Saturday, February 28, 2009

Not only are your friends wrong... I am wrong, too.

I was talking with a colleague yesterday about this blog. What emerged from our chat was that I have an "edgy style," but it is me and I can pull it off... most of the time. (By the way, I think think "edgy" was a euphemism for "whacked.") This is the source material for today's post. Why can't I do that voodoo that everybody else do so well? First, two pet peeves.

If I could ban one thing in my office it would be any sentence that contains the phrase, "but my friend told me" or it's sinister, eviler twin, "I have a friend who." These utterances are generally a preface to my questioning their poorly constructed resumes or why they are looking in unproductive places for jobs or their rationale for seeking a job in a field for which they are not prepared.

If I could ban one thing from my field, it would career counselors who rev up workshops or individual counseling sessions with those one-in-a-million stories of students who set their sights on a $500,000 starting salary in a field outside of their experience range and landed it upon graduation. I told one of these stories in workshop six or seven years ago and it has since become legend on campus. People come to my office telling me about "their friend who got a job" and the rest of the story is identical to the one I told in my workshop.

Life is what happens to you when you are busy making plans.
Wasn't John Lennon brilliant! Here's the deal. There are no secrets or tricks to finding the job of your dreams. Dr. John Krumboltz from Stanford developed "Happenstance Theory" to describe the notion that "luck and chance" seem to be as important to creating and having a happy career as preparation and focus. Before we go any further, I am not at all suggesting that dropping out of your undergrad or grad program is the key to your success. Rather I am suggesting that when it is all about the plan, you might miss the little opportunities that become central to your later choices. I am pretty sure that Dr. Krumboltz would agree with my aforementioned bans and here is why I think that.

While observing our friends' trajectory in the career universe can give us ideas that would not have otherwise rattled into our heads. It is important to make room for happenstance to occur. We cannot do this if we are too focused on what went well for our friends and then try to emulate it. Sometimes, just doing what seems most natural to you creates those opportunity for adventure. (Here's where the edgy reference becomes important.)

For years, the interview question "Which do you prefer, being part of a team, or working alone?" My friends all answered "I definitely prefer being a team member and enjoy the give and take of a collegial environment." I used to answer that way and occasionally I thought, "Dang! I got the job because of the team-member-collegial-environment answer." It seldom took long for my supervisors and co-workers to realize that I am independent to the point of... well, edginess and I work best if I am given a project and left to my own resources to complete it. For the last 15 years or so, when I asked, I just tell the edgy truth and I have realized that it always works. Always and here's how I know. When I give my truthful answer anyone who can't handle an employee or colleague who is highly independent will go in another direction. Anyone who values independence will leave me in the running. There is no horrible discovery two or three months later that I am stubborn and opinionated.

That's why I really just don't listen to my friends' ideas about how or why they got hired. The fact is that some of them are very devoted team players who bring great collaborative strengths to the workplace. They have the power to include boneheads like me in the synergy of a group project and they got their jobs because they were themselves in the interview, not because they gave the perfect, secret answer.

Hardwork and virtue and their own punishments.
Oh yeah, about the ban on counselor stories. Happenstance is important to this ban as well. Since chance is a significant element in our success, no amount of hard work will ever assure us of a satisfying career. Here's the story on this one. About 25 years ago, I was seeing an orthopedic surgeon for a minor foot problem. At the time, I was working with gang kids and actually spent much of my time playing basketball, going to the beach, and chillin' wit my homeboys. This came out as the doc was stitching my foot and he said, "Gee, I really envy you." When I asked why, he shared that he decided in the ninth grade that he was going to go to medical school and the next thing he knew it was thirty years later and he was best know for feet and toes. What happened next was a little creepy. He grabbed my great toe between his thumb and forefinger and, looking me in the eye, said, "You know. A man can look at too many toes." I had a moment of panic before he went back to stitching.

The rest of our conversation centered around two things. The first was the high school counselor who had told him in ninth grade about the famous surgeon who worked hard and sacrificed and made it to medical school out of poverty and now drove gazillion-dollar cars and yachts. At 15 years-old that sounded great. The other thing was the great pictures that hung on wall. It turns out that when he was doing his internship, he had taken up photography. He told me that when he was in college, his roommate tried to convince him to take a photography class because they got to take pictures of nude women. He sighed and looking away from my toes again, he said, "If I had taken that class, I probably wouldn't be here today. It just seemed so silly."

Three not-so-easy pieces.
I wish I could say that I managed some great wisdom that encouraged the surgeon to leave his practice and take up photography full-time. I was pretty much speechless, being worried for my toes and all. I also wish I could say that one day I walked into a museum and saw a showing of his pictures. I cannot. I can, however, say the following.

Listen to your friends, but don't expect that what works for them will work for you. Being yourself is the single most important thing you can ever do. Ever.

Listen to your teachers, counselors, parents, etc., but understand that their vision of your future is just that... their vision.

Life is very funny. Nothing, but nothing will substitute for hard work and focus in a job search. If that is all you do,however, it will be like looking at the ground when you walk. You will never trip, but you might miss the apple that was hanging just above your head, just within your grasp.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Because I have been out of town all day....

I am going to pass on a long post today (really) until tomorrow, but I wanted to pass on one brief thought to as a framework for helping to think about skills. When we are asked what we do for a living, most of us quickly respond with our job title. I'm an assistant director, so I assist someone in directing. Actually, my job of assistant directing is composed of many tasks. I schedule and assign workshops and seminars, prepare and evaluate content for workshops and trainings, develop marketing campaigns to apprise students of the Career Center's services, develop career-related web content, etc. Let's take just one of these tasks... scheduling and assigning workshops. In order to do this effectively I have to use the following skills.
  • Organizational Skills - To plan when and where workshops will be offered.
  • Interpersonal Skills - To inform my staff of their assigned duties and expectations.
  • Written and Verbal Communication Skills - To create marketing materials for workshops
  • Problem-Solving Skills - To work out schedule and room conflicts
I can catalog my skills by listing the most common tasks that make up my job. In it's simplest form it can be seen as "Job = Tasks + Skills." Take few minutes over the several days
to list the most common tasks from your job and determine what skills you use to complete them.

I'm tired. I think I'll turn in.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

When did you stop beating your wife (husband)?

Recently, I was asked by a former university professor how she should explain why she left teaching without sounding like a "failed academic"? Specifically, she was unsure how to explain why she left her job when applications ask for her employment history. Perhaps the most dreaded question on any application is, "Why did you leave your last position?" Often, it sounds the question in the title of today's post. A question with no good answer and an unending array of really bad answers.

One of the issues buried in today's subject is how you explain "taking a step backward." After 11+ years as a university professor, I took a job in a university career center and I was asked why I wanted to leave teaching. I knew that the implied question was actually, "Why on earth would you leave a job where you only have to work a few days a week for nine months of the year and you get summers and winter break off? Do you enjoy slumming?" I therefore answered the latter questions instead of the former. My answer went something like this, "I have really enjoyed the teaching part of my job, but I have found that research, writing, and policy work, while invigorating, has given me less time with individual students and the reason I entered teaching in the first place was for individual contact. The worst part was summers I usually spent prepping classes for the coming year and I almost never saw a student during those months."

Answers cannot be about how hard or futile the work was, because everybody feels like their job is difficult and senseless, so bosses will simply think that you are going to be another slacker that they will have to ride herd on. Likewise, you will be doomed if you acknowledge or suggest that there is a hierarchy by saying something particularly stupid like, "Well, I had a good run, but I wanted to step back from all of the critical, brilliant work I was doing to join you guys who seem to do nothing all day long."

A man's got to know his limitations.
With apologies for the sexist reference, I think that Inspector "Dirty Harry" Callahan was on to something here. People would be best served to acknowledge their limitations and adjust accordingly. However, you don't want to give the message that you burned out. "I knew I was tired of the grind. I tried for three or four years to make things work, but I realized that it just wasn't going to happen." While perhaps this may true, think of all the ways that this can go awry. While you may be appreciated for your personal insight, a prospective boss may also interpret this to mean that you have a difficult time saying no, you overload yourself, and then you become useless for three or four years until you resign. Other interviewers are not at all empathetic and are looking for candidates who are willing to work until they drop dead on the job. They will see you as a wimp.

It's not always about you... but in this case it is.
Here is the final caveat about this issue. There is only one good answer to this question and that is the truth. Yeah, yeah, I realize that in our strategically sophisticated world we are always looking for the perfect answer, but in this case it should be something that you can utter with a smattering of sincerity. The world of work is becoming more complex and we understand that people not only leave jobs, but entire career fields because they are seeking fulfillment, new challenges, growth, or the opportunity to mentor the next generation of worker bees. So... it is about you.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

To MBA or not MBA

I think this one will be short and straightforward. I must warn you, I thought the same thing about the previous entries... and you can see how well that worked out.

It is my sense of things that when anyone becomes dissatisfied in their job or fearful about the economy, they immediately believe that they need an MBA. Forget about the fact that 99.9999% of all people on the planet haven't a clue about what an MBA actually is or what it will do for someone. They have to have one. Now!

The issue with MBA's is that they only provide career enhancement for a small percentage of folks who have them. Before I started this post, I made a list of the first 10 people that I knew who hold an MBA. Four of them are in middle management with Fortune 500 companies, but it is my guess that they would, in fact, have their current positions without the degree. Three others are senior managers and would likely not be in their current positions without the degree. Three others are working in "senior professional" positions with no managerial responsibilities and two of them report to managers who attended college, but do not have bachelors degrees.

Before we go further, let me add that this was not a scientific survey and I think that I could have spent a bit more time and come up with a list of ten friends and acquaintances who owe some of their career advancement to an MBA. Following are a couple of thoughts
about pursuing an MBA.

Should I go directly from my undergrad program?
Generally, what I tell students is,
"Any program that will accept you immediately after undergraduate school is probably not worth attending."
There are a few exceptions to this, but by and large the top 20 or 30 programs do not entertain applications from freshly minted grads. (The exceptions would be non-traditional students with significant full time work and some supervision experience.) There, however, many "accredited" programs that are more than willing to take your money for a degree.

Think about it this way. A 23 year-old recent graduate with no experience who enters an MBA program becomes a 25 year-old recent graduate with no experience. Because employers value experience over education, the 25 year-old MBA will likely lose out on positions to 25 year-old bachelor's level candidates who were gaining expertise while the MBA was busy gaining an MBA.

Full-Time, Part-Time, Evening, or Executive?
I am not sure it really makes a lot of difference. There are advantages to each type. When I was completing my PhD at USC, I took a couple of courses from the Evening MBA program at Marshall School of Business. My classmates were all working professionals in their late twenties or early thirties. They were general first line managers or supervisors and obviously had no lives at all because they worked 40+ hours a week and spent another 10-15 hours attending or preparing for class. I developed some great relationships with people who were working in great companies and it was very interesting to watch the synergy that developed among them. I don't think anyone who completed that program felt cheated because they were not part of the "full-time" program. I will add that program reputation is somewhat important, but it is really more important that the program fit the needs of the prospective student.

Other post-baccalaureate options.
When someone asks me about a graduate degree that might be enhance one's career prospects soon after undergraduate studies, I generally have the same sort of response that I have about MBA programs, with a few caveats. For instance, masters' degrees that are reasonably focused may provide a boost. These would include degrees in Statistics, Economics, Accounting, Public Administration, Public Policy, etc. Certification programs also add value. These would be things like CFA's, Microsoft Certification, Human Resource Management, Risk Management, Database Administration, etc. Finally, taking any additional continuing education to enhance skills is helpful, even when it is not attached to a degree or certificate. Consider another language, software instruction, business writing, bookkeeping, etc.

Dang! I knew it would get out of hand, but there you are. All the stuff you needed to know about whether to pursue an MBA right after college.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Consulting for dummies

So, my friend Wendy contacted me yesterday and asked...
Can someone young, with a new Ph.D. make it as an independent consultant without much experience?
In my new found role as a slacker... uh, blogger, I have decided that this is a broader issue and I will make it the subject of today's post, but Wendy gets credit for the idea.

So, what is a consultant anyway?
I once heard that a consultant is normal person a long way from home with a nice briefcase. I have had consulting gigs in the past and some were close to home and I have never had a nice briefcase. Distance and accessories, it turns out, are not as important as expertise and network.

First, I have to admit a little amusement when undergraduate students come into the Career Center and say, "I want to be a consultant."

Me: "Oh? A what sort of consulting do you wish to do"

Them: "Um. You know. Like business stuff."

Me: "So, have you had experience with... uh, like business stuff?"

Them: "Um. Well, what do you mean experience?"

While it is not completely far-fetched that the exceptional undergraduate student might have enough experience and the skill set necessary to be a good process consultant. Not far-fetched, but still quite rare. A PhD student might have enough life experience to make the gig productive, but generally speaking, PhD programs are fairly insular and do not help students create the networks and breadth of knowledge necessary to effectively market their expertise. Following are a few thoughts about being a consultant.

What we have here is a failure to communicate.
Being a consultant can mean many things... perhaps, too many things. I went to my favorite Job Site, Simply Hired and typed in the word "consultant" it returned several thousand entries that included Verizon's consultant positions which included duties such as: "wears a headset all day" and "ability to perform in confined working situations for extended periods of time." (yecch!) From the same search, is the PeopleSoft consultant who will "Produce and develop business processes, procedures and training materials impacted by projects."

Verizon will take you if you are a moderately sentient being, but PeopleSoft wants you to have a college degree, experience with all PeopleSoft products, SQR, and 2 years of experience as a consultant. I will not even go into the consultant positions that required advanced statistics programming or five years of management experience or an MBA, plus ten years of experience, and a CPA license. Bottomline here is that many jobs are called "consultant," but they are hardly the same animal at all.

Form follows function. 
A quick word on the types of consulting that exist out there.  While there are many specific types such as: IT, management, HR, Strategic Planning, etc., most can probably be gathered under two broad categories.  Process or organizational consulting looks at the "way" things are done.  Consultants in this paradigm explore the ecology of an organization and recommend operational and structural changes to be more efficient or productive.   Specialty consultants typically have expertise in a single element of change such as human resources, software, marketing, etc.  Process consulting focuses on form, specialty consulting focuses on function. 

Freedom's just another word for freaking-out about your client base.
With apologies to Kris Kristofferson, I must point out that the positions described above are all "in-house" positions. That is, they are internal consultants who interface with customers/clients on behalf of their employer. Independent consultants work... well, independently. They report to themselves and this can be a very scary proposition.

In my earlier life, I maintained an independent practice and it was nerve-wracking. Vacation was a drag, because I knew my client list would be decimated on my return and nobody was paying me for my time off. Marketing opportunities often included speaking engagements for PTA's, professional associations, Rotary, etc. for which my primary reward was lemon chicken, cold rice, and the opportunity to meet people to widen my network. I had to balance my own books, ask for payment for services, control an impossible schedule, and remember that my livelihood depended on the "kindness of strangers." I'm not so sure I ever want to be independent again.

You may think you understand what I mean, but I don't mean what you think.
Internal consultants typically are dealing with fellow employees or customers of their product or service. They essentially speak the same language of practice and a widget or gizmo means the same thing to both of them. Independent consultants have to be multilingual in languages of practice. For instance, the way people in the Finance World talk is distinctively different from the language of practice in Higher Education and even within Higher Ed, Student Affairs folks use a different language from Academic Affairs folks.

Analogy Alert! People who use consultants are like travelers embarking on a journey to an unfamiliar, foreign country like Confusisbekistan. If they choose a local guide, they do not someone who only speaks Confusebekistani, they want a guide who, at the very least, speaks their language AND Confusebekistani. It's the old saw "When in Confusebekistan, do as the Confusebekistanis." Prospective consultants simply MUST avail themselves of opportunities to spend time with people in many different arenas and ask questions about their work practices, regulations, and other unique aspects of their disciplines.  

Uh, what was the question again?
Hopefully, the theme has emerged here, but I will try to recap.  The world of consulting depends on consultants' expertise and networks to create opportunities and reputation.  Wendy asked if a "new PhD...without much experience" could be successful as an independent consultant.  It is highly unlikely, however anyone wishing a career as an independent consultant can begin the process of building expertise, establishing a broad, diverse network, and developing the necessary business acumen, whether a BA, MA, or PHD.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Don't hate me because I am brilliant....

One of the great curiosities of working in a career center at a research university is the number of PhD students who slink to our offices under the cover of night. I once wondered why they were so often three or four minutes late, but it has occurred to me that if they arrive early, then they are forced to sit in the waiting area for ten or fifteen minutes. On display. Where everybody can see them. Their students are there. Their advisor could walk by at any moment!

After being transferred to the security of my private office, complete with a cone of silence and anti-intrusion technology, they feel comfortable enough to raise one of two issues... sometimes both. The first issue is usually that they wish to pursue a non-academic career and they don't want their advisor or colleagues to know. The second is that they are concerned that their PhD will make them over-qualified and they want to know if they should hide their degree, that is, leave it off of their resume and job applications. Because this is MY blog and it is one of the few places in my life where I am moderately in charge, I am going to choose to talk about the second issue and will leave the first issue for sometime next week.

Let me put it simply. No, you should not hide your advanced degree. There. Done. So we can move on, right?

Whaddya mean you want to know why?

Here's the deal, there is only one reason that I can possibly think of to hide your degree, but several reasons not to hide it, however, if you are going to be a complete wienie about this and demand to know why, I'll list them below.

Reasons to hide your advanced degree.

I will be as candid as possible. It is true that sometimes without even seeing your other qualifications, a prospective employer will toss your application or resume... assuming that you are far too smart to be chillin’ wit da homies.

“Not fair!” you say? Think about this way, sometimes bosses don't hire folks because they went to the same school as the last bonehead they had to fire. Sometimes bosses don't hire a candidate because they hate liberals and an applicant listed Sierra Club volunteering on his/her resume. (We all know that those Sierra Club types are liberal whackos!) Sometimes they don't hire a job aspirant because they hate conservatives and they listed church activities on their resume. (Only crazy conservatives are involved in organized religion.) I hope you get my point.

Please ask yourself, would you want to work for anybody who would have excluded you from consideration on the basis of a single piece of information about you? (The correct answer is, "No. I certainly would not wish to work for such a bad, mean, stupid stupid person." Remember this. There will be a test later.)

So, there it is. The only one reason to hide your degree and it turns out that it's probably a pretty lousy reason. Let's move on to....

Reasons NOT to hide your advanced degree.

Basic Timeline. Geeze, you earned the darned thing and you spent three or four or ten years getting it, which makes it a huge part of you. When the interviewer says, "Tell us a little bit about yourself" do you suppose that they don't care about that four or five years when you were apparently being held incommunicado by a band of rogue CIA agents somewhere in the woods of Minnesota. Being enrolled in a PhD program will explain a lot. It also allows you to list your teaching assistantships, research work, committee memberships, etc. that you couldn’t list if you left off the degree.

Basic Integrity. Most jobs are going to ask directly about your educational background and hiding it because you think it will give you some sort of advantage reeks of a lack of integrity. So, assume that you get a job by hiding your PhD, remember that you will be hiding it as long as you are there. Imagine that you are somehow successful and one day you overhear the boss say to a colleague. “I just decided that we need to be looking for a PhD for the new position.”

Suddenly, you awkward choices are to say: “Wow! You know, when I interviewed here last year, it completely slipped my mind that I have a PhD.” or the equally awkward, “Yeah. So, when I interviewed last year, I just assumed that you would be biased against me because of my degree.” Okay, okay. There are many other “tactful” ways of saying this, but at some level, all of them indicate that you are willing to be deceitful to further your own ends.

Basic Screening. Think back to the really lousy reason to hide your resume. If someone is going to have a problem with the effort that you expended on an advanced degree, then it is probably better not to hook up with him or her in the first place. In that sense, your degree serves as sort anti-intellectual BS detector.

Basic Value. Two years ago, a woman who had recently finished her PhD in molecular biology came to see me. She was adamant that she did not wish to have an academic career and felt she would be happy as a staff researcher at a university or hospital. She expressed great frustration that she had not been called by any of the dozens of positions for which she had applied. The more we talked about it, the more I realized that she was presenting herself not as a highly skilled researcher, but as a failed academic.

We did some slight cosmetic work on her resume and talked about how she could approach prospective employers so that they understood that she genuinely wanted to be, as she called it, just a lab rat. She found a position at a well-known research institute and within two years became a project manager, overseeing several grant-funded projects. Her boss clearly understood her value and entrusted her with extra duties, eventually rewarding her for her efforts.

The bottom line here is that despite what people tell you, hiding your advanced degree (whether it is a PhD, MBA, MA, etc.) probably creates more problems than it solves in a highly competitive job market.