Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The one about professional behavior

So, one of my colleagues comes into my office today and tells me that an academic advisor has asked for copies of our handout on professional behavior. We do not have one. So, I responded, "Well, what does she mean by professional behavior?" The ensuing conversation careened across the landscape as follows.

I know you think you know what I mean, but I don't think I mean what you think.
Pretty cut and dry here. We have the full range of recruiters and companies visiting campus. Some are incredibly laid back, wearing polo shirts and chinos, while other sport $500 suits. What one sees as professional behavior, the other sees as overly casual behavior. Yes, there are a few standards that we will discuss below, but the fact remains that the range of meaning surrounding the term "professional behavior" is broad to the point of ambiguity. My recommendation to any erstwhile candidate is that he or she become familiar with the culture of any company or organization with which they might interview. This is where all that gnarly networking is so important.... knowing people that know the culture is primo.

There is no such thing as fashionably late... there is just late.
Let me start by saying that I drive my entire family crazy by my desire to be not just on time, but a few minutes early. Let me add to this, I hate waiting in line for anything. Fifteen minutes is my limit, even at a 5-star restaurant, so you can imagine how I feel when someone is late for an appointment. Once, a client with a 30 minute appointment showed up 20 minutes late and said, "I hope I am not too late." I replied, "Not at all, there's still 10 minutes left." We went to my office where I talked about the impact of being late on job interviews and first impressions. I don't care how casual the recruiter or hiring manager might be, the last thing that you want is to be one of the top two candidates and have your competition remembered as "the kid from Orange County" and you remembered as "the one who was late." Bottom line: It is professional behavior to be on time no matter where you work.

Excuse me while I take this call.
Back in the day, when cell phones were the size of shoe boxes, I would watch folks screaming into their cellphones and I remember thinking, "If you are THAT important, why aren't you important enough to have somebody that answers your calls for you?" Perhaps if there is anything that upsets me more than someone who is late for an appointment, it is someone who answers their phone during an appointment. I will say that it is probably okay to have your phone ring and apologize while cutting it off, but it is never (Get that NEVER) okay to actually answer the phone.

A friend told me about being in an interview with his boss. The candidate's phone rang and he said, "Excuse me," and then said to the caller, "I need to call you back. I am in a meeting." A few minutes later, the phone rang again. He once again said, "Excuse me," and this time said, "Let me call you back in about 30 minutes, I am in a meeting." The boss stood up and said, "Nah. Go ahead and take the call, because the interview is over." Take it from me and the poor slob in this story, whether it is an interview or business meeting, cut off the phone.

Yo, dude. How's it goin'!
I live in California, so I call a lot of folks "dude" and I get called "dude" a lot as well. I still remember, however, the first time a subordinate called me dude. It was followed throughout the day with "homes, brah, and man" occasionally prefenced by "Yo!" At the end of the shift, I told my young charge that I would prefer it if he would simply call me and the other supervisors by our names. His reply? "Sure, dude. No problem."

The other vignette that falls under this rubic occurred when I taught in Alabama. In the halls and in talking with students, I almost always referred to my colleagues as Dr. Martin or Dean Roberson or Ms. Young. In their offices or when we were in meetings, they were David, Terry, and Jenny.

How you refer to people with whom you work is important and is a direct reflection of your respect for them and the organization. Follow the lead of those around you. As a safe rule of thumb, think about it this way. Most people do not mind being called Mr. Jone or Ms. Lopez, but some will object to being called "Cuz."

Here, let me get that for you.
Being at a university is sort of like be in a giant sociological fish tank. There are always crowds of animated, bright young adults moving from one location to another underwritten with incessant chatter and lots of laughter. The most intriguing things that I have noticed occurs at the ingress/egress of buildings. You know, doors. I have two experiences, one is holding the door for a student or students who blow right past without a word... like I am the doorman. In fact, that is not exactly correct because when I enter or exit a building that has a door person, I always say "Thank you." While this behavior is not unique to Gen-Y'ers, it does seem to proliferate in that group. I will guarantee you that if you are on an interview or the new person on a job and someone holds the door for you, they will remember if you do not say, "Thank you." Not the way you want to be remembered, dude.

The runners are at the starting line.
My other experience with doorways is what I call the cattle chute. The cattle chute occurs when two (or more) people approach a doorway at the same time and one (or more) of them try to squeeze through. (The variation on this is when one of them speeds up a bit so as to hit the portal first.) I would have to say that the generally accepted behavior is to give right of way to the other, even if it results in "You go first. No, you go. No, you go." Again, you will be remembered for your courtesy. BTW, as an old dude, I think you should always let us go first, because old dudes almost always say something witty like, "Nah, you go first. I'm in no hurry to get to work." I might add that you should NEVER EVER say, "Age before beauty." Not simply because is has not been funny since the Eisenhower Administration, but us old dudes are pretty sensitive about that kind of stuff. The easy take away here is, hold the door and wait for others to go through.

Répondez, s'il vous plaît
This is what RSVP means. It is French for "I need to know if you are going to be here and if you say you will be here you have made an actual commitment to come, so be there or let me know if you have to cancel." That is a loose translation. I have been very surprised at the number of people who seem to believe that RSVP means, "Hold a place for me in case I decide to show up." We always (Get it? ALWAYS) hear from employers when students who have reserved spaces do not show up and do not cancel. Most places ask for an RSVP because they are planning food or there is limited space. If you decide to no show, they spend money on food that goes to waste or someone does not get a seat to the event. It is so not cool. Sure there are exceptions to this rule, but they involve hospital stays and alien abductions. I know no other way to say this than to say if you reserve your place for an event... SHOW UP.

Hmmm. I've seen that somewhere before.
Does any of this sound familiar? It should because it is the same stuff your mom and your kindergarten teacher tried to jam into your brain when you were five. Professional behavior is, quite frankly, mostly common courtesy. Listening when others speak and not cutting them off. Being respectful of others. Observing organizational and cultural norms. Referring to others with formality unless they give you permission to do otherwise. Opening doors. Saying please and thank you. Recognizing others achievements. The list goes on. It really is not rocket science. Doing the professional thing is generally doing the "nice" thing.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The one about tough times....

I work in a university that operates on a quarter system, so we are just starting to be deluged by returning students. My colleagues who work on the semester are about three weeks ahead of me when it comes to responding to the chaos of the current marketplace, but I am not sure that they are any less overwhelmed than my shop... nor do I think the coming months will make thinks appreciably better. This has put me by way of think about what students can do that will help them weather the next (probably) two years while the economy gets better.

First, as I indicated in an early post (Look Now), now is not the time to relax. Career Centers have seen an interesting phenomenon over the last few months... fewer students are coming for services. While the number of first and second years seeking part time jobs has picked up noticeably, third and fourth years have dropped off. The feedback we have been getting is that they have decided that "because there are no jobs, there is no sense in attending events." This is exactly the wrong approach. Students (and alumni) should be availing themselves of every opportunity to get information, grow their network, and create the possibility that they might find a "hidden" opening. That cannot be done hangin' in da crib with your buds. It requires energy and enthusiasm along with a modicum of forethought.

Second, what you do now directly affects the options you have in the future... both near-term and far-term. Students, in particular, should be willing to convert Xbox and PlayStation time to additional time for volunteering or a pro bono internship. Come on! You are already not making any money, so which do you think will impress a prospective employer more: those extra 14,000 zombies you knocked off in Gabby's Revenge or the fact that you helped organize a symposium for the History Department. (I'm going with the History nerds here.)

Third, ask anybody who has been on the job market recently and you will likely find that it took them two or three months to just to settle into the "looking" process. There is actually a pretty steep learning curve regarding how to construct a well-tailored resume, what jobs are actually viable, how to answer that "Tell-us-a-little-bit-about-yourself" question, and how to handle rejection. Waiting until you need a job in three weeks is a painfully bad idea in an economy that requires three months for a well-run job search to bear fruit.

Fourth, please do not listen to anyone about the job market... maybe not even me. I have found that most people are either too optimistic about the economy or far too pessimistic. Neither side of the coin will be helpful. Get your own information. Read the Wall Street Journal and CNN Money. Talk with decision makers in business and industry. Develop some savvy about where market segments are headed and either get on or get off the train they are own. (For instance, if I were majoring in communications right now, I would be preparing myself for internet-based career paths as opposed to print journalism)

Fifth, if you are thinking about hiding out for a couple of years in graduate school, think again. Grad school applications are up and admissions have become more competitive. So, if you think the competition is tough on the entry-level job market, just imagine how difficult graduate school applications will be when you are competing with applicants who have been out of school for three or four years and have saved up enough money to actually pay their own tuition, and because they HAVE three or four years of experience, they will grab the plum jobs on and around campus.

What then can you do amidst all this doom and gloom? Well, first, be serious about steps one through four, then think about the following.

  1. Whether you are a first year or fourth year, do one "career-related" thing each week. That can be as tangential as looking up "careers in glass-blowing" on the Internet to something as direct as going to a career fair or signing up for your school's On-Campus Interview program.
  2. Talk to your peers about what they are doing about job-hunting. Not subtly. Try something like, "Dude, I'm freakin' because the parents are gonna cut me off soon and I was wonderin' what you were doing about find a job." (If they say "Nothin' Dude, I'm gonna go to grad school... point them to this blog.) Find out what people are doing and steal their best ideas.
  3. Talk to your family. Let them know what you are thinking about. Most parents are more than willing to help motivate and sustain you as long as they know you are doing something. (A helpful hint here... now is not the time to be too proud to accept help, if your mom when to school with Warren Buffet's daughter, allow her to introduce you or at least forward your resume to her.)
  4. Everything in moderation. I have posted many times before that the worst mistake that job hunters make is putting too much energy and time into the job hunt. Understand your limitations and work within them. For some folks, pursuing leads and completing applications three or four hours a day seven days a week may be doable, but most of us are likely to need time and space for other activities. A couple of FOCUSED hours four or five days a week should suffice.
  5. Persistence pays. This is the corollary to the above. Having a schedule and pursuing it consistently is most likely to pay off. This is primarily because a consistent schedule helps you (and your support network) hold yourself accountable and actually measure how much you have done.
Yes, times are tough, but challenges are what provide the sparks for growth and it is time to grow.

Monday, July 6, 2009

The one about not working...

After far too long a hiatus, I have returned. There is a good explanation for my absence that has to do with new domains, websites, etc., but ultimately I needed some time, so I took it. During this interregnum, I thought a bit about the ways that not working seems to help working... just like not blogging was supposed to help my blog. Today's post is about not working.

First, you should know that for years, we have know that rats engage in a behavior known as "play fighting" in which juvenile rats tussle and spar with one another. Likewise, it seems that most, if not all, mammals do this. If rats are prevented from play-fighting, they typically suffer from serious deficits in social behavior, have more stress-related problems and appear... well, depressed or anxious. (For the record, males play-fight more than females, but I will let someone else carry that standard forward.) As the rats mature, they play fight less and less, I suppose because the grind of the old ratty 8 to 5 begins to squeeze out play time. In a over-simplification of hundreds of articles, it would appear that playing (and play-fighting in particular) as a juvenile makes a more stress-resistant and social adult rat and makes it more likely that the adult rat will engage in playful behavior which inhibits stress.

Everybody needs a Saturday... even on Wednesday.
I am sure that many people are like me with regard to the weekend experience. Friday evening is a time of rapid decompression. Almost like someone has let the air out of a balloon. Saturday begins with virtually no thought of work or work-related issues. We have projects or destinations or uber-naps to undertake. By mid-day Saturday, there is no work, there is only Saturday. At some point in the afternoon, work begins to creep back into our consciousness and by Sunday evening, we are beginning to mentally rehearse our schedule for the coming week. Imagine life without a weekend. Brrrr. I don't even want to go there. The simple fact, however, is that many folks have that condition. Intriguingly, when I was a college professor I lived life without a weekend. One of the disadvantages of having a flexible schedule is that it seldom contains specified, sacred time off and I believe that expectation of time off is as important as the time off itself. One of the tricks that I learned was that I had to "designate" a day off... even if it was Wednesday. I measured time between Wednesdays and sometimes when I was grading a stack of papers and tests on Sunday, I knew that Wednesday was only two days away. Set aside a day. Make it inviolable.

Sleeping is not playing.
A few years ago, I said to my wife, "My sleep thing is broken."

She looked at me a bit quizzically and I added, "You know, that part of your brain that lets you sleep until 11 or 12 on Saturday. I can't do that anymore."

She smiled and agreed that, indeed, her sleep thing was broken, too. I assumed that this was a normal function of aging, until I began to discover that there were people who managed to stay in bed well past mid-morning on their days off. When I questioned them about it, they generally indicated that they were "recharging" their batteries. I'm pretty sure this doesn't work. First, sleep is not cumulative, so there is only so much sleep that one can get in a specified amount of time. It is not restorative to live on five hours of sleep a night Monday through Friday and then try to jam in an extra eight hours on Saturday and Sunday. Likewise, sleeping through the morning erodes the amount of time that one has left to play. Get up. Do something.

Working is not playing.
I know what you are thinking, but this has to be said. This past weekend, I put together a kayak to store my boats outside, I built a lattice screen to protect me from the prying eyes of my neighbors (or them from me), I designed a raised bed for strawberries, made a huge pot of gumbo, and cleaned out the garage. The only part of this that I considered work was the cleaning the garage part. The rest was recreative and restorative. The first thing that I did this morning was to go to the patio to look at my lattice screen. These days email and other electronic tendrils can creep into your weekend and create stealth work. You barely know you are working until the project has consumed your whole weekend. Do not work. Ever.

Scheduling inhibits playing.
Simply put, you gotta have down time. Most of us run by wire from Monday through Friday. I will be the first to admit that I have zero idea where I am supposed to be an hour from now without consulting one of the three electronic calendars that contain my schedule. It is not unusual for me to be sitting in a meeting and have my cellphone gently buzz in my pocket alerting me that I need to be somewhere else in 15 minutes. When I set up my electronic calendar a few years ago, I selected the preference choice for "Start Week on Monday" and "Do Not Show Saturday and Sunday." Part of this was to make the days larger so that I could see them without my glasses, but part of it was philosophical. Saturday and Sunday are my MY days and if someone if silly enough to schedule work on those days, I don't even want to see it.

In one of the little ironies that life supplies from time to time, I broke my watchband on a business trip and have yet to have it fixed. I have discovered that during the week, I am pretty tuned in to the time, but on the weekend, not only do I lose track quickly, but the days seem to be a little longer. The clear message to me is that being on the clock is working and not fun, while being off the clock is playing and (usually) fun. Don't schedule anything. Except restaurant reservations.

Playing hooky is not playing.
In my rather lengthy work history there have been only a small handful of times that I have used the infamous "mental health holiday." It's not that I am particularly ethical and honest, rather I think that I had judiciously used my time off on weekends and vacations to recharge and recreate. Generally speaking, when I am supposed to be at work, I am at work. When we "play hooky" we spend most of the time we are away from work thinking about how much work sucks. Contrast this with meaningful, productive planned time off, during which we seldom even think about work... let alone think about it with dread and dismay. If you are routinely using sick leave to sneak away from work, you should reconsider your vocational choice.

There's little else to add here. Let work get on without you for a more than just a weekend. Don't "hang out" at the pad. If you cannot afford to get a cabin at the mountains or a condo at the beach, then go to a museum, travel to another city for lunch or dinner. Order a Pawley's Island Hammock, go to Home Depot and buy some concrete mix, a precast footing, and a couple of 4x4's. Plant those suckers in the ground and string up your new hammock. Buy a used bicycle from Craislist and spend the week rehabbing it and actually ride it somewhere. Google "state historical markers" and the name of your home state. Guess what? Almost every state has an official site and there are dozens of unofficial ones. Put together a day tour that takes in three or four markers and lunch at an out of the way bistro or tavern. (Turns out that there are 24 within 30 miles of my home!) If you haven't taken an extended vacation, do it.

Go away and play, so that work is palatable.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Advice from Dad about grad school

Okay, this is not completely blogriginal. It was a contribution to another online community that I habituate, and someone asked that I blog it. Since I have been struggling to finish two other entries, it made perfect sense. So, here it goes.
My oldest son is graduating from UCLA in a few weeks and will be entering graduate school in the fall in Musicology/Ethnomusicology. He understands well the bleak job market for PhD’s in the humanities and also understands that a career in higher education is fraught with problems in the best of times. My wife and I are both proud of his accomplishments thus far and are pleased that he had several graduate programs from which to choose. Following is the advice that I gave him as he prepared applications and then made a decision about which program to attend. I hope that it will be of help to those of you who are still in programs.

1. Do not leave undergraduate school for a humanities degree without substantial training and background in quantitative research methods. I deal with PhD students and graduates who have not taken a course in math or statistics since their sophomore year in college. I recently worked with a newly graduated PhD in English who had not taken a math class since her junior year in high school which was in 1996! She had NEVER taken a statistics course at all. She was frustrated that many of the higher ed administrative jobs she was considering wanted a background in data analysis. My son decided to double major in Music and Sociology because the Soc major would give him access to two research methods courses he would not have otherwise been able to take as a Music major.

2. Do not leave graduate school with a humanities PhD without substantial training and background in quantitative research methods.
At some point after his first year, he has to decide on straight musicology vs. ethnomusicology. I have encouraged the ethno choice largely because a certain amount of ethnographic research training is mandatory in the program. I have pointed out to him that he will likely have gobs of tuition credits during his time and he should avail himself of that funding to take classes in multivariate analysis, assessment, and research methods from either sociology or psychology. (I used some of my “free” tuition to take courses in the MBA and social work programs)

3. Do not leave graduate school without some sort of “external” experience. He will be attending a program in Southern California and there at numerous museums, social agencies, and business/industry opportunities around. I am pimping internships/part-time jobs in market research or business development in the recording industry along with summer fellowships in federal and state agencies.

4. Demand to be taught to write and publish. He is still ambivalent about whether or not he wishes to become a “professor” upon completion of his degree, but he realizes that the training is largely geared to produce faculty and the missing component in almost all disciplines is mentoring in the process of producing academic publications. We discussed this two years ago while he was still an undergraduate and he approached two faculty at UCLA, before the third agreed to mentor him. It has been a good two-year apprenticeship that resulted in a published article and an understanding of what it takes to give birth to one, tiny published piece. He has already begun to hint to the faculty who have not officially seen him that this is one of his primary goals.

5. Always know where you are and never get too concerned about where you are going. One of the frustrations that I have in working with any client, but especially PhD’s, is that they cannot stay grounded in the present. They are always “out there” in the future. So much so that when the future gets here, they are not prepared for it. The way that I put it to him was, “Don’t spend all of your time planning for a job or future that may not exist when you finish. Grab opportunities that interest you now, even if they may entice you to leave your program or change your mind about what you want to be.” I shared that the best thing that ever happened to me was doing an internship in a hospital while in my religion graduate program that convinced me that I wanted to be a counselor or psychologist and not a priest or philosophy professor. I left the graduate program and eventually ended up where I am today.

6. Have an active Plan B. I have a clinical license that I have seldom used recently, but it was great in tiding me over when fellowship money was tight. During my last two years of graduate school, while my classmates were eating ramen noodles and living on $15,000 a year, I was working as a contract therapist eight hours a week on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings for $50 an hour and providing clinical supervision at a community clinic for another 4 hours at $75 an hour. I was able to give up my TA assignments in the last year of my program so that I had much more time to write and collect dissertation data. He has already lined up gigs with public music entities which will pay a modest amount and give him contacts in arts commissions in SoCal and he will complete his teaching credential next month.
So there you have it, more useless advice from Dad.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Career Development Made Easy!

I will readily admit that I am not a big fan of books that have the purpose simplifying the complexities of life. Whether it’s Fulghum’s “Everything I needed to know I learned on Star Trek” or Blanchard’s “One Minute Emperor of the Universe” or Covey’s “Seven Habits of Reasonably Laid Back Slackers.” Before we go further, I would like to add that I have, in fact, read multiple titles by all three of these guys and from time to time recommend them to emotionally and cognitively stable people who will not believe them to be the distillation of centuries of consciousness. They do not, however, substitute for being an acute political and sociological observer of your workplace. Today’s post.

Shortcuts may get you there quicker, but that simply increases the chances that the waiting room will not be open.

This may sound like my post from a few weeks ago about slowing down, but I assure you it is not. Human beings are very interesting creatures who are constantly looking for quicker, simpler way to do things… particularly repetitive tasks. Albert Einstein became famous for his seminal work in physics in trying to develop a formula for everything. It is important to note that he also became depressed, withdrawn, and just a little bit whacky later in life trying to find achieve this goal. So, I am here to tell you that there is no unified theory of career development. No golden plan that will assure your dominance in the world of work. No easy way to the top. I can, however, offer to you, a few variables that you should attend to in charting your course.

There are no foolproof systems, because fools are so damned ingenious.

Elegant solutions are like good software. That is, they are the product of extensive study, intensive engineering, and thousands of lines of highly detailed programming code. The result, however, is a pretty little piece of technology with a very simplified interface and the more simple the interface, the higher its “user-friendliness” rating. Decision-making within an organization often functions the same way. That is, a committee will devote time to looking at many possible outcomes, survey stakeholders, pilot several programs, before recommending a protocol.

Just as software is subject to obsolescence when new operating systems arrive, so too, our decision-making templates at work become obsolete as new challenges arise. One caution here… In the software world, applications will simply refuse to work when confronted with a new operating system. Humans, however, are much less likely to recognize that the system in which they are working has changed.

A great example of this is a department that I worked for a few years ago which kept reams and reams of paper application forms filled out by students long after the forms had migrated online. Students would fill out the forms online and then highly paid professional staff members would complete several blanks in the form by hand. Duplicates of the forms were kept in another office in another building and each office maintained seven years of these forms, even though the institutional document retention policy had changed to five years, either online or in hardcopy. Once a year, the two departments would get together and spend several days reconciling paper files because from time to time there were differences in the forms. At the end of the year a report to the funding agency was required. This report was generated from the online forms with the push of a button. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, the paper forms had not been used for the report in several years. After these changes were pointed out to the two offices and their personnel it still took over six months to eliminate the storing of seven years files, the annual reconciliation meeting, and the maintenance of paper copies.

Look for evidence that inertia, not good sense, guides decision-making in your organization and seek to change it. Remember, however, that it will be an uphill battle and by the time you change things, there will be other things that need attention.

I go to school, but I never learn what I want to know.

This was uttered by Calvin back in the days when there was a Calvin and Hobbes comic strip and life had actual meaning. It is reminiscent of something that happened in my first teaching job. I had put the Fall Semester to bed and was beginning the process of prepping lectures for the Spring. Walking through the administration building one day while students were still on break, I heard my name being called by the provost.

Darryl, Darryl. Student class evaluations are in. Can we talk for a moment?

Uh. Sure. When?” I replied in a tone that clearly communicated my fear. What on earth could I have messed up this time.

We walked the long, dark hall to her office and entered a room that had stack upon stack of manila folders full of class evaluations. She surveyed the piles for a moment and eventually located the “psychology” stack. After few seconds, she found it.

Here it is!” she said as she thumbed through the evals. “Here. Read this one. Pay particular attention to question seven.

I breezed by questions one through six and focused on question seven. I forget exactly what it said, but the gist of it was, “What changes could the instructor have made that would have enhanced the learning environment?” On the particular evaluation that she had handed me the student had written in a very precise, symmetrical style,

Dr. Stevens was not fair at all. He expected us to learn stuff we didn’t already know.

I looked at the provost who was smiling broadly and said, “I suppose this is a good thing, huh?

Yes. It is a very good thing.

Folks, here is my ultimate wisdom for the day. Not knowing is the beginning point for knowing. The primary reason that I hear for wasteful or stupid procedures at work is “We’ve always done it that way.” If I am ever the absolute monarch of my country, I plan to make it a capital offense without appeal to say, “We’ve always done it that way.” (WADITW) Here’s the deal. Somebody you work with is going to say this to you. You may even slip up and say it yourself. Spend some of your time at work ferreting out the WADITW situations and begin a subtle, compassionate effort to change them. Understand that WADITW is highly resistant to change and WADITW adherents will tend to see you as an invading force when you recommend change. Do not expect to be successful. Pick your battles by reaching for the low-hanging fruit first.

It’s only work if somebody makes you do it.

Okay, Calvin and Hobbes aficionados will realize this is my second quote from the strip today. I’m generally a bit more low-key with such stuff, but it fits today’s thread. This will be quick and to the point. If the only thing you ever do at work is what you are required to do, you will hate it. Like many other geezers my age, I have gotten to the station in life where I can simply start a project because it interests me. When I was younger and I realized to my horror that I would be doing this work stuff for another 40 or 50 years, I freaked out. Luckily, I worked with a guy who had been around for a long time and he gave me the best advice I ever had. It went something like this:

Every once in a while, look around at work a make two lists. The first list should be things that obviously need to be done, but no one is doing them. The second list should be things that other people are doing that they obviously hate doing. Choose one thing from each list and ask if you can do them.

Over the years, I have developed a small arsenal of skills that include website design, network maintenance, statistical methodology design, report-writing, event-planning, etc. all because I asked. The best part was that these were things that either nobody else wanted to do or nobody else knew how to do, so I was seldom bothered and was allowed to develop things in my own way. A side benefit has been that I am generally seen as an independent worker who can be trusted with complex tasks. Sometimes, I feel a bit like Brer Rabbit begging not to be thrown in the briar patch. Ultimately, if you step up and ask to do the things you like doing, it will squeeze out more of the things you do not like doing.

If you are not being criticized, you may not be doing very much.

I cannot believe that I am going to end today’s post with a quote from Donald Rumsfeld! He is, however, correct. I am quite suspicious of anyone who manages to go to work 40 hours per week 52 weeks per year and somewhere in that mountain of 2080 hours of work does not get at least a little blow back from something done poorly. We all begin our careers from a position of ignorance and ineptitude. If all goes well, we move from being criticized and questioned fairly often to being criticized and questioned less often. I make it clear to the folks who work for me that I expect that if they are trying new things and taking risks, I expect a reasonable number of setbacks.

Think about these things.

If you are avoiding potential failure, you are also avoiding possible success.

If you are waiting for others to tell you what they want you to do, you are never doing what you want to do.

Doing things the way they have always been done assures you will never learn anything new.

Simple solutions only work for simple problems.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The 59th Street Bridge Career.

I am old enough to remember the tune "The 59th Street Bridge Song" as a Simon and Garfunkel song. There have been several covers over the years, so folks in their 40's will remember it as somebody else's song. The twenty and thirty-somethings will only remember it if they happened to catch the Simpson's episode that featured it. For those that remember it in any of its many incarnations, one phrase stands out...

"Slow down, you move too fast.
You got to make the morning last.
Just kicking down the cobblestones.
Looking for fun and feelin' groovy."
While I don't begrudge the fast charging, high achieving types, there is some wisdom in slowing down just a bit as a way of solidifying your career development. I won't guarantee that you will be feelin' groovy all the time, taking time to consolidate the things that you are learning will act to instill personal self-confidence in your skills and abilities.

Renovate or Innovate?

A few years ago, I was working with a colleague who was a few years younger than me. I was in my early forties, she in her mid-thirties, but about 10 years of experience in the field separated us, even though we were peers within the organization. She was bright, focused and driven and most often a pleasant collaborator. At some point, she came to me with a question about a project she was working on that just seemed to get no traction and was not yielding the kind of results she (we) had expected.

As we discussed why she was approaching things the way she was, it became increasingly apparent that she had been a part of a similar project only once and, therefore, had only seen it done one way before. She had taken the template from a similar project and was renovating it to fit our needs. Eventually, I convinced her to take some chances and try things from three or four similar projects that I had done over the years and synthesize them to fit her needs. I only say about three reasonably intelligent things each year, so I pretty much remember every credible statements I have ever made. This was one. I told her, "When you are doing a major project, your choice is always to renovate what was done the last time or actually innovate and do something new."

Later in the week she came to me again and said, "Thanks so much. You're really smart with this stuff."

I was wise enough to accept her thanks, but to also add, "I'm not that smart... I've just been doing it for 12 more years than you. Give it time. It will come."

I see this in college students in two ways, both of which can be very destructive to one's self-confidence. The first is what I would call the “Expectation of Elevation.” This occurs for the student who has always excelled in the classroom. You know the type. Student body president, good athlete, 4.2 GPA in high school. The first shot to the ego in college occurs when they are surrounded by a veritable sea of 4.2-president-athletes. If they recover from not being the only one to know the answer in class and do reasonably well in college, they are then faced with entering the job market with the expectation of a $50K to $60K salary and a management position, only to find out that sea of 4.2-president-athletes has transformed into an ocean of students who did reasonably well in college. (I'm sure I don't need to add that the economic downturn has exacerbated this situation.)

I am not saying that these students would have been better off to adopt a slacker approach to life. Expect less and avoid disappointment. Rather, I am suggesting that mentors should be sensitive to young professionals who are comparing themselves unfairly to seasoned veterans who have been at it for decades. Likewise, young professionals should remind themselves that the best project management assessments that we have tell us that the design, construction, and final inspection of Rome exceeded a day's expenditure of effort and energy.

Guidelines for Career Development Sanity.

Take a day for yourself.

One interesting phenomenon that I have witnessed routinely over the years is people, who have copious vacation time, taking a sick day that is very “wink-wink, nudge-nudge.” Everybody knows they are not sick, but nobody actually says it out loud. The problem with this is that when one returns from the one day junket, they are forced not to talk about any really cool stuff that they did because, remember, they were sick. I would hasten to add here that I think this also becomes a habit over time and people forget that they can just take a day because they have earned. That, in fact, gives us the subtitle to guideline one, “Take a day for yourself: You've earned it.”

Watch a more experienced colleague do their (your) job.
I had the good fortune when I entered the counseling field to be a setting in which I spent a great deal of time with Bruce Crawford. Bruce pretty much my age, but he had been doing counseling for a decade by the time I walked into my first therapy group. The goodest part of my good fortune was that Bruce naturally understood that whatever skill advantage he had over me was solely a matter of experience and practice and he reminded me of this constantly. There was a great deal of “Trust the Force, young Skywalker” early in our relationship. Most of what I know about counseling I did not learn in my graduate training... I learned it just watching him. Thanks, Bruce.

Volunteer to help with a coworker's project.
Seriously. Offering to do something on a project will give you cred with your colleagues, but it will also allow you the freedom not to have any freedom. Does that make sense? I hate it when I am in charge of a project and I cannot leave until it is done and the end is drawing near and I have four or five people who have pieces of the project and they are behind schedule because they have other things to do and those things are more important to them than the stuff they are doing for me. The Nerve! Working on somebody else's project and doing it their way may not build leadership lines on your resume, but it will take some of the pressure off and give you some insights about how those around you work. It will probably make you a bit more understanding about others' limits of endurance when they are helping you. An additional benefit is mentioned above... they will owe you.

Say No.
Yeah. I know it will make the boss like you more, but take it from me. Say No once in a while. It's that simple and doesn't need explanation, right?

Un-schaden Your freude Once in a While.
Do not even try to tell me that you NEVER feel some satisfaction when somebody get it. You know you do. Remember when Katie Couric left all those folks on the Today Show and took the big bucks to read the news for CBS? Admit it. You were a bit tickled. Here's the deal. Be a good sport. Walk down the hall and congratulate your biggest rival on his/her latest successful project. You'll survive. You don't always need to be #1. (Okay... so you DO need to be #1. Give it up for a day.)

Ask for advice.
There is something about asking for advice that scares the beejeebers out of folks. When I was a professor, I remember lecturing about dense, complex constructs with nary a query about the nuances of the lecture. Nobody wanted to appear stupid. Of course, many of these students would come to me after a test and complain that I had not addressed this or that in the lecture, to which I would reply, "When I did the lecture on physiological responses to threat, I ask if anyone had any questions and no one did." Asking question may jeopardize your reputation for omniscience, but actually having the answers may serve you well later.

Slow down.
This is where we started. Slow down. Do not except the fact that you must ALWAYS work overtime. Act as if you do not believe that the organization will crumble without you. Take an extra fifteen minutes for lunch once a month. Go for a short walk in the afternoon. Make a personal phone call on occasion. Relax. You'll last longer.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The West Coast Early Morning Tease.

Okay, the holiday weekend turned out to be more action-packed than anticipated. Generally, I have three or four posts sketched out by Sunday. I did nothing this weekend. However, yesterday after my Advanced Resume Workshop, one of the participants walked back to the Center with me and we talked about his career plans. More on that later today. He did, however, ask one of those simple questions that has a simple answer that changes every time you think about it. Here is my first hit on the question and I would like to encourage everyone to leave a comment/answer or send the answer to me at 17.things@cox.net.

The Question: How did you know when you had finally found the right career?

My first answer: It was the day that I realized that I was no longer simply looking for a better-paying job, but was trying to figure out what steps I should take to move towards my boss's job.
To be a bit more explicit. I worked in the insurance industry for almost four years. I then went back to school with a coin-toss decision to become a priest or a lawyer. Somehow, along the way I ended up working at a large group home for gang kids from Southcentral and East LA because I needed a temporary job to pay graduate school expenses... I never intended to stay. In my previous jobs, I had spent most of my time planning my escape, but in this job I started thinking about the things that I could do that would change how the program was run day-to-day. Likewise, instead of vacillating between studying law or philosophy, I began to think about getting more training in counseling.

The biggest single difference, however, has been that most of my job dissatisfaction since that time has been situational. That is, due to budget or staffing shortfalls, changes in management or resources, or the realization that I need to be doing more. In my earliest jobs, I simply wanted out.

You might say that in my earliest jobs, I too busy trying to get out to spend anytime appreciating the surroundings. I knew I was on the right career path when I started picking up the litter on the side of the path.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Let me tell you why I am here.

My correspondent in Bucksnort reached out with a question about relocation. While I addressed relocation in a general way in a post a few weeks ago, I think this question hits at a slightly different area. Bubba writes:
What are some tactics for a job search that will require relocation? It's not like Google is hosting a job fair in Bucksnort, TN any time soon.
Should I get a dummy phone line in every city in which I'm looking? Get a friend in that city to agree to let me use his address and have things forwarded?
With the job pool being what it is, it seems foolish to let the phrase "local candidates only" preclude my applying to an otherwise perfect position in terms of job requirements, description, and pay. But it also flies in the face of not applying for positions that don't allow me to meet the posted requirements.
Is this where you tell me that networking, online and personally, is vital?
Yes, Bubba this is where I tell you that networking is vital. In fact, I will not belabor that point and will assume that if you are interested enough in a career blog, you've probably adopted a "network first" mantra of some kind. Following are a few things that you should weigh when seeking work elsewhere.

As the blog's title suggests, it is important to let prospective employers know why one of their top applicants has an address in Uzbekistan... or Bucksnort. It has to be something other than "I really hate Tennessee and can't wait to leave this carnival of doom." If you don't like where you are now, what indication do I have that you will not ditch me the same way your did the Volunteer State? Likewise, you should probably not lead with "ailing parents." Does that mean that you will be completely consumed with their care until they pass, at which time you will move on? In short, your relocation should be based on positives about the organization and not negatives about your current life.

Likewise, you should cite your professional goals first and any connections to the area second to support the belief that you are a viable candidate. When I relocated to Alabama a few years ago, I shared that I loved California, but wanted the opportunity to be a part of a smaller university system that would allow me room for growth. I pointed out that I had family and friends in the area to make the transition smoother, but it was not given as a primary reason for my seeking employment there. From talking with one of the decision-makers in my hiring, I know that they chose me as a finalist because my goals were aligned with the position and only considered my attachments to the area as a secondary selection issue.

You're not from around these parts are you, stranger?

There are a number of reasons that a company might want to limit their recruitment to local candidates only, but most of them would violate some labor law or code somewhere. As a result, it is increasingly uncommon to see the "local candidate" restriction on job announcements. It sometimes cleverly masquerades under such guises as:
  • Candidate must be familiar with Goosecreek County regulations regarding hamster tossing.
  • Seeking applicants with a thorough background in Dutchess City renovation projects.
  • Qualified candidates will have a well-established network of contacts in the Tri-City area.
Clearly, if such requirements are enforced, and you are hamsterless, you are not likely to be competitive in a job search in Goosecreek County, but making your case is an important step in getting past the screen. In the long run, one should not decide not to apply for a position simply because a job announcement seems to indicate provinciality as a requisite. The world has grown increasingly smaller and you may need to remind a prospective employer of that fact. In a difficult job market, it is too easy for an employer to be overwhelmed by marginal local talent that will not have to relocate, so your making it clear that you understand the "lay of the land" is vital to serious consideration.

I work in an industry (higher education) in which recommendations are part of the recruitment process from its earliest stages. It is not unusual at all for letters of recommendation to be a required part of an initial application. On the other hand, I know of students who are given job offers that are contingent on good recommendations, meaning that references are not even requested until there is an offer on the table. If you are applying outside of your home turf and you know someone in the vicinity of the "new job," consider having them submit a recommendation for you early in the process. Certainly if you know someone at the prospective workplace have them write or speak to someone on your behalf. (I am always surprised at the number of times I hear someone remark that they knew a supervisor or director at an organization at which they had applied and they never spoke with them about their application.)

The Proviso

After the forgoing, allow me to offer one proviso: Don't go any place where you feel unable to live for five or more years. Ironclad, lockdown rule. Five years minimum. Although most initial jobs seldom last more than two years, life becomes unbearable when you plan on sometime taking two years to mature and time conspires against you. Several years ago, I worked with a young couple whose job search was a massively huge net of openings that included literally all of the continental US of A. I will not get into the logic of why broad job searches work so poorly, but they do. He got an offer for a position in a portion of the South that I knew quite well. I cautioned him to tread lightly and get information about the surroundings, adding that it was a very rural area and would be much different than he was used to in Southern California and perhaps waiting for more familiar territory would make sense. Had he waited this would not be a compelling story at all because three weeks after he moved to the South, he had an offer closer to home. He felt (appropriately) that he should honor his commitment to the new organization and stay. A year into his time with them, while home on vacation, he paid me a visit and told me how miserable he was in the new place. The great irony was that as he looked for another job and was having difficulty for two reasons: employers on the West Coast were leery of hiring someone from Arkansas and concerned about the fact he was looking for another job so soon after starting.

Relocation signals flexibility, but it should be flexibility... not desperation.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The One About Growing Up

I see college students everyday. Big ones, little ones, short ones, tall ones, smart ones, ... uh, really smart ones. From my position of security inside my own personal career bubble, I am sure that I am a bit more smug than I would be if I were still trying to find my way in the world. Putting my own smugosity aside, I would like to offer a reflection for parents around the world. This post goes out to both parents and adult children. It is for anyone who believed that one day they would be allowed to find meaning for themselves, only to discover that their search for meaning in the world was but a continuation of their parents' journey. It is also for parents who struggle with how much to say or do when it becomes obvious that your child has chosen a path that you absolutely, positively know to be crazy.

I'll take, "Things That Alienate Your Kids" for $500, please.

Since my sons did not agree to be a part of this blog, I will keep identifying information to a minimum, but I should tell you that part of the developmental process that my wife and I have experienced as parents has always been a bit sketchy around the principle of "letting them go." They have chosen colleges that we would not have chosen. They have chosen college majors that we would not have chosen. They have also chosen an array of experiences that we would not have chosen. While our voice has been ever present as they have made these choices, in the end it was they who chose college, major, and other experiences.

An example of this is one son's recent decision about whether or not to change his major or add a second major. My advice had been to change to the second, more flexible major and not think about a double major because it was too time-consuming. After consulting with his advisor and a faculty person, he decided to keep his original major and add a minor in the other area. His general reasoning was "Because it seemed like what I wanted to do." Although it took me a few hours to reorient myself to his decision, I realized that this event signaled two things. First, he was thinking enough about the present and looking enough at the future to engage in a discussion with several people about what he is studying while in college. The second thing is that his final decision was based on information from several sources and it was executed in a manner than seemed to integrate their wisdom, but remained HIS decision.

It is hard enough to make rational, thoughtful decisions about any aspect of our lives without our parents second-guessing us, but decision-making about career becomes more complex and painful still. I am sure that my chemical engineer father felt more than a bit dismayed that his two sons studied music and psychology and at one point, we were both college professors in our chosen fields. Don't get me wrong, I think he was proud of us, but I think we hit our fifties before he gave up hope that we would come to our senses and retrain as chemists. The occasionally difficult interrogatories during my twenties and thirties were designed so that he could learn what I was doing AND to allow him a bit of a pulpit to subliminally funnel information to me about alternative career choices.

Although gold dust is precious, when it gets in your eyes it obstructs your vision.

According to those who know such things, Hsi-Tang Chih Tsang said this sometime in the eighth century. It's one of those sayings that transcend time, but seems related to a Warren Buffet quote, "Price is what you pay. Value is what you get," and (if I do this right) a Jimmy Buffet lyric, "We are the people our parents warned us about." I realize that in talking about values (ideals) I am not talking about value (worth), but based on my interactions with folks over the past few years, somebody has not gotten the memo. While this is based on my experience with undergraduate and graduate students, I think the issue extends well beyond that population to older workers, non-college educated careerists, and those yet to enter college.

One of the most difficult parts of my job is sitting with a student who is doing poorly in his/her major and is ashamed to tell anyone. For them the solution is to change majors and the conversation goes something like this.

I was thinking 'bout changing my major.

What were you considering?

Uh. I dunno. What do you think would be a good major for me.
(Before I go any further, let me assure you that I am asked at least a hundred times each year by students I have never, ever seen before, what major I think would be a good one for them.)

Well, I'm not sure I can actually answer that. What do you want to do after you graduate?

I dunno. You know. Something that makes money.

Well, pretty much everything makes money. What do you enjoy?

Huh? Whaddya mean? I thought you were talkin' 'bout where I wanted to work.

I was. Got any ideas?

Yeah, but they don't include stuff I enjoy, though. My parents want me to have a good job.

It's actually okay to enjoy your job.

I guess so, but I need to make a lot of money.

I'm sure everybody wants to make a lot of money, but we still don't know what you enjoy.

Yeah. You know, the only job I ever had that I really liked was working as a tutor, but you can't make any money at that. If I major in history, what's the best job I can get?

I would like to acknowledge that I do not make "a lot of money." I make "pretty good money" or "enough money" and despite my father's head scratching, he was generally okay with the fact that I was doing something I enjoyed. As a sort of maudlin side note, until I started seeing the hordes of young adults who needed to make a lot of money, I never really appreciated how much freedom my parents had given me in the career decision-making arena. The most ironic thing about this issue is that it seems that it is parents who only make "pretty good money" or "enough money" and who are generally okay with that for themselves that are culturally stimulated to want more for their kids.

I also understand quite well that this is a horrible generalization and is fraught with numerous problems that include gender and cultural issues, economic class differences, and all manner of variables that explain why a parent pushes their offspring to excel. (I know that somewhere a Darwinian devotee is castigating me for suggesting that this behavior is anything other that the manifestation of our struggle to preserve our gene pool.) I remember the first time someone said to me, "Well, you're rich. You don't know what it is like to not have everything." I have to remind myself that because I am making "pretty good" money, I sorta understand rich, but I have a tough time with poor.

It's never about the Benjamins.

I honestly wish that I could make this a law...

"The universe constitutes it to be felony, punishable by fines, upbraidings, and public humiliation for any adult to inform any minor about the salary or compensation for any occupation know to exist in this quadrant of the galaxy. Likewise, it will be deemed a misdemeanor if a parent requires that any individual to pursue a specific course of study other than that which the student him/herself deems to be interesting or fulfilling. Violations of this statute will be considered whether the student is a minor or of legal age."
Don't get me wrong, I don't think that all offspring make excellent decisions all the time. Nor do I believe that all parental units give lousy advice all the time. I go back to my own father, who gently let me know what he thought would be a stable career path, but allowed me to navigate by my own rules. I made my own decisions and sometimes they were poor decisions. They were, however, MY mistakes and I was much more invested in fixing them. I know this... I always wanted to be completely grown up and thought that would happen when I settled on a job or career that I felt was of my own choosing. The thing that my parents gave me was the freedom to choose, not once, but over and over. I did not need to grow up... I just needed to keep on growing.

Happiness is neither virtue nor pleasure nor this thing nor that but simply growth,
We are happy when we are growing.
William Butler Yeats

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Salaries Redux

Dear Career Stuff Guy,

One thing I did not see (I might have missed it) in your blog post - what to do if they ask for salary requirements in the application materials. The way I was told to address that was with a statement in the cover letter something like this:

"My salary requirements are negotiable and depend on the nature of the full compensation package."

If others have heard differently or have better advice, I would be very interested in hearing it.

Signed - Salary Gal

Dear Salary Gal,

No you didn't miss it... I did. First, let me say that the advice you proffer would be adequate. I might rephrase it a little and say something like,

"Given my understanding of the current salary market for Widgeteers, I am certain we will be able to arrive at a total compensation figure that is suitable for me and ABX Widgets."
It is increasingly rare to see such demands upon initial application, but not uncommon for a request like this after the first paper screening. As I indicated early, the mere appearance of such requests should be a red flag for applicants. Organizations that are doing well and are committed to hiring the "best talent" seldom worry about salary until the offer stage is reached. Asking for salary requirements is an upfront indication of operations based on budget projections and not achievement.

Hope this helps.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Salary? We don't need no stinking salary.

Two questions that create the most panic in a jobseeker are requests for salary history and requests for salary needs. On a rare occasion, these fears meet in one jobseeker with definitively contradictory concerns. For instance, sometime last year Bubba came to see me about an upcoming interview. Prior to his interview, he had been asked to supply both a salary history and current salary requirements. Bubba was soon to receive his PhD in Physics, but was completely baffled by how to solve his dilemma. He was afraid that if he listed his actual salary as a PhD student (just over $17,000/yr) that he would not be taken seriously, on the other hand he was fearful that listing salary requirements that were too high would result in his be eliminated from the pool based on that alone. He approached the problem with a strategy that I recommend for most applicants. He did not get the job, but we were both satisfied that his denial had nothing to do with his response to the salary questions and for the record, he did get an offer a few weeks later that met his salary needs.

Today's entry? How to tell an employer what salary you need, even if you have never had it before.

Those who do not learn from history are probably just tired.
This part is really pretty simple. When someone asks you for your salary history, you give it to them. Bubba's big concern was that he was going to list his $17,000 salary and the $60,000 jobs for which he was applying would simply blow away. Last year the average starting salary for a newly minted bachelor's level grad was between $39,000 and $42,000. During the previous four years, most of them had salaries between diddle and squat and yet companies were more than willing to hire them anyway.

The other concern that I often hear raised is something like, "If my salaries have been low over the years, then the company will lowball me and I will not get a legit offer." We'll discuss a couple of resources below that should keep this from happening, but generally speaking salary equity exists in either an informal or formal manner in most organizations. More problematic than listing a salary history indicative of poverty is listing one that makes the prospective employer leery of being able to "afford" you.

A few years ago, I interviewed for an administrative position that was three miles from my home. At the time, I was commuting about 45 miles each way on a daily basis. The interview went quite well and it was clear that I fit well, but the dean called me a few days later to tell me that the committee had gone with another candidate because I was currently making $150 more per month than they could offer. He shared that he had "gone to bat" for me with HR, but they were unwilling too budge. Sadly, I pointed out to him that my monthly commute cost me in excess of $500 per month, so taking a $150 pay decrease would have been the equivalent to a $350 raise... not to mention the two hours of daily commute that I would save. His silence was eventually broken by a rather contrite, "Oh. Maybe we should have talked to you before just looking at your salary history." Duh.

When an application process requests your salary history either directly or indirectly, be sure that you share it in a way that they will understand. I pointed out to the grad student mentioned above that his $17,000 assistantship was technically for 30 hours per week (even though he generally put in 50 hours) and included another $12,000 in tuition and fees for a total of $29,000 for 30 hours per week for a 10 month academic year, or about $28 an hour for the 990 hours he worked during the academic year. Instead of listing a $17,000 or even $29,000 per year salary, we listed a $28 hourly wage. The other tip here is just because the blank you are asked to fill in on a job application requests an annual wage, you don't have to be an obedient sheep. Give them an hourly rate with an approximate number of hours worked each week.

Of course I will need that new 72" plasma screen, as well.
While I have worked with professionals such as established attorneys, physicians, MBA's, and senior management types over the years, my current gig puts soon to complete graduate students in my office. While they are stumped about how to list salary history, the fact is that history is what it is. So easy even a PhD can do it. When it comes to the dreaded, "What are your salary requirements?" questions, their reactions make one wonder what they have been doing for the past five or six years.

To be fair, whether secondary, post-secondary, or graduate, little of what occurs in formal education prepares new job seekers for the world of work. I always get a little chuckle out of students entering or re-entering the job market. For years, they have been living on Top Ramen and cold pizza purchased with the proceeds of coin scavenging expeditions conducted on pants pockets dredged out of the laundry baskets. When someone asks them what kind of salary they require, their extrapolations begin with, "Hmmm. If I move into a house with only four other people instead of eight and get my clothes at Walmart instead of the Salvation Army Thrift Store, I would probably need another $6,000 or $7,000 a year......." I have seen students so awed by the fact that they will be earning $18 an hour, that they don't realize that they will be making $37,000 a year, or $2000 below the average starting salary for a new graduate. Since Uncle Sam and (in California) Cousin Arnold will be taking about 25% of that total, their operating capital will be about $27,750. While we should all be realistic about constraints in the current economy, we should also be realistic about what our REQUIREMENTS are. Following is a basic template for you.

Equity and Market Value. The first and most basic element of understanding what we are worth on the market is understanding what others in similar jobs are earning. There are several online tools to assist in determining this, but remember that all of these tools will give you average salary, not necessarily entry-level salary. Bottomline is that there is no reason that you should not have a fairly good picture of what the going rate is for occupational titles.
  • Salary.Com - A fairly robust site that has both free and paid services. In general, the free salary calculator gives a very good idea of what you can expect to earn in broad job categories in various geographic areas.
  • SalaryList.Com - Takes a different approach. Instead of simply aggregating all salaries in general job category, SalaryList gives very specific information about very specific jobs with very specific companies. While I would not use this site without an aggregator site such as Salary.Com, it is an incredibly helpful data mining tool, especially if you can find a salary for the exact position you are applying for at the exact company that you are applying with.
  • GlassDoor.Com - This may be the most intriguing site I have seen recently. If you are a student and have a ".edu" email address, you can get a one-year free membership. If not you have to give them profile information about your current work situation, salary, and benefits. The information is kept confidential and it is possible to "disguise" yourself enough to feel comfortable. I gave them the requested information and got access to their salary database. Like SalaryList, it is possible to see what a specific job title at a specific company is earning.
Obligations and stuff. I spoke with a young man a few weeks ago who is still in his first job out of college. His primary concern was how to get rid of the gas-guzzling sports car that he bought right after he started his job. The monthly payment seemed to fit his budget, but as time went on, he realized that he had not really charted his course well and now the least of his "necessities" was a two-seater convertible that got 18mpg and had a six-year note at $299 per month. If a company asks "What are your salary requirements?" Rather than simply saying, "Uh. About $45K," try actually knowing what you are talking about. I would submit something like the following.

Housing$1500/mo (2BR APT near work)
Transportation$450/mo (gas, insurance, maintenance)
Professional Dues$50/mo
Medical Costs$100/mo
Miscellaneous Exp$400/mo
Total All Exp$$44,400/year
I am not suggesting that these specific amounts are correct for anyone, but the general categories are the minimums that you should take into account. Do not ballpark anything. Sit down and crunch the numbers.

A final word on value. I am worth more in California than I am in Alabama. (My wife would tell you that neither place is probably rushing to acquire me for their collection.) For instance, if I made $40,000 in Irvine, CA and managed to live well on that, I could probably keep the same lifestyle on just $30,000 in Birmingham, AL. You can make this calculation with one of the many online Cost of Living calculators. I typically use Sperling's Best Places.com, but there are others that you can Google. For the record, having lived in both Irvine, CA and Birmingham, AL, I can tell you that the calculators tend to overestimate high-end places to live and underestimate low-end places to live. The difference that most calculators give between these two regions is 53%. I my personal experience is that the difference is probably closer to 30-35%... still a dramatic difference.

You talkin' to me?
I suppose the last piece of this is what people need to know and when they need to know it. As a rule of thumb, I recommend that applicants not bring up the subject of money until a basic offer is in hand. If you know that widget makers generally $10/hour and you are interviewing for a widget maker position, it is realistic to assume that you will be offered $10/hour. When an offer is finally made, should it less than $10/hour then you should say, "Dude. I was expecting $10/hour," or maybe something a little more tactful.

If you are asked in a face to face interview before an offer is made what your salary expectations are and you haven't followed my instructions, so you don't have a spreadsheet handy and you don't know what widget maker earn, then try this.
"You know, I have tracked ABX Widgets and found out that you are one of the top widgeteers in the country. I am assuming that your salaries are competitive with other widgety companies in the area, so I believe that if an offer is made that we can find a salary that will suit both of us."
If they persist and say that they cannot make an offer without knowing your position, simply indicate that you would like an opportunity to put some numbers together so that you can give them a fair assessment. As with many other aspects of job-hunting, however, the mere fact that this is occurring is a bad sign and should serve to make you somewhat nervous about signing on with them. Tacky, bullying behavior should be used as a negative screening mechanism.

I ain't afraid of no ghost!
Scared to talk about money? Who you gonna call? Here's the deal. The primary reason that people freak out about salary discussions/negotiations is because they have not prepared themselves for the market. Our observation is that the majority of jobseekers under-estimate what they actually need and over-estimate what they believe they will be offered. Spending a little bit of time organizing your research about salary and expenses will keep you from getting slimed when you actually get a job offer.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

What do employers want?

I am quite sure that if you do an internet search for "What do employers want?" you will get thousands of returns. Here. Let me do it for you. Google=7680 entries. Yahoo=44,800 entries. MSN=77,000,000 entries (Hmmmm. Now I know why I use Google and Yahoo so much.) My point is that there is a huge amount of information on the Webernet telling you what employers want. Some empirically researched, some not. I do not want to add to either end of the pile today, what I would like to do is dispel one giant myth about what employers are looking for. Oddly, the myth is that employers know what they looking for. That's right. The best way to give a prospective employers what they want is to assume that they do not, in fact, know what they want.

I thought I was wrong, but I was mistaken.
Let me clarify one thing before we go further with this post. I am using paradox as a literary device to get my point across. (I am hoping to use onomatopoeia too, but I haven't yet figured out where to work it in.) To varying degrees employers understand the experiences that might give a candidate a better chance of performing well in a job. Likewise, they have an idea of how they wish a specific position to take shape. The fact remains, however, that there are many qualified candidates for every position out there (particularly in this economy), but I am never surprised, good or bad economy, when a recruiter or hiring manager says to me, "I can't find anybody to fill this position."

The reason for this is that a job description is not an actual person, nor is it the description of an actual person. Job descriptions are often the result of an over-zealous HR representatives who want to be nothing is left to chance. I think I have mentioned before the University of California job descriptions that include the requirement, "Squat - occasionally; Bend - frequently." I find it difficult to believe that a hiring manager ever ponders an applicant's "squatibility" or "bendiness". That does not mean that a job requiring "high-throughput protein expression clone synthesis and validation" will ignore the candidate's lack of laboratory experience and training. So, what is the dividing line between requirements that are "drop dead" requirements and those that are less essential?

Minimally, I prefer these qualifications.
The first rule of thumb that I use for whether or not to apply for a job is, "Never turn down a job you have not been offered." The surest way of doing this is to not apply in the first place. Before I hear the sad, sizzling sighs of despair (There! Onomatopoeia!) because you now think you should have applied for that Secretary of Commerce position, let me hastily add that when you KNOW you are not qualified for a position, then you use the second rule of thumb for whether or not to apply for a job, which is, "Don't." If you remain unsure about rule one and rule two, perhaps these five guidelines will help a little.

1. When job announcements are divided into "minimum requirements" and "preferred requirements," you will want to apply if you meet all of the minimums, even if you do not meet all of the preferred. If you do not meet the minimums, don't bother. Move on the next application.

2. Anytime a job simply lists qualifications without telling you which are minimals and which are preferreds and you know that you meet most of the list, take a moment to rank order the list. For instance, actuarial positions typically require a thorough background in statistics and a college degree. My assessment, however, is that extensive statistics training would probably rank higher than a college degree. The emphasis here is on extensive training, not "I took a stat course once and didn't fail it."

3. As a corollary to the above, experience will often trump other formal qualifications or requirements. For the past twenty years, I have been hiring counselors in clinical and career development settings. I learned early that simply having a graduate degree in counselor did not make someone a good counselor. Heck, it did not even make them a good student. Applicants with extensive experience working with people, however general signifies that they are capable of handling the ambiguity of interpersonal interactions.

4. With lengthy job announcements that have more than ten or twelve qualifications listed, I typically recommend the 60/70 rule. That is, if you have between 60% and 70% of the qualifications, go ahead and apply. I was on a search committee a few years ago that included 22 separate qualifications. It was impossible for me to keep things straight from application to application. Additionally, it was very clear that we all had slightly differing opinions about which of the 22 qualifications were most important.

5. Contact the source if you have genuine, legitimate questions about the job announcement. This is getting increasingly difficult to do. The Web has become a giant buffer around recruiters and hiring managers, so good luck in actually talking with someone. Contrary to popular opinion, there is no law or rule that forbids a candidate to ask questions clarifying a job announcement. So, if an email address is all you can get, then send questions via email. Be advised, however, that there is also no rule forbids a recruiter to be rude to people who ask questions. J/K. Even when they turn down your request, most HR folks are polite about it.

The most important thing.
One of my favorite quotes is from Kurt Vonnegut.
"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be."
I can't tell you how often that my counselors and I hear a student say something like, "I want to be sure that my resume matches their job perfectly." I understand this and, to some degree, we have created it. We tell students and job aspirants to be mindful about tweaking their resumes and cover letters to address the needs that employers appear to have. We seldom think about the impact our words are having as we create a world in which employers have highly specific requirements and they are eliminating the unqualified from their candidate pools with surgical precision. That is simply not the case.

Most employers want employees who are capable, dependable, articulate, and persistent. I think that the reason that they like college graduates is because higher education is one of the most chaotic, disorganized, out-of-touch environments on the planet. Anyone who can manage to complete a degree, whether in four, five, or nine years deserved to be considered for any job out there. Employers want employees with whom they can comfortably converse. They are looking for candidates who understand when team cooperation is necessary and when acting on one's initiative is ticket to success. Employers want us to be comfortable being ourselves. If we have to pretend to be someone to be successful on the job, then a good employer wants us to like who we pretend to be.

In the long run, being ourselves is the surest way of finding out what an employer wants.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Planning Backwards.

Most of us assume that we know how to plan, even when we do a lousy job of it, we will make the excuse that we could have planned better, but had let things get in the way. I would like to suggest that we don't, in fact, know how to plan and, therefore, we cannot do a better job of planning. The following exchange that I had with a brand new first year PhD student is typical of the problem that we have in planning our careers.
Me: So, how do you see your plans shaping up for you?
PhD: Well, I hope to graduate by 2010 and postdoc for a couple of years and then get a teaching job.
Me: When in 2010?
PhD: Huh?
Me: Well... June? August? December? You know. When?
PhD: Oh, yeah. I suppose June.
Me: So, when will you defend your dissertation?
PhD: Huh? Well, maybe May.
Me: Is that when people usually do it? The month before they graduate?
PhD: Uh... I dunno. Is it?
Me: I'm not sure. How long will it take to write the dissertation?
PhD: I don't know.
Me: When do most people start their dissertation?
PhD: (Somewhat scared and frustrated) I don't know.
Just to let you know that I am not a complete jerk. We spent the rest of our hour talking about the fact that she was planning pretty much the way everybody else planned. That is, she had a starting point and an ending point, but none of the stuff from the middle. She was going to take things as they came and likely adjust her completion time based on unforeseen complications that were sure to arise because all she had planned was the beginning and end of her journey. What follows is a planning matrix that should be suitable for planning everything from a shopping trip to major life goals.

1. Choose beginning and ending points with no dates or time constraints.
Think about it this way. When I drive to Santa Monica from my home, I know that it is 54 miles away and on average, it takes me about 90 minutes to drive the distance, even though it is theoretically achievable in an hour. I have learned over time that there is a two-mile stretch around LAX that always takes 20 minutes to transit instead of three or four minutes. If I am traveling someplace unknown, I can only begin with my starting and ending points.

2. List all the tasks you can think of associated with your plan.
On my drive to Santa Monica, I might have to refuel my car or take an alternate route to pick up supplies or drop off passengers. With PhD students, I routinely ask how long it takes to: Defend the dissertation, write the dissertation, collect data, draft a prospectus, form a committee, prepare for qualifying exams, complete coursework, etc. Typically they conceptualize it as, "I start and I finish."

3. Determine which tasks are "anchors" and which are "collaterals". Anchor tasks are those that are necessary to complete before another can begin. (Data must be collected before the results section can be written.) Collaterals are those that may occur alongside another task. (Forming a committee should not inhibit the beginning a literature review for the proposal or prospectus... but it likely will affect the completion of the prospectus.)

4. Put the anchor tasks in chronological order. Obviously, one must write a dissertation before he/she can defend it. This should be one of the easier parts of this.

5. Assign rational time frames to each task.
Lets go back to my drive to Santa Monica. I suppose that I could drive 90MPH all the way there and arrive in 35 or 40 minutes... but it is incredibly unlikely. I always recommend that new PhD students speak with several postdocs about how long different aspects of their project took to complete. For instance, my dissertation was written quite quickly... less than a year, but that was because data collection was completed four months ahead of the time that I had anticipated. It was sorta like drive to Santa Monica at 3:00AM and knowing that all of the Highway Patrol cops were on break.

6. Set the tentative completion date for the ending point and work backwards through tasks.
  • I want to arrive in Santa Monica at 5:00pm.
  • I know that the stretch from the Santa Monica Freeway to the Promenade will take me about 15 minutes, so I need to be at the 405 and the 10 by 4:45 if I want to be on time.
  • Likewise, LAX to the 10 will take me about 20 minutes, so I should be passing LAX by 3:25.
  • The 710 to the LAX area seldom takes more than 20 minutes, so I will be at the 710 by 3:05.
  • My wife drives the 25 mile stretch from our house to the 710 everyday in all sorts of weather and traffic and it generally takes her between 35 and 40 minutes, so we'll be conservative and say that in order to be at the 710 Freeway in time to make the rest of the trip work, I will need to leave my house at 2:15.
Last things first.
Look at the goals you have set for yourself and plans that you have made. Have you inventoried the tasks and allocated reasonable time and resources for them? Do you clearly understand which tasks are requisite to others in order to establish priorities? Does your plan include periodic evaluations to correct its course? Even a well-planned trip to Santa Monica sometimes requires that you get off on Sepulveda and drive over to Venice Blvd. to avoid that sig alert on the 405.