University Student Career Exploration

What is Career Exploration?

Career exploration is the act of intentionally starting to plan for your career after university by engaging in different types of career development activities. Sounds simple, right? Well, it can be! You have your whole degree to come up with your professional goals and learn more about the jobs and careers available to you after graduation. Plus, as a student, you have access to resources like your university’s career development centre and advisors. This post provides suggestions on how university students can begin career exploration.

Trying Out Different Careers

In an earlier post on university student career exploration, I mentioned prototyping, which is a term from this book by Bill Burnett & Dave Evans that means trying out different careers. Prototyping is a career exploration skill that will support you as you build your professional goals. Even if you are certain about the career you want, make sure you try some aspects of it out before you graduate! Your student years are a time to build skills to impress your future references and future employers. Do this work now to help your job search after graduation.

As a university student, you are in the ideal time of your life to be trying out different roles and finding new career development opportunities. Your university can connect you with multiple opportunities, you don’t have to stay in any role for too long, and you can build your resume at the same time!

Work that you do as a student can help build your transferable and technical skills. Plus, it’s a great way to network and find some supervisors to ask to give you references. Start your career exploration now so you can focus and refine your professional goals as you go through university. According to this article, a huge number of students end up working in fields that are not related to their degree, but this can be offset by starting your career research during your time as an undergraduate student.

What are some methods for university student career exploration?

Co-operative work terms

Also known as just “co-op,” these are semester-long work terms organized through your university. You still have to apply and compete for the roles, but the organizations know that they are hiring students who may have less experience. Students will typically have the support of your university’s co-op office in the application and competition process, and they can provide guidance on which jobs to apply for. They can also advise on crafting your resume and cover letter, and interviewing well. These are all skills you’ll need after graduation, so it’s helpful to get feedback and guidance as you build them.

Some institutions don’t have co-op for all programs, so if this is something you definitely want to do make sure you do your research when you’re applying to universities. University student career exploration should begin early.


Internships can be paid or unpaid, and this is up to each province’s labour laws. Federal laws DO permit unpaid internships, so some provinces can have them. For example, in B.C., unpaid internships are illegal and you must be paid for your work. In Ontario, unpaid internships are still permitted. However, this varies from province to province so make sure you check your local laws. An internship is basically a junior position in an organization. The employer is aware that you might not have as much experience and they’re willing to support you as you gain the experience. In some industries, this is the best way to make connections and build your experience to get hired after graduation.

Part-time work

This one is tough, because some institutions and employers don’t value part-time work as highly as they might value a co-op work term or an internship. It will be up to you to articulate the skills and experience that you gain through part-time work. You will have to communicate the value to any future employers. Your university’s career centre should be able to help you with this.

Many students work in retail positions, food and beverage service positions, or office administration roles. You may also be able to find temporary work on your school breaks, like December retail and summer jobs. I’ve met students who worked at Starbucks, bubble-tea shops, as receptionists, in call centres, at department or clothing stores, as bartenders or restaurant servers… the possibilities are endless.

One of my regrets from my undergrad is working at a low-paying retail job where I gained all the skills in the first year. I could have looked for a higher-paying job that would help me build new skills and give me additional references. But I did not realize the value I could gain from that. Don’t be like me! Take the time to find roles that will help you move forward in your career.


If you don’t have a lot of work experience, volunteering can be a good place to start. Volunteers are not paid for their work. Non-profit organizations will often take on volunteers with less experience, and you can build your resume that way. Many websites offer volunteer opportunities (for example:, Just make sure that you are volunteering at a legitimate non-profit, and not at a company that should be paying you. You can find this out by doing some research on the organization to confirm they are a non-profit.

You may also be able to volunteer on your campus. Universities often take on student volunteers to help with events, orientation, and other tasks. Your campus career centre should be able to connect you with these opportunities. Longer-term opportunities will typically be more advantageous on your resume than one-day events. Longer commitments allow you to build and showcase your aptitudes and get references.

Volunteering can be a good place to gain the first entry on your resume. This is especially true if you don’t have other work experience. Make sure you behave professionally and perform well so that you can ask for a reference.

On-Campus Work

One of the benefits of on-campus work is that it can pay quite well. Compared to some of the minimum-wage positions students with less experience may qualify for off-campus, this is important. Since you are probably already going to campus, it may also be really convenient for you to work there.

Teaching Assistantships

You may have the opportunity to apply to be a teaching assistant (TA) while you are a student. A teaching assistant supports instructors by marking assignments, teaching tutorials, holding office hours, and other course prep tasks. Most of the time, teaching assistants are graduate students. Sometimes higher-year students with good grades can also have these opportunities. If you are planning on going to grad school (a Masters program), this experience can be especially valuable. Search your university’s website or ask one of your TAs to find out more about this.

Research Assistantships

Research assistants (RAs) help professors with research projects in different ways. This may mean conducting a literature review, research in a lab or through other qualitative or quantitative methods, or writing a paper or chapter for publication. Like teaching assistants, they are usually grad students (Masters or PhD students). Sometimes there are opportunities for undergrad students. If you are planning on going to grad school, this kind of work can be extremely valuable for your application. Search your university’s website, and talk to your TAs and professors for more information.

Other on-campus opportunities

In addition to the two opportunities mentioned above, universities will often hire students for a number of positions. For example: library work, events, student orientations, student advising, co-op positions, temporary positions, data entry, and more. Your career centre can let you know where these get posted – or you can search for the job postings on your university’s website. One benefit of these is that since they know you are a student, they may have more flexibility for your schedule than off-campus jobs.

Side Hustles

A side hustle is work you do on the side, that is typically more entrepreneurial and independent than a part-time job. I read Side Hustle: From Idea to Income in 27 Days by Chris Guillebeau, and he gives tons of ideas of side hustles and tells stories of folks who have been very successful. The idea of the side-hustle is that it is something you can do in the time you have (for students, that would be a minimal amount of time) and on your own terms.

A side hustle can be literally anything. Personally, I have signed up for the Rover app and I look after dogs when their owners are out of town. I heard about this app from Chris Guillebeau’s book. Uber and Lyft can be side hustles, or food delivery work like Skip the Dishes or DoorDash. I have also met a student who started an entrepreneurship courses for high school students that they then were hired by high schools to come in and teach. I knew another student who designed items for in-game purchases for a particular online game. Many students also tutor high school students (independently or through an agency). The possibilities are endless! If you want to learn more about side hustles, I would recommend Chris Guillebeau’s website, or I Like to Dabble for more ideas.

Caution with Side Hustles

A caution with side hustles: Depending on the type of work you’re doing, it may be less valuable to future employers. For me, it would not be useful to list my dog-sitting experience on my resume or CV. I won’t really get any professional references out of it. I just happen to love dog-sitting, and I can make some extra cash with it. But I have also done tutoring through an agency. In that case I was able to get a reference from the agency and the parents of the students I tutored, so it really depends what you do.

Informational Interviews

Informational interviews are a great way to learn more about the diverse career options available to you and also build your network. Basically, this is where you meet with someone working in the field you are interested in to find out more about their own career. Someone once told me that “everyone loves talking to students,” and it is my experience that people love to share their career journeys and advice. Ask everyone you know about their careers – family, your high school teachers, professors, TAs… and you can also reach out to other contacts, such as at networking events or on LinkedIn, to learn more, too.

Finding a Mentor

Having a mentor is a key component in your career development journey. Whether this is an official mentor (through a program) or someone you meet who gives great advice, having people supporting you in your career is important. My biggest mentors were some of my bosses – one in particular who was really good at finding ways for me to develop new skills in the roles I was in so I could build towards the next role. Mentors can help you see what’s beyond the horizon in terms of your own professional development and take steps towards it. They can help you build your network and connect you with important people and positions for your future. Check what kind of mentorship programs are available at your university and also in your industry, and take advantage of them!

What to keep in mind

These are opportunities for career growth: building your skills and experiences, establishing your network, and getting some excellent references for future positions. You can focus on specific skills for a role, as well as your transferable skills. You also want to start building relationships with supervisors and colleagues. This will expand your professional network so you know people who can be mentors and provide positive references for you when you are applying for jobs in the future.

For more information on starting your career journey, check out this post on Early Career Tips for Students, and see this post on Top 10 Career Podcasts for Students for some great resources.

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