The Waiting Game


A Primer on the University Application Process

So here is a parent’s point of view about having a child go through the university application process.

You and your child have thought about which program and which university. That’s a great start. But how do you actually apply to university, at least in Ontario? The good news is that it’s all electronic, through the Ontario University Application Centre (OUAC).

Your child will get all kinds of information at high school about the process, but it really gets going in mid-November when the OUAC PINs are sent out. That allows you to create an account on the OUAC site. There’s lots of useful information on the site itself, and university and program selection is easy based on dropdown menus. It costs $150 to apply, and you can choose up to three programs at one or more schools. However, you can add more programs/schools for $50 each. Applications are due by January 13.

Now it gets a touch more complicated. Each selected school gets notified by OUAC, and your child then needs to set up electronic accounts at all of them. Keep it simple and use the same password! Some schools and programs have extra requirements. That might include a personal essay or, for highly competitive programs (like health sciences at McMaster), a case study. For others, it’s just marks, plain and simple. U of T engineering required video questions, which might be one reason my son dropped the application (and he wants to leave home for school).

The schools do a good job of keeping the kids engaged with a series of emails, especially around March Break, when they run open houses and tours.

Kids with exceptional marks can apply for early acceptance based on Grade 11 marks. Most will need to wait until Grade 12 midterm marks are posted in early February. And then it becomes a waiting game.

My son applied to four universities for engineering (and dropped one) and two of the same schools for science. All the university web sites and program materials give you an estimate average mark required for consideration. My kid was above the threshold for admission, so it was a matter of waiting to hear back. Mercifully, his top choice, Queen’s, was first to send an offer of admission, on March 2. Big sigh of relief. Next, McMaster, on March 31. So, quite a gap. And, oddly, his last choice has yet to make an offer. He will then accept via the OUAC site.

The other thing it’s worth pointing out is that, having received an offer of admission based on an interim mark, the school will stipulate the necessary minimum final mark to get in. That can be quite a bit lower than the admission average, and encourage your kid to take his/her foot off the gas.

For some of his friends, and for colleagues with kids in the same boat, it can be a very stressful time, hoping but not knowing if they will be accepted. For all anxious students and parents, best wishes during this nerve-wracking time, and do you have any thoughts about the process?

Final acceptance is due by June 1, and my son is intent on engineering at Queen’s. Next fall, he’ll be leaving home and moving into residence. As I’ve written before, my wife and I are English grads, and find his math abilities baffling. My father, the gamekeeper’s son, would be proud and satisfied with the choice of engineering, a useful and practical education.



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Job Hopping


ollyy, shutterstock

A hot topic in the working world is the decreasing length of time people work for a given company, either out of choice or necessity. This trend towards shorter job stints correlates with youth, in particular with Millennials (1980 – 2000), which includes my son.

A 2013 Statscan study examined what was different about the work and life situation of younger people (What has changed for young people in Canada?). A couple of salient points emerge:

  • Younger people a smaller proportion of the overall population
  • As a group they are more educated, putting off their entry in the labour market
  • Women are gaining on men in terms of economic outlook

According to a recent Forbes article, Job Hopping the New Normal for Millennials, “Ninety-one percent of Millennials expect to stay in a job for less than three years, according to the Future Workplace Multiple Generations @ Work” survey of 1,189 employees and 150 managers.” This is often the path to faster advancement and greater job fulfillment – they are more focused on happiness and personal fulfillment.

This US research is supported by a Workopolis study, Thinkopolis VI: Moving Work. Mining information from resumes in the Workopolis database, 51% of employees stay in one role for less than two years. And Millennials changed jobs 22% more often over a 12 year period than Gen Xers. Follow this link for an infographic summary of the report.

Employees are changing jobs to advance their careers. According the study, 88% change companies in order to get a position with more responsibility. Put another way, there’s a marked bias against promoting from within in favour of hiring from outside.

Another trend is switching career paths at least two or three times. The report says:

The most common reasons people gave for changing career paths were discovering a new field they were passionate about (35%), becoming bored/disillusioned with their original work (24%), and setbacks such as lack of advancement and /or cutbacks, layoffs in a career path (19%). [Moving Work, p.4]

This suggests the need to embrace life-long learning and to continue to build on your skill-base as technology evolves – such as embracing social media. Stay sharp, son, stay sharp!

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Marketing Universities

Student on campus

zimmytws, shutterstock

If you get the Globe and Mail newspaper, you might have noticed yesterday’s front news section has several university ads. That’s right, it’s “confirm your university choice” time for Ontario’s Grade 12 graduating students who have or expect offers of admission.

There are 22 universities in Ontario scattered across the province – and they are competing for students. They are distinguished by location, size and program offering. And there’s a hierarchy, both by university and by program within each university, in terms of admission standards.

Kids and parents will be thinking about a number of different factors when narrowing down a choice of university. Local or out of town? There’s a big cost difference between living at home or going away (residence runs about $13,000 right now). Big university (U of T) or small (Trent, for example)? U of T consistently ranks as Canada’s top university, but it can be seen as large and impersonal compared to the experience of a smaller school. Or is your choice driven by program? Engineering at U of T or Waterloo; business at Queen’s or Western; art at OCAD, for example.

Maclean’s publishes an annual ranking that acknowledges the diversity of choice across three broad categories: comprehensive, medical doctoral, and primarily undergraduate. It’s a great place to start to get a sense of how each school stacks up across a number of different dimensions.

So how do schools market themselves? There’s the obvious surface-level branding, with school colours and logo. York came out with an aggressive positioning campaign in 2012, This Is My Time (which seems to have disappeared since).

There’s active, out-bound marketing, which includes sending reps out to tour high schools and participate in university fairs, as well as advertising on the web and via traditional channels. The Toronto fair takes place in late September: my son went two years in a row and came back with scads of printed material, including comprehensive “viewbooks,” which describe each school, its programs, admission criteria and financial information.

Here’s a link to a downloadable Queen’s viewbook. (Having worked in non-profit marketing for most of my career, the scale and expense of the materials is breathtaking, but then the value of a sale is huge: four years’ worth of business.) They are beautifully put together, with high production values and lots of great photography.

Each university also has a comprehensive web site, with significant real estate devoted to prospective or future students in terms of application process, program offerings and program requirements. I’m pretty familiar with a number of sites, having spent quite a bit of time on them in the past year. There are also usually downloadable brochures for specific programs, often with a listing of potential careers that program grads have pursued. The sites can be confusing: since you go down layer by layer, you don’t always get the answer you’re looking for. McMaster has really good layout for future students on the program side: here’s the engineering page, with icons for all the top questions, including a careers icon.

My favourite is the open house experience. I’ve been to McMaster twice, and, alas, missed the Queen’s open house. They are a great way to get a sense of the campus and its buildings. Program-specific tours and talks give you good information about admission requirements and options. And residence tours give you a chance to talk to current students and get their sense of the school. It’s fun to see all the family clusters moving around the campus, full of the wonderment and potential of coming to university – moving away from home, taking that big first step to adulthood. The schools do a good job of making profs and students available to talk up their programs. Don’t forget to visit the campus book store so your kid can buy a school sweatshirt to tip others off to their intended choice.


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What is “Precarity”?

guy with beard

file404, shutterstock

A recent Tweet caught my eye: Precarious work on the rise among white collar workers. The CP News article carried by was specifically about Toronto librarians who, despite multiple degrees, wait on average up to 10 years to secure full time positions. If you’ve missed the news stories, Google “precarious work” and you’ll rapidly see it’s an issue today’s economy.

Precarious work is non-standard employment that is poorly paid, insecure, unprotected, and cannot support a household. — Wikipedia

CP News goes on to quote Professor Wayne Lewchuk, co-author the 2015 report The Precarity Penalty. A follow up to an earlier study, It’s More than Poverty, the new report lays out some grim and disturbing statistics, based on a survey of almost 4,200 workers in Ontario. Some 44% of workers 25 – 65 work in jobs with “some degree of precarity”. About one in five workers labour in the most insecure forms of employment (temporary and contract work, and own-account self-employment). The study outlines a host of negative outcomes connected to precarious employment and financial instability: impact on health; disproportionate impact on the foreign born and the racialized; an inability to nurture your family; depression and anxiety; lack of training and opportunity to advance.

A couple of observations from personal experience. I worked in the arts for many years, and I was always troubled that I was better paid and had far more job security than the artists who were at the heart of the enterprise. That included, in various different companies I worked for, artists, actors, dancers, poets, writers, musicians. Yes, they were making a choice, committing to their art form knowing that financial security would be a challenge. They were smart, dedicated people and it was always deeply humbling to watch them create magic.

More recently, we were interviewing for web producers. Almost without exception, the candidates had worked on a series of contracts rather than full-time employment. It spoke to a sector that contracted for labour on an as-needed basis. These were technically skilled individuals with considerable experience, but always working from contract to contract.

The CP article also talks about how difficult it is to become a full time teacher these days, with aspiring teachers working as supply teachers, short term contracts for years before either getting hired or moving on. Our teacher friends have commented how young, talented would-be teachers not getting hired, to the detriment of students.

Of course, Lewchuk’s study is about more than the white collar population. The people who suffer disproportionately from precarious employment are not white collar at all but recent immigrants, women and people of colour.

As the economy shifts, full time jobs with benefits are becoming less common. In the GTA, less than half of workers enjoy full-time permanent employment.

It makes me realize how lucky I am to have a full-time job. It makes me wonder what my son’s outlook will be.


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Career Discussion: The Political Life


Amalia Ferreira-Espinoza,

I read the papers and find politics interesting, but have never been involved in either advocacy or the actual political process. I am, perhaps, a bit cynical about the claims and counterclaims, the posturing and simplification that seem necessary to win elections (understanding that elections are only a part of the process). It was interesting to see Harper thumped in the last federal election, if only because the cynical ploys he tried so clearly backfired. Today, we have the spectacle of Donald Trump gaining a lock hold on the Republican nomination in a campaign that recalls, on a much larger canvas, Rob Ford’s era in Toronto. They both flouted normal conventions and were rewarded rather than punished.

So, from a career perspective, it was a pleasure to chat with Steve from my social media course about his background and how he has made his way into the political system.

Steve is a legislative assistant to an NDP MPP. His blog, North of Bloor, shows a keen interest in the building blocks of a vibrant and healthy neighbourhood.

Career Advice: how did you become interested in politics?

Steve: As a teenager I developed an interest in social justice and other progressive causes. It was a natural outgrowth of witnessing some of the issues we faced in Algoma, where I’m from. So my interest in politics was directly connected to working for social change.

Career Advice: How did you choose where to go to school?

Steve: We’re lucky to have Algoma University College of Laurentian University in town. I visited during the campus recruiting days. I was already interested in politics, but I found the political science profs really engaging and interesting. I did a double major, Political Science and Legal Studies, because it offered a number of career options.

Career Advice: What next?

Steve: Wow, it was tough when I finished my degree. A real existential crisis. Undergrad teaches you to think rather than offers specific career training. I’d done well in undergrad, so decided to do an MA at Carleton in Political Economy. I sharpened my focus on food policy and volunteered at Just Food and was a research assistant for Nourishing Communities.

Career Advice: So how did you land your first full-time job?

Steve: I volunteered for an NDP MP in Ottawa. I stuck around until I got paid – that was how I got my first job – persistence and hard work. I then moved to Toronto to be with my partner, and took a job working in the Ontario Legislature for an NDP MPP and volunteered on the provincial election campaign.

Career Advice: Would you consider a career as a politician?

Steve: No, I prefer behind the scenes.

Career Advice: What do you enjoy, not enjoy about your job as a legislative assistant at Queen’s Park?

Steve: I do stakeholder relations, PR and policy research among other tasks. It’s busy, varied and meaningful work. Dislikes? Ghost writing, but even that can be rewarding. It forces you to articulate clearly and concisely.

Career Advice: You’re three years out of school and seem to have a foot in the door in a world you clearly love. Any advice for others?

Steve: You have to be smart and passionate about what you do. People notice and there’s a lot of competition for these opportunities. You have to work to stand out. Choose a good school and get a degree that supports your goals. Talk to people to clarify your goals. And volunteer. It’s a great way to get practical experience and to showcase your skills and abilities.


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Humanities vs. STEM



I studied English at university. My son intends to study engineering. My career path was indirect. This recent Workopolis post shows that engineering is one of the top five degree choices for landing a job in your field:

  • Human Resources (88 per cent)
  • Engineering (90 per cent)
  • Computer Science (91 per cent)
  • Pharmacy (94 per cent)
  • Nursing (97 per cent)

Engineering also has the top starting average salary out of school, at $76,000 (which presumably justifies the twice-as-high tuition cost of the program – see my last post). A Maclean’s article from 2011 shows that the bottom three paying degrees two years after graduation are (descending order): humanities ($38,407), theology ($35,000), applied and fine arts ($34,653). The average is $49,469, and engineering sits at $60,548.

The English vs. engineering debate in my house clearly echoes the recent humanities vs. STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) debate that has raged recently. In 2009 President Obama launched the “Educate to Innovate” campaign to encourage STEM education to improve the ranking of US students in these subjects. The emphasis on STEM subjects, coupled with news of the decline in enrolment in the humanities, has led to a lot of online teeth gnashing by arts apologists (several examples: Move over, Stem: why the world needs humanities graduates; The Major Divide: Humanities vs. STEM Majors).

Let me advance a couple of arguments in favour of a humanities degree. One is that it teaches students to analyze and think critically about the world in a big-picture way that is different from STEM students – to be intellectually curious. Another argument: my English degree was good training for case studies when I did my MBA: read the case, devise an argument, collect proof to support the argument, then express logically and coherently. The engineers in the program, on the other hand (a surprising large percentage, about a third of the class) wanted to know what the “correct” answer was.

Another line of defence is that, over the long haul, arts grads narrow the wage and employment rate gap compared to professional program grads (although that often means having a grad degree as well), even if they don’t overtake them. (See Liberal Arts Grads Win Long-Term, which reports on the study Liberal Arts Degrees and Their Value in the Employment Market.) The article goes on to say:

…the report also drives home the fact that there’s one area where humanities and social sciences majors have everyone beat: meeting employers’ desires and expectations. Employers consistently say they want to hire people who have a broad knowledge base and can work together to solve problems, debate, communicate and think critically, the report notes – all skills that liberal arts programs aggressively, and perhaps uniquely, strive to teach.

I did not have the math skills to study engineering, and, over the course of my career, I have regretted not having better math-based analytical tools which would have helped me do my job better. And just because my son wants to be an engineer does not mean he is not capable of being intellectually curious. Where do readers line up on this topic – practical degrees like engineering with a clear payoff, or arts degrees that encourage broad knowledge and critical thought but with a less direct path to employment and riches? Feel free to comment.

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Access to Higher Education?



My son is finishing Grade 12. He’s got a math and science brain, and has applied to a number of universities to study engineering or science. This is a stressful and exciting time: the applications went in before Christmas, but acceptances (for most applicants) don’t start to arrive until after the second report card, in late February.

My wife and I have been congratulating ourselves on saving through an RESP for my son’s university expenses. The universities now all, conveniently, have online calculators that allow you to estimate the annual costs. Because he initially indicated interest in science, I neglected to call up the other tuition options until more recently – and then discovered that engineering tuition is about twice that of arts and science: $13,000 versus $7,300. With residence fees (he wants to leave home), the cost will be over $100,000 for a four-year degree. We should be grateful he’s not interested in business or commerce, which is even more expensive, but are still experiencing sticker shock.

The Government of Ontario, in its recent budget, has made a point of addressing soaring university costs by introducing a series of changes to government support that will come into effect in 2017. The budget web site says:

The OSG [Ontario Student Grant] will make average college or university tuition free for students with financial need from families with incomes of $50,000 or less, and will make tuition more affordable for middle-class families.

These are laudable goals, and speak to the ideal that all should have equal access to higher education based on ability rather than means.

Ontario deregulated profession school fees in 1998, for medicine, law and MBAs, which then rose dramatically – here’s a link to a StatsCan study that showed the impact of those increases on enrolment by middle income students – it went down. I’m assuming deregulation also applied to undergraduate engineering and business on the grounds that students will graduate to more-or-less guaranteed jobs and good incomes (fingers crossed).

The province is promising to simplify the current system, which (I dare you, try and figure it out) is complicated and confusing. That’s good news. However, the promise applied to “average college or university tuition,” which does not apply to engineering.

What you do think – should undergraduate tuition for programs like engineering and commerce be significantly higher than other programs? And, at more than $100,000 for a four year degree, can even middle class parents afford the bill?







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Teaching as a Profession


In my first posting I wrote about the remarkable distance my father travelled, from a tiny village in the north of Engand, Cambo in Northumberland, to Toronto, Canada, son of a gamekeeper and a housemaid to an eye doctor. My father credited part of his success to his junior school teacher. It was a single room schoolhouse in the village and the teacher taught the children up to their capacity, which for my father meant calculus, among other things. Outlier moment (from Malcolm Gladwell’s book): the lord of the manor was a liberal intellectual with a deep interest in education, so it’s not surprising the school teacher was excellent.

Many people can credit their success to a given teacher. My wife received incredible support during her high school years. My son loves his high school, and has many talented, supportive teachers. My high school experience was not the best, but that was on me. I was capable but socially awkward and lived through books. I lost interest in what seemed like jumping through hoops.

After I got to university I imagined I would become an English prof. It seemed like the top of the heap, but it was also because I simply didn’t know what else was out there. I’m not an English prof, but more about that later.

We know a number of teachers, so I took the liberty of interviewing Margaret, a teacher from a small town on Georgian Bay and a friend for many years.

Margaret on being a teacher: It takes tremendous energy. It’s like a performance. You have to commit to the work and discipline required to be a good teacher and hold the class’s attention. You also need patience. Kids learn at different speeds. You have to respect that. I love the performance aspect, that feeling of connecting. I think about my students. I enjoy bumping into them when they’re adults, seeing what they are doing in the world. It’s a great feeling.

Two things about being a teacher today: first, the bachelor of education degree needed to teach in a public school is now a two-year program. And, second, there are not a lot of jobs right now. Margaret knows any number of talented young teachers who are having difficulty landing full time jobs.

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Education and Preparing for the Working World


RiAus TV

How do you explain to a teenager what it’s like to work for a living? Even articulate people are hard pressed to describe what they do at work, and the skills and aptitudes needed to do that work. I know, I’ve asked lots of people. Chris Hadfield, in the video above, does a great job of explaining why asking a young person what they want to do for a living an unfair question.

We tend to resort to platitudes and generalities and gloss over the negatives. We are also flooded with popular culture depictions of work through movies and television, often those with high perceived drama – politics, law, medicine, law enforcement, cuisine (joke, sort of) – that bear little relation to our own working lives. And, at least in my house growing up, there was little to no discussion about work and careers. My general sense is that young people have little to go on when it comes to choosing a career, and, that necessary first step, choosing an education.

As I wrote in my first blog, I grew up in a household where I was expected to go to university. That in itself is an interesting social construct – what I would call the expectations of the middle class and up. There is a lot of back and forth about how to define the middle class, mostly framed in terms of income (see this Maclean’s article, Who Belongs to Canada’s Middle Class), but it can also be defined as a set of values – how you dress, talk, eat, exercise; where you live; what kind of work you do. These attributes define the tribe, and distinguish it from other, different tribes. It’s considered impolite in Canada to even discuss class, but because my father was such an outsider, I grew up with a strong sense of what we, as a family, aspired to, and where we fell short.

If you grow up in the bubble of the middle class, and work in a white collar job, you tend to assume everyone has university degree. Of course, statistically, that’s not true: as another Maclean’s article points out, only about a quarter of the Canadian population has a degree (although half the population has post-secondary education).

I read voraciously in high school, but was not strong in math. I imagined that I was going to become another James Joyce, not that I actually spent time writing. Just the opposite: I was paralyzed by a crippling perfectionism that meant it was better not to try than to fall short. So, unconcerned with the practical consequences, I opted to study English Literature at the University of Toronto.

Something unexpected happened. My father, who had always said he would help us financially through university, now clarified that he would not support something as frivolous as English. This was a wakeup call for my brother and sister, who were determined to move away for school and now knew they had to choose subjects that were, or at least appeared to be, practical and career-oriented (chemistry and economics, respectively).

Since I could live at home and had enough summer earnings to pay tuition, this was not a complete road block. This very-late clarification by my father made it clear he did not fully subscribe to the middle class ethos of helping your children to succeed, even if it required self-sacrifice or deferred gratification. It did, in a stark way, highlight the difference between studying the liberal arts versus something more practical.

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Setting the Stage

Wallington Hall. Ken Crosby, CC BY-SA 2.0,

In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes about success. It’s not a recipe book on how to succeed. It’s more the opposite: about how certain (sometimes random) opportunities or advantages help people succeed. Advantages often unrecognized and unacknowledged. For my father, it was the death of his own father, in 1942. That led, ultimately, to my father becoming an eye doctor. Since I want to offer career advice to my son, it’s helpful for me to start with my own upbringing, which helps explain how I got to where I am.

My grandfather, a gamekeeper on an estate in the north of England, died of appendicitis when my father was eight. My grandmother was now a widow with four young children – my father was the second child. Here’s the Outliers moment. The lord of the manor, Sir Charles Trevelyan, was a progressive English politician who served as President of the Board of Education in the first Labour government in the 1930s. He took it upon himself to secure school placements for my father and older uncle.

My father was smart and driven and went from success to success: scholarship to Cambridge, scholarship to medical school. He then came to Canada, where he trained as an eye doctor. He had wanted to be a poet, but was told that was not a practical choice. My father remained a voracious reader for the rest of his life – novels, non-fiction, magazines, newspapers. I grew up surrounded by books and the printed word.

Success came at a cost. The alternative to success was always right there: like a trapeze artist, he had to catch each swing as it presented itself. If he did not secure scholarship after scholarship, there was no net, just the ground rushing up to meet him. My grandmother remarried, but my father was not part of the second family. He was on his own.

Gladwell writes about smart people who don’t reach their potential because they lack the necessary social skills. Success is not just due to raw IQ, but to social skills which my father lacked – whether because he was on his own from such an early age, or because of a sense of security not available to him.

My father was angry. He was rude to people who controlled his career. He worked hard but didn’t achieve the success he thought he deserved. He did not talking positively about medicine.

I am the eldest of three, and my mother was also a reader. She started taking English courses at U of T when we were in high school. It was understood that we, the children, would go to university.

Four months before he died, my father took me to the estate, Wallington, in Northumberland, which belongs to the National Trust. He had earlier, after his diagnosis with leukemia, taken my sister. We walked around the estate, through the elaborate gardens, through the manor house. In the hall outside the kitchen were the house bells, just like those in the opening sequence of Downton Abbey. We paused in front of the tiny cottage where my father had been born, and where my grandfather had died.

What a distance, from that small cottage, from a life that was not even capitalist, but pre-capitalist, feudal really, to Cambridge and medical school and Toronto and eye medicine. It was a distance that spoke to intelligence and ambition, to an opportunity grasped, but also to a larger social transformation, of class distinctions softening and allowing bright young men (yes, still men) to progress. Now an adult, married, with a child, it was humbling for me to measure that distance.

Next: my father’s attitude to university and career choice.





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