9. Preparing for Your First Professional Position

Leanne Mihalicz and Sarah Gibson

Introduction

The day has finally arrived — all your job-search efforts have paid off, and you are about to start your first professional position.

This chapter will help you prepare for your first week and give you suggestions on how to optimize your learning opportunities. Just as the first few minutes of an interview are critical to your success in securing the position, how you navigate on the job will influence your overall experiences and your career journey.

Whether it is your first co-op work term or another experiential learning opportunity, it may create feelings of excitement and nervousness. What will your new team be like? What projects will you be given? Will you make a good first impression? Where will you be three months from now? Six months? A year? These are good questions and are part of pre-flection, a process that will help you to become more self-aware and support your career development (Center for Teaching Excellence, 2022).

This chapter focuses on the experiences of co-op students, but it applies to anyone who may be starting their first professional position.

Learning Objectives

After carefully reading this chapter, completing the exercises within it, and answering the questions at the end, you should be able to:

  • Clarify the expectations of the position prior to the start of the work term, including how to prepare for the first week.
  • Identify the key traits that will lead to success in your first professional position, and create a plan to optimize your experiences and career journey.
  • Connect experiential learning activities to career development through reflective practice.

Preparing to Launch: Before You Start Your New Role

You already know a lot about where you will be working, having researched the organization during the job search process and for your interview; but don’t stop now. Take another look at your offer letter and the organization’s website to review their goals, current projects, and mission statement, as well as to learn to whom you are reporting.

The sample worksheet and checklist in Exercise 9.1 Critical Information and Exercise 9.2 First Day Checklist will help you prepare for the first day.

Exercise 9.1 Critical Information About the Organization and Role – Worksheet

Use this sample worksheet to organize critical information you have collected about the company and role.

Sample Worksheet
Information to Collect Details
Organization Name and Web Link:
Mission Statement:
Values:
Current Projects/ Items in the News:
Supervisor(s) Name and Title:
Contact Info (Phone and Email):

Exercise 9.2 Before Your First Day Checklist

Use the following checklist for the first day of your professional career journey:

  1. Determine the location and your route to the workplace OR set up an ergonomic, functional, and professional workspace in your home or remote setting.
  2. Communicate with the supervisor — confirm start time, dress code, and if there is anything you can do to prepare in advance of your first day.
  3. Review the company website, organizational mission, values, and current projects (see Exercise 9.1 Critical Information Worksheet
  4. Ensure you have a hard copy or electronic notebook or planner.

Onboarding and First Impressions

Onboarding will involve various important information and administrative tasks to get you set up on the job. Sometimes this can be overwhelming, as you meet many new people and are introduced to the organization’s procedures. It is common to feel a mix of excitement and exhaustion as you navigate your new workplace.

The checklist in Exercise 9.3 Onboarding Tips will help you prepare for the first week.

Exercise 9.3 Onboarding Tips for Your First Week

Consider the following actions to create a positive first impression:

  • Bring a notebook or journal to track all the new information you will learn.
  • Fill out any paperwork for HR requirements, or bring your identification and SIN.
  • Confirm with your supervisor if there are any training or orientation documents to review.
  • Introduce yourself and greet everyone on the team with a smile and positive attitude.
  • Join a coffee break or lunchtime conversation with your new colleagues.
  • Be ready to learn and experience new tasks and ideas.
  • Connect with your colleagues near the end of the day for a brief review and to say goodbye.

Developing good working relationships with your colleagues and demonstrating strong interpersonal skills will create a solid foundation for your work experiences. Remembering names and learning how people work together on the team can be challenging at first. Here are a few suggestions to help develop connections with your co-workers:

  • Be present in the conversation and focus on the person or people you are talking to.
  • Use people’s names when speaking with them.
  • Ask people questions (where they grew up, hobbies) to create an image in your mind to remember.

Time Management

Effective time management skills are crucial as you balance the many new responsibilities and tasks in your new role. Although you are used to balancing multiple deadlines while in study mode, you may find that fast‑paced deadlines in the workplace add more layers of complexity and perhaps more stress. It is important that you organize your tasks and schedule to optimize your time and help you create your best work. If you are working remotely from home, this becomes especially important, because you will need to create boundaries and processes to separate personal and work-related tasks.

Time Management Tips and Strategies

The following techniques, from Kuang (2022), can enhance your time management:

Use a Planner or Calendar

  • Have a consistent place that you are using to track and record deadlines, so you can see your daily, weekly, and monthly tasks in one location.
  • Record the hours you are working each day. Your organization may have a formalized time sheet used for payroll, but if not, record your hours in your calendar or planner daily.

Treat Time Management as Energy Management

  • Set some time aside to plan your day and weeks in advance. This will add some structure to your workday, which can reduce stress about what needs to be done and when it is due.
  • Develop a daily list of action items to help keep you motivated to stay on task, and provide documentation of what you have accomplished each day. This can be a helpful tool for both you and your supervisor to outline what you are working on and record your new skills and accomplishments for your resume.

Create Micro Deadlines (within a larger project)

  • Do not be intimidated by a large task or project. Identify mini-tasks and break them down into micro (bite-sized) action items.
  • Map out a plan with micro deadlines that are achievable and measurable, so you can see your progress.

Prioritize with the 80/20 Rule

  • The 80/20 rule, also known as the Pareto Principle, suggests 20% of your input and effort will account for 80% of your outcomes and results.
  • On a to-do list of 10 items, 2 of those items will be worth the other 8 combined. It is a method for identifying the most important ways to spend your time.
  • Focus your time on the most important action items that yield the biggest results.
  • Busy does not always mean productive!

Figure 9.1

The 80/20 Rule (Pareto Principle)

Arrow with 20% pointing towards circle with 80%. 20% effort causes 80% effect.
“Pareto Principle Option 2” by Scott Thomson is used under a CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license. [Adapted: Brightened and saturated from the original.]

Be Mindful of Wellness and Self Care

The transition from the classroom to your first professional position highlights the need for good self-care practices. Ensuring that you are taking care of your body, mind, and soul is important! It is important to have support along the way. For example, Thompson Rivers University is committed to supporting co-op students during every phase of their co‑op journey.

Self-Care Tips for Co-op Students:

  • Stay connected to your co‑op coordinator and reach out if you are having any troubles or concerns.
  • If you are a co-op student at Thompson Rivers University (TRU), utilize the wellness resources provided by TRU and your workplace. (Wellness resources and tips will be available in your co‑op work term Moodle course).
  • Get up and stretch at least once an hour.
  • If you’re stuck or blocked on a task, get up, grab a coffee, tea, or water, and then return to the task.
If I ever feel stuck, I’ll step away from my desk, fix a cup of tea, take a quick walk, and connect with another colleague, and then get back to work.” – Co-op Student

Optimizing Your Skill Development and Co-op Journey

Once you begin to feel comfortable in your new role as a professional, it may be time to move outside this comfort zone and show engagement. Following are discussion topics and ideas to help you engage and develop essential employability skills.

Be Curious

Don’t be afraid to ask questions – not only does this help you, but it demonstrates your interest and attention in the tasks you’re involved in and regarding the workplace.

“It shows that you’re actively listening, reflecting on your performance, and thinking about the work.” – Co-op Student

Learn to Problem-Solve

Employers want you to ask questions, but they also want you to take initiative, seek out solutions, and be resourceful. Before you ask a question, stop to reflect on whether you can problem-solve to answer it on your own.

“The COVID era has pushed me to work and think independently. You couldn’t just walk down the hall to ask a question; I found I was problem-solving more before reaching out to a colleague, ultimately bringing a more fully formed idea to the table.” – Co-op Student

Take Initiative

Consider opportunities to participate in projects or roles that will help you gain additional skills, whether they are technical or transferable. For example, participate in meetings and offer to be assigned a task, such as taking notes or leading a discussion. If you find yourself completing work efficiently, seek out additional tasks or offer to help others.

“Taking initiative and thinking outside of the box; how to successfully plan large and small-scaled events while accounting for the smaller logistical details; and how to prioritize and manage my time at an entirely new level.” – Co-op Student

Build Relationships

Expanding your network is essential to career success and this includes building and enhancing the relationships you are creating during your co-op. Here are a few ways that you can foster relationship building:

  • Say hello and goodbye to your colleagues.
  • Participate in small talk and/or “water cooler” sessions.
  • Learn to navigate the “informal work culture.”
  • Even if you’re an introvert, attempt to take part in social interactions such as coffee breaks, a lunch, group walks, or other planned events.
  •  Remember to be grateful and say, “Thank you.”
  • Be genuine and offer to assist others.
  • Seek mentorship from others.
“Co-op gave me the technical skills and confidence to embark on a career path in machine learning that I couldn’t envision before the program.” – Co-op Student

Ask for Feedback

It is essential to ask for feedback to ensure you are completing the quality of work that is required, but it also demonstrates your commitment to learning and growing. Mistakes are opportunities for improvement and are often just as valuable as achievements in your career discovery and journey.

“Don’t take critiques too emotionally — it’s not an attack on your character; it’s an opportunity to grow. It’s called constructive criticism for a reason.” – Co-op Student

Continue to Network

Just as it is important to network to find desirable work, once you are on a co-op work term you will want to continue to expand your professional network. Learn about other areas of the organization and be open to meeting people outside your direct team. Before you transition back to school, ensure you have a plan to stay connected. For example, ask for contact information and a reference.

Co-op Work Term Course at TRU

“We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience.” – John Dewey 

Note: This section describes the Co-op Work Term Course at TRU. If you are not a TRU student, check your own institutional website for co-op information.

The co‑op work term is more than just a job and is integrated into your academics. Your professional position is also a three‑credit elective course that can be used toward your graduation requirements. Your co‑op experiences are integrated into your on-campus academic semesters and reflect an educational model that promotes continuous learning (Canadian Association for Co‑operative Education, 2000). The co-operative education program at TRU is accredited and has met the specific criteria outlined by the Canadian Association for Co-operative Education.

You will be enrolled in a required online work term course that will keep you connected to your co‑op coordinator. The work term course is designed to reflect Experiential Learning (EL) principles that are foundational to co-operative education. EL incorporates hands-on experience, assessment, and reflection. Assessment can be in the form of verbal feedback that is in the moment, or at specified times. It can also include written evaluations that are mid-way through or at the end of a work term. In a similar manner, reflective activities can embrace a variety of formats that occur prior to, while engaged in, and after a work term experience.

In the following graphic depicting experiential learning elements, it is important to see that there is a relationship between each area, and they are in balance.

Figure 9.2

Elements of Experiential Learning

3 interconnected circles which shows that Co-op Experience, Career Development, and Reflective Practices are intertwined.
Note. Inspired and adapted from CERIC-OneLifeTools (2022, p. 4)

Reflective Activity

Exercise 9.4 Co-op Work Term Reflection and Activities

Complete the following activities:

  1. Pre-flection – Before your Co-op Work Term:
    1. What words or phrases come to mind when you begin thinking about a potential co‑op experience?
    2. What do you hope to experience?
    3. Create a word-and-picture collage of what you expect to be changed or impacted by the co‑op experience.
    4. Which of the following co-op student quotes excite or interest you the most?

“Cooperative education has tremendously improved my academic experiences at Thompson Rivers University. The co-op program has brought more meaning to my current education by relating to what I learned at work.” – Co-op Student

“Within these learning experiences, you’re often thrown into the workforce. The “sink or swim” aspect was the best experience. There is a freedom to make decisions, but you know that you’re being supported along the way.” – Co-op Student

“In terms of technical and social skills, there’ve been different stages of growth. I was an introvert before and I didnt’ talk a lot. I’ve gotten better at chatting with colleagues and connecting with other departments.” – Co-op Student

“I’ve experienced total growth and total change. Adapting to remote work was an interesting challenge, especially as I started this position without any onsite experience, but it expanded my interpersonal communication skills.” – Co-op Student

2. During Your Work Term:

Record your work/projects for your resume, and professional portfolio (video or written journal, website, blog, and/or LinkedIn). These are your stories, and it is valuable to continuously document and track your tasks and project work as you progress, so that you can accurately account and articulate these experiences in professional documents such as your resume or portfolio.

Concept Review

Review some of the concepts covered in this chapter

 

Conclusion

This professional experience is an opportunity to explore ways to further develop your career. 

“Your ‘career’ is the full expression of who you are and how you want to be in the world. And, it keeps on expanding as it naturally goes through cycles of stability & change” (Franklin, 2015).

By gaining feedback throughout this experience and reflecting on your interests, skills, and strengths, you will continue to expand your knowledge, build confidence, and enhance your career development.

 

References

Canadian Association for Co-operative Education. (2000). Co-operative education manual [pdf]. https://www.cewilcanada.ca/common/Uploaded%20files/Public%20Resources/Resource%20Hub/Co-operative%20Education%20Manual%20saved%2005.11.21.pdf

Center for Teaching Excellence. (2022). Integrative learning: Use of pre-flection/ reflection. Miami University OH. https://www.miamioh.edu/cte/flc-resources/experiential-learning/el-reflection/index.html

CERIC-OneLifeTools. (2022). Reflective practice on experiential learning and how to unlock its career development value: Maker’s audit and guide [pdf]. https://ceric.ca/wayfinder/PDF/practitioners-audit-and-guide-onelifetools.pdf

Dewey, J. (n.d.) We learn from reflecting on experience. https://thelearnersway.net/ideas/2019/11/24/if-we-learn-from-reflecting-on-experience

Franklin,M. (2015). CareerCycles: A holistic and narrative method of practice. In B.C.Shepard, P.S.Mani (Eds.), Career development practice in Canada: Perspectives, principles, and professionalism (pp. 441–463). CERIC. http://ceric.ca/wpdm-package/career-develoapment-practice-in-canada-chapter-18-a-holistic-and-narrative-method-of-practice/

Kuang, M. (2022, March 16). Three ways to reframe time management. University of British Columbia. https://students.ubc.ca/ubclife/3-ways-reframe-time-management

Thomson, S. (2009). Pareto Principle option 2 [digital image]. Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sleepyvalley/3650673328/

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