Friday, March 20, 2009

The Myth of the Hidden Job Market

Depending on who you decide to trust, either 20% of jobs never posted (Seneca) or 80% of jobs are never posted (Career Intelligence). With a statistical gap that large, it seems to me that we are better off just assuming that neither are correct... other than the fact that there are jobs that are not advertised. Although we have no clue about the exact percentage, it would seem that there are SOME jobs that are not advertised and perhaps there are some strategies that would help erstwhile jobseekers as they careen through the chaos of job hunting.

Why does it matter?
One reader commented on my post on INTENSITY OF FOCUS a couple of days ago,
I like what you have to say about job searching, especially as it reinforces for me that it's not silly to only apply for jobs that I actually want ... But I do find it a bit frustrating to hear things like, don't look where you're "supposed" to look, because I don't know where the other places are or how to look there.
Also, what about all those job listings that exhort applicants, in all caps, not to call please? Should one call anyway?
Allow me to do a Zen commando thing for a moment. If we have are convinced that there is a single path that we are supposed to take, we will take it and do only those things we are supposed to do and look only where we are supposed to look. Doing this, we will find only those things we are supposed to find. The person who understands that supposed to is an illusion will look in places that he/she is not expected to and will find things he/she is not expected to find. There are no hidden jobs. There are unexpected jobs.

Several years ago, a young scientist came to my office. He was winding down six years of graduate study during which he had amassed prodigious skill working as a molecular biologist with proteins. When asked about his future, he said he'd really like to work in vaccine development, but lamented his lack of experience. As we began to talk about his specific job search, he showed me the labs to which he was applying and I commented that none of them did anything that was remotely connected to vaccine development. His response, "Well, I've never done vaccine work, so I figured that I should just stick to the labs that might need my kind of training." I asked him where he would want to work in if he didn't have to stick to labs that needed his kind of training. He named a medical research center on the East Coast, but quickly added that they would never take him.

We surfed out on to the website and began looking in places we weren't supposed to be looking. Suddenly he said, "I know her. I went to school with her." As it turns out, a former classmate was a scientist in one the labs in the Center. She was not doing vaccine work, but she was there. I tasked him to contact her and get information about how she had landed there and when he came back two weeks later he told me that he had spoken with here and had sent her his CV. At this point, he became a bit glum and said, "She was gonna give it to the guy in Infectious Disease that does the vaccine work and he hasn't called, so I guess he is not interested." While he was wallowing in his self-pity, I quietly went to the website and got the guy's number and at some point mid-wallow, I asked, "So. Do you wanna talk to him?"

Long story, short. We did call and the guy did not have room for him, but thought someone else might. He put the phone down (not on Hold... he put the sucker down and you could hear postdocs laughing and talking in the background) and apparently walked down the hall to talk to the "other guy" who not only had a place, but was specifically looking for someone who knew protein translation and synthesis. Boy meets lab. Boy marries lab. Boy becomes vaccine researcher.

What is YOUR Supposed To?
Finding unexpected jobs is all about finding your "supposed to" and stepping outside of it.

The Specific Requirement Supposed To. For the last twenty-plus years I have watched people develop "kitchen sink" job descriptions. Those are the ones that include every possible skill under the sun that might be used in commission of the job. (One of my favorites was a job description at a sister university for a management position that included: Squat=Occasionally. Bend=Frequently. I envision an interview in which a seasoned manager in his/her mid-forties is asked to squat and bend for the selection committee and then the committee members would hold up scorecards like they do for Olympic diving competitions.) Applicants will invariably read the 22 item requirement list and say, "I can't apply because there are two things on the list I have never done."

The 3-5 Years Experience Supposed To. If you are a 21 y/o recent college grad and you have never had a full time job please do not run off and apply for jobs that require 10-12 years of experience. If, however, you are finishing college and worked full time and part time for three or four years while in school, you might think seriously about positions that request 3-5 years of experience. I don't think three years of part time work is the equivalent of 3-5 years of experience, but with the right sort of experience showing advancement and progressive responsibility, you might fit the bill. I would let the hiring manager make the decision. I have hired people who have had years of experience only to find out that the experience had not prepared them for the position that I was trying to fill. Ultimately, if you decide not to apply for a job because you have two, instead of three, years of experience, you are turning down a job that you have not been offered.

The They Don't Have Any Openings Supposed To. Back in the day, we used to say, "If you are only looking in the newspaper, you will never find a job." These days we say, "If you are only looking at the newspaper and online job boards, you will never find a job." You at some point, you have to go directly to company websites and bricks and mortar buildings. Several years ago, I visited an organization's website and saw that they were seeking a part-time personal counselor and a part-time career counselor. It took me about two days to find out who the hiring manager actually was and made direct contact. I told him that I would be able to do both jobs and could save them a significant amount of money in benefits and administrative time and even submitted a written plan showing how both positions could (and should) be combined. I got an offer for a pretty cool job that did not exist that I got to create myself.

The I'm Just Using My Network Supposed To. To go Zen again, you have to master the art of finding without searching. My very first part time job in California came about when I was at a party with friend. One of his friends worked at a local men's store and at some point during the evening, I said I was looking for a seasonal job. About three days later, I hear, "Hey, Dude!" and looked up to see the partygoer and an older guy. We stopped and chatted and he asked me to have lunch with them. During lunch, he remembered I was looking for a job and turned the older guy and said, "Lee, when are we gonna hire our Christmas staff." Lee said that even though they had not posted the jobs yet, he'd hire me right then, if I wanted to start before Thanksgiving and I started two days later. Now, I realize that a Christmas job is not a career position, but the concept is the same.

Part of the problem about constantly being on the prowl is that we forget what people actually want in a co-worker... somebody they enjoy being around for eight hours a day. One of the things we tell students in interview skills training is, "Employers do not interview you to see if you can do the job in question. They already know that from your resume, application, and references. They interview you to make sure that they can sit with you eight hours a day five days a week." If you make every social gathering an opportunity to recite your 30-seconf elevator speech or whine about your fruitless job search or talk about all the interviews that you have had, you will quickly find a large empty space around you at parties. It's okay to mention that you are looking for a job. It is okay to answer a question or two about your job search, but keep it low profile. Ask people what THEY do. Ask what they like and dislike about their jobs. Ask how they found their jobs. But don't ask, even jokingly, if they know anybody who is hiring. If they like you and feel confident about your abilities, they will let you know about openings that exist.

Thinking outside the supposed to.
I believe this brings us to that final question:
"What about all those job listings that exhort applicants, in all caps, not to call please? Should one call anyway?"
I refuse to give a definitive answer on this one, but here's my sketchy advice. If you have a genuine question to ask, then call. If your idea is that by calling you might be able to exert some Svengali-like influence over the hiring process, then don't call. Thinking outside of the supposed to does not include willy-nilly ignoring others' wishes, it is about stepping outside of our typical habits and finding unexpected opportunities.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Perfect Resume.

Okay, before this gets out of hand let me say that there is no such creature as a perfect resume. Better yet, if you go to Amazon.Com and type in "resume writing" you get no fewer than 5,782 options, while Barnes and Noble.Com renders a much more discriminating 817 entries. My job requires that my counselors and I see literally thousands of resumes each year, which range from exceptionally professional to awesomely awful. With few exceptions, each student will say, "I really want my resume to stand out and be seen." As a result, we see resumes on pink paper with magenta-colored type, tiny pictures of the job aspirant, bullets in the shape of smiley-faces or pointing fingers, horizontal rules with elaborate arabesque curly cues, and high-fashion fonts that make a resume look like the entree menu from a 5-star French bistro. After years of this, my one request is "Make It Stop! Please!"

Bottom Line at the Beginning.
For those of you tired of wading through my manifestos, let me give you the bottom line at the beginning. Most recruiters tell us that they do not particularly care what a resume looks like as long as they can easily read it and figure out what you have been up to and whether what you have been up to fits their needs. Additionally, they tend to think that the pink paper, arabesque rules, and pointy fingers are over compensation. In other, those tactics may make you stand out, but in the wrong way. Bottom line formula is: simple+professional = effective.

Paper. I have never chosen interview candidates based on fanciest paper. I have sometimes wondered how a candidate's paper got wrinkled and messy, but I seldom attribute that to the applicant. I generally go with the sort of "standard inkjet" grade of paper, but if you want the high cotton fiber bond with the custom watermark... knock yourself out.

Font. It has to be readable so getting below 10 points is pushing the limits. Likewise anything above 12 points is a bit over the top. I am a sans serif guy. I really like plain, simple Helvetica or Arial, but I know confirmed serif freaks who love Times and Times Roman stuff. Once again, I pay little actual attention unless its some freaky cartoon or cursive font and then I toss it.

Complete Sentences. Hate 'em. Don't want to read 'em. Keep it brief. To the point.

Bullets. A little controversy here. I don't particularly care for them, but I see them all the time. Many of my colleagues love them. Ultimately, if it is professional looking and communicates your experience, it will be okay. (For the record, smiley faces are only professional if you are applying to Clown College.)

Contact information. I know you see examples all the time with home and business contact information. I even have industrious graduate students who will list home, departmental office, and laboratory information. In a bad economy, when I have hundreds of highly qualified applicants for every position, I am looking for reasons to exclude candidates from the pool. If you make me choose from three or four numbers, I know what I am going to choose... No. List one address and one phone number.

Action words. I guarantee that if you type "action words resume" into any search engine you will gain immediate access to hundreds of lists with thousands of action words. Use them.

Examples. What can I say? Most college and university career center websites have hundreds of examples online. Try ours if you wish. Go to our Virtual Career Center and select "Resume Writing." Not only are there online examples, but there are streaming workshops to help. They are among the few things that you don't have to be a student to use. The public website that I use most often is Quintessential Careers.Com where you can find a good mix of free and fee-based resources... I like the free stuff.

Resume Services. I suppose there are times when paying for someone to help you craft a resume would be worth it, but I want to add a proviso. When you pay someone else to pimp your stuff, you do not learn how to do it yourself. Then, when you are in a pinch, it is tough to shoot from the hip and create a resume or cover letter on the fly. For folks who absolutely have to spend money, then check out community education options or buy one of the 5,782 books available on the subject. After you get your first draft, invite a friend who routinely hires people to a working lunch to critique your resume. If you are gonna drop cash on this, you should at least get a cheeseburger out of it.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Can I have a little success with that?

Remember that whole Peter Principle thing from a few years back. You know, we rise to our level of incompetence. I get daily reminders that it is a plausibly accurate description of world of work. I would like to add two corollary to Peter’s observation and then a few pointers on how you can measure your career success while accounting for both phenomenon.

The Perpendicularity Corollary
Somewhere, lost in the archives, is my dissertation research on clinical supervision. The clinical supervisor is the person who meets with counselors, psychotherapists, and social workers to consult and advise on their approach in specific cases. Sort of like House, MD. As footnote to our research, we found that people were given clinical supervision posts, not because they were good clinical supervisors, not because they had additional training in supervision, and not even because they were particularly good at counseling or psychotherapy. They were given supervision posts because they were the most senior staff, hence the Perpendicularity Corollary… He/she who remains perpendicular to the floor for the longest period of time gets to be boss. The importance of understanding the Perpendicularity Corollary has to do with a common yardstick for measuring success… being the boss. Even being in charge, however, is subject to the chaotic rules of social order.

The Dr. John Corollary
Some of you may be seasoned enough to remember the Dr. John song, "Right Place, Wrong Time." The opening lyric is,
"I been in the right place
But it must have been the wrong time."
Early in my career, I worked at a residential treatment facility for adolescents. Like most people in the non-profit world, I was grossly underpaid, but committed to social change. One day my boss told me that I was being promoted to Assistance Counseling Team Supervisor. He clapped me on my back and said,
"We're all very proud of your success. You've made it to Assistant Counseling Team Supervisor faster than anyone except Bruce! Congratulations."
I was quite proud and chanted my new title over and over, "Assistance Counseling Team Supervisor, Assistance Counseling Team Supervisor, Assistance Counseling Team Supervisor." It conveyed power and majesty. Then I ran into Bruce... the only person to become an Assistance Counseling Team Supervisor more quickly than me.
"Bruce, I just got promoted! Cool, huh?"

"Dude. Check it out. Who is on your team?" he asked.

"Uh, me Ann and Bill."

"So, you're, like, assisting supervising one dude, right?"

"Uh huh. But I got a raise, too," I said, at this point, clearly expecting another shoe to drop.

"Yeah, about that. You used to be, like, a non-exempt dude and now you are, like, an exempt dude, which means you used to get overtime, but now you don't. You're, like, screwed, dude."
Bruce was, like, right. My take home pay dwindled as my time at work increased. The source of my rapid rise? Three people resigned the week before. Had they not left, I would not have been successful. The Financial Times of London has suggested that "successful entrepreneurs" are no more successful than I was. That is, experience has little to do with having the insight to start or fund a "successful" business plan. A significant amount of luck is involved. As Nick Brisborne says, "It is not possible to learn how to win the lottery."

Tenacity and Luck.

So if bossing is your measure of success, be advised that bossing is often conferred based on the length of one's tenure with an organization (Tenacity) or how quickly those ahead of you bail for greener pastures. If this is a less than satisfying way to measure your own success, let me suggest a few others.

I would say that a person is successful if he or she can make the following statements about their skill set.
  • I am pretty good at what I do and understand what resources are necessary to be effective.
  • My colleagues and peers at other institutions seem to respect my opinion on professional matters.
  • My supervisor/boss values my input on new projects or my feedback on problems.
  • I have been able to mentor others who are new to my field.
I get a kick out of somebody asking my thoughts about a new project or plan and while I would rather have more money, I try to use these occasions to remind my boss of my value. That may be the subtext here. If someone taps you for advice, information, or guidance, be sure that the person you report to knows about it. I have been doing some things for the University President's Office and you can bet that I have shared that with my boss and it will also appear on my end of year self-appraisal.

. As above, I would say that a person is successful if he or she can make the following statements about their creativity and openness to change.
  • I am an early adopter.
  • I am up to date with current trends and techniques.
  • My co-workers presume that I understand technology and ask for help.
  • I Facebook, blog, Tweet, Email, PowerPoint, etc. (and even if I don't, I'm not afraid to!)
  • I call the Tech Department often because I tend to push technology to its limits.
  • I don't like change, but I enjoy the challenge of change.
Perhaps the secret here is the openness to change. I have been knocking around in the workforce for more than two decades now and I remain flabbergasted at the folks my age who steer clear of technology and change. A few months ago, I contacted someone to tell them about changes in our programs to correct misinformation that had been given to students and alumni. The response I got was, "You can tell me, but if it is more than 50 words, I will probably just keep saying what I am saying, 'cos I have been doing this for 18 years and changing is just too hard now."

Leisure time.
I would say that a person is successful if he or she can make the following statements about their leisure time.
  • I have enough time away from work to act as a supportive parent or spouse.
  • I have been able to develop interests that are different from my work (Day trading doesn't count if you are a broker.)
  • I have volunteered for several different community programs or projects.
  • I am able to take a nap without feeling guilty or anxious.
In one of my sociology classes years ago, the professor made the point that an indigenous tribe in the Amazon was the most successful culture because they seldom had to work for more that two or three hours a day to supply food and clothing for their village. (I somehow think that all that was being counted here was the time the men spent hunting and fishing and not the women's tasks of cooking, sewing, gardening, birthing babies, etc. I will leave that for another post.)

A few days ago, I shared that I had initially been in the insurance industry and opined that if I were still there that I would likely be making more money. However, by choosing the path that I did, I got in more fishing, camping, and hiking, had more time with my kids when they were younger, volunteered more frequently as a coach, teacher's aide, board member, etc. I will also add here that I have friends who have very time-consuming, high pressure jobs who still find the time to do most of the things I did. Success in this arena is not measured by the raw amount of time one contributes or relaxes, but the degree of fulfillment that one realizes from these efforts.

Making it up as I go along.
One of my favorite counselors was a young woman, named Maria, fresh out of her Master's program. She worked as an intern counselor in a couple middle schools doing family interventions to help stabilize student performance. After two or three particularly difficult sessions with a family, she and I decided that my direct observation might help her figure out what to do. We actually collaborated for two sessions and things turned around pretty quickly.
"How do you do it?" she wanted to know. "Why are you so successful at this?" I thought about it for a while and said, "I'm not sure, I think a lot of it I just make up as I go along."

This is, I think, a key element in anyone's success. The openness to change mentioned above girded with the occasional willingness to improvise will create opportunities for you to see yourself as successful. While I am sure that some people "earn" their success, I think that many of us are more able to accept and see the moments of success that we stumble into.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Intensity of Focus... not activity

Sometimes I am not so clear. Okay. Often I am not so clear, but I occasionally I realize it and am able to redact my comments into a more comprehensible offering. Today is one of those days. A few days ago I offered the suggestion that rejections in a job hunt are depressing and they tend to make us slow down our process. (March 8th, "Perhaps you have noticed the economy spinning out of control") Comments from a couple of people have made it clear that I did not make it clear. So, here is the clarified version with a few additional insights.

Frequency, Intensity, Duration.
When my work life consistently mostly of doing psychotherapy and supervising psychotherapists, I realized that most people came to counseling because the solutions that historically worked for them had begun to be less trustworthy. Likewise before they appeared for counseling, they had typically adjusted the solution by application of the Frequency-Intensity-Duration Triad. I am sure you know this gambit. What I am doing is not working because I am not doing it often enough... So, I obviously need to increase the Frequency with which I do it. What I am doing is not working because I am not doing it hard enough... So, obviously I need to increase the Intensity with which I do it. What I am doing is not working because I am not doing it long enough... So, obviously I need to increase the Duration with which I do it. It really is a basic human flaw that we seldom sit back and accept that the solution doesn't work because it is the wrong solution.

Don't bother me, I'm busy applying for jobs.
I was reading a few of my favorite blogs the other day and I ran across a post by Peter Bregman on the Harvard Business Blog Site. I've always like what Bregman says, but was struck by the title of the post: Need to find a Job? Stop Looking so Hard. I encourage you to read his post because I am about to give a very condensed and far too trite a version of it. In essence, what he says is that when we devote very intense energy to our job hunt (and I suppose career development) we create an environment in which we are more likely to miss those "out of the blue" job offers. Think about it. The more time and energy you devote to a job search, less time and energy you will have to prioritize what you really want out of life.

I worked with a PhD student last year who had sent out hundreds of CV's and cover letters. The student told me that she would spend 18 - 20 hours each week researching and following up on positions.
"So," I asked, "how much time is left over for teaching and completing the dissertation?"
"None of that will make any difference if I don't have a job,"
she said with grim determination and added, "I've sent letters to every state except Hawai'i and every kind of campus"
"Gee, that's a lot of work. Have you ever visited any of the campuses?"
"It doesn't really matter, you know. A college is a college."
Ultimately, when the first offer finally trickled in, it was in a very small school in a remote area of the Midwest, that did not even have a department in her major. The student looked at me and sighed, saying that the salary was so marginal, that it barely boosted the teaching assistant pay she was now receiving. Worse was the realization that a colleague had heard about, applied for, and secured a postdoctoral position at a nearby college and he would not have to move in order to take the position. When I asked if she had applied for the fellowship she said,
"You're kidding, right? I was way too busy trying to get a real job and never saw the announcement."
This student had absolutely no priority targets. Harvard and Klamath Community College were all the same in her book and she devoted the same amount of energy to applying for each. She had made the fundamental F-I-D Triad error, mistaking energy output for discipline.

Priority Targets.
Let me start by saying that it is very easy critiquing others' job searching techniques from the position of having a relatively secure job that you like. I don't envy the daily angst that is part and parcel of the hunt. Having said that, one should think in terms of having priorities that help apportion the energy outlay. Following are a few ideas that can be starting points.

Time frame. Bregman is right about one thing. "At most spend 1-2 hours a day." I have watched one job aspirant after another burn out long before the job announcements do. I will add to what he has said by offering that it is not only important to limit your activity to a couple of hours, but to do it at a time of day that makes sense. During my last "real" job search a decade ago, I realized that I while I worked better late at night, if I had questions about a recruitment, offices were oddly closed at 11:00pm. Shifting the bulk of my searching to early afternoon meant I could ask questions... which is the second idea.

Ask Questions. About twice a week, I will have a student who wants me to review a cover letter or resume or some other "supporting documentation" for an application. As I get into the meat of the request, I will ask, "So, what are they looking for?" Almost universally students answer either "I don't know," or they will hand me a hard copy of an online announcement. When I suggest that they actually personally call to find out, they respond, "Can I do that?" Here's the deal. With much of the job posting and announcement process having migrated to the Internet, it is increasingly difficult to find the appropriate person to talk to about the position. Difficult, but not impossible. When you have a question or are unsure about a job announcement, spend five or ten minutes locating a sentient human being rather than twenty minutes fretting about all of the possibilities.
Stereotypical quick story. Two years ago, a student told me that he had seen the perfect job in a lab in another state, but applications had closed two days earlier. I suggested that he call, which he decided was far too much effort. Two months later, he ran into the researcher at a scientific conference and shared that he had considered applying for the position but that it had closed the week before he saw it. The researcher said, "Wow. That's too bad. We had a devil of a time filling the slot and kept applications open until a couple of weeks ago. We finally hired somebody last week." Call. Ask questions.
Look under the cushions. Our fancy DVR has a big remote... a VERY big remote. One that is far too big to get stuck in the cushions of the sofa, but inevitably when I am freaking out because I cannot find it, my wife will say, "Have you looked under the cushions?" Which, of course, is where it always resides. Do not rely on the Internet as your sole purveyor of jobs. Jobs and promotions often hide in the most curious of places, so if you are continually where you are "supposed" to be looking and never looking under the cushions, you'll miss the good stuff.

Cleverosity rules. John Krumboltz is simply one of my favorite "career guys." I wrote a little bit about his "Happenstance Theory" a couple of weeks ago (Feb 28th, Not only are your friends wrong... I'm wrong, too.) His basic precept is that we sort of stumble into our successes and while he does not say this, I think our failures result from uber-planning... like sending out 121 applications each week for jobs we don't really want.

Here's the deal. If good things happen when we least expect it, the clever person will cultivate moments when he or she is more open to follow through with an "Ah hah! Moment." You can increase your cleverosity quotient by being available to listen, instead of being buried in the process of redesigning resumes or crafting perfect cover letters. I said Peter Bregman was right about one thing... well, he is actually right about many things another is...
Don't waste this time. The job search. The client search. Do it. But do it in a way that excites you. That teaches you new things. That introduces you to new people who see you at your natural, most excited, most powerful best. Use and develop your strengths. The things at which you excel. The things you love.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The one about goal setting...

As promised, this is the one about career goal-setting. The four questions that I asked are essential to configuring career goals and moderating your satisfaction along the way. I have discovered over the years that we have a knack for setting goals that are at the extremes of two axes: One is anchored by goals that are either very specific or very general and the other with goals that are easily attainable or well out of reach. Worse, we seem to forget that the nature of goals is that they exist in the future and yet we aspire to things with the most relevance to the present.

Case In Point.

Several years ago, during a career counseling graduate class, I asked the class to explore the difference between the terms “job” and “career.” They readily understood that career was a dynamic process, while job was nominal construct. One differentiation that I appreciated was “career is what we do all the time, job is what we are doing right now.” The question came up about how counselors should go about the process of choosing job, so I asked the students how they had decided on their current job. One student said, “I really liked my last job a lot better than the one I have now, but I wanted a better car and bigger apartment, so I jumped ship. I hate my job now, but I was able to get a new car and we are in a three-bedroom.”

After some discussion, it became apparent that she hated her new job because she never left the office and the reason that she had wanted a better car was because she had previously been in the field all the time. Likewise, her she had wanted a bigger condo because she wanted more space at home, and ironically, the new job kept her at the office longer. She easily attained her very specific goals, only to discover that they left her a bit dissatisfied. Perhaps she would have made a different decision if she had thought about the four questions we posed last week.

1. Where do you want to be living five years from now? (Ten years, if you are under 35.)

A couple of weeks ago, I made the point that the willingness to relocate was terribly important to increasing your job prospects. Embedded in that advice was the notion that leaving your home grounds may be important to the possibility of doing WHAT you want WHERE you want to do it. When I first sit with career seekers, I pose this question a bit more obliquely by asking, “Where do you want to be five years from now?” I do this intentionally because I realize that most people will interpret it as career process question and they give answers like: “I want to be a professor,” or “I want to be a manager with ABC Widgets.” I then say, “No. I want to know where you want to be GEOGRAPHICALLY,” explaining that if they wish to be living in Minnetonka, Minnesota and they wish to be a nuclear physicist, they will likely have to rethink the where they wish to be or the what they wish to be.

I grew up in small towns in the Southeastern United States and while I remember those small towns as warm and welcoming, from early in my life I loved our trips to big cities. After twenty years in the Los Angeles metro area, I moved back to teach in a small college in an even smaller town. I had a great job that I loved with colleagues that I really liked, but I found myself constantly driving to “the city” for entertainment, culture, and the vibe. I lasted less than two years. It became very apparent to me that I having a great job in a place that didn’t fit me made it… well, not a great job. I have managed on my return to Southern California to find a great job and I get to be in a place that fits me well.

Where you do what you do is incredibly important… as important as doing what you do.

2. Do you REALLY want to complete another degree?

This has become much more salient in the past 18 months. As the economy faltered and failed, more and more students are coming into our center and asking about going on to graduate school. They do this for two reasons: Some think it will increase their chances for that “dream job,” but others are simply trying to ride out the storm in school. I am not sure that either serves as a good reason for pursuing an advanced degree. This is a prime example of my suggestion that we often set goals that are relative to the present rather than the future. Having been in higher education for the past two decades, I have been surrounded by folks who set the goal of a graduate degree with very little planning beyond that. I consistently see PhD students who are approaching the end of their degree program only to realize that they will not be able to stay in the area because the jobs are elsewhere (see #1 above) or they will be thrown into a system which is highly unpredictable (see #3 below). Worse, they find that while they have been in school living as a starving student, friends have begun careers and families and are several rungs ahead of them on the corporate and social ladders.

The essential questions to ask about further education have to do with the extent to which it is requisite for one’s career path. Certainly if you really want to be a doctor or lawyer, education past a bachelor’s degree is a mandatory, but if you are drawn to a career in corporate logistics and planning, it is not as clear that an MBA will be of benefit. Likewise, if you are seeking a career in social work or counseling, it does not appear that a PhD will add any flexibility or earning power to your Master’s of Social Work or Counseling. (Indeed, one of my fondest memories is that of a PhD colleague who chaffed at the fact that the director of county mental health that we worked for only had a master’s degree and made twice as much money as he did.)

The other thing to remember is that graduate degrees, particularly in professional fields, cost a great deal of money. For instance, if you pursue an MBA at a relatively decent school, expect to spent between $40K and $50K per year. (MBA Costs) That means between $80K and $100K to complete a two-year program. While MBA programs claim their degrees increase one’s earning power, it appears that holds true only for the top twenty or so full-time MBA programs. I would suggest that anyone who can get into Harvard, Wharton, or Haas, was likely headed up the corporate ladder anyway, so it is always difficult to say how much a person’s earning power has to do with their MBA and how much should be attributed to their skills and abilities.

Education should be an investment, not an encumbrance.

3. What is more important to you... salary or stability?

This one is quite simple. When I graduated from college, I went to work in the insurance industry. I am quite convinced that had I stayed there (perhaps earning an MBA along the way) I would be making considerably more than I do now. However, during my first three years, I was transferred four times, spent almost thirty hours a week traveling, and was pretty much at the beckon call of my corporate office. This was not how I wanted to live my life. Since then, I have pursued a path that has been offered me more independence and stability. I own a lot fewer suits and ties, but I make considerably more of the decisions that affect me on a daily basis. I have moved during that time, but primarily because I wanted to, not because I had to. I once sat down and figured that these things were probably worth about $20K a year to me.

The biggest myth that people adhere to when setting career goals is the mistaken belief that more money means more stability. Certainly poverty is inherently unstable, but more money is not causal to stability… ask the four or five-thousand investment banker who are looking for a new career because of the current economy. I am not suggesting that financial security is not important, nor am I recommending that you never select based on monetary considerations. What I am saying is be sure when you begin to set your goals that money is not the ONLY consideration.

Although the value of lifestyle is largely intrinsic, it is worth exercise to set it's value concretely.

4. What are the three most positive and negative aspects of your current job?

Here, I’ll model this one for you.

Starting with the negatives.
1. I work for a large institution and that makes change and innovation difficult.
2. Because we are a public institution, resources can often be difficult to come by.
3. The day to day waste is very frustrating for me.

The positives are as follows.
1. I am given a great deal of independence in basic decision-making.
2. The people that I work with on daily basis are bright, creative, and pretty darned cutting edge.
3. Continued education and training are highly valued and generally supported.

Notice that both the negatives and positives issue from the fact that I work at a large institution of higher education.

In some respects, we cannot have the positives without the negative and this understanding is critical to setting goals.

What Does It All Mean?

When I left the insurance world thirty years ago, I violated every single point that I have made in this post. I didn’t think about where I wanted to be, I just thought about where I didn’t want to be. I just assumed more education would help me, instead of calibrating the actual need for education. I made choices based on making money, instead of thinking about the lifestyle that fit me best. Instead of focusing on both the good and the bad of my insurance job, I sought to eliminate the bad. My first real job was in a very small non-profit agency, with very little protocol, that let me wear sandals and shorts to work. After a couple of years, I realized that all of the other pieces were important, too.

As you look to the future and begin thinking about goals, remember to do them holistically. I sometimes remind students that the present only exists as the intersection of our past and future… the plans we make based on the experiences we have had. Change is inevitable, so it makes sense that our goals and expectations will change as well. Better yet, our goals must be created so that they are concrete enough for us to aspire to them and flexible enough to change when the wind comes from an unexpected direction.

Oh yeah. About that tree thing. I'm pretty sure I would be a magnolia tree.