Transitioning into the university life

March 29, 2018

There are very few people who can give young people precise, practical and inspirational advice. Dr Amrita Dass is one of them. She is the Founder-Director of the Institute for Career Studies, (ICS International), Lucknow, India.

I recently watched her in a 2.5 minute TV interview where she gave some profound advice to youngsters who are completing their final school exams and getting ready to enter college/university.

In an attempt to get answers to some of the top-of-mind questions that youth have on this topic, I interviewed her. Here are some excerpts of the interview:

1. How can one make the best of his/her university life?

Dr Amrita Dass: Students need to bring together capability, copability and responsibility. Capability is enhanced if the undergraduate courses they have chosen resonate with their aptitudes and interests. Self-discipline, effective time management wherein students prioritise the ‘musts, shoulds and coulds’, maintaining good relations, leisure activities, a nutritious diet and a positive attitude are the essential building blocks of copability. Responsibility encompasses meeting all your commitments to the best of your ability, being dependable and accountable for your actions.
Moreover, during under grad studies, students should explore possibilities of internships as this will give them valuable insights into the world of work and develop the essential employability skills. The Association Internationale des Étudiants en Sciences Économiques et Commerciales (AIESEC) is a global organisation with a strong presence in colleges and universities that provides such opportunities.

2. If you don’t like the course you get the admission in, what can you do?

Dr Amrita Dass: There could be many reasons for not liking the course you have got into. You may find that the teaching is not up to the mark, or the classes are not held regularly or the overall environment is not conducive and you are finding it difficult to adjust or you are in a city, far away from home and homesick.
Remember that you are not the only one facing such problems which I would describe as “teething problems” and therefore temporary. Become an intrinsically motivated learner by reading reference books, researching and doing project work. Make new friends, participate in extra-curricular activities by joining a society/club in your college and seek avenues that will tap your potential to the fullest. I believe that “when the road gets tough, the tough get going”!

However, if the course is one that you had not really explored and you discover that it does not gel with you, then the earlier you opt out in favour of the right course at the right campus, the better!

3. If one does not get admission in the desired course, is it OK to take a gap year? If yes, how to make the best of the gap year?

Dr Amrita Dass: Please avoid taking up any course that you are offered randomly as this will not tap your potential to the fullest. A gap year is advisable if you are not sure about what course you wish to pursue or have not managed to get the course of your choice at a leading campus.
There are many ways to make your gap year a meaningful and enriching one. You could, for example, pursue some interesting free online courses delivered by eminent faculty through Alongside, you could take master classes to hone your talent in art and design, music, dance, acting, culinary arts or sports etc. A gap year could also be utilised for community service which is a huge learning experience and also adds value to your application to top universities, or internships to provide insights about careers you are exploring.

Before I close, I want to share what Dr Dass had told me years ago, “If you have good communication skills and a positive attitude, no one can stop you from achieving your career goals”. This has remained a mantra of life for me. I would like my young friends to work on improving their communications skills and developing a positive attitude.

Go hard on ‘Soft Skills’

October 29, 2016

I was recently invited to give an “inspirational talk” on Intern Development Day in my office. As the speech was part of the interns’ professional development programme, I requested the organizers to get me responses from the interns to the following question:

What could possibly stop you from achieving your career goals?

The question was put up to interns before the event. Around 50 responses were received. The analysis of responses brought out some interesting points, besides helping me finalize my short 15 minutes talk.

40% mentioned issues related to their personality (laziness, lack of determination, self-doubt etc.); health and illnesses; and skills (language and communication skills, time management etc.) that may affect their career goals.

40% highlighted external factors such as growing unemployment; short-term jobs with no or less possibility of extension, issues of work permits and policies that affect job prospects of youths.

20% were the bold and confident responses mentioning ‘nothing can stop us’.

These responses came from young persons of at least 15 nationalities, representing all regions of the world. Hence, I feel like writing on the issue and sharing some thoughts.

Growing youth unemployment is certainly a concern but at the same time, according to McKinsey reports, only 43% of employers can find enough skilled entry-level workers.

I would offer the following three suggestions:

Soft skills shouldn’t be taken softly any more: Only academic and professional education are not enough. Young persons need to focus hard on soft skills: communication, inter-personal skills, positive thinking and creativity. There are very good courses available, including online, that can be taken to strengthen soft skills.

Employers want multi-taskers : Apart from requisite educational and technical qualifications, employers are looking for people who are multi-taskers; solution-oriented; and demonstrate willing to willingness to learn new skills.

Use short-term jobs as an opportunity: The world of work is changing fast. Globalization and technical innovation has changed the business practices and work patterns. Short-term contracts are likely to stay. The future of work is where people will work for different employers at the same time. In this context, it is important to use the short-terms job opportunities to learn new skills and expand your professional network.

Having said that, It was good to note that 20% young persons were very positive, mentioning ‘nothing can stop us’. This positive attitude and determination will be important in finding your niche and being successful in a rapidly changing world of work.

Righteousness in the heart leads to peace in the world

July 28, 2015

Dr APJ Abdul Kalam passed away doing what he was loved the most — speaking to young persons. He would not just lecture them. He would interact with them. On occasions, he would make them repeat his words. He encouraged youth to dream success and work hard to achieve it. He dreamt for a developed India. His vision and ideas would continue to inspire generations to come.

Dr. Kalam came from a humble background. He studied against all odds to become a well-known scientist and the President of India who was described as the people’s President. He touched millions with his books, speeches and ideas. But more than anything, he touched everyone with his humility.

Messages of condolence and grief are pouring from all over. I am writing because I too feel a sense of loss.

As a scientist, Dr. Kalaam contributed immensely to the success of nuclear tests but he also used his knowledge for the benefit of people.
Excerpts from one of his speeches:
‘One day an orthopedic surgeon visited my laboratory. He lifted the material (carbon-carbon material developed for Agni) and found it so light that he took me to his hospital and showed me his patients.
There were these little girls and boys with heavy metallic calipers weighing over three kilogram each, dragging their feet around. He said to me: Please remove the pain of my patients.
In three weeks, we made the floor reaction Orthosis 300 orthopedic center. The children didn’t believe their eyes. From dragging around a three kilogram load on their legs, they could now move around! Their parents had tears in their eyes.’

I loved watching his videos. One of my favourites is his speech at the European Parliament during the 50th anniversary of the formation of the European Union.
“Where there is righteousness in the heart. There is beauty in the character. When there is beauty in the character, there is harmony in the home. When there is harmony in the home, there is order in the nation. When there is order in the nation, there is peace in the world. ”

I hope his message would resonate with all world leaders and citizens. We are seeing violations of human rights and conflicts affecting so many parts of the world.
The best tribute to Dr. Kalaam would be to introspect and develop righteousness.

Keep your promise!

January 31, 2015

Abraham Lincoln once travelled with a Colonel. After covering some distance, the Colonel took out a bottle of whiskey and asked him if he would like to have a drink. Lincoln politely refused telling him that he never drinks whisky. The colonel did not insist further. After a while, the colonel made another offer, “would you like to smoke with me? Lincoln then shared an incident of his childhood with the Colonel.

‘I was about nine years old then. My mother was very sick. She called me and said, “Abey, the doctor tells me I am not going to get well. I want you to promise me before I go that you will never use whiskey or tobacco as long as you live.” I promised my mother I never would. And, I have kept that promise. Now would you advise me to break that promise to my dear mother, and take a smoke with you?’

The Colonel was touched; felt it was the best promise to be kept.

Drug and alcohol addiction mostly start with an experimental use in a social situation. Then for some people, the use becomes more frequent and becomes an addiction. And, we all know what happens as a result.

It pains most when you see a promising career coming to an end due to an addiction. A young man once shared in one of our AIDS conferences, ‘I studied in a very good school. I didn’t realize that the first shot of an injection offered by a friend would change my life for ever. I could not live without it and became a drug addict. I had to often steal money at home to buy what was offered free in the beginning.  My grades dropped and I had to leave the school. And, now I am living with HIV.’

I asked this person after the conference which is your bigger problem: HIV or drugs. He said, ‘Drugs, because with treatment for HIV, I am doing fine but despite several rehabilitation courses, I find it difficult to fully come out of my drug-using behaviour.’

I wish this man, too, had politely refused his first shot like Lincoln did. The lesson from Lincoln’s sorry is for all to remember: If you say no politely, based on a conviction or a promise you have made to someone, your friends will not mind. In fact they will respect you.


Internship: how can it lead to employment?

October 31, 2014

Having read my previous post – Five ideas to make the best of your internship, one of my interns requested me to share some ideas on how to move from internship to employment.

Two questions that bother most interns are: When should one start applying for jobs? And, where should one look for jobs?

I would offer the following tips:

  1. Internship is a way to pretest your career option:  You may decide to seek employment in the same field or sector; or explore another area. Some even decide to go back to school and pursue something entirely different.
  2. Remember, you are making a career choice: People look for different things in a job: a high profile organization to be associated with (it looks fantastic on the CV!); a preferred country to work in; convenience etc. All this is ok but the main issue to ponder over is: does the job provide a good learning opportunity in the chosen career? After all, you are making a career choice. Therefore, the scope of work is more important than the name of the organization. Often, smaller organizations provide greater learning opportunities.
  3. Internship and job hunt go hand in hand: Don’t wait for the internship to be over to start the job hunt. I really appreciate the Syni programme that aims to enhance employment opportunities and collaborates with different organizations. They have a good policy. Their candidates are supposed to work for 80 per cent of their time in an organization and commit the rest of the time to job search: preparing applications, updating the CV and attending various trainings to enhance skills.
  4. Know your organization’s policy with regards to interns: Some organizations have a policy of not offering employment to their interns for a fixed period of time, following the internship. Get to know the policy of the organization you are interning with and plan your strategy accordingly.
  5. Develop your professional network: The main advantage of an internship is that you get to know professionals and develop a networkThis network can provide you important information on potential job opportunities as well as guide you on how to go about it. Remember to take a letter of recommendation from your supervisor. Also, check with the supervisor/others if you could put their name as a referee on your CV.

Finally, how you write your internship experience on your CV is very important.  You must be honest and succinctly capture it under two areas: what was your main contribution? and, What did you learn during the internship?

Five ideas to make the best of your internship

September 29, 2014

Internship is the first exposure to work for many young persons. They enter an organization to learn, to gain experience and enhance their career prospects. Unfortunately internship does not always go well. Interns get frustrated due a number of reasons: lack of clarity in what they are supposed to do; not doing substantial work and being reduced to just another helping hand; supervisor not giving enough time or guidance etc.

Here are 5 ideas that might help:

1. Spend time knowing about the organization particularly in the first week
Read as much as possible and interact with people. Get to know the organization’s vision and work. The first week is ideal for this as interns usually go through an induction, and specific work is not yet assigned. As time passes, it often becomes difficult to spend time on this.

2. Seek clarity on what you are expected to do
Generally there is an agreed ‘Terms of Reference’ but often it is too broad and specifics are not defined. This creates confusion and causes problems. Have meetings with your supervisor and seek clarity on what is expected of you. Make sure to have regular meetings with your supervisor and agree on deliverables as your work may change from time to time.

3. Connect the dots and develop a broader perspective
Understand how your work is connected to the work of your team and the overall scheme of things. Interact with colleagues from other teams and appreciate how different departments work together to contribute to the organizational goal(s). Earlier you understand the importance of inter-dependence and team work, the better it is.

4. Learn and enhance Skills
Make the best of all learning opportunities. You may learn how to develop and execute strategies and plans, organize meetings, workshops or events, training etc. You can also learn how organizational processes are organized. Remember no task is small. Even if you learn how to write minutes of a meeting, it is going to help you forever.

5. Identify role models and mentors
Observe your colleagues. What makes them successful? What do they do differently? You may find role models and mentors. Learn from them and keep in touch with them even after the internship is over. This contact will help you at different stages of your career.

Before I end, I must add that it is also the responsibility of supervisors to ensure that internship is a good experience for interns.

Be a mentor to someone

October 21, 2012

In my last visit to India, I conducted the opening door workshop for the students of class 12th of Unity College, Lucknow. It was an absolute delight to be with some bright young boys and girls. We discussed steps to developing a high self-esteem and positive attitude. And, we discussed success: what does it mean and how to achieve success.

It was good to see dreams being shared, aspirations being talked about with a sense of optimism. A young girl aspired to be a judge, some wanted to be a doctor, software engineer, and so on. The young people were raring to go for their dreams. We had a good discussion on how to go about it and summarized it under three points: develop a plan for realization of  career goals; work hard to implement the plan; and be ready to face failures that may come along the way without losing hope and self esteem.

We then discussed to appreciate success in wider terms. What does it bring for others, particularly for those who are less privileged? Can we do something for others even at the current stage of our life when we are students ourselves? We came up with an idea.

In the premises of Unity College, the management runs another school- Unity Mission School- in the afternoon, for poor children of the locality. Most of them are drop outs, or those who could never go to school due to poverty. They are offered free education, uniform, books and other support. I had the opportunity to meet one student of the Mission school who told me that he wanted to be an engineer. He felt he needed to improve his English but had no money to pay for a tutor. Even as a student of class 10th, he was teaching Mathematics to two primary level students from a nearby school to support his family income. His situation was in my mind as I was doing the workshop. I shared it and asked students if someone would like to help this boy improve his English. This might take just about an hour a day but it will help this boy realize his dream. Carrying the idea further, we felt what a big difference it would make if each senior student of Unity College could be a mentor to at least one child of the Mission school. The Principal of Mission school, who was present in the workshop, felt it would be a big help for her children. She agreed to connect her students with the group and help them find a child to whom they could mentor. We concluded: we can help others in realization of their dreams while we are still working on ours.

As I finished the workshop and drove back I saw some students of the Mission school walking in. I hoped they will soon find a mentor in the group I had just interacted with.