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.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Shotgun or sniper rifle?

So, my content advisor suggested that I opine about whether one should apply for anything and everything or just specific types of positions... shotgun or sniper rifle. In some respects my post from March 17th (Intensity of Focus... not activity) was about that very issue, but since I have actually gotten two other emails about this, so I will be a touch more definitive about it.
When asked by an interviewer whether he worked out or exercised, Neal Armstrong said:
"I believe that every human has a finite number of heart-beats. I don't intend to waste any of mine running around doing exercises."
Career development in general and job hunting in particular fit this metaphor. One of my areas of responsibility is managing the Letters of Reference Service for the university, so I have a fairly good idea of the number of reference letters that go out for grad school and med school applications as well as applications for teaching positions. Two or three years ago, I was approached by a graduate student who asked if we would consider giving her a "bulk rate" for her requests . Thinking that she might be sending out 25 or 30 letters, I replied that we had little margin in our charge and it would not be feasible for us. She became quite adamant and said,
"I have already sent out 82 applications and I have another 70 ready to go. I don't want to let a single position get by me without applying for it."
I shared that I had been in higher education for 20 years and I could never remember a time when there were 150 positions available in her discipline of Asian Studies. Her quick response,
"Oh, I'm not applying just for Asian Studies positions, I am applying for Sociology, Anthropology, Ethnic Studies, and Chicano Studies. I'm also applying for anything that has humanities or diversity in the title."
Her rationale was flawless. Asian Studies was a subset of Ethnic Studies and Ethnic Studies departments had formed on most campuses in Sociology or Anthropology departments. She had majored in history as an undergraduate and since her mother was Latina, she should be considered for Chicano Studies. I saw her on campus several more times over the next couple of years and she told me that she had maxed-out at 320 applications before she could not sent out another application and need to get back to the dissertation that she had fallen behind on. I held my peace, but remain convinced that her shotgun approach kept her from putting an appropriate amount of effort into positions that she might really enjoy, relegating all jobs to the same degree of watered-down effort.
During my first application frenzy after graduate school, I will admit that I threw out a lot of paper... nothing approaching 320 or even 150 for that matter. It only took two horrible trips... one to a small coal-mining town in the hills of Virginia and another to a long-forgotten cattle town in West Texas, to get me to rethink what I was doing. During the dying weeks of that job campaign, I zeroed in on positions that I knew would fit me and my family. Since that time, I cannot remember a time when I had more than two job feelers out at a time. (Several years ago, when the university I was working for closed four departments, including mine, I sent out only one resume in a four month period, got an interview, and took the job as a transition to my current job which I found out about from a friend... not because I was looking.

Friendliness is next to Jobliness.
For the record, my last three jobs came to me in the following fashions.

Weeks ago I told the story of moving to Alabama to accept a teaching position and then realizing that I really, really needed to stay in California. After I handed in my resignation, I began to contact department chairs and deans to see if there were any part-time teaching slots available. One guy in particular dodged my every attempt to make contact, until he foolishly picked up the phone one day and got me. We chatted for a few minutes and he was very negative about the possibility of having any teaching for me. At that point I mentioned talking with a friend at the University of North Alabama. He asked who I knew there and, of course, we both knew the same person. The next day he called and offered me two classes. I got four more classes a week later when a friend of mine at San Jose State was in town and introduced me to his college room mate who was a psychology professor getting ready to leave for sabbatical. Midway through the year, I was offered a permanent slot at one of those schools.
I was commuting 60 miles to this job and it was okay, but I would have preferred to be closer to home. One day at a U12 soccer game, I ran into one of my old professors from my Masters' program... his grandson was playing on the opposition's team. We chatted for a while and I told him that I liked my job, but that the commute was brutal. About three weeks later he called told me about a position that was open in another department to be in charge of a Career Counseling Masters' Program. I was not looking for a job, but it was 10 miles from home. I took the job when offered.
This was the infamous job that was foreclosed along with three other Masters' programs. That was the bad news, the good news was that one does not simply cease an academic program, the current students have to be "taught out", which we decided would take two years. During that time, the university offered me a couple of slots, but I declined them as not being exactly what I wanted. One afternoon, my friend Lea Beth (Who I swear I will call, because I know she reads my blog and I feel all guilty and stuff about not calling her weeks ago!) called me out of the blue. She said,
"I was thinking about you yesterday because there is a position at UC Riverside that would be perfect for you."
I told her that I was not looking to commute 40 miles away. She paused for a minute and said,
"Okay, it's like this, I have a friend on the committee there and and they are really looking for a specific person, which I promised her was you, AND I promised her that I could get you to submit a resume."
Anyone who knows Lea Beth knows that when she's on a mission, she does not give up easily. I sent my resume and the rest, as they say, is history. All three of these jobs were secured in a reasonably casual, low-key fashion. I went through a formal application process and was not the only qualified applicant. I doubt I was the unanimous choice and I don't think that my "source" was able to exert any influence over the selection process. The deciding fact is that I was able to focus on the positions before the interviews and do well because I didn't have 320 other applications crowding the stratosphere for me. Yes, it is important to have an active, evolving network, but it is equally as important to have time to exploit that web of relationships.
The other day I suggested that focus was more important than activity, but perhaps what would clarify that recommendation is this restatement.
If all of our energy is spent on the mechanics of researching postings, revising resumes, crafting cover-letters, or designing elaborate ruses to "network" with others, then we will have no time to let those "best fit" opportunities find us and little time to research and prepare a strategic self-presentation.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What color is a chameleon?

House, MD is one of my favorite TV shows. Having done psychiatric diagnoses for years, I appreciate the fact that his final decision is built on mistakes and “rule-outs.” Often the process for determining what something IS centers on determining what it ISN’T. My biggest single frustration as a career development professional is contending with people who come to us with the belief that there is a single thing that they can be… one perfect job. I tell people all the time about the interactions I have with students and alumni who seem convinced that I am hiding jobs and careers from them and if they just ask in the right way, I will ceremoniously retrieve their long-lost career path from its hiding place and they will never have to worry about this decision again. Today’s post? What color is a chameleon on a pane of glass?

Running with the pack.

When I was younger there was something oddly comforting about dressing the same way as everyone else, although I really didn’t want to put that much thought into things. Jeans and sneakers (there were no cross trainers back then) would have been fine, but there was that whole peer pressure deal and this extended to how I saw my future. My father was a chemical engineer, my friends were generally smart kids, and my teachers thought I should be something important… like a doctor or lawyer. So, when I went to college I started as a pre-med student and found out that I freakin’ hated the funky smell in the labs and was not particularly fond of the fact that memorizing the 206 bones in the body seriously cut into football and beer drinking time. So, I switched to pre-law.

In point of fact, I just changed my major from biology to political science, because apparently the only difference between a pre-law student and a political science student was that the pre-law student would actually TELL people he/she was pre-law. Imagine my happy surprise when I discovered that I could major in English and just continue to say that I was pre-law and it was exactly the same. Cool, huh? The bottom line is that what I claimed as aspirations were largely configured by others’ expectations, as opposed to interest on my own part. I became a career chameleon in college, just choosing protective colors that matched the background.

Give me that test that tells me what I am good at.

I will spare you all the gory details, but my freshman year I took a career inventory called The Kuder Occupational Interest Survey, that told me that the occupation with which I shared the most interests was… farmer. I have tried several things over the years, but farmer has never been among them. Perhaps I would have been satisfied as a farmer, but the fact is that I have not suffered great discontent in my rambling journey to where I am today. You can imagine, then, how I feel to be on the receiving end of the following question:

"I’m having trouble deciding on a major and my mom told me come here and ask if you had that test that tells me what I am good at. So, do you have that test?”

One summer when I was doing parent orientation for incoming freshmen, I ask the 200-300 parents that were assembled that day for a show of hands for those that thought their son or daughter would benefit from a test to measure their interests. I would estimate that 250 hands went up. I then asked how many people in the room had taken such a test and saw about 25 hands. When I asked how many people were satisfied with their current career, again I got about 250 hands. Asking them to keep their hands up, I asked all people who had taken an interest inventory to raise their other hand. Of my original 25 or so, only half were included. The unscientific survey does not suggest that interest inventories do not work, but that people do not pay attention to them unless they get the information that they wish to get.

Yeah. I can do that… I think.

I will also suggest another hypothesis; we are highly unlikely to attempt anything that pushes us past what we think we are good at. Some of us have wildly over-estimated our ability to succeed, while others of us are crazy low in our estimates. The counseling literature is awash with research regarding this where it is referred to as perceived self-efficacy. There is some pretty cool research, but generally it does not push us much beyond the intuitive notion that we are much more likely to try things that we believe we will be good at doing. The source of these believes range from things as simple as “My father did it, so I should be able to do it, too,” to the much more complex cultural determinations of what is “women’s work” or “men’s work.” Ultimately, we are like little career chameleons changing our color and appearance so that we do not stand out too much, because birds only gobble up the lizards that they can see.

A chameleon on glass.

Very early in my career as a clinical supervisor, I was working with a group of novice counselors discussing a case in which the client seemed to adapt his personal style to match those around him. He drank heavily with one group, was racist in another group, and even acted “dumber” when around a group of friends that he considered “dumb.” Intriguingly, with the counselor, he had deep, rich insights into his behavior and seemed to understand the things that he was doing that were self-destructive, but as soon as he left the session, all that insight evaporated. The counselors very quickly picked up on the fact that he was a chameleon and most of what he did was reflexive and for self-protection. They were surprised when I pointed out that he also mimicked the counselor and they asked if the counselor should “mirror” this behavior to the client. In one of my rare moments of lucidity, I said,

"No. It’s not the counselor’s role to mirror anything. The counselor should be transparent, like glass… no purpose, no opinion, no bias. What color is a chameleon on a pane of glass?"

This led to a hearty discussion about the purpose of counseling (which I will spare you) and eventually branched off into thinking about how hard we as human beings work to be what others want us to be. I have grown to believe that one of the most salient challenges that we face daily is that of being ourselves, largely because we spend so much energy trying to accommodate others. Don’t think, by the way, that this is a completely bad thing. Much of the truly good stuff I have done over the years is because I did what I thought my wife and kids wanted me to do, and most of the truly bad stuff I did when I ignored their wishes for me. The only thing that astounds me more than how often people are wrong about me, is how often they are right.

Sadly, when the dust settles, there is no test that tells you what you are good at because you are the only one who will ever really know that. You have two basic choices as you make decisions about life and career… you can be the chameleon on the wall or the chameleon on glass. The chameleon on the wall is safe and secure with no real highs or lows. Imagine that chameleon on glass, shifting from one color to another, trying to figure out how to do “clear.” Sooner or later, its stops with its “real” color.

In case you missed the comments section...

Often the comments section in blogs are reasonably personal comments that I appreciate, but am not sure that everyone else will. One came in today, however, from Katharine Hansen that gives a bit different view point than mine on informational interviewing. Katharine is actually the author of that huge list of questions from Quint Careers that I referenced. Since I have entrusted hundreds of students and clients with Katherine's list, I thought her opinion should get some airtime as well. Here is her comment.

Thanks for the shoutout for my collection of informational interview questions and tutorial. Informational interviewing is such a fantastic technique, especially in these tough times. I don't totally agree with you about the interview NOT being a way to get a foot in the door or about not bringing a resume to the interview, but these are perfectly valid viewpoints that lots of professionals share. I think it's OK to ask an informational interviewee for a quick resume critique -- IF you've established excellent rapport with the interviewee.
I'll have to say that I agree on the rapport with interviewee, but am probably a bit more adamant about maintaining boundaries in most informational interviews.

Please check out Katharine's book, A Foot in the Door at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Borders, or any other online book seller. Chapter 18 is a much more thorough treatment of informational interviewing.

Katherine Hansen, A Foot in the Door, ISBN 1-58008-140-1 51495

Monday, March 23, 2009

Can We Talk? Informational Interviews.

About fifteen years ago, when I was the clinical director of small mental health agency, I answered a phone call from a graduate student at a nearby university who asked if I would mind give him some time to discuss how I got into the field of counseling. I was very flattered and immediately began to rehearse in my head what wonderful insights about a life in counseling I would share with him. As I recall, he asked exactly one question about me and then the interaction descended into "I-need-a-job Hell." It was over a decade before I did another informational interview and it was very difficult for me to recommend info interviewing as a means of finding out about a field. I have recovered somewhat and will occasionally grant time to someone who makes such a request. What follows are a few pointers for those of you considering added info interviews to your career development arsenal.

Foot in the door... NOT!

This is the starting gate of this post and I wish to inform you clearly and unequivocally that an informational interview should never be about getting your foot in the door. Your visit should be fairly structured with a definite time limit. Here's the deal. The person you wish to talk to is likely to be at least moderately successful or you wouldn't even want to talk to them. If they are moderately successful, they are likely to be moderately busy as well. Respect their time and schedule by being organized and thoughtful.

This is not to say that these interviews do not sometimes become networking adventures, but that is rare and should never be the primary purpose of the meeting. I encourage interviewers to not take resumes or CV's with them. If the interviewee asks to see your resume, politely say, "Thank you, but I did not bring it with me today because my primary purpose was to talk with you about this field and get an idea about whether or not I would find it a good fit. I would be very happy to email it to you later for your feedback." This actually accomplishes three things. First, it makes you appear to be a principled person of your word... you asked for an interview and that is what you came to do. Second, it gives you a reason to contact him or her later. Finally, it creates a context for real networking.

Where do I find these folks?
In many of our career workshops, I do recommend info interviewing in passing and inevitably someone will stay after and ask how to find people to interview. On one hand, it is very easy and on the other hand, very difficult. I am on the gregarious side and talk to complete strangers all the time, others break out in a cold sweat at the idea of asking a cashier for change. So, if you are like me and want to interview an architect, then you plop open your MacBook, Google "architects," and start calling and emailing.

If you are at the other extreme, talk with your family members and ask if they know an architect. Another strategy might be to put together a group email from some of the folks in your email address book and send out a simple message like:
Hi! I have been considering several important career decisions lately and would like to know more about architecture and design, but I cannot think of anyone with enough of a background to help me in my process. I am hoping that some of my friends and family might know of someone in the field who would be willing to talk to me to answer some basic questions about how one prepares for a career in architecture or design. If you know of someone, I would be very grateful for a shove in their direction. I have a list of 10 questions to ask and would not take up more than 30 minutes of their time. Thanks in advance. Sally Job Hunter
I guess you could Tweet this if you can figure out how to get it down to 140 characters, but Facebook and MySpace work equally as well. (For the record, I quickly scanned my LinkedIn Page, Facebook, and my email address books and came up with four architects.)

If you are a college student or an alum, many colleges and universities have alumni career networks that try to match students or alums with graduates in specific fields. The UCR Career Center routinely brings in panels of individuals in a variety of fields for this very purpose. Many other career centers do the same thing. Alumni are almost always welcome and sometimes guests are allowed to attend on a limited basis.

Professional associations are another good source of referral. For instance, the American Institute of Architecture California Council website has a page devoted to "becoming an architect," an extensive directory of architects, and listing of county associations which have more local information. The side benefit to searching through professional association websites is that they have a ton of information that would answer many questions long before you secured an interview.

When, what, where, how?
Since my first disastrous info interview, when people contact me about an informational interview I always say, "Because my time is limited, it will help a great deal if you could send me an email with some of the questions you will be asking. That way we can make the most of our time together." A few years ago, one of my students wanted to interview a university dean and sent an email request with questions included to four or five deans in the surrounding area. Only two scheduled time for her, but one other actually took the time to answer her questions even though he could not set aside time for her.

This is one of those areas in which the World Wide Tubes comes in so handy. I could give you a list of questions to ask, but Quintessential Careers has already done a superb job of putting toget a throng of when, what, where and how questions for you. Go to Quint Careers Info Interview page and harvest questions from there. (Heck, their whole informational interviewing tutorial is pretty darned good, too!)

Two heads are better than one.
My path to my current career was not very straightforward and the stops along the way configured how I do what I do and how I see what I see in the field. My time in the insurance industry makes me more tort and risk aware than more career counselors and my time as a psychotherapist and professor has made me more clinically focused than many career counselors. If you only talked to me about career counseling, you would have a very one-sided view. Find at least two people who seem to have had different paths and ask your questions.