Saturday, February 21, 2009

We have ways of making you talk.

This morning I talked with a young man who is going through a rather grueling two days of interviews. At one point he was feeling fatigued and bit dismal, allowing that he was having second thoughts about some of the people with whom he was interviewing. I reminded him of four things.
  1. You are interviewing THEM as much as they are interviewing YOU. No matter how bleak the economy, job applicants have to remember that one-half of the purpose of an interview is for applicants to get more information about the people with whom they will be working. So, you should talk, but be sure that they talk, too.
  2. Being uncomfortable in an interview in very normal... in fact, it is unusual if you are comfortable. Too often, candidates make the mistake of thinking that the discomfort is a sign that they did not do well or that the interviewer didn't like them. Over the years, I have come to realize that interviewers are often just as nervous as the interviewees. Think about it... they will have to live with their choice.
  3. Every interview is practice for the next interview. Most of the time, I am reluctant to give a student feedback on his or her "interviewing style" because what I think is distracting or critical, may not be important to the interviewer at all. I do, however, recommend that students practice over and over and over. I'm not sure that practice makes perfect, but it sure gets you closer to perfect.
  4. The world is full of qualified candidates and there is no foolproof secret to making an impression on an interviewer. (See #3 above) The world is also full of really cool jobs and you have to remind yourself before, during, and after an interview that this job is not your only option.
Ultimately, the only thing close to a secret way to ace an interview is to be yourself, because if you get the job, that will be the personality that you bring to work.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Life is like basketball... sorta.

Ever applied for a Federal job? If you do, you will run into the mystical world of KSA's. For the uninitiated, that would be Skills, Knowledge, and Abilities. The Feds break down every position into a collection of KSA's. I see that yawn creeping across your face, so let me quickly add, this post is not about Federal jobs... but I will be happy to do that later if there are a few requests. No, this post is about how thinking about your own KSA's can help you figure out where to begin to look for a career path and how to talk about yourself with a prospective employer.

Understanding KSA's is where basketball comes in to the picture. Anybody can grab a basketball and throw it at the hoop, but to have reasonable chance in the NBA, you will have to have some basic ability. You will need to be able to run, jump, throw, and strangely enough, be tall. Yes, in this example, being tall is an ability. While tall is relative, I would be willing to bet that if an 4' 9" player were to tryout for the Lakers, the scouts would say, "Lacks basic ability." On a more personal level, I have dysgraphia which interferes with my brain and makes my handwriting really funky (bad funky, not hip funky) and I can't draw or easily organize stuff visually. I doodle all the time, but I do not have the ability to be a graphic artist.

Kobe Bryant is tall and athletic, so he will be good baller, right? No. Not unless he develops the skill set that goes along with basketball... dribbling, shooting, rebounding, blocking, and hanging with your posse. (Posse-hanging is a relatively new skill requirement for the NBA, but it seems necessary to include it.) Abilities, for the most part, are endowments which are with you from birth and skills are attributes you acquire through constant practice and repetition. Think about it this way. Most employers would kill for a candidate with "exceptional written communication skills." Over four years of college, most students are constantly writing. It is not unusual for an undergrad to write two or three papers a week. I can't tell you the number of times that I have looked at undergrad's resume only to see no mention at all of their "written communication skills." (More on this in my next post).

So, Kobe is a great NBA player because he tall and athletic and highly skilled. Wrong. What separates Kobe from my friend Marc, who is 6'7" with sweet jump shot, is knowledge of the game. When Marc dribbles down the court, he has to stop several times to figure out where everybody is and who is open. Kobe understands the game of basketball well enough that he does not stop pushing the ball and he knows not only who is open right now, but who will be able to slip a pick and get open three seconds from now.

Spend a little time thinking about yourself from these perspectives. What natural abilities do you have and how might those suit you for a particular career path? How have your work and volunteer experiences, class projects, or hobbies given you skills that make you better at communicating, organizing, problem-solving, or relationship building. What knowledge have you gained from your formal and informal education that can be valuable to an employer as expertise. Make a list. Better yet, keep a running list as your KSA's occur to you.

That's it. All the stuff you should know about KSA's

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Job? I'd suggest you start looking now.

Just to prove you never have a private moment, I was walking behind two students on the way to the Commons on Tuesday and they were talking about when they thought they should start looking for a job. Their general consensus was that since they were graduating in June and wanted a few weeks off before they started work, they would begin looking "around the middle of May... sometime." They went on to speculate that the internships that they had done would make them hot commodities and they really hoped that they could find a job close to home, so they wouldn't have to relocate right away.

Here's a newsflash. The economy is really bad! In fact, pardon my French, the economy sucks. For years I have been telling students to plan 3 to 5 months for a job search to mature enough to secure a decent career position. That meant that if the two guys above wanted to start work in July, they would have to start an organized, focused job search between March and April. In the current economy, I would say that the search is likely a 5 to 9 month process, so they should have started about three months ago. Following is a quick definition of what I mean by a mature organized, focused job search.

1. It takes about a month for a job aspirant to actually understand the language of recruitment. So, for the first four to six weeks, a job search is largely getting one's resume in order, learning how to read job announcements, and figuring out the best places to find job openings.

2. It is the rare candidate who gets an offer from their first interview. More likely, one will apply for 25 or 30 positions before getting even a nibble. One may have to go to three or four interviews before they become comfortable enough to properly represent their skills and abilities. (Do the math here, if you get one interview for every 25 applications, and you need three or four interviews to "look good," then you may need to apply for 80 or 90 positions... just to be a good candidate.)

3. Too often job candidates shotgun applications to anything and everything. If you really don't want to live in Sheboygan, then don't waste energy on filling out applications to jobs in Sheboygan. (No offense Sheboyganites, lot's of folks don't want to live in SoCal either!) Focus your energy on openings in the geographical area of choice. By the way, this also works for job classification. If you don't want a sales job, don't apply for them.

4. It takes several months to construct the sort of social web that results in folks knowing that you are looking for something and what that something might be. Reach out to family members, family friends, past associates, teachers, etc. Remind them that you are looking for a job and as you better define your career objective, keep them up to date. I'm sure I will write something in the next few days about networking.

5. Follow-up is a necessity. There is a fine line between being and energetic, enthusiastic candidate and being stalker. If you have to err between too little follow-up and too much follow-up, be a stalker.

The bottom line is that this thing is gonna take time and effort... a lot of time and effort.

That's it. All the stuff you should know about when to start a job search.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Last Thing I Heard Today

On my way out of the office today, I ran into a student whom I had seen a couple of months ago. We chatted for a few minutes and he said he understood that the economy was really bad and that he was discouraged about his job hunt. He wanted me to look at his resume to give him some tips that would get him a interview. As we talked it became very obvious that he felt that there was something “wrong” with him or his presentation that was making it difficult to find a job. I reflected all of this back to him in this way.

“You admit that you know that the job market is brutal, but you blame yourself for not finding a job. If the first part is true, then it is less likely that the second part is true.”

He smiled and said something like, “Yeah. I know that I am not the only one having trouble, but it is hard to remember that and if I believe that I am the problem, then I can fix it. It is impossible for me to control or fix the job market.”

As we finished our conversation, I pointed out to him that he was right to focus on the things that he could control. Things like effort, focus, discipline, and tenacity. I remain convinced that students who are persistent will find jobs and three years from now will that much farther ahead of those who are choosing to delay graduation, go to graduate school, or other strategies designed to help them avoid a very bad job market. The hardest job out there right now is finding a job.

Passion is grossly over-rated.

I promise I'm gonna scream if I hear one more career guru say, "Follow your passion!" Aside from the fact that I don't have a clue what that actually means, it can be misleading, depressing, and downright dangerous for the job seeker who doesn't have it. We see hundreds of students every quarter (sometimes thousands) and it is as predictable as sunrise that several times a day we will have the following conversation with a student.
Student: I'm so confused. I just don't know what I want to do with my life.
Counselor: What do you enjoy?
Student: Well, I enjoy some stuff, but I'm just not passionate about anything.
Counselor: That's okay. Tell me what you enjoy.
Student: Mmmm. You know... stuff, but I don't have a passion and my [insert parents, professors, friends, etc.] tell me that I should only do things that I am passionate about.
Counselor: I understand, but let's start with things you enjoy and are good at.
Student: Okay, maybe, but I'm not passionate about any of those things.
Here's the deal. I am actually pretty passionate about my job. I love working with bright young people. I get stoked when I present a workshop or seminar. I look forward to sitting with students from first years to post-grads as they unravel the mystery of career. When I started my PhD program several years ago, I was asked to be the teaching assistant in the Career Development Theory class. I whined, I moaned, I complained. I was not the least bit interested in career theory and when I had taken the class, it was like weekly root canals. There was, however, a new faculty person assigned to the class and I needed the money from the assistantship. Over the next 15 weeks, I went from absolute annoyance to moderately okay with the class. Ultimately, I TA'd the class two more times and grew certifiably intrigued with career development. In the past 20 years, I have become officially passionate about career development, career counseling, and most of the stuff that goes along with it.

Being excited and enthusiastic is also not being passionate, it's just being excited and enthusiastic. Passion is too often confused with feeling passionate, in the same that love is confused with the feeling of being in love. The take away here is that it is virtually impossible to be passionate about something until you have done it... a lot. For the record, taking a class in something is not the same as doing something. Don't assume that you will never be passionate about something simply because you are not passionate about it now.

That's it. All the stuff you should know about passion and finding it... or not.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Relocation, relocation, relocation.

Once, a long time ago, I had a job that I really liked, but it was in a place that I didn't like so much. Don't get me wrong, I really liked the folks with whom I worked. I really, really liked the job that I had. I really, really, really did not like mosquitos, black flies, 112% humidity, moss, fungus, lightning and other stuff that fell out of the sky. I landed there because I could not find the kind of job I wanted in Southern California.

In fact, the year that I applied for the best-job-I-ever-had-in-the-worst-place-I-ever-lived, I sent out about 40 applications to positions in California and an equal number to the Midwest and Southeast. I was offered exactly two interviews in the Golden State and got... well, zero offers. At the same time, I was constantly flying back to Virginia, Texas, Tennessee, and Alabama (among other places) to interview with prospective colleagues and employers and I got multiple offers before settling on the best-job-I-ever-had-in-the-worst-place-I-ever-lived.

The California the job market in higher education had been incredibly crowded and I had been consistently beaten out of jobs by more experienced candidates. Initially, I wanted something near my Orange County home. After a few months, I decided that I could commute 40 or 45 minutes for the right job, but that quickly gave way to 90 minutes. Eventually, I came to the realization that I was not going to be gainfully employed anywhere west of the Colorado River. I started to look over the horizon. The cool thing is that even though I left the best-job-I-ever-had-in-the-worst-place-I-ever-lived after only two years, I was interviewing in California again and I ended up 45 minutes away from my OC address.

This time I was the candidate with the experience and a new crop of recently graduated schmoes were getting the letters that told them how tough a decision it was not to hire them. So, since I am obviously in California at this time, did it do any good to leave? It turns out that one of the best ways to get a job where you are is to take one a long way away from where you are, but there are some provisos.
1. You have to accept the fact that you may not get back quickly. I was lucky. My wife had both a good job and a good deal of patience. When I moved 2500 miles away to the South, she stayed and maintained our homestead. When I returned, her income helped stabilize my readjustment and made it possible for me to be a bit "pickier" about a new job. Had I not had that cushion, it probably would have taken a bit longer to get back to where I wanted.

2. You have to really settle in. If you take the approach that you are just being there in order to get somewhere else, you will not connect with your colleagues, bosses, or job. Remember, I was actually sad to leave the best-job-I-ever-had-in-the-worst-place-I-ever-lived, and I think my friends were sad to see me go. I got sterling recommendations from them and still speak to them from time to time after being gone for many years. Find a permanent place to live, join a gym, connect with people in whatever way you can... church, community college, outdoors clubs, etc.

3. Don't look for another job. At least not right away. There will be plenty of time for that later and you need to be learning your craft now. I worked with a graduate six years ago who finally, reluctantly accepted a position in Maryland. About a year later, she called to say that she had been unexpectedly offered a position in Texas because her boss was so pleased with her work. Last year, she took me to lunch after being transferred to the Bay Area. The irony is that during the five years that she was out of California, her parents had moved to Northern California and because she moved to Maryland, she is now closer to her family than she would have been if she had stayed in Southern California. She is clear that this was possible because she sunk herself into her job and excelled at it.

4. Be adventurous. More than anything, this is about taking risks and taking risks is about leveraging the opportunity for success by creating the possibility for failure. In this day and age of cell phones, instant messages, and the internet, working 500 or 1000 miles away is really no big deal. Southwest will get you home in less than 2 hours for $59... and since you will have a good job, you'll be able to afford it.
That's it. All the stuff  you should know about relocating to enhance your career prospects.