University of British Columbia student Alex Briault took a minimum-wage retail job to supplement her income while she was in her first year, but she wouldn't recommend it.
Balancing her new responsibilities at school with trying to get enough sleep and maintain some semblance of a social life quickly took its toll on Briault.
The pressure of meetings sales targets and the inability to work around high-pressure deadlines like exams and papers made the experience stressful and left her feeling unsupported.
"It was terrible. I would not go back to working a retail job while going to school," Briault said.
She is one of thousands of post-secondary students soon returning to campuses across Canada who are aiming to find suitable work to help pay for school and gain work experience.
On many campuses at this time of year, student advisors tout jobs as a key part of the student experience — not just for the income they provide, but as a way to enhance learning and get a leg up on a post-graduation career.
They say it's not enough for students to get good grades — they need to graduate with work experience.
"Just being a full-time student isn't good enough any more," said Heather Workman, chair of the Co-op and Career Development Centre at Langara College.
"You have to be able to demonstrate to an employer that you can interact with others, that you can show up to work on time, that you can show up and deliver."
'Burnout is definitely prevalent'
Many students recognize that need and say they want work experience.
But many also say they struggle to find the right kind of job and to balance all their responsibilities — especially given the cost of tuition and living expenses.
"A solid majority of students are getting out into the workforce before they graduate," said UBC Alma Matter Society president Alan Ehrenholz. "I think many students identify it as key during their degrees."
A recent Simon Fraser University study found that 55 per cent of their students have jobs while in school, the majority taking on 10 to 29 hours of work per week.
But Ehrenholz says students are specifically looking for jobs with flexible hours and training opportunities, preferably on campus to minimize already long commute times.
Meanwhile, some other campus leaders say students are too often pushed to prioritize jobs over school work to pay for increasingly expensive costs like tuition and rent.
"Students sometimes tend to give more attention to their jobs when they're in financial crises," said Prab Bassi, vice president of external relations with the SFU Student Society.
"So yeah, burnout is definitely prevalent with students."
Financial stress is a challenge Kim Kiloh, UBC director for the Centre for Student Involvement and Careers, sees many students facing.
Kiloh says part-time work can help. But she also says that learning to manage multiple responsibilities is one of the many soft skills students develop while in school.
The key, she says, is to not take on too much work. Kiloh points to studies that show that working no more than 10 to 14 hours a week can actually improve students' performance in the classroom.
'What is the rush?'
Other solutions she suggests for overwhelmed students is to reduce their course load and either make up the classes in spring or summer term or extend the time it will take them to complete their program.
That's advice Workman says she often gives to students at Langara.
"If I could get any message across, not only to the students but to the parents, it's what is the rush?" said Workman.
"Take the time to explore and understand a) what gets you excited and b) what you're good at."
Workman says post-secondary schooling should be a time for students to experiment and find ways to apply their classroom learning in the real world.
Although she and Kiloh also advise students to not get too hung up on immediately finding a job related to their field of study — especially younger students with little or no work experience.
Even retail and service industry jobs build skills that can eventually lead to better opportunities in the long run, Kiloh says.
"The kind of skills that employers tell us all the time that they're looking for are things like teamwork and collaboration, curiosity, problem solving and excellent communication skills," Kiloh said.
"And there's actually a lot of environments that students can develop those skills in."
Managing the transition
That's advice student Alex Briault agrees with.
Now a fourth-year geography major, Briault currently works part-time in a health clinic — a better-paying job than her retail work and with more flexibility and support than she had in the past.
While Briault cites connections as the leading factor that got her the gig, she admits that her experience in retail did help.
Her recommendation for first-year students wondering how to balance work and school is to take the time to get used to university and gradually scale up work responsibilities.
"The switch from high school to university is such a big one," Briault said.
"Going all in for school and then trying to work as well, you're going to burn out."