevant, paid work experiences.

From my four-plus years of supporting masters and doctoral students in research-intensive programs in the humanities and social sciences, I’ve seen how job postings are interpreted by women, genderqueer students, gender nonbinary students, Indigenous students, students of color, and other students from equity-deserving groups. Job postings appear to be a barrier to access, even when they are written to follow best practices for equity, diversity and inclusion.

Even in programs like UBC Arts’ PhD Co-op, in which students learn to decode job postings, I have still heard students tell me that they are not qualified to apply for jobs that I know they would be more than qualified to hold. The problem isn’t students’ lack of understanding. The problem is the job description.

To circumvent this problem, in the UBC Arts Amplifier—a work-integrated learning program for grad students across the UBC Faculty of Arts, which I created and launched in November 2020—we try to get employers to meet with students for a question-and-answer session before that employer has a written job posting. Once an employer knows what project they want completed or what problem they want solved, they join us for a 40-minute Zoom session, and they spend five or 10 minutes talking about their project.

The rest of the time, the students ask them questions. The students ask about method, about approach, about the population being served or studied, and—often—they ask about flexibility in hours of work. And because the employer hasn’t written a job posting, they’re not yet married to a particular way of the role being performed or the job being done. Their prospective interns, all grad students, can bring new approaches and ways of thinking into these workplaces, and take pathways their employers hadn’t considered.

The quality of discussion is usually quite high. For example, when a faculty member was hiring a research assistant for a storymapping project about Vancouver’s Chinatown, students asked questions like, “Would you be open to discussing Vancouver’s Chinatown’s relationship with other Chinatowns?” and, “How do you ensure you’re telling these stories in the best way possible?” By critically questioning their potential employer, these prospective job applicants practiced bringing their thinking to the job-application process. When not faced with a job description to which they needed to measure up, they approached the project with curiosity and with their analytical strengths. Having engaged critically with the project, they were then well-positioned to write cover letters and résumés in which they argued for the suitability of their experience and expertise to the role in question—and the needs they saw that they could address.

When I worked at the Arts Amplifier, I hosted these Q&As as often as possible for our paid internships and for our collaborative applied research projects. Students don’t always get what these Q&As are meant to be and do, and that’s okay. When students sign up for a Q&A, there’s a spot on the form for them to pre-submit questions, and if they pre-submit a question like, “What skills are required for this position?” I send them my blog post on Q&As. Then, I tell them that they should tell the employer why their skills are perfect for the job.

After the Q&A, the students submit a conventional job application—a cover letter and a résumé—and participate in an interview. I found that fewer students would apply for each job, but the applications that they submit are a much higher quality than those submitted by students who don’t attend a Q&A.

These question-and-answer sessions may not train a student to read a job posting analytically, but I’m not sure that’s too important—if the anecdata is true, only 20 percent of jobs come from postings anyway. I’d much rather they learn to argue for the relevance of their skills and experience and ideas.

I’d love to see more institutions take this approach to supporting graduate student career development and work-integrated learning. If you help employers to recruit graduate students, then you can serve as a supportive intermediary—giving students a better understanding of an array of work cultures and also enabling employers to recruit highly qualified applicants who might otherwise inappropriately self-exclude from applying to their posting. In my experience, the best way to recruit employers to participate in a Q&As, rather than hiring through a conventional job posting, has been to let them know that they’ll get both more and better-quality applications by taking part in our rather unusual process.

Almost 10 years ago, Tara Sophia Mohr argued in the Harvard Business Review that many potential job applicants hold a “a mistaken perception about the hiring process,” and don’t understand how “advocacy, relationships, or a creative approach to framing one’s expertise” can be relevant in hiring. She concluded that applicants need to “believe less in what appear to be the rules.”

I’d argue that the same is true of those of us who support student careers, especially graduate student careers. After all, many of our universities hire contractors through requests for proposals—so why not invite alternative ways to share information about a paid internship or research project? Until our societal structures are better positioned to empower students from equity-deserving groups, it’s the job of those of us who support student careers to bend and reshape norms to help students to recognize the power that they have in the job market.

Letitia Henville is a freelance academic editor; she formally supported graduate student careers at the University of British Columbia.

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