The Career Community as a College Strategic Asset

Why do students go to college? Most academics would be horrified to discover that the top reason is not to get a great education and become an educated citizen of the world. Today’s students still want high quality academics, but they take the educational benefits of college for granted. What students now expect from college is to get a leg up in life.

 

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Brighter Employment Prospects for Young Grads

An unemployment rate of 7.3% may not seem particularly good. But for millions of the country’s college seniors, 2014 data recently released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics represent the first sign that the major upturn in the employment market for bachelor’s degree grads that started in 2012, was not an anomaly.The last year students faced an unemployment rate below 7% was 2008. The following five years proved more challenging to those looking for work than any period in decades. Between 2009 and 2013, the percentage of bachelor’s degree graduates aged 20-24 who were unemployed hovered between 8% and 9%, thwarting well-considered plans for careers, and—for many—putting marriages and mortgages on hold.

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Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Table 10 (unpublished)

Before the Class of 2015 breathes a collective sigh of relief and drinks to their greater fortune, consider this: employed graduates from recent years may also be on the look out for new opportunity. They have jobs, and that’s good. But, in a 2014 survey conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, 46% of recent grads said their jobs do not require a college degree—a 20-year high. You can bet these under-employed grads are already snapping up higher-paying jobs as the economy improves.

Here’s the bottom line: despite better employment prospects, it will still be difficult for new college grads to find the kind of work they want at the salaries they expect, unless they major in engineering, computer science, or certain areas of business. The 2013-2014 Recruiting Trends survey conducted by Michigan State University shows that, of the top twelve majors requested by employers, six of them were related to technology.

In an improving employment environment, today’s college seniors—particularly those majoring in a subject that doesn’t lead to a particular career—need to be clear on what they want to do, and the value they bring to an employer. But most of all, they need to identify what sets them apart from the competition. The employer still has the upper hand in this market, and plenty of choice in candidates. But at least, for the Class of 2015, there may be an opportunity to get a foot in the door.

 

Advice for Entrepreneurial College Grads

In today’s economy, college students need to develop entrepreneurial skills.  They’ll need these skills throughout their lives to navigate the employment market and rise in their chosen fields. But, should they also be encouraged to start their own businesses immediately after graduation? The entrepreneurial initiatives of colleges and universities, and their emphasis on business plan competitions, seem to imply that the answer is “yes”.  But, there are plenty of reasons why this might not be a prudent career move.

My-Tien Vo, a San Francisco-based start-up strategist and founder advisor, is intimately familiar with what makes start-ups successful. She provides a helpful perspective on this question in an excellent article titled “Founders and the Value of Experience”.

A Career Makeover for the Young Professional

When you’re busy and you’ve established a routine, it’s easy to put career thoughts on the backburner. It’s like your health. If a body part doesn’t actively hurt, you’re not forced to pay attention. In the same way, your career may seem on track. If you’re doing well and there’s no evidence of trouble on the horizon, it’s tempting to keep your head down, work hard, and maintain the status quo. But if you do that, you may not see opportunities that better match your values and interests.

Once you start looking around you may also find that your concept of career is no longer accurate. Employees now move jobs and change careers regularly. And there aren’t hard and fast rules for getting ahead anymore. Mid-career professionals can learn something younger grads already know: When it comes to finding a path to your ideal position, you’re the one in the driver’s seat. Don’t count on anyone taking you along for the ride.

So if you want a career makeover, where do you start? Here’s a four-pronged approach.   First, examine yourself. Second, identify a good fit. Third, think like an employer. And finally, get your own board.

Examine Yourself

Your first task is to put yourself under the microscope, analyzing your preferences in the context of your career so far. When you consider the positions you’ve held, think about the work itself, the people, and the environment.

  • What did you love? Did you relish, for example, being the go-to person—the one who always got things done? Were you part of a team that worked cohesively and effectively?
  • What did you hate? Did you constantly bristle at the boss who looked over your shoulder? Did being in a cubicle pouring over Excel spreadsheets drive you nuts?
  • What skills did you feel proud to have possessed or developed? Did you learn to be a great manager?
  • What characteristics are important to you in any job? Is work-life balance a critical component? Do you know that you need challenging work?

Identify a Good Fit

Your next task also requires some introspection and investigation. When you’re considering where to work, it’s hard to resist money and prestige. But the savvy job seeker knows that neither factor really matters unless the job opportunity is compatible with your style and personality.

The first step is to size up your current organization, evaluating organizational culture, the nature of your work responsibilities and supervision.   Ask yourself whether your talents are being used effectively, whether you have the opportunity for professional growth, and if the way you’re supervised is consistent with the way you like to work. Ultimately the definition of fit comes down to the question of “are you happy going to work each day”?

Fit is something that may change over time. Perhaps you no longer want to work 80-hour weeks. Perhaps the person who hired you has left and the replacement could kindly be described as “the boss from hell”. Part of having a career makeover is figuring out whether the fit with your current employer is still good.

If your analysis indicates that switching employers is a prudent move, how do you find a better opportunity? Many companies have comprehensive websites that explain their culture and values, so that’s a good place to start. But a much better strategy is to find someone who works in the organization to give you a personal assessment. Your alumni office may be able to point you to an appropriate contact. Sometimes employer rhetoric and reality don’t match!

Finally, you need to identify a series of “fit” questions to ask your prospective employer–questions like “what kind of person does well in this organization?”, or “how would you characterize your management style?”. The time to do this is when you’re in the hiring “sweet spot”–after you’ve been offered the job and before you’ve accepted!

Think Like An Employer

Once you’ve identified where you’d like to work, visualize the hiring manager at your ideal employer reading your resume and cover letter. Imagine she’s reading hundreds of applications and within 10 seconds she’ll make a decision whether to pursue your candidacy.

When most people talk about their experience, they emphasize the areas in which they have achieved the most. But your highly developed technical skills and ability to create top quality websites may be perceived as irrelevant in a sales position. The key to thinking like an employer is to focus like a laser on the requirements of the position, and put your relevant qualifications front and center. Consider the format of your resume and the way you’ve ordered your accomplishments. Do the required abilities show up first? Does your cover letter make it easy for an employer to visualize you in the job?

Obviously your resume needs to be easy to read, up-to-date, with no typos. But your application materials also need to shout out “I have the qualifications, the experience, and the enthusiasm you need. I can add value.”

Get Your Own Board

Everyone can benefit from an outside review when they’re going through a career makeover. Have you set your sights too low? Do you have a major skill, like fundraising, that you developed through your volunteer work but is nowhere to be seen on your resume?

Appoint your own personal board of advisors—people whom you know and trust, but aren’t hopelessly biased in your favor. Often the best people are former bosses or colleagues. Good advisors support, but they also critique and ask difficult questions. They’re the people who can help you identify your competence gaps and suggest how you can make up for a lack of experience or education. They’re the ones who’ll tell you how to strengthen your cover letter or find a “hook” to rise above the competition. An added value is that your advisors will intimately know your interests and aspirations. Treat them well, and you’ll find them a great source of referrals to people in their own network of colleagues.

Many professionals with good jobs in these post-recession days are tempted to stay put. But keeping your head down is a bad career move. The young professionals who succeed in the long term are those who identify how they can best contribute to their organization and can articulate what they have learned from the experience. And if you find that you’re not growing in knowledge and skill, it’s time to move on.

What Can You Do With a Degree in Archeology?

The current national focus on the cost of a college education and loan default rates has caused many to debate the value of a liberal arts degree.

On one side of the debate are the naysayers, who assume that if the title of your major is not also the name of a career, the degree must be of little use in the real world. On the other side are the educators, who highlight the high-level skills learned through a liberal arts education, but provide no evidence that employers of entry-level graduates actually demand those skills.

Absent from the discussion are voices of alumni, who have found ways to connect both subject matter and skill sets developed in college to a wide variety of careers. Many of these careers do not show up on the “typical career path” resource sheet.

In our book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career, we profiled 23 liberal arts grads from 19 different schools, with 23 different careers. Not one would have traded their liberal arts degree for a “more practical” major. The reason? They ended up being able to make a decent living at work they loved.

Prospective liberal arts grads need to hear the career stories of successful graduates, but they also benefit from an in-depth look at how a liberal arts education can be used.

Graeme Davis, an archeology graduate, who is currently a successful writer and designer of video games, gives an excellent account of how he uses his education every day in his work:

Math: Math is a good grounding for anything computer-ish, but as a game designer rather than a programmer I still found algebra and probability indispensible in designing statistical systems for games. The state of the art in game design is getting more technical with every year that passes, making these even more important. On the soft-skill side, any mathematical subject (and I’d include physics there) teaches the kind of organized thinking that is vital for game development. It also gives me at least a chance of understanding what the programmers on my projects are talking about – sometimes it can sound like Martian to me – and good communication between disciplines (design, programming, art) is vital on a big, expensive project like an AAA video game!

English: Writing is at the core of what I do, so much so that I now call myself a game writer with design experience rather than a game writer/designer. I despised English literature when I was in high school, arrogantly thinking that I wanted to be a writer, not to obsess over the work of other writers. I was young and foolish, what can I say? I have come to recognize that as with painters, one’s own technique and understanding of the medium is immeasurably enhanced by studying the work of the masters. Story is a huge part of what makes a good game into a great game, and there is a surprising amount of dialogue and narration in most games – I’ve heard 60 hours (that’s 20-30 Hollywood movies’ worth) in a top-line MMORPG like World of Warcraft.

History: I came to history later in life, but quite apart from the work I’ve done on historical games (like the BAFTA-winning Total War strategy game series) it’s been tremendously important for doing things like creating fantasy settings for games. Understand how history and mythology work, and you can create fake histories and mythologies that ring true. Tolkien couldn’t have created The Lord of the Rings without his academic background in Anglo-Saxon literature. Oh, and enough Latin stuck with me that I was the go-to guy for fake-Latin Space Marine mottos in Warhammer 40,000, during my four years at Games Workshop.

Modern Languages: I studied French and German. They’ve come in handy on trips, such as the handful of visits I made to Paris for a project with Ubisoft. And as with history and mythology, an understanding of how languages work helps you construct fake ones for a fantasy game. For example, when I was writing for Warhammer Fantasy products, I twisted Welsh and Gaelic words for the Elven languages, while the Dwarf tongue was based on slightly mangled words from Scandinavian languages.

Geography: Like history, geography has come in useful in creating fantasy worlds. Knowing how landforms, climates, and so on all work helps create a more convincing world.
Biology: Once again, knowing about basic processes, anatomy, and ecology in this world helps create others that ring true.

Archeology: Fantasy worlds tend to be at a medieval level of technology, often with iron-age or dark-age barbarians nibbling at their frontiers. I’ve also written historical sourcebooks (Vikings, iron-age Celts, Rome, medieval England, and most recently the Thirteen Colonies up to the Revolutionary War) for Dungeons & Dragons and similar games.”

Most students have a very narrow frame of reference when it comes to careers. And, their parents often reinforce the myth that your major dictates how you will ultimately earn your living. Too often, relatives who hear that a student is majoring in history, philosophy or English will ask “what are you going to do with that”, reinforcing the idea that a liberal arts degree is a fast path to unemployment.

What students need to hear are stories of graduates, like Graeme Davis, whose education, inside and outside the classroom, has enabled him to follow his passion. The examples of these graduates will inspire students to make informed educational decisions, rather than following the crowd. And faculty may find a few more students in their archeology classes.

A Reality Check for Law School Students

Law school represents a significant commitment of time and money. For decades, the perceived benefits have outweighed the costs, but in the second decade of the 21st century, the answer to the question “should I go to law school” is less clear.

Not so long ago, law school was the career of choice for a large number of liberal arts grads. The field favored those with strong critical thinking skills, and acquiring legal skills was deemed an advantage for any graduate—regardless of whether the law student ever intended to become a lawyer.

But rising costs, sky-rocketing debt, a changing legal field, and continued economic challenges, have changed the ROI equation.

For students with top grades, excellent LSAT scores, and a passion for becoming a lawyer, going to law school can still be an great choice. These are likely the students who will go to top twenty schools, or be awarded full merit scholarships. But, without the guarantee of a highly-paid law job at the end of three years of law school, most prospective law students need to carefully weigh whether the investment is worthwhile.

Reality check #1: How much debt will you have?

Borrowing for law school was high, but relatively stable, for many years. In 2004, according to a recent New America Policy Brief , the typical indebted law student owed $88,634 at graduation (expressed in 2012 dollars). But, thanks to a 2006 federal government decision that now allows borrowing up to the full amount of attendance, the median debt load of law students in 2012 soared to over $140,000—a 58% increase.

Reality check #2: How much do you have to earn, to be able to afford a median debt of $140,616?

Most students will expect pay off their debt over 15 years. Using the median debt, that means a payment of $1,248 a month, according to calculators on the website FinAid.org. FinAid! estimates you will need a salary of almost $150,000 a year to afford this level of monthly payment. Depending on your loan, there may be “extended” or “graduated” repayment options, but for many this feels like getting a mortgage without building equity.

Reality check #3: How likely is it that you will get a job paying more than $150K?

Nine metro markets have mean wages for lawyers above $150,000; the highest—in Silicon Valley—has a mean salary of $192,000, according to the American Bar Association Journal. In fact, six of the nine most lucrative legal markets are in California, which also doubles as one of the most expensive places to live. To even come close to the $150K salary, most graduates will need to find a job in large law firms, so-called “biglaw”—those employing over 100 lawyers in major metropolitan areas. An excellent article on “biglaw”, and its culture can be found at Top-Law-Schools.com.

Reality check #4: Can you find a job in “biglaw” from any law school?

If you are in the top 10% of your class, on Law Review at any good law school, and geographically mobile, you may have an excellent chance of finding a well-paid position as an associate in a large law firm. Your chances increase substantially if you can bring business to a firm, or if you have additional experience prior to law school that is of interest to the firm. But, the lower the ranking of the law school, the more likely your job will pay under 100K. Lower pay is also likely if you accept a job where a law degree may be an advantage, but which does not require you to pass the Bar.

If a law school has a US News ranking over 50 for example, you may find that fewer than 20% of the graduates are employed full-time in law firms with over 100 lawyers within 9 months of graduation. American Bar Association rules nowe require disclosure of career outcomes on law school websites, so search the school’s site under terms “employment statistics” or “required ABA disclosures”.

Another excellent source of comparative information can be found at Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers. On this site, you can not only compare the career outcomes and rankings of different law schools, you can also check the Above the Law rankings, which compare schools solely based on the number of graduates employed full-time, long term, in positions requiring Bar passage. Above the Law excludes School-funded positions–an increasingly popular way for law schools to help students find employment (usually for up to a year) while simultaneously increasing their standing in US News rankings.

The decision whether to go to law school is very different for the student without debt than it is for someone who will be paying back large loans for over a decade. Similarly, a student who intends to pursue a legal career in public service and apply for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program may view law school as an excellent investment.

Regardless of individual circumstances, all prospective law students owe it to themselves to do due diligence and research before signing on the dotted line of a loan agreement. Given current debt to potential income ratios, your future may depend on it.

New Grads Left Behind in Jobs Recovery of 2013

When the Bureau of Labor Statistics recently released its annual unemployment statistics for 2013, there was good news for every major cohort except one: Bachelor’s degree grads aged 20-24.

Since the peak unemployment years of 2009/2010. College grads over 25 experienced a 24% decrease (blue bar). But the unemployment rate for young college grads only declined by 13%–from a high of 9.2% to a 2013 average of 8% (red bar).

Despite the high expectations of employers for increased hiring of new college grads, the unemployment rate of this group between 2012 and 2013 completely stalled.

Typically, young grads have had an easier time finding work than the general population. Not so in 2013. While the overall unemployment rate for everyone in the civilian population over the age of 16 was 7.35%, 8% of college grads aged 20-24 were unable to find any employment—let alone employment that was full time and required a college degree.

This has clearly been a frustrating time for new college grads. Faced with the daunting prospect of trying to find work commensurate with their college education, many have settled for employment they could have secured without a college degree. And that has almost certainly negatively impacted their ability to repay college loans.

Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, estimates that the number of recent grads who have taken lower level positions has jumped from around 27% in 2007 to 37% in 2013–a poor return on the student’s tuition investment.

Why have young grads not benefitted from general improvements in the economy and a soaring stock market? No one knows for sure, but there may be a clue in the study released in October 2013 by Chegg, the Student Hub and Harris Interactive, that identified a big gap in the skills graduates thought they possessed, and the skills employers want.

If young graduates are not ready for the workforce, employers may reject them in favor of their older, more experienced peers.

Given the cost of education, and the increasing demand for a return on the tuition investment, it is in everyone’s best interest to address the problems associated with young graduate unemployment and underemployment.

No longer can colleges and universities sit on the sidelines and wait for the economy to improve. The economy has improved, but new grads have still been left behind.

This situation has repercussions for higher education: Unemployed and mal-employed college grads are, for example, less likely than those who are employed to recommend their college to prospective students, or to contribute to its coffers.

The smart colleges and universities will be those that recognize they can gain a strategic advantage by investing in the career preparation of their students, and giving them a greater helping hand in finding their initial positions.

An Alternative Graduation Speech for Parents of New College Grads

There ought to be a second graduation speech just for parents, in the afternoon, after the celebratory lunch, while the kids are off whooping it up. It should go like this: We know you have a great kid. We also know that, as amazing as she is, she may not have a job lined up, and that this fact is eating away at you.

Oh, sure you may have heard that hiring on college campuses is up more than ten percent from the past few economically horrendous years, but you’ve also heard that there are still over 30 applicants for every job and a backlog of unemployed young people milling round out there. You want to hear a speech full of practical advice about how you can help your kid land a job. Here it is:

Get them to network in four different ways

You may have a bleak image in your mind: Your kid, sitting at the computer in your house day after day, responding to online job listings. Is this the new job search, you wonder? Thankfully no; that would be isolating and depressing. Your new grad will need to use the computer and social media in her job search, but she will also need to get out there and make connections with real people.

First, have her contact her college career center. Job opportunities these days
emanate from a diverse array of companies, far different from the Fortune 500 firms that dominated the landscape when you first looked for work. Many career centers’ counselors are knowledgeable about these opportunities. They may also help her compose her resume and cover letters; gain access to job and internships listings, and companies’ recruiting systems; and learn how to use social media in her search. Luckily, summer’s a quieter time for them. If she lives close enough to go in person, even better.

Next, suggest she join fellow alums of her alma mater on linkedin.com/alumni, after establishing her own linkedin.com profile. This will allow her to connect with alums who graduated within a few years of her, and to see what career paths they have taken. If they have listed their college major, she’ll be able to search by that, too. She may find that fellow alums are eager to help her once she has a better idea of what she’s looking for.

After that, she ought to visit the local Chamber of Commerce or State Office of Business Development, where employees can direct her to a wealth of information on local companies and potentially even opportunities for freelancers.

Lastly, have her seek informational interviews, in which she can learn how people in careers that interest her got their start, or what skills they deem important to their success. If you know someone in such a field, you could ask if they’d be open to talking with her. She should go in with thoughtful, focused questions. One warning: If your kid has never before emailed someone to ask for this particular favor, guide him in composing his first request so that he doesn’t naively ask too much of the person, as in, “Hi, I’d love to hear everything you know about becoming an entrepreneur.”

Convince them to do some research

Especially in the early days after graduation, many grads find it useful to initiate broad Google searches, such as: “What kind of jobs can a psychology major do?” Get yours to also stop by your largest local public library, and speak to the (always very helpful) business librarian. He or she can direct your child to databases, like hoovers.com, which contain vast amounts of information on industries, companies and their competitors.

The job search will be faster if your new grad taps into all of these resources. Example: while visiting the Chamber of Commerce, your daughter learns of a local start-up that has recently received a large contract. She researches its competition at the library, and discovers, on linkedin.com/alumni, a fellow graduate who has done freelance consulting for the firm. He gives her insight into its culture and goals, which helps your daughter go into an interview far better-informed than other applicants. He may also give her ideas on which Community College courses prepared him to be an effective freelancer.

Clue them in to what employers want to hear

When new grads hear about a particularly appealing job, they often get caught up in how happy it would make them to land it. What they neglect to focus on is: what kind of applicant, with what skills and personal qualities, is most likely to get the job? Offer to read through job listings with your grad and say, “Here’s what I think they’re looking for in an employee.” Emphasize that interviewers are looking not only for enthusiastic applicants, but also for ones who are focused on what they have to offer the company.

Urge them to learn one new skill a month

When your son sits down for an interview, the prospective employer may ask him what he’s been doing since he graduated. “Looking for a job,” he’ll say. How much more impressive if he can add: “I also learned Java and how to design a website,” The more talents he has, the more marketable he is. He’ll also come across as resourceful, a go-getter who will find ways to contribute to his team.

Assure them they will get hired if they persevere

There may well be days when you get as frustrated as your child with her continued lack of a job. Perhaps you come home after work to find her acting as if she has given up: parked glumly in front of the TV, or on Facebook. Worse, you’ve just talked to a few friends whose own new grads found work (for seemingly vast sums of money). If at those moments you can be supportive, you’ll help her to get back out there the next day.

Remind yourself that just as not all kids learned to walk exactly the same week of theirlives, they won’t all master job-hunting the same week. Swear to your child that her time will come—as long as she persists in networking, researching, and mastering new skills.

Now tell them they own the job search

Never invest more time in your kid’s quest to find a job than he is. It’s one thing (reasonable) to offer to proofread his resume. It’s another to actually compose it for him. If you are the one googling what careers math majors can have, or the one tracking down alums from his college for him to email, how will he learn to research or network on his own behalf? He needs to develop these skills for the next time, when he’s ready to jump further up the career ladder.

Okay, that’s the speech. Now you can drive off into the sunset with your kid, back home for a short while–until he sets off on his own for good. And maybe, just maybe, five years down the road, your one-time new grad will be offering you career advice.

Shifting Demographics Change College Employment Outlook

According to the June 2011, report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the unemployment rate for young graduates with bachelor’s degrees was a staggering 12%–substantially higher than for any other graduate cohort. But, as most college careers offices and development offices can tell you, the recent recession has also adversely affected large numbers of their alumni. The term “jobless recovery” is apt.

The statistics tell a troubling story for anyone hoping for a quick turnaround in career prospects. There are clear reasons for pessimism:

Seniors are not retiring
 Those within ten years of retirement at the time of the economic crash of 2008, are likely to have had a significant set-back in retirement assets—even if they were brave enough to stay invested when the market dropped. The impact of this reality can be seen in the 22% increase in those bachelor’s degree grads aged over 65 who have chosen to be in the labor force since 2008. Almost 200,000 more people in this age group were employed in 2011 than were employed just three years earlier. Two thirds of this growth can be explained by the increased population of older college grads; the remainder are directly attributable to seniors working longer.

Baby-boomers have been particularly hard hit by the recession 
The group that probably feels the most pressure to increase retirement savings are those in the 55-64 year old cohort. Unfortunately, they are the ones most affected by their older peers hanging on to employment. The baby-boomer bubble has exacerbated the situation. Between 2008 and 2011, there was an 18% increase in the 55-64 year old cohort, leading to the worst increase in unemployment rates of any age group of bachelor’s degree graduates. In June, 2008, their unemployment rate was 2.9%. Three years later it was 6.5%–a 124% increase. Once laid off, it is particularly difficult for those over 55 to find new work.

There is significant pent-up demand for employment
 In June, 2011, there were 900,000 more bachelor’s degree graduates who wanted, but could not find, work than three years earlier. Adding hundreds of thousands of jobs that require post-secondary education is likely to take years.

The employment situation of older graduates should also be a concern to anyone who is invested in the success of educated young people.

When seniors do not retire, it causes stresses on every other group in the workforce. Those who are employed find fewer promotions; salaries are depressed; and, employees at all levels face difficulties obtaining suitable employment.

For those on the bottom rung of the career ladder, the poor economic climate may mean accepting a position that does not require a college degree—a reality that few are willing to accept.

Note: All statistics come from BLS Table 10 (unpublished). Future blog posts will discuss how the employment crisis for young college graduates can be alleviated, and what role students and their colleges will need to play to ensure their employability.

Shifting Demographics Change College Employment Outlook

According to the June 2011, report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the unemployment rate for young graduates with bachelor’s degrees was a staggering 12%–substantially higher than for any other graduate cohort. But, as most college careers offices and development offices can tell you, the recent recession has also adversely affected large numbers of their alumni. The term “jobless recovery” is apt.

The statistics tell a troubling story for anyone hoping for a quick turnaround in career prospects. There are clear reasons for pessimism. When students return to college, or set foot on campus for the first time, it’s normal for parents to have conflicting emotions. One of those emotions is frequently anxiety about the cost of education and the value of that education in the real world. But such concerns are likely to be brushed away by the assumption that as long as their sons and daughters take it easy on the partying and pay attention to their studies, they’ll be rewarded with a good job at graduation.

At a time when the unemployment rate for recent bachelor’s grads is at an all-time high (13.1%) it’s essential to question this assumption. The path from college to a good career is not automatic; it takes considerable work on the student’s part, starting early in their time at college. Follow the ten lessons below and today’s college students will not only be better prepared for life after college; they will also gain maximum advantage and enjoyment from their education.

• A college education happens everywhere—in the classroom, through extracurricular activities, on the athletic field, through internships and beyond. Learning outside, as well as inside, the classroom may prove to be more important to your career than the subject of your degree. Take responsibility for, and engage with all aspects of your education. It will make your college experience more meaningful and it will be helpful to your career.

• When you matriculate at a college, you’re not expected to know what you want to do after you leave that college. Abandon preconceived notions of acceptable career directions. Make the decision yours—not your parents, nor your peers! To explore potential avenues of interest, take advantage of opportunities such as becoming a leader of a campus group or doing research with faculty, and weigh the value of internships versus other summer options.

• Recognize that confusion and discomfort is not only normal, it’s expected and it’s a good thing. Give yourself permission to not be perfect. Allow yourself to fail. But make sure you learn from failure. You can recover from a “D”. Colleges typically have many resources available to students. Taking early advantage of the academic advising and academic resource centers, for example, can get you back on track and help you make the most of your education.

• Don’t choose your major too early, or decide on a major because you think you need it for a particular career. (You may not!) While you should be strategic about choosing some of your early courses if you’re leaning in a particular direction (e.g., economics, biology, pre-health, public policy), it’s much more important to study what you love than to follow a path that may be more common but doesn’t interest you. For most students, the subject matter of your degree will not determine your career. Most careers can be pursued with any major. Resist the temptation to build academic credentials at the expense of exploring new horizons. And do not double major for the sake of a credential. Few employers believe double-majoring confers a career advantage.

• A high GPA may be necessary for a good graduate school, professional school or fellowships/scholarships, but a very high GPA is not essential for most positions and employers rarely consider GPA for second jobs. Students with a stellar academic record aren’t necessarily the best candidates for employment. Employers want to see transferable skills, which can be drawn from any part of your education.

• Further education can be a great idea, but may not be as necessary as you think. Only go to graduate school or professional school if you are convinced you need that type of education for what you want to do. Increasingly students are working for a while before going on to further education, providing the opportunity to consider the value and need for graduate and professional school.

• Study abroad can be very helpful to your career. But it can only give you a real career advantage if you step outside your comfort zone and learn skills like linguistic fluency, cross-cultural competency, flexibility, resilience, and decision making/problem solving. Avoid having an American experience abroad, rather than a true international experience. It is through different and difficult experiences that you are most likely to find answers to one of the most important career questions “Who are you and what do you want to do with your life?”.

• You’re missing the boat if you don’t build relationships with faculty, staff and advisors early, and throughout your time at college: they can be your biggest allies and guides

• Define success for yourself, even if it means you’ll be temporarily unemployed at graduation and won’t be making the highest salary. Being employed at graduation has more to do with the type of employer you seek than with your value to the work world. Most employers of college grads do “just in time” hiring, so that you can only be hired when an employee has left. Prepare for the job search while at college, but recognize the actual application process may happen after finals.

• Careers don’t happen over night: they take time. Build a partnership with counselors in your Career Center and with other trusted advisors, so that you learn the realities of life after graduation, and understand how you can best prepare yourself through education for life.

College Seniors: Don’t Go To Graduate School

The Class of 2010 must be cursing their collective bad luck. For most of their college career, they watched employers wooing their older classmates with promises of high salaries and signing bonuses. Then they sat back, dumbfounded, as the Class of 2009 confronted the worst hiring situation in decades. Now, they have to face the fact that the jobs recovery still remains elusively over the horizon.

I’ve worked with students through several economic downturns, and there are always winners and losers in the employment game. The spoils this year go to the graduates with smarts, strong technical skills, and—most important–relevant work or internship experience.

The cruel irony is that the “losers” in the current senior class are often the ones who, since they were in diapers, have been told they were the best and the brightest. Armed with self-confidence, stellar SAT scores, and ambition, they matriculated at some of the top colleges in the U.S., majoring in subjects like Spanish, Anthropology, and Psychology.

Contrary to the general assumption, most of these students never intended to become translators, or anthropologists or psychologists. A significant proportion saw their education as a great preparation for a career in business—especially if they supplemented their majors with a minor in computer science or economics. Now they’re not so sure.

DUBIOUS PARENTAL AND FACULTY ADVICE

Students fitting this profile in the late 1990s would have catapulted themselves to the top of the career ladder by naming themselves CEO and authoring their new dot-com business plan on the back of an envelope. Since the tech bubble burst, this type of student has been increasingly drawn to the pay, prestige, and intellectual challenge of investment banking and management consulting. These two career fields rarely employed more than 20% of a university’s graduating class, but their firms’ recruiting seal of approval became synonymous with the perceived quality of the academic institution.

So what now for the college senior? Not only are finance and consulting opportunities in short supply, the rest of the employment landscape still looks bleak. The unemployment rate for college graduates under the age of 25 has increased more than 120% in the past two years, and while the rate of unemployment has leveled off, it is still at historic highs. Given the dire news, it’s small wonder that a large number of soon-to-be-graduates are sticking their heads in the sand and avoiding anything that smacks of the real world.

Many 2010 graduates are being aided and abetted in their retreat from reality by an unlikely alliance: parents and faculty. The dubious advice they are being given is to “wait out the recession” and go to graduate school. For faculty, it’s a no-brainer to encourage some of the brightest minds to stay in the academy—especially since they may honestly believe it’s for the good of the student. The reasons that parents give this advice are often a little more complicated.

IS A MASTER’S WORTH IT?

Parents of 2010 graduates have been more involved in their children’s education than at any other time in history. Throughout grade school and high school, they have nurtured their children’s talents, found tutors when necessary, and guided extra-curricular activities so their sons and daughters would find success in the college application sweepstakes. The reward for their efforts? A hefty bill for tuition and expenses that often exceeds $150,000. The expected quid pro quo for such an investment has been post-graduate professional success for their offspring. Unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment, is unacceptable.

Many parents also assume that a graduate degree will automatically confer an economic advantage to their sons and daughters. A quick glance at the Bureau of Labor Statistics chart shows what appears to be a clear correlation between education and salary. Crunch a couple of numbers and you find a 25% economic benefit to a master’s degree over a bachelor’s degree and a 55% pay differential between those with just a bachelor’s degree and those with a professional degree.

The devil, of course, is in the details. In a September 2007 article, “Is your degree worth $1 million—or worthless?” author Liz Pulliam Weston attempts to calculate the actual value of particular types of degrees over a lifetime. Her conclusions are generally consistent with what I have observed. One of her most notable findings: Recipients of masters degrees in the liberal arts or social sciences actually gained no economic value from further education.

On the other hand, Ms. Weston clearly illustrates the benefits of a professional degree. She calculates that over a lifetime, an MBA graduate will make $375,000 more than if she had simply finished her education with a bachelor’s degree. That’s an impressive figure, so why not encourage new grads to get an MBA? Trick question. Most schools will rarely accept candidates for an MBA without at least two to three years of experience. In fact, the average number of years of work experience for students in business school is typically around five.

“TRANSITION” DEGREES

Students could find an international business school that might accept them immediately after graduation, but they’d be missing out on something U.S. schools consider very important: the ability to put business education in context and to bring real world problems and solutions to the table.

The financial advantage of an MBA is also tempered by the actual, and lost opportunity, costs of attending. With more than $100,000 of debt at stake—often on top of undergraduate loans—graduates need to be 100% sure about the value of an MBA for their chosen career field before signing on the dotted line. An MBA degree might be a real plus for someone interested in nonprofit management, but the economic equation may not make sense.

A number of schools, including Case Western Reserve, have started masters programs designed specifically to give liberal arts grads a background in business. Located in the university’s business school and lasting a year or less, these programs can be very popular with students who like the idea of a “transition” degree which orients them more towards the business world. Unfortunately, these degrees are expensive and are often not well understood outside academia. The verdict is still out on whether one year masters programs give graduates a leg up in the work world. Employers typically recruit at the undergraduate or the MBA level but don’t know what to do with the student who does not naturally fit into either category. A better option might be to consider an intense short-term program, like the Tuck Business Bridge program at Dartmouth College.

“GET A JOB, ANY JOB”

Listening to my cautionary tales about graduate school and the job market, it would be easy to descend into despair. But new graduates have always been able to find jobs even in the worst recessions. Employment opportunities do exist, and the proactive job seeker will hunt them down, using connections and resources to expand the scope of his or her search. Increasingly, students and their families are looking to private career advising to obtain the kind of personalized attention and targeted strategies that give students an advantage in a challenging job market.

I recently asked three employers what they recommend students do if they are interested in going into an area of business after they graduate. All three agreed that students need to get experience, not more education. One went as far as to say “get a job, any job, even McDonald’s.” The point is, in this economy your GPA or your SAT score may be less important than your experience and your attitude. Arrogance is out; humility is in.

Companies these days can afford to be picky. They want to know whether you can do the job that they need to have done. If you’re graduating in a major that is unrelated to your career interest, you’ll have to take the extra steps necessary to show the relevance of your education. Sometimes that means focusing the employer’s attention less on the subject matter of your degree and more on your internships or extra-curricular activities. However challenging the job market, the savvy job hunter will always find creative ways to make the hiring case, and in doing so, stand out from the crowd.

Addressing Brown University students in a careers program during a past recession, the late Frank Newman, former president of the University of Rhode Island, announced to his audience that they were graduating at the best of times. What he meant was that the graduate who can successfully find opportunities when times are bad will be well positioned for a lifetime of changing jobs and careers. I believe that’s excellent advice for the Class of 2010.

Career Advice For New College Grads: Find Your Hook

To find a group of students who have been as adversely affected in their career options by the economy as grads in the classes of 2009 and 2010, you have to go back to the early 1970s. Then, as now, the number of new college grads far outstripped the number of positions requiring a college degree. And, to be sure, many graduating seniors—particularly liberal arts grads without relevant work experience—found work for which they were overqualified, or in which they were only minimally interested. But there is nothing to suggest that 1970s grads were any less successful in finding their ideal work than their peers who graduated in better economic times. The same will be undoubtedly true for those graduating in 2009 and 2010.

This article is excerpted from a presentation to students and faculty at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, in November, 2009. The lessons and strategies shared come not only from my experience as an early 70’s grad, but also from my dozen years of experience as career director at Brown University and Duke University, and research for my book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. Four key messages and three strategies will help new and recent college grads understand the context for their careers, and learn how they can best prepare for their careers while they are still in school.

Career Messages

1) Discovering your passion evolves over time

2) Finding paths to follow your passion also takes time

3) The more you can explore and experience in college, the better

4) Careers frequently do not follow a linear progression, and you often can’t see your career until you look in the rear view mirror

Career Strategies

1) Leverage your connections

2) Think like an employer

3) Find your hook

This fourth post covers the third key career strategy: Find your hook.

Find Your Hook

Anyone who’s been admitted to a selective college is familiar with the notion of finding a “hook”. That’s what separated you from all those with a similar background whom the college chose not to admit. It’s the same for the job search. Like the graduates in Smart Moves, you have to distinguish yourself from the pack.

The more you know about what you want to do, the easier it is to identify a potential hook. It could be a specific skill, like an unusual language. It could be some specialized training or the fact that you started a successful business out of your dorm room. More likely, your hook will be something quite simple, like persistence combined with a winning personality.

Let me give you an example from one of my former students at Brown University: David was a sophomore who was desperate to get a banking internship in London. With limited background in economics, he was really at a disadvantage. But he took my advice and went to England over winter break to talk to alums in London, staying with a family friend to save money. He made good connections and continually followed up but still hadn’t got something nailed down by Spring Break. Finally, he stayed up till 4am one night to catch the alum in her office at 9am. She was so impressed that she offered him the job.

How do you figure out your hook? You need to adopt your potential employer’s point of view and identify ways that you can add value or ways that you can get noticed in a positive way.

Here’s the best news: Even if you have no unusual skills or talents, you can set yourself apart from other graduates and find your hook by doing your homework and following through. Sounds obvious? It is. But it’s amazing how rarely candidates go beyond a cursory glance at a company website, do what they commit to, or take the time to write thank you notes to their interviewers.

Career Advice for New College Grads: Think Like An Employer

To find a group of students who have been as adversely affected in their career options by the economy as grads in the classes of 2009 and 2010, you have to go back to the early 1970s. Then, as now, the number of new college grads far outstripped the number of positions requiring a college degree. And, to be sure, many graduating seniors—particularly liberal arts grads without relevant work experience—found work for which they were overqualified, or in which they were only minimally interested. But there is nothing to suggest that 1970s grads were any less successful in finding their ideal work than their peers who graduated in better economic times. The same will be undoubtedly true for those graduating in 2009 and 2010.

This article is excerpted from a presentation to students and faculty at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, in November, 2009. The lessons and strategies shared come not only from my experience as an early 70’s grad, but also from my dozen years of experience as career director at Brown University and Duke University, and research for my book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. Four key messages and three strategies will help new and recent college grads understand the context for their careers, and learn how they can best prepare for their careers while they are still in school.

Career Messages

1) Discovering your passion evolves over time

2) Finding paths to follow your passion also takes time

3) The more you can explore and experience in college, the better

4) Careers frequently do not follow a linear progression, and you often can’t see your career until you look in the rear view mirror

Career Strategies

1) Leverage your connections

2) Think like an employer

3) Find your hook

This third post covers the second key career strategy: Think like an employer.

Think Like An Employer

Before we talk about thinking like an employer, I want to say a few words about the job search process. And this is important, because up until now, I’ve been talking about YOU, about what YOU want, and about how YOU get where you want to go. But when you’re in the job search process, the tables are turned. Sure, the initial 10% of the job search is all about you. You get to decide where you’re going to apply and what kind of work you think you’re suited to. But the next 80%, which includes the resume, the cover letter and the interview, is all about the employer and the employer’s needs. Only once they’ve metaphorically “fallen in love” with you and you’ve been offered the job, do the tables turn back. The ball in the final 10% of the process, once the employer has made the offer, is back in your court. You get to decide whether to accept the offer.

Given how much time the employer is in the driver’s seat, it makes sense to see things from their point of view.
Once you’ve identified where you’d like to work, visualize the hiring manager at your ideal employer reading your resume and cover letter. Imagine she’s reading hundreds of applications and within 10 seconds she’ll make a decision whether to pursue your candidacy.

You can almost imagine her sitting there with a check box, picking out key words on your resume, and trying to find ways to screen you out—because it is, unfortunately in most cases, trying to screen you out vs. screen you in.

When most people talk about their experience, they emphasize the areas in which they have achieved the most. But your highly developed technical skills and ability to create top quality websites may be perceived as irrelevant in a sales position.

The key to thinking like an employer is to focus like a laser on the requirements of the position, and put your relevant qualifications front and center. Consider the format of your resume and the way you’ve ordered your accomplishments. Do the required abilities show up first? Does your cover letter make it easy for an employer to visualize you in the job?

And while we’re talking about cover letters, use them as a way to show you’ve done your homework about the company and can give a compelling argument about why you’ll be helpful to them.

Obviously your resume needs to be easy to read, up-to-date, with no typos. But your application materials also need to shout out “I have the qualifications, the experience, and the enthusiasm you need. I can add value.”

One final word about thinking like an employer is this: consider whether the employer really needs someone with your particular skill set, and how many applicants they are likely to have. It doesn’t take a math genius to figure out the odds if the only positions you seek are likely to have over a hundred equally qualified applicants.
A sound piece of advice is to spend most of your time identifying the hidden job market (jobs that aren’t advertised) rather than indiscriminately applying to hundreds of online postings on the off chance that when they’re shuffled you’ll show up on top!

Consider where the unemployment rates are lowest and the job openings are highest. North and South Dakota, for example, both have unemployment rates of lower than 5%. If you’re more of an East Coast type, New Hampshire’s unemployment rate is substantially below the average, at 7.2%. And if you’re going to be really strategic about where you apply, consider that according to a survey by Indeed.com, in a place like Chicago, there is one job for every seven applicants, whereas in Washington DC, there are six advertised positions for every applicant. Not surprisingly, the states of Virginia and Maryland that surround DC, have some of the lower unemployment rates (7.2%).

 

Career Advice for New College Grads: Leveraging Your Connections

To find a group of students who have been as adversely affected in their career options by the economy as grads in the classes of 2009 and 2010, you have to go back to the early 1970s. Then, as now, the number of new college grads far outstripped the number of positions requiring a college degree. And, to be sure, many graduating seniors—particularly liberal arts grads without relevant work experience—found work for which they were overqualified, or in which they were only minimally interested. But there is nothing to suggest that 1970s grads were any less successful in finding their ideal work than their peers who graduated in better economic times. The same will be undoubtedly true for those graduating in 2009 and 2010.

This article is excerpted from a presentation to students and faculty at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, in November, 2009. The lessons and strategies shared come not only from my experience as an early 70’s grad, but also from my dozen years of experience as career director at Brown University and Duke University, and research for my book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. Four key messages and three strategies will help new and recent college grads understand the context for their careers, and learn how they can best prepare for their careers while they are still in school.

Career Messages

1) Discovering your passion evolves over time

2) Finding paths to follow your passion also takes time

3) The more you can explore and experience in college, the better

4) Careers frequently do not follow a linear progression, and you often can’t see your career until you look in the rear view mirror

Career Strategies

1) Leverage your connections

2) Think like an employer

3) Find your hook

This second post covers the first key career strategy: Leverage your connections.

Leverage Your Connections

When I say “leverage your connections”, I know half of you are about to dose off already, because you think you know what I’m going to say, and it’s all about networking. But you have nothing to worry about. I’m not going to advise you to go to a networking breakfast where you only know two people vaguely, and start working the room. Nor would I suggest doing a mass email to everyone you’ve known since grade school asking them if they know of any available jobs . Leveraging your connections demands a very strategic approach, and it requires that you act authentically. That means not doing anything in your job search that is obviously inconsistent with the way you normally behave.

Now that I’ve hopefully allayed your fears, let’s talk about who or what connections you have. Everyone has two types of connections: I’ll call them the Gold list and the Silver list. People on the gold list are already in your corner. You could call them up even after a long silence, and they’d still be happy to hear from you.

  • parents and relatives
  • school-related: friends from school or elsewhere, professors you really hit it off with, spiritual or career advisors with whom you formed a bond
  • professional-related: colleagues and connections; bosses and former bosses; people you’ve done projects with.

These count, even if the person knew you as a summer employee, intern, or through your campus job
I will guarantee that everyone here has at least a dozen people in the above categories. (And, if you don’t think you have many connections, you still have time to build them. Make it a point to get to know one adult well every semester.)

So who’s on the silver list?

Here’s where your alumni network really comes into play, because alumni from your college or university have a vested interest in your success. If you say you attend Grove City, it’s an automatic calling card for a cup of coffee with someone, or perhaps even an interview.

Apart from alumni, there are also plenty of other people who might go on your silver list, by dint of their being connected to your gold list. There may also be people your past who can come to life as a great connection. Don’t rule anyone out as a silver connection, even if they seem unlikely. The hairdresser in your home town who always asks what you’re up to these days is a perfect example. Barbers and hair stylists often know more what’s going on and who knows who than anyone else. Some of you may remember Ray’s story from Smart Moves. Ray’s the stuntman who got his first stunt opportunity through being alerted to auditions and a contact by his hair stylist.

OK, so you’ve got all these connections; how do you leverage them? Because even though over 50% of jobs come through connections by some estimates, it’s rare that you call someone on your gold list and they just happen to have a fantastic job available to you.

First you have to do some, what I call, “back work”. You have to figure out what you want to do, and create what some people call your “brand”. That means getting involved with social networking.

As a minimum, you need to get a LinkedIn account and develop a strong profile. The wonderful advantage of LinkedIn is that you can present yourself any way that you want, even emphasizing where you want to go, or skills you want to use, even if it’s not evident from your major. LinkedIn is also a place to put a passive message about the fact that you’re seeking a job and what type of job you want.

Many students are not as familiar with LinkedIn as they are with Facebook. You can think of LinkedIn as your professional presence, and that presence will eventually connect you with hundreds or thousands of people. I’ve been actively using LinkedIn for just over a year, and I now have over 700 first level personal connections but over 3 million related contacts. If you plan, it doesn’t take that long to build a network.

Second, consider writing a blog and developing your expertise through a personal website. Simple websites or blogs can be free, using a platform like WordPress. If you’re passionate about something, writing about that passion, and getting others experts to guest blog, is a great way to brand yourself. You can get word out about your blog by using Twitter and sending a tweet every time you submit a new post.

Once you’ve got an online presence, it’s time to Google yourself. What shows up? What do you want to show up that doesn’t? What do you want to try to get taken off? If you Google yourself and the first thing you see is an unprofessional Facebook photo that you put on when you were in high school and you forgot about, it’s time to find a more appropriate image.

Here’s the second piece of back work you need to do: Develop an elevator speech, and an eyeball paragraph: Each do the same thing, one verbally and one in writing. They allow you to explain clearly and concisely what you want to do. Unless you’re starting your own business, you’ll probably never be able to give the whole speech, but it really helps you to focus on the points you want to make in a discussion about your career. The eyeball paragraph is something you can use all the time: it’s a short paragraph that you can send to your connections, allowing them to immediately know why you’re writing and how they might be able to be helpful to you.

So, how do you put this all together to leverage your connections? Pretty much anyone, except your parents, who’s going to help you, is going to want to know how you’ve been spending your time and where your interests lie. Having information on the web helps you quickly and easily answer their questions, while you move on to quickly and succinctly explain how you’d like them to help.

When you really understand where you want to go, you can take advantage of even random connections. Sharon, another person who was profiled in our book, Smart Moves, wanted to switch from being a buyer for a very large apparel store, to writing about fashion. Her ideal employer was Newsday in New York. When she saw a person on the subway wearing a Newsday jacket, she engaged them in conversation about their work, and ended up getting hired as a freelance writer.

Sharon’s situation is actually more common than you think. Leveraging connections usually means finding common ground before you ask for help, and having an idea where you want that conversation to lead.
There are plenty of circumstances in which you can leverage the knowledge and background of your connections through an informational interview:

  • They work in a company or type of company where you want to work
  • 
They have insight into the hiring of a particular company
  • They have connections who could help you get in the door for an interview
  • They know what background and qualifications are essential for the work you want to do
  • 
They understand the culture of an employer or industry
  • They know where the growth is in the field
  • They can help you fine-tune answers to questions

Never underestimate the power of doing a lot of informational interviewing about a career field before asking someone more directly for help with your career. And before you decide to take out large loans to do a graduate program, find out from as many sources as possible whether further education is necessary right now for the work you want to do. Graduate school as a way to ride out the recession can be a quick way to mounting debt—a strategy not to be undertaken lightly.

Understanding How Careers Work: Advice For New College Grads

To find a group of students who have been as adversely affected in their career options by the economy as grads in the classes of 2009 and 2010, you have to go back to the early 1970s. Then, as now, the number of new college grads far outstripped the number of positions requiring a college degree. And, to be sure, many graduating seniors—particularly liberal arts grads without relevant work experience—found work for which they were overqualified, or in which they were only minimally interested. But there is nothing to suggest that 1970s grads were any less successful in finding their ideal work than their peers who graduated in better economic times. The same will be undoubtedly true for those graduating in 2009 and 2010.

This article is excerpted from a presentation to students and faculty at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, in November, 2009. The lessons and strategies shared come not only from my experience as an early 70’s grad, but also from my dozen years of experience as career director at Brown University and Duke University, and research for my book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career. Four key messages and three strategies will help new and recent college grads understand the context for their careers, and learn how they can best prepare for their careers while they are still in school.

Career Messages

1) Discovering your passion evolves over time
2) Finding paths to follow your passion also takes time
3) The more you can explore and experience in college, the better
4) Careers frequently do not follow a linear progression, and you often can’t see your career until you look in the rear view mirror

Career Strategies

1) Leverage your connections

2) Think like an employer

3) Find your hook

This first post covers the four important career messages. Subsequent posts will explore the three career strategies.

  1. Discovering your passion evolves over time

Few college graduates could have accurately told you their passion at graduation. This is not surprising, because it turns out that identifying a career passion evolves over time. Think for a moment about Alison Levine, one of the people profiled in Smart Moves. Alison now describes her passion as combining adventure travel with philanthropy. But could she have told you that when she was doing her undergraduate degree in communications? Absolutely not. What about when she was getting her MBA or working at a prestigious investment bank? Ditto. In fact, Alison didn’t discover her passion for mountaineering until a new procedure was discovered to treat her heart defect.

For Alison, her illness and subsequent treatment helped her discover a passion for mountain climbing. And it’s that first passion that then led to Alison’s related passion for helping the women who live in the areas in which she climbs. Alison runs the Climb High Foundation, whose programs enable these women to work as trekking guides and porters in their local mountains and national parks so that they can maintain an adequate, sustainable living wage and can make meaningful, long-term improvements to their quality of life.

If you just heard about Alison’s passions, you might think that her educational background in communications and her marketing and finance experience would be a waste. In fact, her success at achieving her passion comes from her ability to integrate all of her knowledge and talents. It’s Alison’s ability to give motivational speeches that provides the money to support both her mountain climbing and her philanthropy.

The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to know everything in college.

  1. Finding paths to follow your passion also takes time

Even if you know your passion from a relatively early age, it’s rare to find a linear path to achieving that passion. Take Brad, for example. In Smart Moves, Brad states his passion as “alleviating unnecessary suffering”, a passion he discovered because a childhood friend died of campus. But what is Brad doing now? He’s completing an MBA, after several years working as an investment analyst at a health care private equity fund, and working at a major pharmaceutical company.

Too often, when we hear that someone has a passion for something like alleviating unnecessary suffering, we immediately jump in our minds to the most obvious professional path: becoming a doctor. That’s why Brad’s story is so interesting. Because he, too, thought he’d be a doctor, and he did everything he could to prepare himself for that path. He even managed to be sent to Peru through Doctors without Borders, despite the fact that the organization never hired students for international assignments, and rarely hired people who were not doctors or medical professionals. Through that experience, and an opportunity to evaluate a World Health Program in Bangladesh, Brad really began to understand medical care in Third World countries. But his experiences were not all positive. In fact, Brad says that he got a strong sense of how much well-intentioned aid and medicine is lost to graft and corruption before ever reaching the intended recipients.

Through experiences in the field, Brad recognized that, for him, the path to reach his passion was not to be the doctor and deal with one person at a time, but to look at alleviating suffering from a much broader perspective. And that meant putting himself in a position to eventually fund global initiatives. Looking in from the outside at Brad’s career, many people would assume that he’d lost his way. But being true to your passion doesn’t require you to tell everyone why you’re taking a particular path. For Brad, working as an investment banker was a means to an end. And, alongside his finance work, Brad has always volunteered for organizations, constantly building the skill sets he’ll need to be successful in achieving his goal.

The other thing I want to mention about Brad, and all the other people we profiled in Smart Moves is that they aren’t perfect. They’re just like you sitting in the audience. People always talk about achievements, but let’s face it, we’re all going to pursue paths from time to time that probably aren’t wise in retrospect. Brad actually went down an ill-fated path to a dot-com internet company right after college. Six months later the dot-com went bust in the last recession and Brad was left scrambling, not knowing his next move.

I do not know one successful graduate who has never come face to face with serious challenges—most of the time not of their own making. If you get used to reflecting on the things that don’t go well in your life and constantly look for ways to improve situations, you will end up developing one of the most important skills in life: career resilience. What I mean by career resilience is acquiring the ability to look at a bad situation and figure out how get around it in order to achieve the ultimate goal.

  1. The more you can explore and experience in college, the better

In Brad’s case, if he had not had the two experiences of health care in developing countries while he was still in school, he would have continued his original path towards being a doctor. His frustration of not being able to influence health care in a broader way may not have manifested itself until long after he’d accumulated over a $100,000 in debt.

So the question to ask yourself is are you taking the most advantage of your Grove City education? Are you using all the available resources to challenge yourself to figure out your place in this world? And, are you using your education to develop the knowledge, skills and abilities that will help you not only decide how you want to live your life, but also provide the opportunity to find a path to your passion?

When I talk about education, I’m thinking of it very broadly. Education is not just what you study in college, but also what skills you develop in and out of the classroom, through your experiential education, and study abroad. And it’s not about checking off the boxes, as in “took a class where I used Powerpoint”; it’s about truly engaging in, and reflecting on, your education.

Let’s take study abroad or work abroad as an example. Learning outside the U.S. can be extremely helpful to developing the kinds of intercultural competency you need to follow your passion. But it’s only really a growth experience if you go outside your comfort zone, for example by living with a local family, studying only in the language of the country, or making your own arrangements. When I was at Duke, I discovered that employers often assumed that if you’d studied in a country like Spain, you’d speak the language. And if they started to talk to you in that language, you better be able to at speak enough Spanish to say “I’m sorry, I was in Madrid a couple of years ago, and I’m a bit rusty ”!

Graduating from a good college or university will help you in opening doors to opportunities, and doing well in school is important, but good grades aren’t everything. You can be successful in work you love even if you didn’t get stellar SATs or a great GPA. After all, employers rarely ask for your GPA after your first position—if then! The best antidote for lower grades is successful, relevant experience.

Many of the Smart Moves stories talk of the value of being involved in extracurricular activities. Sometimes the value of this involvement, though, is in helping you to discover what you would rather keep as interests, rather than as a career. Jonathan envisioned himself as a famous sportscaster, but his passion for politics and a reasonable family life led to decide to be a lawyer by day and limit his work at the TV station to Friday nights. When we think about our lives, we cannot separate our own personal passions from our context. With whom do we want to share our lives, and what does that mean for the kind of career we pursue?

  1. Careers frequently do not follow a linear progression, and you often can’t see your career until you look in the rear view mirror

For many people, the whole notion of “career” is totally overwhelming. The reality is, though, that no one starts at the top. And in this economic climate, starting at the bottom—even in a job that doesn’t require a college degree, is sometimes necessary. My first job was a file clerk for the Inner London Education Authority office of Career Services—and no, I had no thought at that time that my passion would be to help people of all ages find work they love. Many of the graduates in Smart Moves started work in very low-level positions. Cara worked for free at a music station; Warren bused tables in a country inn. Liz worked behind the cheese counter. These jobs were way below the graduate’s intellectual capacity. Being clueless, or underemployed, however, did not ultimately affect their ability to follow their dreams.

One of the major things that has changed in the past decade or so is that there is no longer a stigma to frequently changing positions—especially if you’re laid off, or in your first couple of jobs after college. There is evidence of this in a Duke University study that investigated how the Class of 2001 had fared in their careers during their first five years after graduation. It turns out that, on average, they had 2.79 jobs within the first five years and 43% of them had changed not just jobs but careers. When you’re thinking of taking a job, it’s worth reflecting on why you want that job, and how it will lead you closer to your kind of work you really want. Sometimes you have to take a job simply to put food on the table. There is no shame in that. And there are often ways to make entry-level jobs more useful to you than the job description might imply.

On October 22, 2009, a blogger called Tyler, who’s a recent graduate with a BA in English, wrote a very interesting entry on the Higher Education Weblog. I want to quote from his article:

“The planning firm that used me as office slave creates written reports and documents for city governments, the state Supreme Court and high-paying private clients. After I’d worked there a few months, I asked my boss if I could assist in writing them. After all, I had an English degree and the engineers and geographers at the company didn’t. He agreed and started me off typing reports and correcting a few grammatical errors. But while typing a poorly written market-research study, I asked if I could rewrite it…….I was allowed to redo the report. It turned out well, the client was pleased and I gained impressive experience for my resume.”

Tyler demonstrated a key lesson. You have to do the job for which you were hired well first. But after that, if you can find a way to help the organization while making your job more interesting, you’ll often be given the opportunity. I’ll add my 2 cents. Sometimes you have to accept jobs in which you have no real interest, and you may dread going to work. I’ve been there, so I know. BUT—and this is important– you are not your job, and no job can stand in the way of your reason for being. If the job really sucks the wind out of your sails, finding outside avenues, like volunteering, can be critical to your well being.

How Can I Transition From a Career in Law to Business?

Q. After six years in corporate law, I have decided to go into business. I’m having a hard time getting my foot in the door. What do you advise?

A. The old adage that law is good preparation for any career may be true, but a legal background is not an obvious advantage to a hiring manager who’s looking for a track record in a particular industry and may think you’ll be too expensive! You have to go out of your way to make the case why the employer should hire you.

Does the way you’re presenting yourself shout out “law”? If it does, consider a “functional” resume format that allows you to demonstrate, for example, your management, financial, and strategic planning skills. You’ll still need to list your employment history, but it will come at the end of your resume, where it will be secondary to your relevant experience.

Use your cover letter to articulate why you want the advertised position, and downplay your desire to exit the legal profession. Make it easy for the employer to see how the skills you’ve developed can add value. Your volunteer work on boards of directors or organizing philanthropic events for your PTA association may be more relevant than your legal work.

Your applications will always be more successful if you have a champion in the organization who can endorse your candidacy. Build your base of professional colleagues online and through associations. Request informational interviews with executives to better understand a particular business and what it takes to be successful.

You may identify “competence gaps”—a lack of key knowledge or skills that make you less competitive than other candidates. If this is the case, consider the interim step of becoming an in-house counsel. Many lawyers have found this an excellent step towards senior management.

Is Starting Your Own Business a Good Idea for Unemployed New Grads?

Q. I’m a recent college grad with a true entrepreneurial spirit. Since I’m currently unemployed, I’m thinking of starting my own business. Unfortunately, I have debts rather than investments. What do I need to consider before I put “CEO” on my resume?

A. Before you can decide how to make a living in these difficult economic times, you have to identify your priorities. It’s tempting to put being your own boss at the top of the list. Unfortunately, you need to consider some very unsexy items too: paying back your school loans, getting health insurance, and paying your basic living expenses.

How quickly you can start your own business will depend on three things: first, how well you can control your expenses. Second, how much you’re able to save. And, third, how much you personally need to contribute to your business enterprise.

Few can afford to work full time in their own business immediately after graduation. Does that mean, then, that you have to dust off your “interview suit” and act the part of perfect recruit? Hardly. But if you want to become your own boss as quickly as possible, you’ll need to have a business plan and a strategy to achieve your goals. Back of the envelope calculations no longer work! And forget 40 hour weeks: to survive you’ll be lucky not to be sleeping under your desk with spreadsheet in hand.

Apart from financial considerations, new grads need to know what they don’t know. Running a t-shirt business in college is light years away from running an indie-rock company with a payroll and marketing expenses. Since you’ll probably have to work initially for someone else, focus on finding a job where you can learn the skills you don’t have. If you’re fortunate enough to find one of the all-too-rare investment banking jobs, you can pick up very useful information about how companies are funded. Accept a job at a small start-up, and you can undoubtedly learn from someone else’s mistakes.

An alternative to working in the corporate world is to pursue a day job while continuing to develop your own business. Remember, it’s difficult to put 100% effort into two demanding occupations, unless they are directly related. Tanuja, who had a contract to write a book, worked in a public relations firm during the day and wrote by night. But it ended up being too stressful. She quit the PR firm to waitress, so she’d have the mental energy to write her novel.

It’s tough being unemployed, and also not being in a position to start your own business, but the important thing is to use your time wisely. Get into good work habits by devoting at least eight hours a day to either looking for a job, or doing research to help develop your business. And spend as much time as you can building connections–through your family, your community and your alma mater. When you can get other people as excited as you are about your ideas, they’ll often bend over backwards to help.

A similar article was first published in SmallBusinessProf.com

Getting out of Law

Q. I’m a lawyer who’s never taken to the legal profession. Can I look forward to other career options?

A. What your question does not tell me is if you’ve “gone off” the law entirely, or simply don’t want to work in a law firm, where you have to bill in excess of 2,000 hours a year and never see your family.

Let’s assume for the moment, that the mere thought of having “lawyer” or “attorney” in your title (or, for that matter, partner or judge) makes you break out in hives. Are there other options? Absolutely. By definition, you’re smart, you know how to think and reason, and can write well. The trick now is to convince someone to hire you and pay you enough to satisfy the student loan collectors or mortgage company.

Lawyers who are looking for jobs outside the law often believe that they can do anything, if only given a chance. They also tend to look for equivalent salaries to those they would have made in private practice. Here’s where you often have to eat some humble pie. To get your foot in the door, you must convince an employer that you can do the job they need to have done. Sometimes, that means you’ll be promoting skills, such as your marketing ability, that require far fewer brain cells than your legal studies. You may also have to consider a salary substantially lower than your peers in the legal world. Ultimately, your educational background may help you do your work better or more efficiently – and many law-trained graduates reach the pinnacles of industry — but there’s no guarantee that you’ll move ahead more quickly than your peers with bachelor’s degrees or MBAs. The good news is that if you really don’t want to be a lawyer, you’ll be much happier in your chosen profession.

The trend now is for students to take off a year or two before attending law school. Given the numbers of lawyers who’d prefer to be doing something other than the law, having time to reflect on what you want to do before jumping into the next stage of education is a great idea!

Interview Success: An Employer Perspective

Whew! You got your foot in the door for an interview. Now what? It turns out that what you don’t do is as important as what you do. In this guest blog, Adriane Kyropoulos gives the inside scoop on these important do’s and don’ts. Adriane’s an expert: As Vice President in Human Capital Management at Goldman Sachs, she interviewed hundreds, if not thousands, of candidates. Here are her reflections on common mistakes made during the interview process.

1) Poor handshake. Like it or not, an interviewer’s impression of you can be sealed in the first three seconds that starts the interview. Not minutes – seconds. Candidates with clammy hands or a “dead fish” handshake do not instill confidence and imply a lack of ability to relate. On the other hand, candidates who crushed my hand or pumped my arm came of as comically aggressive. Either way, it is important to make eye contact, and strike the right balance with a firm but appropriate handshake. Practice with friends if necessary; it is an important part of building rapport and getting the interview off to the right start.

2) Talking too much, or not at all. I used to have days where I interviewed candidates pretty much non-stop for eight hours. I don’t know what was worse, the candidate who talked too much, going on and on with rambling answers or the candidate who approached the interview like an interrogation and answered every question in less than three words. If you take too long to answer direct questions, or talk nervously, you give the impression that you can’t think logically, get to the point, or perhaps you are covering something up. If you are not conversational and thorough in your reply, you will not relate to the interviewer. There are some basic questions about your background and professional experience that you should anticipate and for which you should be prepared for with concise, dynamic responses, no longer than one to two minutes in length. Avoid verbal ticks such as “uhm” “like” and “you know.” Match the communication style of your interviewer, and try to make the conversation flow as naturally as possible. Do not use profanity, colloquialisms or talk about your personal problems or social life.

3) Speaking negatively about current or past employers. Your last manager may have been an abusive, boorish and unbearable idiot. Even if you have found yourself in the unfortunate position of working for the world’s worst boss, never, ever express your ill feelings. No matter how reasonable your complaints, you will be considered suspect and will come off as a disgruntled employee who is difficult to work with and who would similarly complain about any employer. Although it may be a challenge, especially in cases where there were reductions in force, be prepared to put a positive spin on your experiences and to highlight the positive. It’s a smaller world than you might think, and you never know what will be repeated.

4) Mind your appearance. The days of the required navy blue interview suit are probably over; most offices have now adopted “business casual” attire and employee garb can allow for a certain amount of personal flair. When interviewing, however, play it safe. If necessary, do a little research to see what employees wear at the company where you are interviewing. Avoid overly bright patterns. Ladies: forgo risqué necklines or hems that are too short. Gentlemen: leave the gag tie at home and make sure your shoes are shined. A clean hair style and manicured nails should be a priority. Make sure you don’t smell. Not only body odor, but too much cologne or perfume can leave a negative impression. I have interviewed candidates with poor posture, visible tattoos or facial piercings, strangely colored hair, one who wore dark sunglasses indoors, and one unfortunate fellow who was clearly so hung over that I swear I could smell what he had drunk the night before. None of these candidates were hired.

5) Not being on time. On the days where I was interviewing non-stop for eight hours, having a candidate show up late could easily turn my day upside down. Show up on time. Allow extra time for travel, traffic glitches and getting through security. Some people feel that candidates who are too early can make an equally negative impression that reeks of desperation, but it is never, ever acceptable to be late.

6) Not preparing for the interview. There were candidates that I met with who had extraordinary resumes and impeccable academic credentials. When it was clear to me that they knew nothing about our firm or where they saw a fit for themselves, the interview was finished. There are many, many qualified candidates for every job. You should be able to show your interviewer why you in particular are a good fit for the firm, and that you have genuine interest for working at the company based on an understanding of its business principles and culture. Almost every company has a web site that can provide firm history, a mission statement, locations, recent accomplishments. Do your research and be prepared to answer general questions like “Why Company ABC” or “What makes you want to work here.”

7) Poor eye contact. There is nothing more disconcerting than spending thirty minutes with someone who can’t look you in the eye, or, on the other extreme, stares at you as if you were an alien. Either situation can create a negative effect. This is like the handshake – if the right balance is a challenge, practice with a friend ahead of time.

8) The egomaniac. Nobody likes a know-it-all. Chances are, there is somebody at the company where you are interviewing that is going to know more than you will about a particular matter. Stating too strenuously that you are the “smartest and best person for the job” can backfire. You need to show enthusiasm and sell your accomplishments, but be careful not to go overboard.

9) Mind your P’s and Q’s. Be nice to the receptionist, the secretary, the security guard, the human resources assistant who is scheduling your interview. Do not bring coffee or food to an interview. Do not answer your cell phone or send text messages. The only things you should bring to an interview is an extra copy of your resume and references and pen and paper to take notes. I know of a candidate who was eliminated from consideration because she left an empty coffee cup on her interviewer’s desk. And then there was the candidate whose phone rang – with an incredibly loud ring tone that shouted out expletives. Turn your phone off! Do not chew gum, bite your nails or crack your knuckles. Be on your best behavior.

10) Don’t Lie. Don’t misrepresent your past accomplishments, or exaggerate your achievements. Make sure all of your previous employment and educational information is correct, and be prepared to discuss any aspects of your history in an upfront and honest manner. The information that you divulge in an interview can be compared and contrasted to information obtained from an employment application or a background check and inconsistencies can eliminate you from consideration.

How do I Ace The Interview?

Question: I’m a recent grad who has not yet found work. I’m looking for an event management position in New York, and employers seem interested, but I don’t get called back after the interview. What am I doing wrong?

Answer: The good news is that you’re getting your foot in the door. So your academics and experience are making the grade. The problem area appears to be your interview. Interviewing is one of the most difficult skills to master. Essentially, you have to sell yourself to a potential employer. After years of letting your academic results speak for you, you have to find ways of letting your personality shine through. And you need to control those sweaty palms and the red flush that appears on your neck when you’re under stress.

Employers look for three things: first, whether your qualifications match the requirements of the position; second, whether you have the personal characteristics that are necessary (such as the ability to take initiative); and third, organizational fit. Interviewers often employ the “2am in Japan test”. Essentially they’re asking themselves “if I were stuck in an airport in Japan at 2am with this person, would I want to talk to them?”! Your potential employer wants you to be competent, but they also want to like you.

Few people are good at interviews without practice. The best way to ace an interview is to find a professional whom you trust to ask you sample questions and give you feedback. Don’t forget to work on your beginnings – the ubiquitous “tell me about yourself” question, and your endings—why you think you’re the best person for the job. Be open to their critique—however harsh it may seem. The more you can practice outside of the interviewing suite, the easier it will be when your ideal job comes along.

 

Getting References for the Stealth Job Search

Q. I’m a mid-level manager who has had five bosses in eight years, and an ever-changing set of goals.  After seven years of stellar evaluations, I just received a review that convinces me I need to leave.  How should I handle references?

A. Life is too short to stay with an unappreciative boss. You’re wise to consider moving on.

Your potential new employer (let’s call her Susan) will want to talk to your current supervisor.  You can deal with this in a couple of ways.  First, you should alert Susan that your current employer doesn’t know you’re looking and a premature announcement might make life difficult. Alert her to the fact that this supervisor has been there a short time and does not know you well.  Tell Susan you’d appreciate her not calling your current organization unless you’re a finalist, and ask her to get in touch with you first.  (If she won’t respect that request, you don’t want to work there, anyway.)  You might also offer an alternative: your past written reviews.

Often, future employers will leave your current supervisor for last when calling references.  If you choose your references wisely, Susan may not feel the need to delve further.  How do you do that?  First, pick people who know your work broadly and deeply.  Former supervisors are best, or senior-level managers who understand your situation. Second, find references who can counteract possible perceived weaknesses.  If leadership is a critical component of the new position but you believe your current boss would criticize you in this area, find a reference who thinks you’re a great leader. This is a time when you can be damned with faint praise.

What if you keep coming up number two?  At some point, you may feel the need to leave your current situation even if you don’t have another job.  It’s worth getting professional advice about how you can move on – preferably with a decent severance package.  And don’t forget to negotiate exactly what the organization will say about you.  Good luck.

Philosophy Majors: Get a Job!

The Class of 2009 must be cursing their collective bad luck. For their entire college career, they’ve watched employers wooing their older classmates with promises of high salaries and signing bonuses, but now some of the biggest recruiters are not just gone from campus. They’re gone. Period.

I’ve worked with students through several economic downturns, and there are always winners and losers in the employment game. The spoils this year go to the graduates with smarts, strong technical skills, and—most important–relevant work or internship experience.

The cruel irony is that the “losers” in 2009 are often the ones who, since they were in diapers, have been told they were the best and the brightest. Armed with self-confidence, stellar SAT scores, and ambition, they matriculated at some of the top colleges in the U.S., majoring in subjects like English, history, and philosophy.

Contrary to the general assumption, these students never intended to become writers or historians or philosophers. A significant proportion saw their education as a great preparation for a career in business—especially if they supplemented their majors with a minor in computer science or economics. Now they’re not so sure.

DUBIOUS PARENTAL AND FACULTY ADVICE

Students fitting this profile in the late 1990s would have catapulted themselves to the top of the career ladder by naming themselves CEO and authoring their new dot-com business plan on the back of an envelope. Since the tech bubble burst, this type of student has been increasingly drawn to the pay, prestige, and intellectual challenge of investment banking and management consulting. These two career fields rarely employed more than 20% of a university’s graduating class, but their firms’ recruiting seal of approval became synonymous with the perceived quality of the academic institution.

So what now for the liberal arts student? Not only are finance and consulting opportunities in short supply; the rest of the employment landscape is also bleak. In the past 12 months, more than 1 million college grads have lost their jobs and will be competing for many of the same entry-level opportunities as the 2009 graduates. And, to make matters worse, a recent survey by the Collegiate Employment Research Institute indicated that only 6% of employers want to hire humanities or liberal arts majors, and only 5% seek graduates with social science degrees. Given the dire news, it’s small wonder that a large number of soon-to-be-graduates are sticking their heads in the sand and avoiding anything that smacks of the real world.

Many 2009 graduates are being aided and abetted in their retreat from reality by an unlikely alliance: parents and faculty. The dubious advice they are being given is to “wait out the recession” and go to graduate school. For faculty, it’s a no-brainer to encourage some of the brightest minds to stay in the academy—especially since they may honestly believe it’s for the good of the student. The reasons that parents give this advice are often a little more complicated.

IS A MASTER’S WORTH IT?

Parents of 2009 graduates have been more involved in their children’s education than at any other time in history. Throughout grade school and high school, they have nurtured their children’s talents, found tutors when necessary, and guided extra-curricular activities so their sons and daughters would find success in the college application sweepstakes. The reward for their efforts? A hefty bill for tuition and expenses that often exceeds $150,000. The expected quid pro quo for such an investment has been post-graduate professional success for their offspring. Unemployment, particularly long-term unemployment, is unacceptable.

Many parents also assume that a graduate degree [in liberal arts or social sciences] will automatically confer an economic advantage to their sons and daughters. A quick glance at the Bureau of Labor Statistics chart shows what appears to be a clear correlation between education and salary. Crunch a couple of numbers and you find a 25% economic benefit to a master’s degree over a bachelor’s degree and a 55% pay differential between those with just a bachelor’s degree and those with a professional degree.

The devil, of course, is in the details. In a September 2007 article, “Is your degree worth $1 million—or worthless?” author Liz Pulliam Weston attempts to calculate the actual value of particular types of degrees over a lifetime. Her conclusions are generally consistent with what I have observed. One of her most notable findings: Recipients of masters degrees in the liberal arts or social sciences actually gained no economic value from further education.

On the other hand, Ms. Weston clearly illustrates the benefits of a professional degree. She calculates that over a lifetime, an MBA graduate will make $375,000 more than if she had simply finished her education with a bachelor’s degree. That’s an impressive figure, so why not encourage new grads to get an MBA? Trick question. Most schools will rarely accept candidates for an MBA without at least two to three years of experience. In fact, the average number of years of work experience for students in business school is typically around five.

“TRANSITION” DEGREES

Students could find an international business school that might accept them immediately after graduation, but they’d be missing out on something U.S. schools consider very important: the ability to put business education in context and to bring real world problems and solutions to the table.

The financial advantage of an MBA is also tempered by the actual, and lost opportunity, costs of attending. With more than $100,000 of debt at stake—often on top of undergraduate loans—graduates need to be 100% sure about the value of an MBA for their chosen career field before signing on the dotted line. An MBA degree might be a real plus for someone interested in nonprofit management, but the economic equation may not make sense.

A number of schools, including Case Western Reserve (Case Western MBA Profile), have started masters programs designed specifically to give liberal arts grads a background in business. Located in the university’s business school and lasting a year or less, these programs can be very popular with students who like the idea of a “transition” degree which orients them more towards the business world. Unfortunately, these degrees are expensive and are often not well understood outside academia. Employers typically recruit at the undergraduate or the MBA level but don’t know what to do with the student who does not naturally fit into either category. A better option might be to consider an intense short-term program, like the Tuck Business Bridge program atDartmouth College (Tuck MBA Program).

“GET A JOB, ANY JOB”

Listening to my cautionary tales about graduate school and the job market, it would be easy to descend into despair. But new graduates have always been able to find jobs even in the worst recessions. As a 1973 graduate with a degree in Russian and Persian and no money, I discovered first-hand how to survive. This year’s graduates will do likewise. Employment opportunities do exist, and the proactive job seeker will hunt them down, using connections and resources to expand the scope of his or her search. Graduates with large debt loads and an immediate need for employment will likely show everyone else the way to success in this recession.

I recently asked three employers what they recommend students do if they are interested in going into an area of business after they graduate. All three agreed that students need to get experience, not more education. One went as far as to say “get a job, any job, even McDonald’s.” The point is, in this economy your GPA or your SAT score may be less important than your experience and your attitude. Arrogance is out; humility is in.

Companies these days can afford to be picky. They want to know whether you can do the job that they need to have done. If you’re a liberal arts grad, you’ll have to take the extra steps necessary to show the relevance of your education. Sometimes that means focusing the employer’s attention less on the subject matter of your degree and more on your internships or extra-curricular activities. However challenging the job market, the savvy job hunter will always find creative ways to make the hiring case, and in doing so, stand out from the crowd.

Addressing Brown University students in a careers program during a past recession, the late Frank Newman announced to his audience that they were graduating at the best of times. What he meant was that the graduate who can successfully find opportunities when times are bad will be well positioned for a lifetime of changing jobs and careers. I believe that’s excellent advice for the Class of 2009.

What Not To Do In An Interview

How many times have you been rejected after a job interview and wondered what went wrong? And how many times have you been able to get honest feedback about why the job went to someone else? Chances are, no one’s going to tell you the truth.

Over the years, I’ve interviewed thousands of job candidates and many of them were oblivious to the fact that they sabotaged their own job search at some point in the interview process. So I’ll let you into my top secrets of what not to do:

Preparing for the Interview

  • Don’t neglect your research. Being unaware of a big deal involving the company that recently hit the media is a killer. And not spending time on the organization’s website gives the impression that you’re not really interested.
  • Don’t forget to be nice to the receptionist. Receptionists and secretaries hold tremendous hidden power, and are often consulted by much more senior people about their impressions of the candidate. Ignore them at your peril.
  • Don’t use a paid interview trip to do other business. You may have a daughter in Boston whom you’d intended to visit, but if you’re flying there for an interview and your future boss wants to have dinner the night before, the boss comes first.
  • Don’t arrive late. Excuses are just that. Do a dry run before the interview.
  • Don’t use the interview to make a fashion statement—unless you’re convinced that you could never work for an organization that didn’t accept you as you are. The interviewer should remember what you say, not how you dressed.
  • Don’t forget your interview attire. I interviewed one candidate wearing jeans and a t-shirt—the same clothes she’d been wearing when she got on the plane the night before and checked her bags.

During the Interview

Answering Questions

  • Don’t deliver a monologue. Interviews should feel more like conversations than questions followed by speeches. It’s good to have plenty of examples up your sleeve, but try to limit your answers to no more than 20 seconds—enough to get the interviewer interested but not bored.
  • Don’t avoid hard questions, but if they’re leading you in a direction you don’t want to go—such as why you left the job you actually hated—find a way to bring the conversation back into positive territory.
  • Don’t lead with the negative. You may be asked about strengths and weaknesses. Always start with your strengths and end by saying one thing you’re working to improve.
  • Don’t use examples from the same experience or employer for every question. Your answers should demonstrate the breadth of your experience. But remember, examples of qualities like good judgment can come from any part of your background, including volunteer leadership experiences.
  • Don’t write notes in your portfolio during the interview, or read pre-prepared questions from your notebook. Your attention should be on building rapport with the interviewer.
  • Don’t forget to get the interviewer’s business card before you leave, and find a quiet place after the interview to make notes on the back of the card about your interview.

Interview Etiquette

  • Don’t eat with your mouth full. If a meal doubles as an interview, you’ll certainly be evaluated on your etiquette. Since good etiquette, talking and eating don’t go together very well, that means you probably won’t get to eat much. Avoid ordering difficult foods like spaghetti or barbecue ribs. Try ordering a mousse or crème caramel for dessert and at least you’ll be able to sneak a quick bite.
  • Don’t drink. You may be offered an alcoholic beverage, but you can easily decline. You need all your wits about you for an interview.
  • Don’t talk about salary or benefits in an interview until you’re clear the interviewer has gone from “interview” mode to “sell” mode. This isn’t the time to ask about the vacation you’d love to take before you start. If you want to ask about promotion opportunities, don’t make it personal. Instead ask how long it usually takes their best employees to gain additional responsibilities.
  • Don’t badmouth your current (or former) boss, or let on that the real reason you want a new job is because the old one stinks. However cathartic it may be, your inquisitor may be assessing whether the problem was you or the boss. Concentrate on the reasons why you want the new position.
  • Don’t fudge the truth. More often than not, the truth comes out.

After the Interview

  • Don’t forget to formally thank the interviewer—preferably by a personalized hand-written letter—as soon as you can. (The notes you took on his business card will be helpful here.) You’ll have to put professional note cards and stamps in your briefcase before you leave home.
  • Don’t skip the spell-check. If you’re not sure anyone can read your handwriting, or you’re shaky on spelling, write a thank you email rather than a card, and make sure you proof it carefully. Poorly written or careless correspondence can cause even the most interested employer re-think his decision.
  • Don’t misbehave. Crazy as it sounds, some applicants manage to sabotage their job search after they’ve aced the interview. I’ve seen offers rescinded because of unprofessional behavior at a “welcome” party, or because the applicant tried to renegotiate compensation after accepting the position.

If you’re receiving more job rejections than credit card solicitations, chances are you’ve made a few mistakes in interviews. But you don’t have to be perfect. And, if you have the required background and experience, knowing what not to do can be the difference between continuing the job search and landing the perfect position.

Managing Questions about Salary in Interviews

Question: I work in management for a nonprofit, and am interested in a similar job in the private sector.  My potential new employers want to know my current salary. Should I give it to them?

Answer:  There’s an old adage regarding salary negotiation that says “he (or she) who states a number first, loses”.  That’s particularly true when you’re underpaid—for whatever reason.  If you allow your new salary to be based on your current salary, you may be inadvertently giving up thousands of dollars. So how do you avoid the question? First, try to finesse the issue by stating that your requirements are flexible and dependent upon the nature of the position.  You might choose to go further and say that you’d be happy to discuss your salary in a personal interview.  Avoid, at all costs, giving a figure in a letter.  You want your new employer to be excited about you first, not hung up on whether they can afford you.

Second, do your homework and know your worth.  Worth is based on your years of relevant experience and data for the type of organization in which you intend to work. It’s usually expressed as a range, e.g., 45-55K.  You can get an idea of your worth through web sites like salary.com.  Even better, quiz friends who work in the industry.  Armed with this information, you can put your non-profit salary in context.  You’ll also want to know the value of your current benefits, like health insurance or retirement, which are often substantially greater in non-profit than for-profit organizations.

Most important, know that the “sweet spot” of salary negotiation is when your new employer has offered you the job but you haven’t yet accepted.  If you can get to that point without having mentioned a number, you’re golden!

Online Job Sites and The Entry-Level Grad

Question:  I’m a recent  grad who is actively seeking work.  Over the past month, I’ve applied for over fifty jobs through on-line job posting sites.  To date, I haven’t received any interviews, let alone job offers. Should I try a different strategy?

Answer:  Do a Google search on the word “jobs”, and you’ll find literally thousands of websites that list opportunities nationwide.  Given the number of job postings, it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of job search security.  After all, you have a good degree and plenty of skills.  Naturally you assume you’ll rise to the top of the hiring list.  Trouble is, hundreds of other recent–and not so recent–grads have exactly the same idea.  You’ve discovered, the hard way, that a plethora of applications doesn’t automatically lead to success, however qualified you may really be.

On-line websites are typically not friendly towards the liberal arts grad, unless you want to go into a high-turnover area such as sales.  They’re custom-designed for the candidate who has a specific background or skills, such as ability to use SQL or Six Sigma.  Companies do key word searches on the criteria they’ve defined.  If those words don’t appear in your resume, your application will be unceremoniously dumped in the electronic garbage can.

So, should you avoid these websites?  Actually, no.  But you need to find a hook.  Use the sites to find out who’s hiring for what type of position.  Then go to the organization’s website and see if you can send in a resume plus a cover letter explaining why you’re a good match for the available position.  Better yet, find a grad from your college within the company who can give you the inside scoop on how to increase your chances of getting hired.

Careers & The College Grad: What’s a Liberal Education Got To Do With It?

Written for the First National Career Summit, hosted by Sheila Curran at Duke University, March, 2006

Introduction

Seventy-two percent of high school seniors perceive professional preparation as a key
driver of educational value. This is according to research conducted by Eduventures, a
Boston-based consulting company. When choosing colleges, these students assess access
to internships, placement record and the quality of the career office. Given these
statistics, it is likely that colleges and universities will increasingly view the careers
office as a strategic partner in attracting students, leading to increased visibility and
funding. However, before those of us in the careers field start cheering too loudly, it’s
worth evaluating whether we think this emphasis on pre-professionalism is a good idea,
particularly in a predominantly liberal arts institution. This paper explores the role of a
top college or university in preparing its graduates for the future, and issues that must be
addressed by those responsible for the academic program and careers offices.

The Consumer View

First, let’s look at what’s driving student opinion. There are good reasons for students and
their parents to be concerned about the future, given the high cost of education and
average debt at graduation of around $11,000. But what the Eduventures information also
suggests is that a significant proportion of students–and, no doubt, their families–are
viewing education primarily as a means to an end. In other words, students and their
families are buying a “brand” which provides a quid pro quo for their financial
investment. This investment is expected to lead to a high-paying job after graduation, or
access to a top medical, law, or graduate education.

The attitude of incoming freshmen is troubling on a number of fronts. Consider the
assumptions that appear to lie buried in the statistics, and are borne out in anecdotal
information from students:
• The end result of education is more important that the education itself
• Education that does not appear to have immediate pre-professional relevance is perceived as a luxury
• Success is defined by having a high-paying job at graduation

At a recent conference at Duke for high school guidance counselors, participants echoed
the research about student and parental attitude towards the college search. They also
pointed out that little information is available about what graduates really do after a
liberal arts education, and how they might best use a liberal arts education to their career
benefit. My coauthored book, published in May 2006 and titled Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career, was written to address some of the
prevailing myths and assumptions.

Education and Preparation for a Lifetime of Changing Careers

While students and their parents typically look to student success immediately after
graduation as a test of whether an institution is providing a return on investment, these
results are not a true measure of the value of education. The fact is, most entry-level jobs
don’t require the kind of advanced abilities that can be developed through a good college
education. A better metric for success is the degree to which our institutions help students
develop the ability to progress throughout their careers, and ultimately to make a
difference in the world.

To illustrate this point, Appendix A identifies the basic skill sets that students need at
graduation. They are listed in order of importance as identified in the National
Association of Colleges and Employers’ 2007 employer survey. Appendix B identifies
the vastly more complex characteristics anticipated for success in 2020. I chose the year
2020 because I like the idea of 2020 foresight rather than hindsight. Plus, after thirteen
years in the work world, 2007 graduates will be poised for the kinds of positions
requiring broad responsibility. More important than the success characteristics
themselves is the identification on the chart of the ways in which a student can use his or
her college education to develop these attributes. It is clear that our view of education
needs to include all learning that takes place during the time the individual is a student:
classroom learning, extra-curricular activities, and work-related experiences.

Success Characteristics in the Work World of 2020

As indicated above, a strong liberal arts education prepares students best not for their first
jobs, but for jobs at mid management level and above. Clearly career centers need to
help students find employment immediately after graduation, but if they simply
accomplish that task, they will have missed the opportunity to prepare students for a
lifetime of changing work and careers. More important, they may neglect the task of
educating students about how they can best use skills developed in college as they
progress in their careers.

In 2020, it is likely that the most successful people will need the following skills:
• Leadership and management (encompasses need for emotional intelligence; vision; communication and human relations skills; persuasion)
• Motivation and initiative (encompasses need for tenacity and focus)
• Ability to move swiftly to capitalize on opportunity—both business and personal (encompasses flexibility; adaptability; ability to learn from experience; initiative, entrepreneurial spirit; sense of responsibility for self)
• Ability to leverage resources—people and things (encompasses ability to communicate; political savvy; human relations skills; an understanding of the way things work)
• Willingness to continually learn, reflect and change course (encompasses need for on-going analysis and reflection)
• Cross-cultural understanding and appreciation for difference (encompasses communications skills; ability to see things from different points of view; ability to synthesize and interpret information and create cogent arguments; foreign language skill)
• Honesty, integrity and strong work ethic (encompasses leadership and empathy)

Being aware of success characteristics for 2020 is important. But achieving them is
difficult unless career professionals and academic advisors give a consistent message
from the time of matriculation about how we view the relationship between education
and career. To promote the kind of graduate success that reflects well on colleges and
universities, there should be expectations for both institutions and students.

Recommendations for Academia

Increase opportunities for true immersion experiences through which students can
tackle thorny societal problems. (Duke Engage is a good example.) Recognize
that student initiative is critical to getting the most out of these experiences, and
ensure that mentoring, guidance, and reflection opportunities are available.

Improve advising. Few colleges or universities—particularly research
universities—would receive an “A” for advising services. Yet trained advisors
early in a student’s career can be instrumental in helping students make the most
of their education from a career perspective.

Build into the curriculum opportunities to practice communication skills,
particularly those that encourage listening, hearing and being able to articulate
different points of view. Support the debate team. Teach rhetoric!

Assess and evaluate programs, especially those like Study Abroad, that involve a
significant percentage of students. Consider introducing an area studies
requirement and a foreign language requirement so that students can gain the most
from their experience abroad. Don’t take it for granted that students will step out
of their comfort zones. Make it an expectation.

Encourage and support students who take responsibility for their own education,
and who seek out opportunities and resources. Support faculty and staff who
engage with students on an intellectual and personal level.

Encourage interdisciplinary work and the application of knowledge in real world
situations. Service learning is the ideal opportunity to integrate learning in and
out of the classroom. However, other areas could also lend themselves well to
working on projects that relate to classroom learning. Thus, a history course on
the holocaust could lead to helping to plan and promote a holocaust exhibit.

We cannot expect that students will know how important it is to take full advantage
of education, broadly defined. Therefore it is incumbent upon careers offices and
academic administration to reinforce the same message: that success after college is
dependent not just on the accumulation of knowledge, but also on the development of
attitudes and behaviors. It is also important that we educate students from the time
they set foot on campus about the purposes of a college education, and its relationship
to what they do once they graduate.

The Ideal: A Message to Incoming First Years

  1. A college education is the sum total of your student experiences. You can
learn in the classroom, through extracurricular activities, on the athletic field,
through internships and beyond. Learning outside the classroom may prove to
be more important to your career than the subject of your degree. The quality
of your education is determined—at least in part—by the degree to which you
immerse yourself in learning. Take responsibility for, and engage with all
aspects of your education.
  2. When you matriculate at college, you’re not expected to know what you want
to do after you graduate. Abandon preconceived notions of acceptable career
directions. Make the decision yours!
  3. Recognize that confusion and discomfort is not only normal, it’s expected and
it’s a good thing. Give yourself permission to not be perfect. Allow yourself
to fail. But make sure you learn from failure. You can recover from a “D”.
  4. Don’t choose your major too early, or decide on a major because you’re close
to completing the requirements, or you think you need it for a particular
career. (You may not!) It’s much more important to study what you love than
to follow a path that may be more common but doesn’t interest you. You can
pursue most career paths with any major. Major doesn’t equal career, and
more majors doesn’t equal better careers. Resist the temptation to build
academic credentials at the expense of exploring new horizons.
  5. A high GPA may be necessary for a good graduate school, professional school
fellowships/scholarships, or for employment in investment banks/consulting
firms, but most positions do not require a GPA above a 3.0. Employers rarely
consider GPA for second jobs. Students with the best academic records aren’t
necessarily the best candidates for employment. Employers want to see
transferable skills, which can be drawn from any part of your education.
  6. Graduate school may not be as necessary as you think. Only go to graduate
school or professional school if you are convinced you need that type of
education for what you want to do.
  7. Study abroad can be a career boost or a career bust. Almost all students enjoy
their study abroad experience, but it can only give you a real career advantage
if you step outside your comfort zone and learn skills like linguistic fluency,
cross-cultural competency, flexibility, resilience, and decision
making/problem solving. To obtain a career advantage, you need to have a
true international experience, not an American experience abroad.
  8. You’re missing the boat if you don’t build relationships with faculty, staff and
advisors early in your time at college: they can be your biggest allies and
guides.
  9. Define success for yourself, even if it means you’ll be unemployed at
graduation and won’t be making the highest salary. Being employed at
graduation has more to do with the type of employer you seek than with your
value to the work world. Most employers of top college grads do “just in
time” hiring, so that you can only be hired when an employee has left.
Prepare for the job search while at college, but recognize the actual
application process may happen after finals.
  10. Careers don’t happen over night: they take time. Build a partnership with
counselors in the Career Center and/or with trusted advisors, so that you learn
the realities of life after graduation, and understand how you can best prepare
yourself through your college education.

Conclusion

Education and career preparation are symbiotic. The more a student learns in college,
and takes advantage of work and internship opportunities, the more likely it is that he or
she will be considered a compelling candidate for employment. However, to make this
connection happen requires a partnership between academic administration, student
affairs and the careers office.

Some universities, like Duke, have already made progress by coding courses to identify
what attributes or skills will be developed through the class. But we need to go further.
Now is the time to make the connection between classroom learning, extracurricular
learning, and career. Once that connection is made, students will come to understand that
they can reach their professional goals while gaining something infinitely more valuable:
a true education.

Appendix A and B are available by emailing Sheila Curran at curranoncareers@gmail.com.

Five Smartest Moves for Liberal Arts Grads

Smartest Move #1: Discover where you want to go

If you thought finding a job after graduation was the most difficult thing to do, think again! Far harder than the initial job search is figuring out exactly what you want to do. The difficulty is that when you’re in college you have very little time, and you may not be inclined towards self-reflection. One way to get started is to take the instruments commonly offered by your careers office, such as the Myers Briggs Type Indicator, or the Strong Interest Inventory. You won’t magically find direction, but particularly if you work with a career counselor, these instruments can help jumpstart your thought process.

One piece of advice: be willing to jettison preconceived notions about success. It doesn’t take too long when you’re in the real world to discover that no amount of pay will compensate for a miserable work situation. In particular, don’t be swayed in your career direction by those around you as graduation nears. Resist the temptation to follow the pack and forget who you really are. Often, that means remembering who you were, and what you loved as a child.

It’s actually quite normal to graduate from college without being completely sure of your direction. There are a number of reasons for this. First, you may not have been ready to think deeply about your career while you were in school. Second, you may have tried a number of different fields, but still not found direction. And you may just need more time for exploration or reflection. If you find yourself in this situation, don’t sit still. Find a job. Work through a temp agency. Do information interviews. Intern in an interesting company for a few months. The first key is to put yourself in situations where you can figure out what you like and what you don’t like. The second key is keeping talking to people, especially those who love their jobs. It’s not easy to put in the amount of time necessary to find your passion, but it’s well worth it.

Smartest Move #2: Get experience

Without exception, all the people in Smart Moves, had early work experiences, either on or off-campus. They did co-ops and internships, and played leadership roles in clubs and organizations. Often internships and low-paid clerical or service jobs after graduation offer you the only way to get your foot in the door. That’s particularly true in fields like entertainment, where many recent grads find themselves working in the mailroom. It’s the classic “Catch 22”. You have to have experience to get experience. And often, you simply have to pay your dues.

To make the most of your experiential education, before and after college, it’s worth remembering a few things: First, whatever you’re asked to do, do it well. Second, remember that all experience is good experience, even if it tells you what you don’t want to do ever again. Finally, always be looking around you. Who’s doing the really interesting jobs? How did they get there? Do you like the culture? What do you see that you’d want to avoid in a new job?

While you’re on a short-term assignment, it’s a great time to get into the habit of LUNCH. Invite someone to join you for a brown bag or a sandwich and get to know them. The more people who know you and like you, the easier it is to find career allies who will help you down the road.

Smartest Move #3: Build social and networking relationships

The graduates profiled in Smart Moves could write the book on networking. Networking is important for everyone, but it’s critical if your passion is something unusual like being a stunt actor or working for a major league baseball team. The more outrageous your ambition, the more likely it is you’ll need help getting there. Unfortunately, building social and networking relationships is one of the hardest skills for any young person to master.

Here’s a tip to get you started: In your career toolbox, you need two items. The first is an elevator speech, and the second is an eyeball paragraph. Both seek the same goal, namely to convince the person you’re talking with or writing to that they should spend more time with you. In the case of the elevator speech, you need to prepare a thirty-second response to the question “Who are you and what are you looking for?” For an eyeball paragraph, you need to make sure that the busy person who reads your email has a compelling reason to answer it! Some people, like family friends or graduates of your school, may be pre-disposed to help, but you’ve got to make it easy for them to do so. Your pitch needs to be concise and well thought through.

Building your network is a key skill for graduates at any stage of their careers. Whether they’re former bosses, friends, business acquaintances, faculty, or your hair stylist, people in your corner can make all the difference. They’re great sounding boards, wonderful confidence builders, and above all, probably your best source of job leads. Don’t hide your passion. Let everyone know your career destination, and you won’t travel alone.

Smartest Move #4: Identify your competence gaps

The higher you move in your career, the more likely you’ll be confronted with tasks and responsibilities with which you’re unfamiliar. Knowing what you don’t know is important. But far more important is figuring out how to acquire the knowledge or skills that you lack. In other words, you need to identify and fix your competence gap.

Assessing this shortfall, you need to ask two key questions: “Is the skill necessary for a field in which I want to stay?” and “Would the skill help me to achieve my future goals?” If the answer to either question is yes, you need to find a way to close the gap. The graduates in Smart Moves used the following methods to obtain the knowledge they needed:

1) Pursued further education, e.g., business or law school

2) Identified professional development opportunities offered through their organizations

3) Sought assignments that would help them to practice new skills

4) Found mentors who would act as sounding boards

Most important, you have to be open to assessing what you know and what you don’t. Be open to feedback. Ask for it frequently, and adjust your course based on what you hear.

Smartest move #5: Find your “hook”

Anyone who’s been admitted to a very selective college is familiar with the notion of finding a “hook”. That’s what separated you from all those with a similar background whom the college chose not to admit. It’s the same for the job search. Like the graduates in Smart Moves, you have to distinguish yourself from the pack.

The more you know about what you want to do, the easier it is to identify a potential hook. It could be a specific skill, like an unusual language. It could be some specialized training or a highly risky venture in which you’ve been successful. More likely, your hook will be something quite simple, like persistence combined with a winning personality.

How do you figure out your hook? You need to adopt your potential employer’s point of view and identify ways that you can add value.

Here’s the best news: Even if you have no unusual skills or talents, you can set yourself apart from other graduates and find your hook by doing your homework and following through. Sounds obvious? It is. But it’s amazing how rarely candidates go beyond a cursory glance at a company website, do what they commit to, or take the time to write thank you notes to their interviewers.

Liberal Arts Grads Meet the Real World

I met my first helicopter parent in September, 1995.  He called demanding specialized career services for his son. No matter that the young man had only just matriculated at Brown University.  His problem?  The son had met some fellow students who had convinced him to study philosophy instead of computer science.  It wasn’t necessary for the parent to tell me what was really on his mind:  “What on earth can you do with a degree in philosophy?”

When it comes to liberal arts and careers, there’s a black hole of ignorance that is often filled with myths and assumptions. One of the biggest assumptions is that you can’t possibly find employment unless you supplement your liberal arts degree with a more practical second major like Economics.  But look around.  Contrary to what you might believe, there are few cultural anthropology grads driving cabs.  And, there are no support groups, to my knowledge, for unemployed history majors.  Salary and position after graduation are influenced more by the interests of the liberal arts grad than the subject matter of her degree.

Regardless of actual post-graduation results, it’s a rare liberal arts grad who doesn’t have some trepidation about the future. I had my own encounter with reality when I immigrated to the United States.  The temporary agency I approached took one look at my newly-minted degree in Russian and Persian and advised that they might be able to find me a minimum wage job—if I learned to type. Luckily, as experience proves, where you start off bears little relation to where you can end up. The question is, “how do you get from a liberal arts degree to work you love?”


The “Easy” Way

The easiest way for liberal arts grads to find high paying, high prestige jobs is to impress recruiters from the investment banks and consulting companies that recruit on campus at top colleges.  But there’s a catch:  you have to possess not only a high GPA but also a demonstrated interest in–and talent for–the kind of work you’re pursuing. In addition, you’ll need something that sets you apart from other candidates. The way you distinguish yourself may not necessarily relate to the content of the job. Christina, a history grad from Stanford University, was hired as associate consultant by the consulting firm Bain, Inc. because her work founding an HIV/AIDS organization allowed her to demonstrate creativity, passion and a drive for results.


The “Normal” Way

The on-campus recruiting route usually accounts for fewer than a quarter of the graduating class.  Many of their liberal arts peers would have you believe that they had everything figured out—often in the form of more school.  They talk convincingly of becoming doctors, lawyers, architects, psychologists.  But behind their eloquent certainty often lies a deep insecurity about the future.  Even at graduation, most liberal arts students are unsure what they really want to do. And if, many years after graduation, you’re still not clear about your direction, you’re not alone.

You may find solace and the advice you need through “Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career”, a book which I co-authored with a colleague, Suzanne Greenwald.  Smart Moves illuminates real career paths through the stories of twenty-three liberal arts graduates from nineteen different schools. Their examples serve as powerful inspiration to anyone who wants to discover a path to career success.

The Smartest Moves to Career Success for Liberal Arts Grads

How do you get from a liberal arts degree to finding work you love? Through the stories of the graduates we interviewed, we discovered five “smartest moves” that were a key factor in everyone’s success:
-Figure out who you are and where you want to go
-Get experience
-Build social and networking relationships
-Identify and fill your competence gap
-Find your “hook”

Figure out who you are and where you want to go

Easier said than done.  And it’s more rare than you might think.  In Smart Moves, only Ally identified her passion at an early age.  Ironically, she chose a particularly difficult career—actress and director.  But the strength of her passion helped her overcome the bumps in her path to success. You can certainly find direction from assessment instruments such as the Strong Interest Inventory or the Myers Briggs Type Indicator.  But if you don’t identify an ideal career position through your assessments—and you probably won’t—don’t despair.  You’re more likely to find the work you love by starting with smartest move number

.

Get experience

Liberal arts grads can follow just about any career they want to. Unfortunately, the multitude of options can be overwhelming. The solution? Trial runs.  It can save time later on if you experience different types of work while you’re still in college.  Cara, a University of Pennsylvania graduate, laid the groundwork for her career in marketing by working on the school radio station. Sharon discovered her passion in fashion through internships. Others try on careers by proxy—conducting informational interviews with alumni, parents, friends, or anyone else who will share both smart moves and dumb moves.  Luckily, there’s no time limitation on getting experience.  If you didn’t explore different career options in college, build time into your schedule to do so now.


Build social and networking relationships

Conventional wisdom says that connections are the best way to find work. But what happens when the career footsteps of family members lead you in an undesirable direction, and you’ve exhausted your external fan base? Don’t balk at talking with people outside your immediate social circle.  Sure, you’re most likely to find good connections among the colleagues in your professional association.  But you can often find help in the most unlikely places. Ray ultimately found his way to a position as Indiana Jones stunt double through his hair stylist.  She didn’t personally know the man who was running the auditions. But she was, in Malcolm Gladwell’s vernacular, a “connector”.


Identify your competence gaps

One of the best ways to get ahead in your career is to look not just one step, but several steps, ahead.   Find your ideal job and work backwards.  Assess what required skills, abilities and attitudes you already have, and identify the areas in which you need to develop.  After seeing a teenage friend die of leukemia, Brad knew he wanted to alleviate unnecessary suffering on a world-wide scale.  A lofty goal, indeed.  With a degree in biology Brad had a good academic background.  But he needed practical experience in a number of areas.  Since graduation, Brad has systematically identified and eliminated his competence gaps by working in the pharmaceutical and financial industries, and volunteering in a Foundation that awards funds for health-related projects.

Find your hook

Once you’ve found your ideal position how do you stand out from the crowd?  Sometimes simple things will make the difference, like sending handwritten thank you letters immediately after an interview, or researching your interviewer’s background on the Web. Other times, your strategy needs to be a little more creative.
All graduates, no matter what their educational background, can benefit from studying the career success of others.  But when career direction and the paths to success are less clear, stories take on additional significance.  If you’re a liberal arts grad, find stories that have meaning for you.  The more you know about the career paths of those you admire, the better able you will be to find your own direction.

First published in BusinessWeek.com

 

Negotiating Pay and Perks for New Grads

Almost one and a half million new grads will enter the workforce this summer. Graduates with good grades, internships, and job search savvy will often have their choice of job offers.  But some of the best and the brightest will flunk their first real world test:  they’ll incorrectly assess the economic value of the positions they’re offered.

While students are in college, they typically seek work opportunities that fit their class schedule and pay well. Convenience and salary are the key determinants.  But after graduation, there are many other factors to consider.  The smart grad will carefully examine issues related to cost of living and benefits, as well as salary.  They’ll also understand when and how to negotiate to get the best possible compensation (salary and benefits) package.

Cost of Living

Many new grads head to the bright lights of the city.  They know that places like New York and Chicago are expensive, but few know exactly what that means to their lifestyle.  Consulting a website like salary.com provides a wake-up call:  If you think a job offer of  $30,000 in the Research Triangle Park area of North Carolina is too low, consider that you’d have to make almost $49,000 to have a similar standard of living in San Francisco. Perhaps you’re willing to have a smaller apartment, or live in an area that’s not quite as safe. You may even be prepared to eat ramen noodles a while longer. But it’s best to know where and how you’ll need to compromise if you’re determined to go to a particular high-priced location.

Benefits

Few student jobs provide benefits, so their value is often under-rated. But when you graduate, having good benefits can be essential.  For one thing, you’ll most likely no longer be covered for health insurance. And even a small accident or operation like an appendectomy can cost you many months’ salary.  If you buy temporary insurance as an individual, a basic policy will cost close to $100 a month, without prescription coverage and with high deductibles. And forget about pre-existing conditions:  they’re probably not covered. Check out the health insurance coverage that comes with your job:  sometimes it’s fully paid for you; other times you have to contribute.  The amount of your contribution can vary significantly.

Graduates often overlook 403B or 401K plans—particularly if they see the word “retirement” attached to them. The fact is, these plans can not only provide a forced savings plan, but also significantly increase the value of your compensation.  Many companies will give you a one-for-one match up to a certain percentage of your salary.  For example, you contribute 3% of salary and the company will contribute an additional 3% to your retirement fund.  Universities and other non-profits are often substantially more generous, requiring you to simply contribute a small percentage of your income in return for as much at an 8% match.  That’s the equivalent of getting an 8% pay hike!

Other benefits may be worth a great deal or nothing at all depending on your personal circumstances.  If you spend a lot of time in the dental chair or at the eye doctor, dental or vision plans will save you money.  If you want to pursue your masters’ degree while you work, be on the lookout for educational benefits.  And if you like to keep in shape, be aware that corporate gyms can save you upwards of $75 a month.

New grads, in particular, lament the fact that they no longer have a winter, spring or summer vacation.  If vacation time is important to you, check your job offers carefully. You may find you have to wait a year before you can take even two weeks off.

Salary

Comparing salaries should be easy. But the figure you’re quoted may include other financial compensation, for example, a signing bonus or relocation funds.  Unfortunately, you’ll receive these extras only once.  There are two important items for recent grads to consider: your base salary, and when you’ll be eligible for performance-based raises.  Some companies start with lower salaries but have six-monthly reviews that can financially catapult you over your peers working for companies where length of service is more important than performance.

Negotiating the Compensation Package

If you’ll be one of hundreds of college grads hired for a particular company, you may have no opportunity to change the compensation package.  On-campus recruiters, for example, usually have set policies on salary and benefits.  And unless you have a “hook”, like having worked for the military for several years before coming to college, it will be hard for you to make a case for why you should be treated differently.

However, the majority of employers do “just-in-time” hiring.  In other words, someone has to leave before they’ll even recruit someone new.  If you’re offered one of these positions, you may have more flexibility. Follow these steps to increase your chances of success in negotiating a better compensation package:

Identify what benefits are important to you. Know the prevailing salary for someone with your background and experience in the type of work and organization for which you’re being considered. Check salary comparison websites.  Better yet, network with someone in the company to find out what people in this kind of position typically make.

Call the organization’s human resource department and ask if there is a salary range for the position. Recognize that most salary ranges are divided into quartiles.  Usually new graduate hires will be given a salary in the first quartile of the range.

Check the human resources website for information on benefits.  You’ll be surprised how much information you can usually find.

Wait until you’ve been given a job offer before you try to negotiate either salary or benefits. The hiring manager has to be committed to you, before he’ll appreciate these types of questions. You’ll need to ask after getting the job offer if there is any flexibility in the terms of the compensation package.

Recognize that, unless you’ll be working for very small company, it’s easier for management to increase salary, add items like moving expense reimbursement, or give additional days off than it is to enhance benefits like health insurance.

Be professional. Resist pressure to give an immediate answer:  it’s perfectly acceptable to thank the manager for her offer, and say you remain very interested, but need time to think about a few issues. Once you’ve agreed to changes or you’ve accepted an offer, don’t go back and try to renegotiate.

Don’t expect that you’ll be able to put an employer on hold indefinitely while you gather job offers.  If you’re pursuing other opportunities, it’s acceptable to call those employers and tell them that you need to make a decision on another job offer. Ask if they are in a position to make a quick decision on your candidacy.

Use your resources.  Many careers offices welcome calls from new grads who are trying to decide whether to take a particular position, or who want an expert opinion on the relative value of job offers.

Recent grads are often thrown by questions about salary.  The first rule of salary negotiation is that the person who states a number first, loses.  This is particularly true if you’ll be working in business, but your experience has been in the non-profit world.  You can finesse the salary expectations question by saying that you’d expect to be paid the same as someone with similar background and qualifications, or that you’re willing to discuss salary when you’re further along in the process.

The most important thing to remember is that the “sweet spot” time for negotiation is after you’ve been offered a job, and before you’ve accepted it!  When employers want you, but they don’t know how much you want them, you’re in the driver’s seat.  Use the time to assess your needs, your values and your opportunities.

Getting into Arts Administration

Q. I graduated from college last year, and after many short term jobs, I’ve finally figured out what I really want to do:  arts administration.  Trouble is, my only relevant experience is from college.  How do I get my foot in the door?

A. Congratulations on identifying your passion.  You’ve saved yourself years of working in unsatisfying positions.  But, you’re up against the classic Catch 22:  To get experience you have to have experience.  And in the world of entertainment, it’s also a case of who you know.
    
Research interesting locations and organizations, and then  focus on getting people in arts administration to know you and what you can do.   If you’ve been able to save some money from your short term jobs (or you have a doting aunt), you could go “cold turkey” and find an internship in an arts organization which you admire. There are, of course, no guarantees here that you’ll find full-time work as a result—or that you’ll be paid anything.  But with some diligence, you can find an opportunity that puts you in touch with arts administrators and helps you pick up essential skills.

If you can’t intern full-time, consider regular and extensive volunteer work.  And don’t overlook the fact that lower level-level paid administrative positions, for example, in membership development or fundraising, can lead to higher level opportunities, You’ll soon discover that most people in arts administration started at the bottom.

One final piece of advice:  Eat lunch.  Make it a point to invite interesting arts administrators to join you and share their advice and knowledge about the field.  Once they get invested in your success, you’re on your way.

First Jobs Are Less Important Than You Think

First jobs after graduation are critical to career success. That is the conventional wisdom of college students and their parents, alike. But a new survey of recent graduates from Duke University indicates that this assumption is inaccurate. And placing too much emphasis on first jobs is a short-sighted strategy.

The “Five Year Out” survey of the Duke University Class of 2001 was commissioned by the Career Center to identify how careers evolve for new graduates. 540 graduates responded, a 42% response rate.

Sheila Curran, Fannie Mitchell executive director of the Career Center, highlights the differences in the way the Class of 2001 viewed careers before and after graduation. “While 92% of the Class were initially satisfied with their post-graduation career choice, 36% changed jobs in the first year. Five years after graduation 73% work for a different organization, and 43% have changed careers at least once.”

Almost one in four graduates cited “lack of a good fit” as the reason for changing careers. To avoid career missteps, students need to spend more time exploring and experiencing different environments, for example through internships, prior to accepting a position, says Curran. And the career choice needs to be the student’s, not the parent’s.

The 540 respondents have held over 1500 jobs in the five years since they graduated, for an average of 2.77 jobs per graduate. Curran asserts that given the number of times graduates will be changing both jobs and careers, it is essential that students prepare themselves not just for their first job, but for a lifetime of changing jobs and careers.

“It is important for universities to provide ways for new graduates to get a toe-hold on a career path, for example through on-campus recruiting. However, it is infinitely more important that students develop work skills and personal characteristics inside and outside the classroom that will help them not just in their first jobs, but throughout their career.”

The Five Year Out survey also provides insight into how graduates find their positions. Fifty percent of the Class found their positions through personal connections. The importance of connections undoubtedly increases, the longer a graduate is in the workforce.

Parents continue to be involved in the career lives of their graduate children. Sixty percent of the Class of 2001 say that their career choices have been influenced somewhat or a great deal by their parents. Families contributed 8% of the job leads for graduates and were responsible for 7% of the jobs obtained.

The involvement of family can significantly impact the ability of graduates to find and obtain jobs. It is particularly important that universities assist students without such family contacts to leverage alumni and other relationships, says Curran.