A guide to advocating for yourself in student jobs

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By Nishat Chowdhury

For many students, working part-time is necessary to support their educational expenses and life necessities. Juggling school work, extracurriculars and part-time employment can be a struggle, so students must learn how to articulate and fight for their needs. 

Here’s a simple guide to help you make sure your needs are being met at work. 

Clarify your responsibilities early on

Know where you’re supposed to be and what you’re supposed to do to begin with. This is to ensure that you’ll do work that’s accurate to your job description and the tasks that are required within the position. 

Having found her position on Career Boost, Emma Davie* works as a research assistant for a professor in the Faculty of Arts that she’s been taught by in a couple of classes. Davie applied for the position because it was advertised as being a “collaborative” role. However, she works entirely by herself with barely any communication with anyone else, including the professor. 

“I wanted to be social because I’m so isolated right now,” said Davie, a third-year arts and contemporary studies student. 

Figure out the standards for different online spaces

Where and how are most of the communications done? Zoom meetings? Emails? Knowing this will help students figure out how casual the workplace is, which is trickier to understand in a virtual environment. It’s important to grasp what the digital space means to your workplace because that’s where a lot of the communications are at the moment, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Gather information about benchmarks

Assess what are reasonable goals and what aren’t by speaking to other students who are currently in the same position or who’ve been in the position before. Searching by job title on LinkedIn is a good way to find students and mentors to gather information from and learn about what has worked for others.

According to Jean Tsai, a councillor and coordinator at the Centre for Student Development and Counselling at Ryerson, having benchmarks for reasonable workloads and expectations, boundary setting, and assertiveness skills are complex skills that people tend to develop over their career. 

However, Tsai says learning these skills takes time.

“You don’t just walk into a job with all that information, you accumulate that information and experience over time,” said Tsai. 

Students who are young, unaware or unappreciative of their labour rights are sometimes manipulated into overextending or working beyond allotted hours, according to Alex Battick, a lawyer at Battick Legal Advisory who practices education law.

“When it comes to young people and education and looking for work to pay off their expenses, it can be a very vulnerable circumstance in which they have to do what they have to do for the money,” said Battick.

Discuss wellness needs

Don’t keep quiet or hold back if you need to reach out to your supervisor and talk to them about what’s challenging for you. They’re not mind readers. If you don’t let them know, you’ll end up having a harder time navigating through the process.

“You don’t have to disclose your entire mental health or stuff like that, but if there are certain things that you know you’re gonna need from previous experience like extra support on this, or certain things that drain you, let them know,” said Davie. 

Be clear with your supervisor if you need to expand your skill set

If you’re missing skills that are preventing you from performing your job to the best of your ability, be very clear about it to your supervisor as soon as you can, they can provide an opportunity for you to learn these skills. 

Supervisors should be more than happy to provide the training required to pump up students’ skills to that level, said Juannittah Kamera, Health Promotion Programs coordinator at Ryerson University, who is hiring digital content creators for the department of Student Wellbeing for the winter 2022 term.

“When students start getting feedback or being called out, they get upset and they make it personal when it comes down to the fact that they don’t know how to do the job they’ve applied for,” said Kamera, about students who apply for positions in which they lack the experience and skill sets for. 

Build relationships wherever possible

Building relationships with coworkers, mentors and supervisors fosters trust and community in the workplace. This was harder to accomplish last year because of the pandemic, but it can still be done. Attending virtual coffee hangouts or lunch meetups where you talk about things outside of work can lead to stronger working relationships in a virtual workplace environment. 

Keep consistent communication

Don’t only reach out to your supervisor when you have to—frequently check in with them. This can include random updates throughout the day that aren’t always work-related. 

This should also go both ways, as supervisors should reach out to their student employees as much as they can. 

Kamera said she works hard to keep good relationships with her students by regularly checking in and encouraging them to come and talk to her if they need anything. She aims to nurture her students because her goal is for them to learn things from their time with her which they can then take with them when they leave. 

“I want them to enjoy the work that they do because if they enjoy their work, they’re giving you 110 per cent. If they don’t enjoy the work, they’re not working as hard as they can for you,” said Kamera. 

Practice what you want to say to your boss, out loud

Practicing what you want to say out loud can prepare you to confidently articulate to your supervisor what you need, if you’re nervous. Reciting what you have to say with a friend or a sibling is a good way to feel more comfortable advocating for yourself.   

“Even if you have things written down and you have a rough sense of what you want to say, sometimes when we’re under duress, our brains kind of shut down. So without practice, it can be really hard to actually say the things that you want to say,” said Tsai.

*Name changed to protect source’s privacy and security

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