Let me tell you about how I first met Andrew Zheng…

I was a speaker at the Chinese Students and Scholars Association gala (CSSA) and met Andrew during the networking portion of the evening. He impressed me by explaining how he landed a job in his industry right after university.

When many of his friends are still struggling with finding work after graduation, Andrew is an example of everything you can do “right” to tilt the odds in your favour. (Click the links to get more inspiration by reading Sandra’s story, Ndumiso’s story, and Gerard’s story) 

As an international student from China, Andrew started to think about being employable from the beginning of his Masters of Chemistry program. He knew his job options were narrow to begin with, so instead of following the usual route of focusing only on his studies, Andrew strategized early to maximize his employability.

First, he decided that unless he went out of his way to make improvements to his English, language was likely to remain a barrier to employment. So Andrew joined Toastmasters and practiced giving presentations and speeches every week to get comfortable speaking English in stressful situations. He also made a conscious effort to make friends who were not Chinese so he could practice English in natural conversation, and sought out friendships with some of the more advanced graduate students in his program, making connections with future colleagues and paying attention to tips about Canadian culture at the same time.

Andrew stands out among other Asian newcomers in that he really ensured that his friendships were as much, if not more, with native English speakers than Chinese speakers. While other students were immersing themselves in video games and seeking cultural comfort with people they felt comfortable with, Andrew gained communication skill and intercultural competence by actively seeking opportunities to engage with English speakers and make real friends. In addition to his chemistry studies, he watched English movies and listened to the news in English. Andrew’s determination to “get comfortable” in English was truly exemplary.

When a conference application from another province in Canada was forwarded to his department, it occurred to Andrew that he might be able to work outside of Edmonton in another province. With another student, he presented at a conference in Eastern Canada and looked up potential companies in the area to find out where new employment options might be. He was ready to move if need be and steeled himself to accept work wherever it was to be found.

As luck would have it – and Andrew is convinced that luck played a large part in his success – a job opportunity with a chemical manufacturing company in Edmonton was sent to his department, with the announcement that they were hiring for 5 positions. A number of graduate students from his department applied.

To improve his chances at getting an interview, Andrew worked full time for a week perfecting and rewriting his resume and cover letter. He went to resume writing workshops and had his resume proofread. He asked his doctoral student colleagues to mentor him and to conduct mock job interviews, racking up over 20 hours of interview practice between several mentors. He would say:

“Give me your hardest questions and critique me until I answer them right.”

His colleagues were happy to help, especially when he explained that this practice would help them with their future job interviews.  

When Andrew received a notification that he had been selected for a phone interview, he was more than ready.  With his toastmasters background, strong English preparation, combined with constant mock interview practices under his belt, Andrew approached the phone interview with confidence and was asked to come in for the next round of in-person interviews. He rigorously researched the company in advance, and through LinkedIn connected with employees who worked there.

As Andrew expected, the interview with the manufacturing company was much like an academic interview. It consisted of a panel interview, a demonstration, a luncheon and another round of interviews in the afternoon. He knew that everyone he met throughout the day was somehow part of the evaluation and that he should be cordial and show interest in others during the lunch, but not be overly familiar and let his guard down.

If you guessed that Andrew was offered the job you guessed correctly. My reaction was, “How could any employer resist a candidate who was THAT well prepared? If I had a job I would have hired Andrew on the spot!” But Andrew did not agree with me. He explained that immediately following the signing of his contract, the economy dived and his company put a freeze on hiring. That is why Andrew attributes his job to luck saying, “I just squeezed in at the right time.”

It does appear that Andrew was in the right place at the right time, but he certainly improved his chances at getting a position with all his hard work preparing in advance during his student years.

When I asked what was different for him about work and school, Andrew replied that working was much easier than being a student because in the first month, company training and peer support helped him as a new hire to adapt to the new environment. Team projects and workplace norms came easily to Andrew, since he already knew how to make friends and work with a diverse workplace through all his earlier efforts. He is also really appreciative of his free evenings and weekends and now that he doesn’t have to work on papers and projects all the time he has taken up a few hobbies, including ballroom dancing.

When I asked about his career goals, Andrew said he just wants to make sure he doesn’t lose his English. I was surprised to hear that, given everything he put himself through to get comfortable in English while in graduate school. But Andrew explained that he found himself slipping into the pattern he promised earlier to never do – going out primarily with Chinese friends and doing activities in Chinese. I’m certain Andrew will continue to perfect his English.  I found him an engaging and articulate young man who is certainly destined for great things, given his combination of drive and both intellectual and social smarts.

I asked what Andrew wanted to say to students who are concerned about job market, he replied:

“Be brave to embrace the real world instead of accepting inaccurate information online or from inexperienced friends.”

He commented that students should not be influenced by exaggeratedly negative online information from jobless people, and should not be influenced by best friends who had no job application and work experience. Andrew told me that students could find how difficult job finding was mainly by:

  • Attending job fairs

  • Applying positions

  • Practicing for job interviews

  • Attending actual job interviews

  • Meeting working professionals

  • Finding internship opportunities

Andrew is convinced these are the steps that work to help students find what job they will really like and what skills they will need to develop before graduation.

His advice to students currently in school is to follow his example, so here are Andrew’s 10 essentials for anyone who is currently studying with the hope of finding work after graduation:

  1. Actively make friends outside of your culture

  2. Practice English regularly by putting yourself into situations, like Toastmasters, where you have to speak English (you might even make some friends in your Toastmasters’ group!)

  3. Seek mentors

  4. Ask people to help you perfect your pitch with mock interviews

  5. Research the companies you’re interested in and connect with people who work there via LinkedIn

  6. Use resume workshops and opportunities on campus and don’t be afraid to get a second opinion on your application before you submit it

  7. Prepare, prepare, prepare – then hope for the best and for luck to be on your side

  8. Keep practicing English even after you find work

  9. Don’t let yourself slip into old habits – make friends in your culture but have friends outside of your culture too

  10. Develop your talents and hobbies outside of work

Which of these can you begin working on today?  Make a plan now to start preparing and moving forward in building the career you want.

Looking for more ways to build your career? Check out the Canadian Workplace course suite and get the skills you need to create the career you want.

About Marie:

Marie Gervais, PhD, CEO Shift Management is a business-to-business entrepreneur who specializes in helping employers train their middle management to lead, get their workplace learning online and interactive, and conduct team assessments to figure out who to promote and how. She has a background in integrating internationally-trained individuals to the workplace and has supported many businesses in their efforts to hire, retain, support and promote immigrant and diverse employees.

Get in touch – she would love to hear from you: marie@shiftworkplace.com or 780-454-5661