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How to Launch a Career During COVID-19

Expert advice on navigating the job search without sacrificing mental health

By Anna Holtby

April 28, 2018 •

When Suman Varghese, ’04 BSc(Spec), ’07 BEd, ’13 MEd, finished her undergraduate degree in psychology, she didn’t have a clear career plan. She started working odd jobs and, over the next decade, went on to complete a teaching degree, attend journalism school, work as a TV producer and, eventually, return to the U of A to get a master’s degree in educational psychology. “By that time, I was almost 10 years older than everybody else,” Varghese says, laughing. “But I actually don’t have regrets. It all helped shape me and the direction I wanted to go.”

Today, Varghese works as a psychologist at the U of A’s Counselling & Clinical Services. She’s counselling students over the phone during the pandemic, including some who are graduating this year and have career concerns of their own. Although Varghese can empathize with that struggle, she knows the Class of 2020 faces unprecedented challenges. 

This year’s graduates, as well as alumni of recent years, are attempting to launch their careers during a global pandemic and resulting economic crisis. This is not a typical recession — beyond high rates of unemployment, COVID-19 has shut down some industries while creating new ones. Planes aren’t flying much, but masks are flying off the shelves. 

“Research shows that those who graduate during a recession earn less than members of other cohorts, even up to five and 10 years after graduation,” says Andrew McGee, a labour economist and associate professor in the U of A’s Department of Economics. 

McGee calls this the “labour market scarring effect.” Students who graduate from university during a recession have fewer jobs to choose from. As a result, some will end up taking positions that don’t offer skill development or opportunities for advancement. This can scar their earning potential for the coming years, even once the recession is over.

So while it’s important recent graduates understand the economic reality, McGee says, there are ways to successfully navigate the recession job search and the stress that comes with it.

The tool kit

As university graduates start the job hunt, it can be discouraging to search a job board for a position title and come up empty. That’s why Blessie Mathew, ’99 BSc(Spec), suggests reframing how we think about vocation. Mathew is the director of the U of A’s Career Centre, where she has worked for more than 20 years.

In Canadian society, people regularly ask children and even young adults what they want to be when they grow up. “This is a useless question,” says Mathew. “We’re saying, ‘You must decide one thing.’ Whereas in healthy career management, we want to spend time exploring options and how we can apply our unique blend of skills, knowledge and attributes.”

She encourages job seekers to open their minds to other opportunities by asking these questions instead: Who do I want to serve? What problems do I want to solve? What kind of person do I want to be? What’s important to me? Answering these questions prepares graduates to enter a tough job market with the ability to adapt and see new possibilities. “Think about it like a tool kit,” says Mathew. “Each of your skills, areas of knowledge and personal characteristics can be taken out of the kit and blended in different ways, leading you down a different path.” 

It’s useful to remember that while COVID-19 is changing the economy, it’s also creating new opportunities, McGee says. “There will be new industries and services that didn’t really exist before. You can think about the skills that will be needed in the future, particularly in light of the pandemic,” he says. “Invest in those skills.” 

The mindset

As job seekers begin exploring their career toolkit, it’s also important to maintain a positive mindset, McGee says. When it comes to the job search, some people believe they have no control over their career path and tend towards fatalism. They don’t believe they’ll succeed, so end up accepting a job below their qualification level or outside their interests.

“My research shows that people who are more fatalistic engage less in the job search and accept lower wages,” McGee says. “I’ve encouraged students not to give into this attitude. They are at a point in their careers where the choices they make are extremely important.”

But when rejection emails roll in or, even worse, you don’t hear back from employers at all, it can be difficult to avoid negative thoughts. As a psychologist, Varghese says a practical way to stay positive is to remember that your job isn’t your whole identity. “Career is part of our identities, but there’s a whole spectrum of things that make you who you are — like your interests, values and relationships.”

Varghese also cautions against ignoring your feelings and letting fear of failure motivate the job search. “Bringing compassion to ourselves is so important, especially at a time like this when so much is up in the air. When you feel better about yourself, chances are, you’re going to have better success.”

The actions

While shifting perspective can help graduates recognize their skills and stay positive, there are also practical steps a job seeker can take to help land a position and start paying the bills. Mathew suggests networking. While this word conjures up uncomfortable small talk in a coffee shop — or even worse, over video call — Mathew says there are less awkward ways to build professional connections.

As a self-proclaimed introvert, Mathew says very few people thrive at cold calling strangers or approaching their professional idol. Instead, she encourages job seekers to identify opportunities to use their skills to help people in need during the pandemic. “Volunteering will immediately put you in contact with people who are like-minded and working towards similar goals,” she says.

Mathew also encourages graduates to see networking as a chance to build reciprocal relationships, where the job seeker also has something to offer as a volunteer. “The goal is genuine relationships.

If you’re looking for a natural place to start networking, says Chloe Chalmers, ’00 BA, manager of Alumni Career Services, “take advantage of the breadth of services that are available through the U of A.” Alumni and Career Services offers alumni-to-alumni career mentoring in six cities. The organization also provides free access to Switchboard, an online community for alumni, students, faculty and staff where members can ask for career advice or discover a job opportunity. “And remember, there are some industries experiencing growth right now,” Chalmers says. “The skills you learned at university are transferable and though you might have imagined one career path, you’re well qualified for other paths as well.”

Beyond networking, both McGee and Mathew suggest job searchers boost resumés by taking advantage of the many free or discounted online courses, or pursuing microcredentials. The U of A’s Faculty of Extension offers workshops on everything from graphic design to project management, as well as professional designations. Alumni can access professional development grants to help cover the workshop costs.

The bigger picture

Finally, it’s important for unemployed university graduates to understand that it’s normal to feel anxious or disappointed, and even to be grieving during this season, says Varghese. She encourages job seekers to remember that unemployment is not a personal failure and that many others are sharing this burden right now. 

“It can be helpful to think of it as a common human experience. Sometimes it helps in suffering to understand and realize this isn’t you, this is something a lot of people are going through.” And, as someone who travelled her own varied career path, Varghese has hope for university graduates stepping into the professional world. “It’s not so much about where we end up — that will come. It’s the process of getting there, where there’s so much possibility for growth, learning and enjoyment. 


More job tips: From how to network to the future of work, check out What the Job! podcasts. Ready to go from listening to viewing? U of A Alumni’s on-demand webinars offer topics from career goal setting to finding hope in good and bad times.

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