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FoodGrads Podcast Ep 43: Finding career success in food quality/safety as an international graduate student after graduation with Ariful Islam- Food Safety Professional

On episode 43 of the FoodGrads Podcast we interviewed Ariful Islam, a food safety professional who is currently working for the Federal Government of Canada.

In this episode walked Ariful walked us through his career journey coming from Bangladesh to Canada and why he decided to get two master’s degrees rather than a PhD and the skills he picked up during that time. Ariful shared with us his difficulties finding a job after graduation but talked about how networking was so important in his job search and how he used LinkedIn.

Ariful gave some really tangible advice that students or really anybody should be doing throughout their career. Finally, Ariful talked about what it is like working in a food manufacturing facility and the jobs he has performed throughout his career.

Show Notes

[00:01:34] Can you tell us more about your career journey?

[Disclaimer] Ariful: “I’m working for the federal government and I’ll be sharing some, but those are my personal opinion and the ones expressed, today are not those of the Government of Canada or the Canadian Food Inspection Agency those are my personal opinion.”

  • Ariful did his maters at the University of Manitoba in Human Nutrition Science and found a job at Steritech which is a leading food safety and third party certification company. He stared his job there and than moved Regina, Saskatchewan where he than was transferred to Calgary with the same company. The role involved doing auditing for different grocery stores and different restaurants where Ariful was training them and then he got his certification for food safety. The role involved a lot of traveling across the country.

[00:03:14] When you say that you were travelling was this to be able to help different businesses with their food safety?

  • Yes the role involves travelling to because you  actually in-person for auditing purposes to different restaurants and grocery stores. There was also training in the Toronto and Vancouver area
  • Than in 2018 he got married and wanted to do less traveling so Ariful went out an took some courses on HACCP and GMP sanitation because he was looking for more industry related jobs and manufacturing jobs. Though it was difficult to find a job around this time which led to Ariful to apply to jobs in Ontario as there are many food manufacturing plants there. However, that was difficult as well as they prefer local candidates.
  • Eventually Ariful got a role at Leclerc Foods in Cornwall Ontario in their quality control department. They mainly make products like cookies, granola bars and fruit bars but they are a big company. After that role he worked there for a year but he actually wanted to move up as he already had two masters degrees and wanted to gain some experience.
  • This led Ariful to a role at Lactalis Canada which is in Ingleside, Ontario and a cheese company which makes different kinds of cheese’s like powdered cheese. There he worked as a Chemistry lab analyst which is something that he enjoyed because his degree was research based. However, Ariful’s passion was really into getting into the government. Applying for the government takes time but eventually after a lot time and background checks he got a role at the CFIA.

[00:07:16]  One of the things that you mentioned was that you have two master’s degrees. Could you talk about what you did for your two master’s degrees and why did you decide to take two?

  • Ariful did his bachelor and master’s from Bangladesh his home country which focused on food science and a little bit of nutrition. He at the time wanted to be a teach and was looking for higher education and it was his dream to get a degree in North America for their reputation and it was a great program. So he was applying to Canada as an international student it is toughed to het in. Ariful managed to get a scholarship after working hard. As an international student where you get a scholarship will shape our schooling.
  • Ariful got a fellowship from the University of Manitoba and it was a full scholarship that covered his tuition and everything allowing him to save money. The lab was great and his professor was really nice to work under. His research looked at the effects of a high protein diet on the kidney in rates. During the degree he even got published.
  • During the time Ariful even had the intention of doing a PhD because he loved doing research. However, there are other struggles than just getting a scholarship but as getting a work permit. An international student has to pay more for tuition which is three times higher than Canadians or local. This prompted Ariful to go for working in Canada. Finding a job can be very difficult for post-docs because you are overqualified and don’t have any industry experience. They don’t want to pay you more when they can get someone lower educated to do the same job.

[00:12:39] What are some of the skills that you found helped you could apply and use in the industry?

  • Initially, Ariful was applying for lab jobs because he had the lab experience and knew about good laboratory practices. Though on top of this there are transferable skills that you can apply to the industry which include working under pressure, working individually, working as a team, your dedication, sometimes working overtime because many times in the lab you have to come in on the weekend. This could be translated into being flexible.

[00:14:20] Veronica and Ariful begin talking about mentorship and why it is important to have during graduate school

  • Having a mentor really helped Ariful in his career journey. It is also a good idea to go to career counselling because there is one at every university or college. There Ariful attended some workshops which helped him to build his resume with general advice and how you can customize your resume.  However, the advice can only be general because they are not an expert in you field. That is why is important to have a mentor who has some experience related to your discipline. If you want a job in the industry or in the lab or in auditing your resume should be different and your skills need to be customized to reflect this. That is why you need a mentor who has some experience which is related to your discipline.
  • What should you look for in a good mentor? Your mentor should be knowledgeable, they should be able to give you constructive feedback. They should be honest, candid and have a good network that is able to help you find resources. They should also be willing to share his or her skills. Finally have a positive attitude because you will get frustrated when applying for jobs after not hearing back. Your mentor should also value your opinion and should motivate you.

[00:17:45] Ariful shares his experience having a mentor

  • In 2015 Ariful started his masters and he was not active on LinkedIn and one of the assistant professor’s was helpful and suggested that he should comment, share, seek help and make connections with people. After that he started working on his LinkedIn and made some connections with people in the field. Some people were busy but another responded and really provided a lot of mentorship. He mentioned that Ariful’s resume looks good and even offered to edit is and he helped him on his career journey.
  • Samantha also suggested that Ariful join some workshops, seminars and a couple of organizations.You can actually pay for mentorship too but as a student you should focus on finding free sources of it.

[00:21:52] Veronica talks about her experience using university resources for her graduate degree

[00:23:24] Could you talk more about what it feels like working in a manufacturing setting from a food safety perspective?

  • A manufacturing plant could be a meat plant, a dairy plant, a cookie plant or fresh fruit/vegetables. Working in a food safety role is very important because it works with all departments. When following food safety you might have to send sample out for testing, checking if things are properly cleaned, checking if a metal detector is working and ensuring that a packaging on a food product is okay. Food safety/quality are everywhere within the plant. Depending on the role you could end up working in a quiet environment only interacting with a few people but it is a good place to work and interesting.  

[00:27:07] Can you explain what an environmental swab is?

  • In sanitation you are required to clean the line and all the equipment on the belt. So to ensure that the equipment was cleaned properly you have to do an ATP swab or an environmental swab to check the bacterial count. Depending on where you work you have to do a different number of swabs. Dairy is a higher risk than dry products like cookies. When sanitation is done cleaning something they will call the quality department on do a quick swab to check the numbers instantly and the material that something is made of will matter. If the numbers are out of spec than they will have to do things again.

[00:29:49] Is an ATP swabs bacterial count set out by the food safety bodies?

  • Yes it is a standard set of numbers that they go by. It will be different depending on the material and where it is located.

[00:30:19] What ends up happening if you are out of spec for something?

  • The quality control technician has to collaborate and if they find something wrong the will notify the quality supervisor and if there is no supervisor around than they will reach out to the production manager. If they know something is out of specification they will keep the product on hold until the problem is solved.

[00:31:34] What piece of advice would you give to a student looking to get into a career similar to yours, or maybe just general advice going into the food industry or just general life advice?

  • If someone wants to build a career in food safety, quality related field than Ariful suggests getting certifications like HACCP (Hazard analysis and critical control point), GMP or an internal audit certification from a place like SGS or another governing body. As well, try to connect with people on LinkedIn and be active on there. If you have an upcoming interview you can see who else is working there and reach out to them and ask for insights. Alternatively, you could try cold calling or email. Another option, is to go back check that your resume is up to date and customized for the jobs that you are applying for. Apply for as many jobs that you can and be open to relocation because you will have more opportunities. Do volunteering activities because your resume will be better and they can give some references.
  • Also for the government, their FSWEP  (Federal Student Work Program) is an option for students. If you are interested in this sector than get on the government website make a profile but make sure that you take the time to answer all the screening questions as this is time consuming. The government ask different questions which can be behavioural based or scenario based. program for a student. , you can join. And, you can, , get a job and you can get some experience. So it will help you.

[00:34:41] Where can people find you?

  • Email: arif21mbstu@gmail.com
  • LinkedIn
  • Ariful lives in Ottawa and is willing to connect there

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