Interview with Celeste Little, Greenhouse Technician

Written by Grace Breault, Peer Helper – Career Services 

I got the wonderful opportunity to interview my aunt, Celeste Little, a greenhouse plant physiology research technician for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, located in Harrow, Ontario. We talked about experiential learning she had done, and her advice to those looking to apply for experiential learning positions.

Would you like to introduce yourself?

“I am Celeste Little. I am a greenhouse plant physiology research technician for Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. I am located at the Harrow Research and Development Centre in Harrow, ON. I have worked in this particular field of research in one capacity or another for the last 23 years. I started here in the summer of 1998 as a summer student and began my journey towards a full-time career on Jan 4, 1999.”

Most of the audience is university students, what program were you in?

“I attended the University of Guelph from 1994-1998 in the Bachelor of Science program, majoring in Marine Biology. As previously mentioned, I got a summer student job at the research centre in 1998. I was fascinated with the research they were doing there and had one more fall semester to complete in September (I took 4.5 years to complete my degree) so when I returned to U of G I took all my electives in botany and plant physiology in the hopes of being able to get a job at the research centre upon graduation. I’m happy to say it worked! I got a call while writing finals in December asking if I wanted to start a contract job on January 4, 1999.”

How did you get from your degree to your current job?

“I had a neighbour friend who had gotten a summer student job at the research centre the year before (1997) and was returning for the summer of 1998. I had never heard of this place and knew nothing about it. It sounded like an interesting place to work so I applied and got a call for an interview for a summer job in late May. I was hired by Dr. Athanasios (Tom) Papadopoulos, a world-renown scientist in the field of greenhouse vegetables and his provincial counterpart Mr. Shalin Khosla who worked for OMAFRA (Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs) to be their summer student, helping them to conduct trials in greenhouses at the facility and local growers operations."

"That summer they had just built new state-of-the-art greenhouses at the research facility and I was hired to help with their final set up. I did a lot of grunt work but also was given small trials to conduct. I was given 10 different twines from different companies and ran a small experiment where I mimicked how the plants were grown. I put blue dye in the fertilizer solution and blue dye started wicking up only 1 of the 10."

"I started the job knowing NOTHING about greenhouses and growing plants but I came from a farming background and I went to school for a science degree. As far as Tom and Shalin were concerned, they could teach me about greenhouse vegetables and plant physiology. I knew how to conduct a scientific experiment and that’s all that mattered. The topic of study wasn’t important. I had the fundamentals and know-how to conduct a trial – gather data, control variables, input and analyze the data, and write a scientific report. When I left that summer, I stayed in contact with them both, expressing how much I enjoyed the job and how I was graduating at the end of the semester and would really like to return if a position became available. Fortunately, I was offered a 6-month contract upon graduation. I spent the better part of 4.5 years on various length contracts until I finally gained a permanent job as a research technician.”

Have you ever worked with co-op students, and if so, do you have any tips for students applying for co-op positions?

“I have hired over 60 co-op students throughout my career. As an employer, I’m trying to learn who you are in 2 minutes. That’s really all the time I spend on an application. In general, I have anywhere from 100-250 co-op applicants for our posting each semester. That’s a lot to read through! I have a few recommendations for applicants.”

“I urge you to include a cover letter with your resume. If you’re going to include a letter, please do not make it generic. Like a potential mate, we want to feel wooed. We want to believe that you want our job over others and that you spent some time learning about our company. If you’re going to go through the trouble of writing a letter, be sure to refer to our company name, refer to the position you are applying for specifically and include something that shows that you at least Googled us. You can then include a sentence that expresses the extra effort that you put in and that will set you aside from other applicants. A good cover letter should have 4 key parts. The first few sentences should introduce yourself, what area of study, school, year in the program, etc. The second should focus on how your school experience relates to the job you are applying for. For example, if a student is applying for my posting, and I see in their transcript that they took a botany or plant-related course, I look to see if they made that connection in either their resume under relevant courses or highlighted it in their cover letter. The third part should be how your work or volunteer experience relates to our posting. Maybe you have zero work experience in the field you’re applying to. Every job has merit and transferable skills. Some of the best cover letters are from students who connected their work at McDonald’s or Old Navy to working in research with us. If you have zero work experience, relating volunteer experience or team activities or extracurricular items that you can use to showcase skills you developed (teamwork, organization, discipline, time management). The fourth should restate why we should hire you!"

"Additionally, always spell check your cover letter and resume and ask at least 2 friends who have a keen eye to read over your resume and cover letter to catch the words that spell check won’t catch. If I see any spelling mistakes or grammar errors, I automatically take you out of the running for my position. I need to find ways to weed out at least 99 people and this is just one of them. Lastly never put point form or reference quotes in your cover letter. The point form is for your resume. Reference quotes make you sound like you are advertising a play. The cover letter is for you to tell me about yourself, not tell me what other people say about you; that’s what your references are for.”

“For resumes, the things that often stand out to me are when people put too much info. If you have worked 5 or 6 jobs and you are in your last year of school, it probably isn’t necessary to list those high school jobs that aren’t really in your field of study. If you are listing relevant courses, choose a few (3-5) courses that you think might have given you skills or knowledge for the job that is posted. If you’ve won awards, listing a full page’s worth seems more like you’re bragging and makes them less impressive. If you are going to include references, please ensure that you have asked that person if they are willing to provide you with a good reference. Ensure you contact those references when you are applying for positions and asked if they are still willing to act as references and also let them know about the job you are applying for. This way they have a heads up and can prepare."

"Remember that your co-op positions are designed to help you to become great in the workplace. Nobody expects you to be outstanding in your first job. Good means just that – you did a good job and we’re pleased. Ideally, you should see your evaluations go up as you get more experience. Always have the courage to ask your supervisor for a mid-term evaluation and if there is anything you should be working on to improve your overall performance. If you’re going to ask for feedback, be prepared to receive it. That means not getting angry even if you disagree with their assessment and not being argumentative. Believe it or not, it is just as hard for us employers to give you bad feedback as it is for you to hear it. What you do with that feedback will reflect tremendously on your overall evaluation.”

“In terms of interviews, many are done virtually now. Know that the potential employer can see you from the moment you walk into the room or turn on your camera, even if their camera is off. I’ve seen a lot of entertaining things! Check your hair and teeth before entering! During the interview, it’s ok to be nervous. Even the most confident people are nervous during an interview! If you’re asked a question to which you don’t know the answer, try not to say, “I don’t know”. Instead try “well, I don’t know but if I had to guess, I would say…”. Sometimes that helps us to see your ability to troubleshoot or apply knowledge. We’re trying to figure out if we can get along with you for the next 4 months. I can teach you whatever I need you to learn but I can’t force a harmonious work relationship. Try to have a conversation with the interviewer but be aware if you are talking too much. Watch their facial expressions and cues to see if you’ve been giving too long of an answer. But above all else, remember to be yourself!”