Components of an Effective Consulting Proposal

Colleges and universities increasingly look to consultants to help with strategic issues and troubling situations. But, unless the fee is likely to exceed six figures, they frequently forego a “Request for Proposal” (RFP). Instead, they rely on verbal conversations, and primarily use word of mouth to identify potential consultants. Agreements about what the consultant will be expected to do can be as short as a handshake.

That higher education would part with its money so easily is a surprise. What is less of  a surprise is how frequently the short proposals submitted by consultants in lieu of an RFP become problematic.

At the heart of a consulting assignment is an understanding of what the client school wants to achieve, and an appreciation for the culture within which the college operates. When brief conversations between client school and prospective consultants lead to even briefer written descriptions in proposals, there is too much room for unwarranted assumptions to be made. Consequently, misunderstandings arise which sour relationships, no matter the original good intentions on both sides.

To ensure the success of the consulting assignment, and in the absence of an RFP, it is incumbent for the prospective consultant to write a detailed proposal.  The components of such a proposal are as follows:

  • Project title
  • Proposal summary
  • Name of College and Client
  • Name of Consultant
  • Current situation (based on preliminary conversation with College)
  • Background to the situation (based on preliminary conversation with College)
  • Project scope and deliverables
  • Expected results of the project
  • Consultant approach
    • Information requested in advance of campus visit
    • Interviewee list for on-campus visit
  • Proposed timeframe and schedule
    • Tasks
    • Location (e.g., on-site, telephone)
    • Proposed dates
  • Fees, expenses and terms
  • Consultant biography
  • References

A good proposal might be 6-8 pages long. It takes a significant amount of thought and time, and there is usually no guarantee it will be accepted. But it is actually easier to get hired with a well-considered proposal. Clients know what they’re getting and for what the consultant will be held accountable. This gives the college a sense of confidence that the consultant knows what she is doing, and has realistic expectations for how long it will take.

In the experience of the Curran Consulting Group, time spent on the proposal avoids “scope creep”, and leads to a much better result for all parties.

Sheila Curran is the Curran Consulting Group President and Chief Strategy consultant. She has used the model described in this post for over five years, with great success.

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.

 

Position Vacancy: Associate Dean, Career + Co-op, SAIC (Chicago)

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The School of the Art Institute of Chicago is seeking a forward-thinking Associate Dean, Career + Co-Op who can play a leadership role in defining the contributions of art and design graduates to the global economy. The Associate Dean will identify innovative ways to connect the SAIC curriculum to productive and successful lives after college, expanding SAIC students’ opportunities to make a difference–both in their own post-graduation lives and those of the communities in which they work.

Apply: apply.interfolio.com/27669

Position Profile: Associate Dean, Career + Co-Op, SAIC

SAIC Position Profile—PDF

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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.

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.

The Career Center of the Future: Recruiting Exceptional Leaders

Three years of high unemployment for recent graduates have convinced senior leaders in colleges and universities that they must pay greater attention to preparing their students for life after college. Increasingly, that means re-visioning the role of the career director and her department.

Many long-term career directors have recently observed significant increases in their 403B accounts and are choosing to retire. That means colleges now have the opportunity to go from vision to action.

Deans and vice presidents embrace the idea of finding new career leaders who think broadly and strategically about their role inside and outside their institutions. They are excited by the prospect of finding candidates who are “connectors”—leaders who are adept at bringing many parts of their institution together to support student career development, whether that development happens as part of a course, through internships, study abroad or leadership on the athletics field. And, senior leaders increasingly recognize that their career directors will be doing work that directly affects institutional strategic objectives.

Sadly, hiring managers often find their applicant pools lacking in appropriate candidates. It’s not surprising: In this economy, when selling a house or finding a job for a spouse is tough, good candidates are staying put. They will only move for a position that looks significantly better than their current situation. On paper, many of these new career director postings do not look inspiring.

Recently, I was sent job descriptions for career directors at three forward-thinking universities. With the exception of references to technology, the descriptions could have been written in the 1970s. For a search to generate good candidates, descriptions must reflect institutional excitement for a new model of career preparation, along with a clear articulation of what constitutes success.

The Career Center of 2012 demands a leader who understands both academia and the world students will enter when they graduate. It requires someone who is equally at ease presenting to students, the College’s trustees, and a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And, the director must be an “orchestrator of opportunity”, who leverages institutional relationships for the benefit of students. Leadership and an entrepreneurial spirit are critical.

Typical job descriptions have a brief summary of the position’s function, followed by sections for responsibilities and minimum qualifications. To attract good candidates, I recommend writing a new kind of description that answers the following questions:
1) Why does this position exist?
2) What are the expected results for the position?
3) Based on what metrics will success be determined?
4) With what departments, and with whom, will the position collaborate?
5) What is the organizational structure (both up and down)? Which positions are direct reports?
6) What are the key strategic functions?
7) What operational tasks will the incumbent perform herself?
8) What functions does this position oversee?
9) What percentage of the time will the incumbent devote to strategic, operational, and management functions?
10) What special needs or opportunities exist?

Candidates should be cognizant of what knowledge, skills and abilities are required. Rather than putting very high educational/experience requirements on the position, however, I recommend giving candidates the opportunity to truly understand the position and explain in a cover letter how their background and experience qualifies them to do a stellar job. It is incumbent upon hiring managers to carefully check references –and not just those references initially provided by the candidate.

There are talented and diverse candidates who could be exceptional career directors, but we have to get away from thinking that the only path to the position is through a master’s program and prior employment in a career services office. We must keep an open mind about applicants with different backgrounds, recognizing that few candidates will possess the ability to walk on water. Regardless of background, the new director will likely need support and coaching for success.

A Model for College Grad Career Success in 2012

In 2008, Brittany Haas left college with a newly minted degree in Apparel Design. A few months later, the stock market took a nose dive, leading to years of double-digit unemployment for young college grads. Hit worst have been those with degrees in art and design and liberal arts. But this is not another story of doom and gloom. At age 24, Brittany is US Retail Planner for a world-renowned fashion house, managing a multi-million dollar budget—along with her own business.

So how did the youngest daughter of four, who grew up on Long Island without any connection to the fashion industry, come so far, so fast? Brittany’s story is a model for any student who wants to find meaningful work in a tough economic environment; unwittingly, she followed the five smartest moves identified in Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career.

1) Figure out who you are and where you want to go

2) Get experience

3) Build social and networking relationships

4) Identify your competence gaps

5) Find your hook

Figure out who you are and where you want to go

From an early age, Brittany was good at math and science. But she also had a strong creative side. In high school, dancing was usually Brittany’s activity of choice, and she often spent six hours a day in class or at practice. But at 16, Brittany attended the Pre-College program at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and fell in love with fashion. So, when it came to applying to college, RISD was a natural first choice. Brittany was devastated when RISD quickly rejected her application, telling her that her portfolio did not meet the requisite standard. Fortunately, Brittany had a Plan B: the Cornell University College of Human Ecology, where Brittany could study Fiber Science Apparel Design along with a huge dose of liberal arts. It was a blessing in disguise: in-state tuition, an education that combined rigor with practicality, and an Ivy-League degree. Brittany relished the academic work, taking eighteen credits per semester, instead of the required twelve. She also had an active social life and joined a sorority.

Get Experience

Brittany knew the key to her success in the fashion world would hinge on understanding the way the industry worked. And, from the time she entered college, both her parents and professors encouraged her to get internships. Brittany found all her internships using a very low-tech approach: she simply wrote personalized emails to sixty companies for whom she wanted to work. The first year Brittany received very few responses, but as her experience grew, so did the response rate. Brittany’s first internship was with the Israeli designer, Yigal Azrouel. It was unpaid and very low level, and she recalls hating it. But, in retrospect, Brittany was grateful for the opportunity to observe all aspects of a small company.

The first paid internship came the following summer, when Brittany worked for bridal boutique, Kleinfeld. This time, Brittany chose her internship specifically to gain experience in marketing. Finally, during the summer after junior year, Brittany found an internship as assistant manager at Nordstrom, which she describes as a “real job”. It gave her great experience on the retail floor, while paying her an excellent salary. To gain additional funds, Brittany also waitressed during the summer—often for four days a week.

Going to the career fair in her senior year, Brittany was an attractive candidate to the few retailers who came to campus. After two on-campus interviews, a retail math test, and a “Super Friday” at the company site, Brittany went to work for Ralph Lauren. Since then she has learned the department store side of the business by working for Saks Fifth Avenue, and started her third full-time post-graduation job in retail planning at Hermes. Asked whether Brittany is concerned that she is now totally on the business side of fashion, she replies that she takes care of her creative side by also running her own business, SomethingBorrowedNY, which rents out designer bridal accessories.

Build Social and Networking Relationships

Much of Brittany’s success can be traced to her uncanny ability to form relationships. Even so, she recalls that networking did not initially come easily to her, and she had to force herself to make the effort. If her business was to be successful, Brittany knew she had to find ways to get advice and publicity, so she started going to networking events in New York City. Organizations like Error! Hyperlink reference not valid., Women 2.0, the NY Entrepreneurs Business Network, and General Assembly, have been particularly helpful. At first, Brittany attended events with a friend and business partner, a strategy that made it easier to play off each other’s comments while discussing their new business with strangers. But, after a few years of meeting large numbers of people and talking about what she does, Brittany is now a networking pro.

Social media also plays a big part in Brittany’s life. In common with many small businesses, SomethingBorrowedNY grows through frequent use of blogging, and the effective use of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Brittany reports that LinkedIn is also by far the best way of finding work in the business side of fashion—at least once you have experience. No longer does she have to seek work; now, companies and headhunters look for people like Brittany on LinkedIn.

Identify Your Competence Gaps

From the time she entered Cornell, Brittany was intent on entering the fashion world, and made decisions about academics and work experience based on what she would be able to learn. She had an interest in business, but believed she could learn those skills on the job. So, when given the option of majoring in Fashion Design Management or Apparel Design, Brittany chose the latter. She wanted to understand fabrics and garment construction—something it would be hard to do simply from working in the business. Brittany selected internships based on her desire to see all sides of fashion—from design, to planning, to retail. The variety of these experiences allowed her to relate much more effectively to potential employers. It didn’t hurt, of course, that one of those prospective employers was a Cornell grad and sorority sister.

Find Your Hook

Brittany doesn’t have one hook; she has dozens. They include:

* A work ethic second to none: she usually works from 9am to 6pm at Hermes, and from 7pm to 11pm on SomethingBorrowedNY.

* A clear focus on fashion, with an understanding of both design and business.

* Excellent math skills and a good knowledge of French—a real plus for her semi-annual business trips to Paris.

* An entrepreneurial spirit combined with the ability to get things done.

* A winning personality and unusual maturity.
None of these “hooks” are extraordinary, but few candidates possess them all. In Brittany’s case, she simply took advantage of her natural aptitudes and interests.

For most college students and grads, finding or pursuing a career in 2012 will not be easy. But it can be done. In this economic environment it pays to focus, devote the requisite time for the job search, and persevere.

Alumni Unemployment Demands New College Solutions

Graduation used to mark the end of a college’s responsibility to its students. But many institutions have come to realize that they need to pay attention to their graduates—however long they’ve been out of school. Nowhere is there more pressure than in the area of career services, judged by alumni as one of the key areas where they need help.

There are compelling reasons for colleges to respond to alumni needs: When graduates can’t find jobs, get laid off, or fail to find even the bottom rung of the career ladder, their misfortune now directly affects the colleges they attended.

Matriculation 
Families want assurances that a college’s alumni have successful careers. No longer is the matriculation decision based solely on the strength of a college’s academic program, or the student’s interest in a particular college. Families want to know that if their sons or daughters matriculate, they will find good work after graduation. Vague references in the college View Book may have sufficed in the past; now, real data is needed to prove a college can deliver on its employment promise.

Retention 
Layoffs and parental unemployment affect the ability of students to afford a college education and stay in school once they have matriculated. But, student retention is also influenced by what happens to recent graduates. When underclass students see the difficulties college seniors face in finding work, they are less inclined to want to remain a student and accumulate more debt. Having a vision of a successful future may be critical to persistence.

Alumni involvement and philanthropy Unemployed alumni are less likely to want to be involved with their alma mater: it’s human nature to want to share successes but hide misfortune. This is a problem for colleges because research has shown that the more involved alumni become with their institutions, the more likely they are to eventually become donors. Unemployed alumni have other priorities for their savings.

Graduate unemployment clearly cannot be ignored. Indeed, the future of many colleges may depend on finding additional ways to meet the needs of alumni—regardless of their employment status. Babson College in Boston provides a good example of innovative thinking: the College has made it possible for many alumni who previously held high-level positions to occupy office space on campus, and occasionally teach—building a sense of goodwill towards the College that will last far beyond the period of alumni unemployment.

The college that thinks creatively in this period of high unemployment, and invests in services and activities that better prepare graduates for the future, is the one that will not only survive, but thrive.

 

Employment Elusive for 2011 College Grads

The government’s June statistics contained an unpleasant surprise for the Class of 2011: a ten percent rise in the unemployment rate compared to June, 2010. Twelve percent of college graduates under the age of 25 had no work at all in June, 2011—not even a part-time or low-level job.

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. After two years of unemployment rates above ten percent, there were signs of improved prospects for college seniors. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) reported in March that 53% of employers planned to hire more college seniors from the Class of 2011 than the Class of 2010. And, colleges across the country attested to increased participation from employers in fall career fairs.

But, the anticipated uptick in employment appears to have fizzled. A NACE student survey completed in May, 2011, showed that while close to half of those who applied for positions received a job offer, only 24% of respondents had actually accepted a job by graduation. No improvement over last year.

It is likely that those who did not accept their job offers are looking for more relevant and lucrative opportunities. But, many of those students holding out for a better offer are likely to be disappointed. They will have strong competition from those who graduated two years ago and still have not found a career path.

An unemployment rate of 12%–for any group of college graduates–is unprecedented in recent memory. And, the rate is likely to stay high unless there is a massive increase in job creation. Here’s why:

More young people are graduating with bachelor’s degrees
 Between June, 2008 and June, 2011, the number of college grads aged 20-24 grew by 66,000.

More young graduates want to work 
Typically, around 80% of bachelor’s degree grads aged 20-24 participate in the labor force, with the remainder attending graduate school, or taking time to pursue other non-work activities. Between 2008 and 2011, however, there was a 5% increase in young graduates who were either working or looking for work. That means over 100,000 were competing for essentially the same number of jobs as in 2008.

Fewer young graduates are going immediately to graduate school
 Given increased participation in the work force, it appears that younger grads are putting off graduate school, or choosing not to go at all. This is likely in response to high debt loads and an uncertain employment market.

Without intervention, high unemployment of new college graduates is likely to be the norm for the foreseeable future. If we want young people to capitalize on their education, pay back their considerable loans, and make meaningful contributions to society, it is incumbent on educational institutions, employers and the government to work together to find new solutions. Without new approaches, Barack Obama’s efforts to increase the number of college graduates will backfire.

Note: All statistics are 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.

Career Advice for the 2011 College Grad

For college seniors, graduation is no longer something on the distant horizon. It’s only a couple of months away. For the student still seeking post-graduate employment–as most are–that means there are only a few remaining weeks to work on career preparation before exams loom. It’s tempting to throw in the towel, and simply enjoy the remains of the college experience. But savvy students will take advantage of college resources to put a career strategy in place before they graduate. In doing so, they will set themselves apart from the competition, and reduce the time it takes to find a position. The following ten action steps provide the basic foundation for success:

1) Have coffee with your career advisors, whether they are faculty, family or career professionals. Everyone can use an advocate in the job search. The more they know about you, and your interests and values, the better able they will be to help you find and pursue opportunities.

2) Learn how to format your cover letter according to accepted business norms. Unfortunately, this critical skill no longer seems to be taught in high school. So it’s not surprising that many students don’t know where the address of the recipient goes, how to address your future employer, how to place the letter within the page, or how many spaces you have to put between your closing sentence and your name.

3) Pay attention to the content of your cover letter. The purpose of a cover letter is not just to put on top of your resume, but rather to entice an employer to interview you. Most employers will want to know how you found out about the job opportunity, what you have to offer and why you want the job. Cover letters are critical to some employers, yet deemed totally unnecessary by others. Unless an employer has specifically told you not to send one, however, consider it an essential part of your application.

4) Get a second or third “read” of your resume and cover letter to make sure they have no typographical or grammatical errors. Some employers immediately eliminate candidates whose materials are not word perfect. When you’ve been working hard on a document, you may not notice that you wrote “who’s” instead of “whose”. It matters. Have a detail-oriented friend proofread for you – every time you send a letter or update your resume.

5) Have your resume critiqued. The obvious reasons are to eliminate careless errors and to make sure the resume is appropriately formatted. But there’s another reason to get a critique: to make sure the focus of your resume is as close to the focus of the job you desire as possible. What image does your resume give of you? If it says you’re a brilliant academic, but you really want to go into business, you need to re-orient it.

6) Don’t rush. It’s tempting to use a similar cover letter and resume for each job. Although the basic format can be the same, you need to customize each one. Employers can sniff out “form” letters a mile off. If you give the wrong title of the position you want, it’s a dead give-away that you’re searching for multiple positions. Every employer wants to feel that you want their job, not any old job. Make them feel special!

7) Project enthusiasm. If you can’t get excited about the job, you’re unlikely to get it. You may see it as a boring, entry level, position, but your future employer is probably investing significant time and energy into hiring the right person. To be that right person, you need to indicate through your application that you’re familiar with the job and the company (read the website carefully and do your research), that you know what you can contribute, and why you want the job. In a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, enthusiasm for the job was one of the most important factors in the employer’s decision-making process.

8) Be selective where you apply. That’s difficult to do if you don’t care where you work and you just need to make money. However, your attitude will show through if you use the “shot-gun” approach. Think of it this way: You will be unlikely to compete well against other candidates using a generic approach – even if you apply for more than 50 positions. On the other hand, if you do 10 really thorough applications, your efforts will stand out, simply because so few people pay this amount of attention to the job search.

9) Follow through. You set yourself apart from other applicants even more if you follow up in person on your application. Some employers state that they do not want telephone calls. In that case you will need to email to ensure that your materials have been received. However, a telephone call gives you the opportunity to start to build a relationship with your future company, and to give them a sense of you as a person.

10) Commit to treating the job search like a job. After many years in college, you may want to take life easy for a bit. Don’t. The new grads who find jobs most easily are the ones who invest significant time, and are both prepared and persistent. If you’re researching, networking and preparing unique applications for jobs, you can easily fill forty hours a week. Just like going to work!

2011 College Grads Still Face Uphill Employment Battle

High school seniors who matriculated at four-year colleges in 2007 have seen the best and worst of economic times during their time in school. As they prepare to graduate, many must be thanking fate for the positive developments currently emerging in the employment market.

There is cause for optimism. Employers are returning to career fairs, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall unemployment rate for college grads over the age of 25 has decreased from a high of 5.3% in July, 2009 to a seasonally non-adjusted rate of 4.5% in January, 2011.

But economic gains have, so far, not benefitted new college grads, whose unemployment rate in January stood at a decades-high 10.8%. Contrary to all other groups, bachelor’s degree holders aged 20-24 experienced a 17% increase in their rate of unemployment between January, 2010, and January, 2011. And, over the past three years, that unemployment rate has almost doubled.

Three years ago, 116,000 of these young college grads were unemployed. Now, close to a quarter of a million find themselves without jobs. Many of those who do have jobs are underemployed and living back home with their parents.

A significant proportion of students attend college in pursuit of a better standard of living, commensurate with their investment in higher education. For those graduates who are unemployed or underemployed, college loan repayments are a cruel reminder of unfulfilled expectations.

As employers start to add more jobs, current students must prepare themselves to be compelling candidates, so that they avoid the unemployment/underemployment trap. Four strategies will help:

1) Take advantage of internships and co-ops. One reason why employers choose older college grads over their younger peers is because of their proven work experience. Students need to be able to articulate their relevant or transferable skills, even if they have not held full-time positions.

2) Go the extra mile. The passive approach no longer works, and that includes applying indiscriminately to every job on Craig’s List. Searching out employers of interest, reading up on company developments, and mining alumni databases to find points of connection to the organization, are all examples of the kind of proactive approach that is required.

3) Use your Career Center. Students who use their school’s career services office will typically find jobs more quickly than their peers. Yet, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, advising appointments at Career Centers nationally have gone down, not up. Career Centers cannot, or course, manufacture jobs, but they can help students position themselves more effectively with employers.

4) Make your career search a priority. No amount of advice can help you achieve your career goals unless you are willing to devote the considerable time it takes to conduct an effective job search.

There are jobs out there for new grads–and many lie unfilled because new college grads cannot make the case for their own employment. Parents, educators and career professionals have a vested interest and a moral obligation to help them do so.

College Loans Should Come with a Uniform Warning Label

In the next few months, hundreds of thousands of high school seniors will be deciding where to go to college. They’ve read the viewbooks, checked out the campus, and made sure they could major in a chosen subject. And, they’ve considered whether they will receive sufficient financial aid to attend.

What prospective students rarely do, however, is question whether a degree from a particular college is likely to lead to a lucrative job after graduation. How many prospective applicants press the careers office for information on employment or salaries? How many ask what it will take for them to be employed at graduation?

For the student applying for significant loans, the challenge of finding a well-paying job should be a cause for serious worry. The Department of Education estimates that in 2009, only 56% of students at private non-profit colleges were in repayment of their student loans four years after they graduated or left school. That figure dips to 54% for students at public non-profit institutions and plummets to 36% for students at for-profit colleges.

The reality of graduates struggling with debt is in sharp contrast to their expectations as students. According to the latest national survey by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, 72.7% of 2011 freshmen largely agreed that the chief benefit of college is increased earning power.

Sadly, the Department of Education data suggests that many entry-level graduate salaries, for those lucky enough to find a job, are insufficient to maintain an adequate standard of living while repaying debts. The unemployment rate in January, 2011, for those with bachelors degrees aged 20-24, stood at 10.8%. Graduates in this cohort who do have jobs may be either working part-time or underemployed, further exacerbating their financial situation.

Students who are considering taking on high amounts of debt must understand what that debt will mean for their lives after graduation. Colleges and universities have a clear responsibility to not only publish the career and salary outcomes for their graduates, but also to identify the time and effort required for a successful career search.

Perhaps it is time to put a warning label on every college loan that says: “This college loan may adversely affect your financial health. A college degree does not guarantee that you will receive a post-graduate job with a salary sufficient to repay your loans. Further, your debts cannot be discharged through bankruptcy.”

Increasing the number of Americans with a college education, and making loans available to more students are worthy goals. But, when students are able to take out loans with insufficient consideration of the consequences, it bodes well for no one–least of all, the debt-ridden college graduate.

The Education of Fortune 100 CEOs: An Update for 2011

In an article titled “Do You Need An Ivy League Degree to Rise to the Top in Business”, dated September 14, 2009, I made observations on a recently released report of the educational background of Fortune 100 CEOs. That report has now been revised, and it is obvious that there has been much upheaval in the upper echelons of business over the past year. Twelve percent of companies on the 2011 list are new, and stalwarts like Motorola, Phillip Morris and Macy’s are nowhere to be seen. But in terms of education, the CEOs from the new companies, and new CEO’s of other Fortune 100 companies, have much in common with those who made the list last year.

Interesting facts for the 2011 Fortune 100 CEOs include the following:
• 18 CEOs have an Ivy League undergraduate education
• 9 CEOs have an undergraduate degrees from a foreign institution
• 63% of CEOs have an advanced degree of some kind
• 11% of CEOs have a JD
• 36% of CEOs have an MBA

It is impossible to identify trends from only two years worth of data. However, I stand by the conclusion that I drew from my September, 2009, analysis:

The quality of education does make a difference to someone’s ability to become a CEO of a Fortune 100 company. But the data suggests that a smart person can get a quality education just about anywhere. Perhaps the secret to success is both simpler, but also more difficult to achieve: To reach the top, you obviously need to be a great leader, with vision and drive. But you also need good mentors and the foresight to be in the right place at the right time. What you don’t have to have is an Ivy League degree.

Improving Employment Market Leaves New College Grads Out in the Cold

There are numerous indications that the overall job market is improving. According to Indeed.com, a company that tracks job postings nationwide, 2010 saw an 88% overall uptick in listings over 2009. Some fields fared better than others: after significant declines in recent years, information technology listings in 2010 were up by 82% over 2009, and listings in the media rose by a similar percentage. Over 700,000 positions were advertised in health care in 2010. This positive trend is likely to continue in 2011. Michigan State’s Recruiting Trends, 2010-11 reports that employers of bachelors’ degree grads predict 10% more hiring this year.

But the good news in some quarters is tempered by troubling unemployment statistics for new college graduates. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that while the increase in job opportunities has led to a flattening or slight decline in unemployment rates for most job seekers, the unemployment rate for new bachelors’ degree grads jumped from 7.9% in December, 2009 to 9.6% in December, 2010. Getting onto the career ladder has never been harder for this group.

It would be natural to assume that college careers offices would be overwhelmed by demand from anxious students. Yet, according to the NACE 2009-10 Career Services Benchmark Survey, 25% fewer students sought help than in the previous year. Even as loan repayment dates loom, many young people are placing all their faith in a better economy, without acknowledging the pent up demand for jobs from their slightly more advanced peers.

It may be difficult to find the perfect job, but it is by no means impossible. The 90.4% of employed college grads under 25 clearly did something right. What separates many employed graduates from their peers is the following:

  • They used all the resources at their disposal–including career centers, faculty, alumni, and relatives. And, they committed to putting in the time and energy required for a successful job search.
  • They explained what work they wanted to do with passion and thoughtfulness to anyone who would listen, and asked for advice and help. Many of them leaned on mentors and learned from their wisdom. Then they took action.
  • They made sure employers did not have easy reasons to reject them. Their resumes were well formatted without errors, and their communications were professional.
  • They were able, both in writing and in person, to communicate how they could add value to an employer. And, they were able to point to examples of success and competence. They modified their communications based on their company research and the job description of the open position.
  • They paid attention to the “gatekeepers” in human resources and in reception areas, treating them with respect.
  • They went beyond the usual job boards to seek out opportunities on employer websites. They mined LinkedIn to get insider information on company expectations and culture.
  • They built an online presence, through a personal website, blog, or social media, so that potential employers could find them.
  • They did not apply for any position for which they could not summon the energy to write a personal cover letter or do company research.
  • They started preparing for the job search long before they submitted their first application, building skills and experience that they knew would be useful.
  • They never took rejection personally, or used it as an excuse to give up the job search.

More Jobs, Higher Unemployment: A Confusing Message for the Class of 2010

The Class of 2010 has graduated into the worst economy in living memory. Those with bachelor’s degrees are joining their under-25 peers in a job market where 11.7% of their cohort is unemployed. And, while other segments of the market recover, the situation for recent graduates is deteriorating. In July 2009, the unemployment rate for college graduates with bachelor’s degrees was 10.1%. A year later, it is 15% higher. Those who chose to “ride out the economy” when the job market first slipped, made a serious error in judgment.

There is no doubt that it is hard for college graduates to find work. But dig deeper in the Bureau of Labor Statistics data, and the news is less gloomy. More that a 100,000 more college graduates are employed in July, 2010 than were employed two years ago.

Two factors play into this seemingly contradictory situation. The first is that over a two-year period, there has been a 3.6% increase in the total number of people with bachelor’s degree qualifications under the age of 25. The second is that the percentage of graduates who are participating in the workforce (either employed or actively looking for work) has jumped from 82% to 86%.

Here’s the bottom line: there are more jobs out there, but there are more young graduates chasing them. Never has it been more important for these job applicants to focus on what they want, identify where they can provide value to an employer and develop a strategy to get their foot in the door. The future of these young graduates depends on it.

Careers and College Debt: Don’t Blame the Parents

There is no doubt that today’s college graduates often leave school owing more money than they can easily repay. Writing in The New York Times on May 28, 2010, Ron Lieber puts the blame on higher education, banks and families. Many families have, indeed, been loath to put the brakes on excessive borrowing for college, but I believe Mr. Lieber’s finger pointing at parents misses a very important point.

Parents allow, and even encourage, their children to borrow for college, because they believe higher education provides an economic return on investment in the form of a well-paid job. The better the school (so parents think), the more likely the student will access the path to prosperity. Small wonder that the parent profiled by Mr. Lieber supported her daughter’s desire to attend NYU, even if it meant borrowing many thousands of dollars. Numerous ranking systems are testament to the perceived value of a particular school.

Probe the prosperity assumption just a little, however, and it rapidly disintegrates. Top schools often have access to prestigious employers, and robust alumni networks. But that doesn’t mean there are enough highly paid jobs available for all students with debts to discharge. Nor does it mean students will be qualified for those jobs—or even want them. And, alumni networks do no good if the student has no idea how to engage with adults around career issues.

A poor economic climate favors graduates with pre-professional degrees and directly related internship experience. But who is telling that to parents who would do anything to have their son attend an Ivy League school? And who is telling students that they don’t need a $200,000 education to become a Fortune 100 CEO?

Students from all schools–but particularly liberal arts majors from top colleges–need good career advice that is based on real world, not ivory tower, knowledge. Unfortunately, the media is complicit with colleges in perpetuating the erroneous belief that all it takes is a good education to secure a lucrative job at graduation.

Surveys conducted by consulting companies like Eduventures clearly demonstrate the importance of career preparation to the prospective college parent and student. Yet few colleges provide the kind of data that would support an informed college choice. Small wonder: gathering data costs time and money. And, schools have typically not invested in providing the kind of career services that would enable students to transition easily from college to career. The truth about the job situation for most new grads from top schools is not nearly as positive as most parents believe.

Parents might assume that in a down economy, colleges and universities would pay extra attention to the offices charged with helping graduates succeed outside the academic bubble. Not so. In the past year, most college career services have been hurt as badly as other administrative offices. In a recent benchmarking survey of sixteen college and university careers offices, conducted by Curran Career Consulting, only two escaped last year’s budget axe—and neither of those received an increase in funds. Most parents would be appalled to know that the annual amount of money spent per student on career services is often less than the cost of a couple of gourmet restaurant meals.

Parents and students need the facts about career preparation before they choose a school and sign the loan forms. In the next blog post, I will suggest a number of questions parents should ask colleges and universities before making a matriculation decision. Only with this information can a parent or student definitively say the risk of debt is worth the post-graduate reward.

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.

Careers and the College Grad: Predictions for 2010 and Beyond

December 31, 2009: The Wall Street Journal’s lead story proclaims that 2009 was a banner year for stocks. This is great news for parents paying for their children’s increasingly expensive college education from hard-earned savings. Yet the good economic news disguises an ugly fact: unemployment figures continued to rise throughout 2009, only flattening out towards the end of the year. And, none of the experts expect a significant improvement in the employment picture anytime soon.

Based on my reading of the statistical tea leaves, along with anecdotal data from clients, I have five predictions each for college students, and for the career services offices that help them figure out and find their futures.

College students

1) For the foreseeable future, it will be a buyer’s market for employers, not new college graduates. You won’t be able to “ride out” the poor economy—whether you’re a senior or a freshman. Building a career focus and skills early in your college career will be key.

2) A good GPA and a good school will no longer guarantee a good job. You’ll need relevant internships or jobs to prove that you can do the work you say you’re qualified to do.

3) Liberal arts students who are not at the top of the class may get left behind in the employment game. The less your major relates to your career field of choice, the more relevant experience and effective career strategies you’ll need.

4) You won’t find your job sitting in front of a computer. Forget job boards—except to get a sense of the kinds of organizations that are hiring. Success will only come to those who find a way to use connections to get their foot in the door, and who know how to exploit social media.

5) Students will need professional career help. Few students have sufficient background or training to understand how to achieve career goals, and your first interview may be the one that really counts. Expert advice on career strategy and thinking like an employer will be essential.

College careers offices


1) The number of employers signing up for career fairs will increase in 2010—a welcome budget boost for cash-strapped careers offices. But the number of interns and new grads sought by employers will not significantly increase from last year.

2) Career services budgets will remain flat, or sustain even further cuts. The careers office that doesn’t change will become increasingly marginalized.

3) The careers office that identifies ways to provide better services at lower costs will be the one that gets the positive attention of senior university leadership.

4) More partnerships will be formed between the careers office and academic advising, alumni affairs, and enrollment management, reflecting the importance of graduate success to other parts of a college or university.

5) Careers offices with diminished staff will struggle to provide the breadth and depth of services required by students and alumni in a difficult economy. Success in meeting client needs will require a different approach to career volunteers, partnerships, and outsourcing.

Employment Advice for 2010 College Grads: Finding the Light at the End of the Tunnel

Going to the dentist and giving a public presentation consistently rank as two of the most universally dreaded activities. The Class of 2010 could add a third: going through the senior job search.

When the economy tanked in 2008, college juniors watched with a sense of horror as their carefully laid internship plans were destroyed. But the horror was tempered with relief that the major impact of the collapsing job market would fall not on them, but on the Class of 2009.

One year on, it is clear there is no lucky escape for the college grads of 2010. According to November, 2009 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 7.5% of college grads under the age of 25 still have no work at all, a figure that has risen 50% from a year ago. College seniors in 2010 will enter a market that is already saturated with unemployed or underemployed graduates.

So how are current college seniors coping? A surprising number of them appear to be putting their collective heads in the sand. Far from flooding to their careers offices and asking for help, they are opting out. By the end of the December, those who were successful in on-campus recruiting will have already accepted job offers. And those who are pursuing further education will have their applications well in hand. But for more than half the class, the future looks so unclear that students would rather postpone reality and concentrate on enjoying their final semester. Small comfort to the parents who have invested two hundred grand in their son or daughter’s education.

It’s tempting for the Class of 2010 to think that there’s little that can be done. After all, the thousands of employers who might seek the talents of graduating seniors have not yet identified their hiring needs. But the light at the end of the employment tunnel will be much brighter for the student who commits to learning the skills, aptitudes and strategy for a successful career search while they are still in college. Those will be the students who can capitalize on employment opportunities as they arise.

Winter break is the time when most parents and their college seniors have the dreaded “career” discussion. Student commitment to a career strategy, which includes a plan to develop essential career skills, attitude and focus, will go a long way towards providing parental piece of mind. Employment at graduation? For students who see finding a post-graduate job as part of their education, it’s a real possibility.

First published on http://www.catapultadvising.com.

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.

Good News for College Grad Employment

The latest government (BLS) unemployment statistics for October, 2009, were accompanied by a collective national groan. Across all populations, the average unemployment rate rose to a high of 10.2%–up four tenths of a percent from September, 2009, and 54% higher than a year ago. But unemployment woes have not affected every group equally. There is a whopping discrepancy between individuals with no high school diploma, and those with a college degree.

The statistics tell a pretty clear story, and it’s all about education. According to the BLS data, if you don’t have strong educational qualifications, you’re more likely to be unemployed. Period. Those with no qualifications at all have a 14% unemployment rate, while those with a high school diploma are unemployed at the national average. On the other hand, college graduates over the age of 25, fare significantly better. Their overall unemployment rate is now a respectable 4.6%, a rate that is still historically high, but has been decreasing since July. There remains a glut of unemployed recent graduates, but older graduates have been finding jobs: 163,000 fewer college grads over the age of 25 were unemployed in October, 2009, than in the previous month.

While it’s easy to think that the recession may be over for experienced graduates, that may be an overstatement. Certainly, more of them have jobs, but what isn’t known is whether these jobs are full or part time, and whether they actually require the credential possessed by the applicant. A college degree does not guarantee work that is interesting and lucrative—and commensurate with the money you have spent to obtain the degree. But it does make it more likely that you can find some kind of employment, even when the economy is in trouble.

2009 College Graduates: Unemployed and Forgotten

What has happened to the college graduates who received their diplomas last Spring? Since that time, the word on the street—or at least on Wall Street—is that we are no longer in recession. But the improving public mood has not translated yet into hiring. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the overall unemployment rate inched up to 9.8% in September, with no demographic group being spared.

On the surface, the 9.3% unemployment rate for college grads with a bachelor’s degree under the age of 25 seems quite positive. After all, the National Association of Colleges and Employers survey of 16,000 college seniors, conducted through April 30, 2009, concluded that only 19.7% had jobs lined up by graduation. Unfortunately, the Bureau of Labor Statistics data hide some more troubling information. The employment numbers are higher than expected, because they include college graduates who did any work during the previous week—even if that work was part-time work while they were in graduate school, and even if the work did not require a college degree.

A better way of assessing the severity of the situation for recent grads is to compare employment data on 2009 graduates, to the same data, from the same month in 2008. The percentage of this cohort who are in the work force (employed or actively looking for work), is almost identical to a year ago, indicating that there was, in fact, no rush to graduate school. What is strikingly different is the change in both the number and the percentage of young college graduates seeking work compared to a year ago. The unemployment rate in September, 2008 for those with just a bachelor’s degree was 6.6%, compared to 9.3% a year later. In September, 2009, there were 202,000 young college graduates looking for work–54,000 more than in the same month last year. The situation is even worse for men. Their unemployment rate in September was 11%, compared to under 8% for women.

Peter Coy, who penned an article in Business Week on October 8, 2009, talks about the hazards of long term unemployment at the beginning of a career: “For people just starting their careers, the damage may be deep and long-lasting, potentially creating a kind of “lost generation.” Studies suggest that an extended period of youthful joblessness can significantly depress lifetime income as people get stuck in jobs that are beneath their capabilities, or come to be seen by employers as damaged goods.”

So who is helping the Class of 2009 find opportunities and contribute to the economic recovery? Many alumni associations and careers offices have started to provide more services to their constituents, but their efforts often fall short due to lack of appropriate staffing, time or budget to help those who have already left school. Given the increasing cost of education and the decreasing value of a college, higher education needs to take more responsibility for the success of its graduates. And that success has to start with a job. While the cost of providing alumni career services may seem steep, it is money well spent. A college graduate who is given assistance when he or she needs help, is the one who will keep giving back to a college through increased engagement and philanthropy.

Graduate unemployment is not just a problem to be solved by the Career Services office, or the Alumni Association. It’s an institution-wide issue. Now is the time for discussion and action at the highest level of college and university administration. The Class of 2009 needs immediate help.

Update for October, 2009: The unemployment rate for college grads aged 20-24 is heading downwards. There was a .4% drop in the unemployment rate from 9.3% to 8.9% from September to October. But the rate of unemployment is still almost 40% higher than in October a year ago.

Note: Essential employment data on higher education, college graduates and Career Services is updated every month on this website.

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

Do You Need An Ivy League Degree to Rise to the Top in Business?

Thousands of high school seniors will apply to Ivy League universities this fall. For most, receiving a fat acceptance package is considered equivalent to winning the financial and career lottery. Rejection, however nicely expressed, is cause for huge disappointment—even despair. But how important is it to get into an Ivy if you want to reach the highest echelons of business? A new survey of the educational background of Fortune 100 CEOs suggests it may be much less important than you might think.

Consider the following data points from the Fortune 100 CEO survey:

  • Thirteen CEOs received their undergraduate degrees from Ivy League institutions. But fourteen received their degrees from international colleges and universities. Not one Fortune 100 CEO graduated from Brown, Columbia or Princeton.
  • Five CEOs graduated from Harvard, but another five graduated with an undergraduate degree from a British university.
  • Ten Fortune 100 CEOs did receive a graduate degree from Harvard. No other institution came close.

Given the data, it is hard to make the case for going to any particular undergraduate college or university. So do the Fortune 100 CEOs have any educational characteristics in common? Unfortunately, there is no information available about activities while in college, or GPA. What we do know, however, is that 85% of the Fortune 100 CEOs for whom information is available, majored at the undergraduate level in one of four areas: Engineering, Business Administration, Economics/Finance and Accounting. All these areas have a strong quantitative bias. The remaining 15%, studied in a wide variety of areas from history to geology or biology. Two thirds of the CEOs obtained an advanced degree, with about a third of the Fortune 100 choosing to complete an MBA.

Does the quality of education make a difference to someone’s ability to become a CEO of a Fortune 100 company? Absolutely. But the data suggests that a smart person can get a quality education just about anywhere. Perhaps the secret to success is both simpler, but also more difficult to achieve: To reach the top, you obviously need to be a great leader, with vision and drive. But you also need good mentors and the foresight to be in the right place at the right time. What you don’t have to have is an Ivy League degree.

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.

Management Coaching: A Strategic Investment for Colleges & Universities

When college and university revenues decline and budgets are slashed, training and development is frequently the first item on the chopping block. Not so in the Student Affairs division at Duke University. Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs, Caroline Nisbet, gave her staff the opportunity to decide where to cut. Nisbet quickly acceded to staff requests to keep professional development coaching in the budget, recognizing that the value of coaching reached far beyond the individuals concerned: The entire Student Affairs division benefited from the coaching her staff received.

Management coaching is a relatively new phenomenon in academia, but it has a long history in corporate America. According to a 2008 article in Fast Company, coaching is now a billion‐dollar industry, with a significant percentage of chief executive officers and senior executives taking advantage of coaching services.

What is good for corporate senior executives is just as good for leaders in academia. But the word “coaching” has too frequently been associated with performance deficiencies. Writing in the Harvard Management Update in January 2007, Lauren Keller Johnson acknowledged there used to be a stigma attached to coaching, but claims that the stigma has largely disappeared. She explains that “coaching is now used largely to expand a talented individual’s repertoire of skills, and working with a coach has even become something of a status symbol.”

Coaching Comes of Age in Academia

Academia may have been a “late adapter” of coaching, but that is about to change, thanks in part to an economic situation requiring significant modifications in how universities are managed.

As work forces contract, some managers are finding themselves in charge of areas with which they have little familiarity. Other individuals must demonstrate leadership and strategic planning skills they did not learn in graduate school. Staff layoffs are causing significant management challenges.

Many colleges and universities rely on time‐tested ways of doing business. In 2009, however, leaders need to think creatively about everything from doing more and better with less, to finding non‐financial means to reward and motivate staff members. No longer is it acceptable to say “we’ve always done it that way.” For many long‐time directors and vice presidents, the new order will create discomfort and uncertainty.

Coaching provides the opportunity to help managers adapt to very different work environments by employing their strengths in the most effective ways and building their capacities to move successfully into a new era. The strategic use of coaching can be particularly effective in student affairs given its culture of assessment. Now is the time to apply learning outcomes to staff as well as students.

What is Coaching?

The types of coaching most frequently used in the academic workplace fall into five categories: management, professional development, performance improvement, transition, and leadership development. Coaching is, by definition, holistic, and recognizes that factors outside of the work environment affect an individual’s
performance. As a result, coaches may employ many different types of coaching, including life coaching.

Stephanie Helms, director of assessment and professional development programs in student affairs at Duke University, speaks to the value of this holistic approach: “As people we are not compartmentalized. We don’t stop being parents, significant others, or caregivers when we arrive at the workplace.” She adds, “Having the opportunity to form a relationship with someone who is skilled at assisting with navigating each role, honing skills and defining success, cannot be underestimated.”

Though coaching styles and purpose may differ, any coaching assignment has three common elements:
• a one‐on‐one relationship,
• a goal and action orientation, and
• a commitment to the process on the part of both client and coach.

The first step in developing a successful coaching relationship is to determine the goals of the assignment. The client is in the “driver’s seat” and needs to clearly identify issues, challenges, and opportunities, and discuss what new behaviors to explore or employ. This is where trust comes into play—the client must feel comfortable sharing situations he or she has not handled well, or in which he or she feels less confident, in addition to helping the coach become acquainted with his or her strengths. Further, the client must be open to observations, critique, and feedback that may conflict with his or her self-image.

The coach can only help if the client has provided sufficient information about his or her situation and is open to different interpretations and perspectives. Chandlee Bryan, president of Best Fit Forward, believes that a key value of good coaching is the ability to provide an independent assessment of the client’s situation while providing support for behavior change when necessary.

Ongoing coaching relationships provide opportunities for staff members to debrief situations with their coaches as they occur. This immediacy is enormously beneficial for clients and provides a professional sounding board for potential courses of action. A good coach will help a client clarify options, widen perspectives, and find solutions.

Find the Right Coach

Identifying and selecting an appropriate coach is much harder than it might seem. Anyone can hang out a shingle and proclaim a willingness to provide coaching services, and there are no universally respected qualification for coaches. Complicating matters is the breadth of the field—a life coach may be totally
ineffective as an executive coach and vice versa.

Catherine Fitzgerald, an experienced executive coach, puts her finger on the problem of finding the right person: “The (coaching) field emerged outside of academic institutions, and there isn’t a solid base of theory and research on which coaches can agree.”

The coach search should concentrate first on finding someone with the ability to understand the client’s needs and environment from a first‐hand perspective. Ideally, the coach for a senior student affairs officer would be someone with high‐level administrative experience in academia.

Some clients prefer coaches who have actually walked in their professional “shoes,” but unless the coaching need is related to the subject matter of individuals’ professions, that is usually unnecessary. More important for professional development coaching is that coaches have keen appreciation for the problems and solutions associated with managing staff. Other prerequisites for strong coaches include listening well and helping clients solve their own problems using a wide variety of techniques.

Also, some clients assume that it is best to find coaches who closely resemble them, but there are no data to support the the conclusion that this is necessary for success. Helms agrees: “My coach does not share my race or gender. I have never found my coach to be ineffective based upon our cultural differences. In fact, they complement each other.”

As with any hiring situation, once a client has determined that the coach has the basic requirements, it comes down to fit. No coaching arrangement will work without mutual trust and good chemistry.

Some coaches push clients very hard to make changes, such as becoming more assertive or improving presentation skills. In these cases, the coach will often assign “homework” in between meetings. If a client does not want to have his or her feet held to the fire, it is important to make sure the coach is willing to employ a less directive style.

In cases of performance management coaching, the client’s supervisor may want the final say regarding the coach who is hired, and he or she will also want to be involved in setting clear expectations and timelines for observable change. Yet it would be counter‐productive for a manager to force a coach on an employee, if either party was convinced that coaching would not succeed. Before signing on the dotted line, clients will want to ensure that fees and logistical arrangements meet their criteria.

Logistical Issues and Costs

The length of a coaching assignment is typically six to12 months. It could be shorter if coaching is part of a performance improvement plan that requires that the staff member demonstrate a change in behavior by a certain date. The duration, frequency, and length of a coaching relationship are typically at the discretion of the client and are determined with budget issues in mind. Some managers prefer longer meetings every couple of weeks. Others enjoy the benefit of being able to pick up the phone to debrief situations as they arise. Of critical importance is the coach’s ability to get to know the client and his or her issues and goals very well because coaching is contextual. At the minimum, a two‐hour face‐to‐face meeting at the start of the coaching process is usually required. Follow-up meetings can take place by telephone if that method meets the needs of both parties.

The January 2007 Harvard Management Update reported that a six‐month arrangement with a highly qualified, highly experienced coach can cost between $15,000 and $30,000. Fortunately, coaches who work with academic leaders and managers have lower fee structures.

Nisbet reports that coaching fees for Duke University student affairs staff members typically range from $150 to $350. A discount of 10 to 15 percent can often be arranged if several staff members are working with the same coach or coaching company. Although fees are often quoted at an hourly rate, it may be possible to hire coaches on retainer for a certain period, during which time a staff member has access to the coach on an as‐needed basis.

Gain a Return on Investment

In 2008, Fast Company partnered with Brian Underhill of Coach Source to conduct a research project about coaching with 48 companies. The results of the survey attest to the value of coaching: 63 percent of the responding organizations reported that they planned to increase their use of coaching over the next five years, and 92 percent of the 86 leaders being coached said they expected to use a coach again.

Effective coaching can be valuable to organizations and individuals, but clear expectations about the scope of assignments and coaching styles are keys to success. Beyond agreed-upon expectations, the client must be committed to the process and be willing to leave his or her comfort zone. Both coach and client need to recognize that there are no one‐size‐fits‐all solutions, and there may be some trial and error involved in developing strategies. Openness, trust, and a willingness to hear and share observations are critical to successful coaching relationships.

It is important to note that coaching is not appropriate for all situations. If a manager or director has a particular skill deficiency, training may be more effective. Coaching is better suited to situations that are unique to the client, or where the ability to understand other “players” or the environment is important. No laws govern coaching confidentiality, and the person paying the bills may expect reports from either the coach or the client to validate the return on investment. The required scope of the report may be clearly articulated in the case of performance
improvement coaching, or take the form of a loose request for occasional updates. When updates are voluntary, it is helpful for the coach and client to agree on what will be shared so that a strong sense of trust remains. A report requirement is often perceived negatively by employees, but for the client receiving professional development coaching, feedback to a manager provides an excellent opportunity to talk about career goals, professional development, and management expectations. The likelihood that an investment in coaching will continue is directly linked to the payer’s perception of value.

A Win-Win Solution

Up to 90 percent of a student affairs budget is devoted to employee salary and benefits. In addition, turnover, poor morale, and performance issues all have significant time and cost implications. It makes good economic sense, therefore, to address problems before they arise.

Anecdotal information in academia indicates that coaching is a win‐win for employees and their institutions. Staff members respond well to suggestions for change that take into consideration their styles, backgrounds, and environments. Their supervisors appreciate that results are immediate and targeted to areas that most benefit individual employees’ performance. During times of significant change, coaching has the advantage of timeliness and focus.

Student affairs is ideally situated to lead the way in developing coaching as a effective training method for its employees. In the process, it will benefit from a workforce that is skilled, motivated, and ready to accept the challenges of a new era in academia.

Sheila Curran is a professional coach, specializing in academia. She holds the highest qualification in human resources, the SPHR, and is the former executive director of the Duke University Career Center. She held a similar position at Brown University before starting Curran Career Consulting in 2008. She can
be contacted at curranoncareers@gmail.com.

Example of a Coaching Assignment

Name: Stephanie Helms, EdD, Director, Assessment & Professional Development Programs
Duke University, Division of Student Affairs

Type of coaching received? Professional development

When did the coaching relationship start? October 2007

How often do you receive coaching? Once a month, with occasional homework
assignments

How long are the sessions? 45 to 60 minutes

What have you learned from coaching? I have strengthened my skills to be strategic in planning and deliberate in my actions. The opportunity to process every step from inception to implementation away from my work environment has been incredibly helpful.

What are the advantages of coaching versus other forms of professional
development? Coaching is uniquely designed for the individual. It allows the ability to measure growth and development over time against pre‐identified variables.

What qualifications or experience does the coach have that make the individual particularly useful to you? I appreciate the coach being skilled in listening and demonstrating appreciative inquiry—asking the right questions. Having an understanding of the environments and cultures I need to explore is essential.

Would you recommend coaching to your peers? I would absolutely recommend coaching to my peers, and I have. Coaching has helped me be more reflective about experiences, as opposed to complaining or feeling stuck
.

Why is this a good use of your budget? Coaching provides a return on investment
that is immeasurable because it has more of a direct impact than a traditional experience. It is individually designed and tailored to fit the needs of one person.

Types of Coaching Examples

Management 
A manager of residential life is promoted to an assistant vice president position, in
which he supervises former colleagues. His coach helps him navigate difficult human
resource issues while becoming a sounding board for his work in a new area: strategic
planning.

Professional Development
 A new career center director is hired from the corporate world. A coach works with her to
capitalize on the strengths and knowledge she brings to the position, while helping her to
adapt to the academic world.

Performance Improvement
 The director of student activities has developed wonderful relationships with students, but has been unable to develop a strong and competent staff. Working with a coach is part of a formal performance improvement plan.

Transition
 A 55-year-old director of judicial affairs has volunteered to take “early retirement” to save
money for the department, yet she still needs to work. A coach is hired to help the director
transition to a new position and life outside academia.

Leadership Development
 A mid-level manager is identified as someone with significant growth potential. She works with a coach to identify and address competence gaps and ensure a smooth transition to a higher-level position.

Advantages of Coaching over Other Forms of Training

• Tailored to an individual’s personal needs and context

• Focused on client’s goals

• On‐going and flexible

• Addresses situations as they arise

• Requires no travel

• Delivers proven return on investment

Questions to Address when Choosing a Coach

• Does the coach have a clear idea of how to achieve results through coaching?

• Does the coach have the required technical skill set (e.g., experience in management or
human resources)?
• Does the coach have the right personal characteristics (e.g., ability to establish
rapport, trustworthiness, willingness to listen)?

• Does the coach have an understanding of the client’s work and organizational
culture?

• Does the coach have a strong track record in coaching?

• Can the coach be available when needed and accommodate preferences for on‐site, in‐person, or telephone coaching?

• Are the coach’s fees within the budget for coaching?

Published in the NASPA Leadership Exchange magazine, Summer 2009 edition.

Career Advice for Liberal Arts Parents

Over a million and a half students will become college students for the first time this fall. According to studies conducted by the educational consulting firm, Eduventures, two thirds of these students will have chosen their selected college in large part based on the assumption that it will prepare them well for a career. But within minutes of setting foot on campus, all thoughts of the future will be obliterated by more mundane problems, such as negotiating with roommates about where to put the refrigerator, or finding the best Thai food. And once school actually starts, thoughts of career recede even further.

Parents go through their own form of denial about their children’s futures. The logic of choice: it’s good that the economy is bad now, because my son has four years for it to get better. Many parents also erroneously assume that if their son or daughter goes to a good school and does well, they will automatically receive a top job after graduation. (Based on the recent lawsuit filed by an unemployed graduate against her alma mater, some students labor under a similar misunderstanding.)

After working with thousands of parents at Duke University and Brown University, I’ve compiled a list of the top ten things that every parent of a liberal arts student needs to know about education and career.

1) Your sons and daughters will probably change their minds about their major at least once, and probably multiple times. That’s normal.

2) Not surprisingly, most students change their minds about their expected careers, too.

3) Students do not need to immediately put themselves into a pre-med or pre-law “box”. There are no pre-requisites for law school, and students are increasingly taking a full four years to complete medical school requirements.

4) It is now almost the norm to work for a year or two before going to grad school, law school or medical school. And, most top MBA programs only accept students with significant experience.

5) The subject matter of the major may not have anything in common with a student’s career aspiration. If it doesn’t, your son or daughter will need to supplement the major with relevant experiences outside the classroom
.

6) Internships are now a pre-requisite for success in finding a good position. Students who are most in demand by employers have often had two or three internships before graduation, and have built work skills and knowledge throughout their time in college.

7) College provides numerous opportunities outside of the classroom to build skills that employers covet. Club leadership, membership on an athletic team, and study abroad can all round out the resume. The key is to use these experiences to demonstrate commitment, skills development and learning.

8) Students who build strong relationships with grown-ups—faculty, administrators, alumni and other parents—will be way ahead in the career game. Connections count.

9) Your son or daughter should not wait until senior year to start exploring careers, examining options, building skills and developing application materials. An ideal time for the first visit to the careers office is early sophomore year.

10) Today’s students use their parents as a primary source of advice on careers. You will be doing your son or daughter a huge favor by encouraging exploration and experience, while letting them do the work!

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.

 

Laid Off: Choosing Outplacement Assistance vs. Salary Pay Off

Question:  I have been laid off from my mid-level management position, and have been offered outplacement assistance or an extra month of salary.  Which should I take?

Answer:  The first thing you need to discover is the nature of the outplacement agreement.  If you’re being offered a deluxe package, you can look forward to personal attention, including testing, contacts and individual coaching, as well as an office and clerical support for your job search. Conventional wisdom says the job search takes one month for every $10,000 in salary you desire, so this kind of intensive help can cut months off the time it takes to find a suitable position. If you were to purchase this kind of assistance yourself, it would probably set you back far more than one month’s salary.

On the other hand, the kind of outplacement services usually offered to mid-level managers involves mainly group meetings and standard advice. This can still be helpful, but it’s less clear that it justifies giving up hard cold cash.  It’s wise to give it a pass if you’re already a savvy job seeker, with an up-to-date resume, professional contacts and a sense of the market. Outplacement, ironically, has nothing to do with “placing” you in a job. It can, however, be worthwhile if you need the discipline of group meetings to keep your job search on track.

Regardless of the kind of outplacement offered, you’ll probably also be referred back to your alma mater for help. Many schools can help you find alumni connections in your current field, or one you’d like to enter.  Before signing on the bottom line for outplacement assistance, check if your college offers individual counseling, coaching, testing and job search advice. This is sometimes provided at no cost. You might even combine the resources of your alma mater with the services of an independent career coach, who can target her services to your specific needs.

Losing a job is never easy.  Luckily you have an employer who’s willing to provide help, even if you may not need it.

Employment and the New College Grad

Sheila Curran talks with Sara Nordhoff of the Forte Foundation in a webinar titled Smart Moves for Your Career: Positioning Yourself for Success in a Down Economy, January 21, 2009. The audience is women undergraduates interested in business, but the messages are applicable to all students and graduates. Sheila maintains that success in the job search is all about attitude, focus and strategy. The text of the webinar is below:

Sara: What does your crystal ball say about the employment outlook for college women?

Sheila: Well, Sara, there’s no doubt that there are dark clouds on the employment horizon. The US lost over a million jobs in the last two months of 2008 and conservatively, the projection is for 2 million more people losing their jobs in 2009.  And by all accounts, on-campus recruiters are making about 20% fewer offers than last year. So, it’s going to be more difficult to find jobs—whether in business or some other field. But there are jobs out there.  What we’re going to be talking about today is how to put yourself in the best position to get hired.

But first we need to talk about the elephant in the room…..

Sara: What is the elephant in the room?

Sheila:  For those unfamiliar with the expression, the elephant in the room refers to something big that’s in front of your eyes but no one talks about.  In this case it represents the fact that probably 50% of those listening are thinking in the back of their minds that if this “job” thing doesn’t work out the way they want, they’ll go to graduate school.  In fact, applications to grad school at places like Duke are up over 30% from last year. Faculty are undoubtedly encouraging this trend.

Sara:  Why shouldn’t recent grads go to graduate school?  It’ll make a lot of parents very happy, and students will be be able to ride out the recession.

Sheila: My strong advice is if you weren’t seriously thinking about graduate school before the economy tanked, don’t jump on that bandwagon now. For a woman interested in business, grad school may just be a fast way to more debt, and may not increase your chances of getting ahead.

Sara: Students are probably not hearing much about why they shouldn’t go to grad school immediately after graduating from college.

Sheila: You’re right, but I posed the question to a number of experts outside academia. Here are their responses:

Expert #1, employed in NYC:  It’s all about having work experience.  A master’s candidate without experience is much less useful that a bachelor’s candidate with experience, and is therefore less likely to get the job

Expert #2, business career advisor for undergraduates and graduate students at a top university: Students with master’s degrees and no relevant experience often don’t fit into employers’ hiring plans. And, they’re perceived as being too expensive.

Expert #3: Highly successful businessman: Don’t go immediately to grad school.  Get experience. I don’t care whether it’s working at McDonalds. More school immediately after college will not be to your advantage

So don’t believe me; believe the people doing the hiring in this economy.

Sara: Just to clarify, are you including MBA courses in what you said about grad school?

Sheila:  No, MBAs are completely different, because you almost always enter business school with several years of experience. The hiring situation is also difficult for B-School grads, but the strategies we’re talking about today are equally applicable.  And, just to clarify, there definitely are jobs where having an master’s degree could be to your advantage.  My advice, though, is to not assume the benefits of a degree program you’re considering without checking out those assumptions with hiring managers.

Sara:  So, if employers aren’t looking for women with graduate degrees, what are they looking for?

Sheila:  They’re looking for KSA:  Knowledge, skills and abilities. The good hiring manager, who’s been trained to interview (which is not always the case), is going to compare the needs of her employer to your qualifications.  If your major doesn’t indicate that you understand the industry where you’re applying for a job, you need to find a way to show you have the required knowledge through courses, work experiences and possibly even extracurricular activities.

Skills and abilities are less likely to come from the classroom, but you can draw from all your college experiences—on and off campus.  Hiring managers may make assumptions about your level of competence from your GPA and your major, but they don’t know about your skills and abilities unless you highlight them.  That means specifically mentioning skills and abilities in your resume and cover letter and giving examples.

Sara:  So what you’re basically saying is that in the absence of a personal connection, it’s your combination of relevant knowledge, skills and abilities that will get you the interview.

Sheila:  Right, but getting the job is going to require that you ALSO possess three other critical attributes:  A great attitude, clear focus, and a well-thought-through job search strategy

It’s interesting.  If you ask most people what it takes to get a job, few will tell you about attitude, focus and strategy. But that’s what we’re going to concentrate on today. Because there are thousands of new grads out there with a great education, and even good experience. It’s the addition of attitude, focus and strategy that will help you beat the competition.

Let’s start by talking about attitude.

Sara: Attitude is one of those nebulous characteristics.  What exactly do you mean?

Sheila: I’m using attitude in the employment context to mean four things: if you want to succeed in this market, you have to be positive, pragmatic, prepared and persistent. The fact is, most candidates don’t have the perfect blend of knowledge, skills and abilities. And if an employer has a choice between one slightly imperfect candidate and another, she’ll pick the one with the good attitude every time. An employer recently gave me an example of this. On paper the candidate for a technology sales position didn’t look as qualified as some of the others.  But in the interview, her knowledge of the product line and genuine enthusiasm shone through.

Sara: The woman in your example showed her positive attitude through her enthusiasm.  Is there anything more you want to say about being positive? For example, what strategies do you have for staying positive when there’s so much bad news around?

Sheila:  Funnily enough, the first strategy I’d employ is not putting yourself in a position where the chances of rejection are almost 100%. Let me give an example: A student came to work in my careers office, with the clear purpose of getting first access to any available business-related job openings. Sounds like a good idea. Unfortunately, he shot himself in the foot by applying indiscriminately online for any opening.  He didn’t get a job that way, and when he did hear back from an employer—pretty rare in itself—it was always a rejection. That can make anyone depressed.

Sara: Are you suggesting that college women not apply for jobs where all it takes is to apply on line?

Sheila: I know of instances where students have gotten jobs through sites like Monster or Craig’s List, but they tend to be lower level, commission sales, or technology jobs.  Look at it this way, if you can easily find a job listing through an online site, so can thousands of others. So your chances will only be good if you can find some additional ways to get the employer’s attention.

Sara: So far, I’m even more depressed. What are the reasons to be positive?

Sheila: The number one reason is that it can get you a job.  Let’s assume you have the basic skills and qualifications, and you’re invited for an interview. Genuine enthusiasm for the opportunity, and for the value you can provide, is infectious.  People like to be around upbeat people, and employers are no different. So if you’re down about the job search, don’t let it show.

Sara:  OK, let’s move on to your second point.

Sheila:  OK, point #2, you need to have a pragmatic attitude. Easy example:  Last year, you wanted to work in the investment banking industry. This year, unless you’re one of the few people who got hired from an internship—in which case you’re not on this call—you’ll need to expand your horizons to look for work.

Sara:  What do you mean by “expand your horizons”?

Sheila: It might mean thinking “finance” not “i-banking”, and considering smaller companies, different geographic locations, or different ways of employing your interests and skill sets

Sara: Your third point is being prepared.  But isn’t everyone well prepared for the job search in this economy?

Sheila: It’s certainly true that successful job hunters will spend an enormous amount of time preparing for the job search. So let’s test the notion of being prepared.  I’d like our audience to think about the degree to which they would be prepared to do an on the spot telephone interview for a position in which they’re really interested, but for which they applied three months ago online. Being prepared means either having an extraordinary memory, or having records of your applications and interactions in an easily retrievable database. Of course, if the employer calls at 10am, and your computer is invisible under a pile of clothes and you still haven’t had that essential cup of coffee, it’s worth asking if you can call them back in a few minutes.

Sara: Do you have any success stories of students or recent grads who were particularly well prepared?

Sheila: Yes I do.  Sharon comes to mind. She’s one of the women profiled in my book, Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads.  Sharon was a buyer for a major retail chain, but she really wanted a job writing about the fashion industry. Here’s where taking graduate classes really was the right decision.  Because Sharon knew that she couldn’t just move from retail to writing, even if she knew the field about which she wanted to write. So she signed up for an NYU evening journalism class. That was the first smart move.  The second was to have her wits about her when she approached a woman on the subway as she was heading to class.  She noticed the logo on the woman’s jacket was for Newsday, one of New York’s biggest papers.  Sharon started a conversation about the woman’s work, and then told the woman about her interest in getting into the business of writing about fashion. Fast forward, and Sharon got a gig writing online articles about fashion. Of course, she couldn’t immediately give up her day job, but this chance meeting gave her the inside track to a new career.  Sharon knew what she wanted to do, and she was prepared when luck appeared.  That preparation gives you the confidence to take advantage of serendipity.  It’s also a powerful reminder to develop your elevator speech.

Sara: What’s an elevator speech?

Sheila:  It’s a short (up to thirty seconds)  pitch for what you want to do.  The idea is that if you found yourself in an elevator with a business leader who asked what you were doing in the building, you could tell such a compelling story that when you reached your stop that leader would want to continue the conversation with you.

Sara: So Sharon probably had the components of her elevator pitch in mind when she approached the woman from Newsday, and she was able to weave her pitch into the conversation. Sharon certainly has a good story, but how often does that kind of luck happen?

Sheila:  Probably more frequently than you might think.  When I was researching the book I coauthored on careers, I consistently heard people crediting their success to the fact that they were in the right place at the right time.  You have to be prepared if you want to take advantage of serendipity.  But realistically, most people have to be more persistent than Sharon, particularly when it comes to the job search.

Sara: Isn’t there a danger that employers will get annoyed with the persistent applicant?

Sheila: You’re right. So here’s the strategy.  (This is assuming that the job you’re applying for isn’t going through the on-campus recruiting process, and that you have the opportunity to send a cover letter)

1) The last sentence on your cover letter should say how much you look forward to talking with the company about your background and experience and how you can add value to xyz company. Then indicate that you’ll follow up in 2 weeks to make sure that they have all the information they need, and to see if you might arrange a personal appointment.

2) Follow up at the appropriate time.  The company will probably tell you they have your resume and that they’re not ready to make any decisions about whom to interview

3) Say that you’re still very interested in the position, and ask when would be an appropriate time to follow up again

4) If they give you a date, follow up at the specified time, starting with the statement that you’re following up as suggested by xyz person

If you follow these steps you’ll be combining persistence with respect.  Of course, if you also find someone in the company to speak on your behalf, you’re golden.

So, we’ve talked about attitude and the need to be positive, pragmatic, prepared and persistent.  Now let’s talk about why you need to be focused.

Sara:  How important is it to know exactly what you want to do?

Sheila: It may be the difference between getting the job and not getting the job.  There’s a real temptation when you’re desperate to get a job to say you’ll do anything.  But that’s exactly the wrong thing to say. Employers don’t want to have to think about where they can use your skills. In this market, you have to be totally focused on what you want to do and how you can add value to the employer.  Essentially, however much of a square peg you might be, if the employer has a round hole, you have to make yourself fit into that round hole.  It’s all about making it easy for the employer to hire you.

Sara: So it’s good that students and graduates on this call probably already know they want to go into business?

Sheila:  Yes, but let’s remember how many different areas of business there are. Having a general direction is great, but knowing specifically where you’d be a good fit is much better.

Sara: Are there any areas of business that are growing and where it might be easier to find work?

Sheila:  You can find business jobs in just about any career field, so it’s worth following the news and anticipating which areas are growing and where federal  stimulus money may be spent over the next year. Areas where there may be opportunities are sustainability and energy conservation; risk management; areas of the federal government; health care, and education. But don’t wait until everyone else finds those opportunities.  Take the initiative to go down to your local Chamber of Commerce or Economic Development office and find out who’s starting businesses in the area where you want to work. Sometimes working for a start up can give you an education you’d never get in a larger company—even if you do have to do your share of filing.

Sara: Any other suggestions for someone who’s totally clueless about career direction?

Sheila:  Yes.  I’d hightail it over to your careers office and ask to take some assessment instruments to see where your talents and interests might best be employed.  Don’t forget to debrief the results with a counselor to make the most of the assessment. And then investigate potential fields of interest, for example by reading the Vault guides. Many careers offices provide access to Vault guides online.

Sara: We’ve covered attitude and focus.  Your next point, Sheila, is that college women need to have a strategy. Why is the job search strategy you use so important these days?

Sheila:  Strategy is what’s going to help you beat the competition. You should have both a micro strategy, which you employ when you’re applying for a specific job and a macro strategy for how you run your whole job search.  And by the way,  the strategies you use for your first real job can be employed at any time in the future, too. Let’s start with micro strategy, as in how you approach a specific job opening.

Sara:  Can you back up for a minute and talk about how our audience can decide what to apply for?

Sheila:  Yes.  Here are some basic rules. Only apply if

1) You have at least 75% of the qualifications, and 100% of the really important ones, like being a college graduate with experience

2) You know you can psyche yourself up to convey interest in the employment opportunity in both your documents and in an in-person interview

3) You’re willing to spend time researching the job and the company, and figuring out how you can add value to the company

Remember, the job search is not about you. Until you get the offer, it’s all about the employer.

Sara: So where does the strategy come in?

Sheila:  You have to be more prepared than the competition.  That means going way beyond the job description and the website to find out more about the opportunity, and identifying actual examples of what you’ve accomplished that relate specifically to the job at hand.

Once you’ve done your due diligence about the job, and found out more about the position and the company, it’s time to see if you can identify a connection or alumna who works at the company and who can give you the inside scoop.  In your conversation with the contact, tell her which job you’ve applied for, and that you are very interested in their company.  Your reason for talking to her is to find out how you can best position yourself to get hired.  The key here is to build rapport—so much so that you gain a supporter within the company.

Sara:  I think this is probably an area we’ll want to explore later in more detail.

Sheila:  Yes, we don’t have time to go into too much detail on the micro side. So, let’s move on to big picture strategies. My first macro strategy point is that you need to choose your board of directors.

Sara:  Are board member positions paid positions? 

Sheila:  Unfortunately no.  These are knowledgeable people, who have your best career interests at heart and who will tell you the truth. That means, by definition, they are not your parents or your best friends who are way too biased.

Sara:  So who should be your board members, and what do they do?

Sheila:  They could include a faculty member, a career advisor, an alumna or sorority sister in your field of interest.  They’re people who—based on your request– have agreed to give you feedback on your resume and cover letter, hear your elevator pitch, potentially even practice interview with you. Your board should be up to date on your thinking about career direction and be available to help you make good decisions. Keep them in the loop on what’s happening in your career search and listen to their advice carefully, even if you don’t take it.  They may think of additional avenues you could explore, and they’re particularly helpful if you’re dealing with either multiple job offers or multiple rejections.

Sara:  What else is on the list of macro strategies?

Sheila: There’s not a person I know who’d disagree with the idea that, however qualified you are, you have to network like crazy.

Sara: Networking seems like asking for help to many women, and makes them very uncomfortable.

Sheila:  You’re right that it’s a new skill for many women, but before you say “I don’t want to do that”, it’s worth looking at the benefits.  The more people who know you’re looking for work, and are impressed with your knowledge, skills and abilities, the more opportunities will open up for you.  You may be more comfortable if you realize that all you’re supposed to be doing is having a conversation with another person.  Most of the time you won’t be talking about the help you need unless the person you’re talking to offers the help first.

Here’s a tip for those of you who hate the idea of initiating a conversation about your career aspirations. Start with people you know, like relatives, who naturally open the door for you to talk about how school is going. Learn how to weave your future plans into the conversation. And don’t discount school advisors with whom you have a good relationship.  One student I know asked the professor teaching an undergrad law class whether he thought she should go to law school.  At first she was really upset, because he said “absolutely not”, but he followed it up with the comment that he saw her as being very successful in the entertainment business.  And then he did something that really surprised her:  he introduced her by email to his old college roommate, who was a film director in Hollywood.  This student now works in the entertainment field.

Sara:  I can see why you highly recommend networking. What’s next on your list of macro strategies?

Sheila: Here’s a very uncommon, but extremely useful strategy: identify and address your competence gaps.  That means, in simple terms, consider the types of jobs you want to apply for, and identify where you don’t meet the qualifications. If you do this now, you may have time to fix the problem before you apply for the jobs.

Sara: Do all candidates typically meet all qualifications?

Sheila:  No, but if you consistently see jobs of interest requiring a facility with Excel or Powerpoint, and you don’t know those programs, it’s really a good idea to learn them. Harpreet, another recent grad profiled in my book had excellent non-profit management skills but no formal grounding in business.  So she deliberately applied to work at a consulting firm where she could learn good business skills. The key in this economy is “don’t give them any excuse to reject you”.

Sara:  Just as a matter of interest, how long does it usually take for an employer to evaluate your application?

Sheila:  You’re doing well if they even spend 30 seconds on your documents, so make sure one of your competence gaps isn’t the inability to proofread!

Sara:  There’s a theme here, and it seems to be “employers have the upper hand, so give them what they want”.

Sheila:  You’re right. The piece of advice I give most frequently to students and recent grads is to think like an employer. I’ve already alluded to the fact that you need to make it easy for an employer to hire you.

Sara: Can you make that practical?  Take a resume, for example.  How can you demonstrate “thinking like an employer” in a resume?

Sheila: Most of us have a lot of different attributes, and we’re very proud of all of them – or at least our parents are.  There’s a temptation to a) put all of them down on the resume, including winning the jeopardy quiz in high school and b) send the same resume and cover letter to every employer.

Sara: Wait a minute.  Are you saying that you need to customize every cover letter and resume?

Sheila: Cover letters definitely need to be customized for the employer, because you want to highlight how your accomplishments will help you be an excellent fit with the open positions.  But it’s often helpful to rearrange your accomplishments on your resume, too, so that the most important items stand out more effectively.  Here’s a tip.  Give your resume to an acquaintance, and ask them to tell you what parts of your background, experience or characteristics stand out.  It’s a great check on whether you’re actually conveying what you want to convey.

Sara:  Isn’t it enough to just change the name of the company throughout the cover letter?

Sheila:  I can assure you that companies sniff out the quasi form letter virtually every time.  If you don’t write something really specific about why you truly want to work for the employer, they’ll probably ditch your application pretty quickly—that’s unless they’re doing what I call “hiring by the numbers”.

Sara:  What’s “hiring by the numbers”?

Sheila:  That’s when an employer doesn’t even want a cover letter; they just want to see that you have a certain GPA from a certain school, a particular major, and specific experience.  If that’s the case, you truly have to be a round peg for the round hole, or you won’t even get a chance to shine in an interview.

Sara:  Do you have any advice on resumes?

Sheila:  There are plenty of good sources of advice on resumes, including professionals in most careers offices, but two things are very important.  First, unless you worked full time before coming to college, make it a maximum of one page.  And second, make sure you list accomplishments, not just job duties, and quantify what you did where if at all possible.  Give your resume to a couple of detail-oriented friends to look over and make sure it’s word perfect. Spell check doesn’t catch everything! And don’t forget, the employer is going to be reading your documents with their requirements in mind.  The easier you make it for the hiring manager to find your matching skill set, the better.

Sara: I’m sure there will be questions from the audience about how to best present yourself to an employer.  But one of the things we said we’d do today was to highlight how to beat the competition.

Sheila:  Yes.  And that brings me to my last key point of strategic advice:  Find your hook.

Sara: I think you’ll have to explain more. What’s a hook?

Sheila:  A hook is some characteristic you possess, or an action you take, that separates you from your competition. Probably everyone in the audience employed some kind of hook to get into college.  It could have been a particularly high SAT score, or athletic prowess, or starting a non-profit company. It’s the same idea when working with employers.  Do you have something they can remember you by? It could be something personal like the fact that you climbed Mount Killimanjaro, or you could be like Theresa, who always writes personalized handwritten thank you letters to those who’ve helped, or interviewed her.

But even more powerful is the work hook. If you’re applying to work in a corporate area at Honda, being fluent in Japanese might be your hook.  Or, you might have consistently demonstrated a willingness to go above and beyond what was expected in each of your internships—and have the references to prove it.  And don’t underestimate the opportunity for non-profit work to provide you with business experience hook.  After graduation, Sara joined the Peace Corps in Morocco to learn a language, but in working for a small NGO there, Sara learned a huge amount about women’s small business development and developed an interest in micro finance. A skill set or knowledge that most people don’t have can be your hook.

Sara:  So our listeners should think about their own hook, in the context of the work they want to do?

Sheila: You got it!

Sara: These examples are very helpful.  Do you have any suggestions as to how students and recent graduates can find more helpful stories.

Sheila: Well, coming to webinars like this, and Forte Foundation presentations on campus, is a great start.

Sara: Yes, and many listeners may be unaware that Forte also has a section on its website called “Girl Talk”.  That’s a place to continue the kinds of discussions we’re having in this webinar.  What else, Sheila?

Sheila:  I can’t say enough about the value of informational interviewing to get career advice from those more experienced, who’ve already made their mistakes. Many women are shy about reaching out for this kind of advice, but you just have to. Sometimes if you concentrate on asking questions about someone else’s career, you’ll be less self-conscious.

Sara: Who can you go to for informational interviews?

Sheila: A good place to start is with your existing connections:  aunts, uncles, business colleagues of your parents. But you also have to mine your alumni network, and events where alumni come back and share their career histories.  Those are particularly helpful if you can wangle a way to be a host.  You may also find your career center a great source of referrals and information.

Sara: Can you talk about what students and young alums might get from your book.

Sheila.  Absolutely. Thousands of people have found my book Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads:  Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career to be really inspirational. That’s because it talks about careers in context.  Smart Moves contains the stories of 23 fairly recent grads who found work they loved, and tells of the smart moves they took to become successful. (It also talks about some dumb moves, that you would hopefully avoid!)

Sara:  How does your book relate to business?

Sheila:  Actually the advice in the book is applicable to a career search in any career field, and quite a few of the people we profiled went on to get an MBA. When the book was used in the Engineering department at Duke, they changed the name to Smart Moves for Engineering Grads! It could easily be called Smart Moves for Business.

Sara: We’re getting close to the end of the formal portion of this webinar, so Sheila, do you want to recap the smart career moves our audience should be thinking about?

Sheila:  Yes, there are essentially three things to always keep in mind while you’re going through the job search:

First:  Keep a positive attitude—no matter what happens

Second:  Be focused on what you want to do and where you can add value and

Third: Design a custom strategy for your career search and for any position in which you’re interested.

Sara:  So any final words of wisdom?

Sheila:  If there’s anything I want students and recent graduates to know, it’s this:  The unemployment rate may be creeping up, but the unemployment rate for college grads is typically about half the national average.  There are jobs out there, and there are smart moves you can make to get them.

So don’t hyperventilate; don’t feel you have to go to graduate school to wait out the recession.  Know yourself and your skills so well that you can go out there and wow your future employer.

Good Luck!

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.

Finding a Job in 2009: A Current Applicant Perspective

There are dire warnings about the employment market for 2009 grads, but what’s the real situation for current job applicants, and how can you make yourself more attractive to employers? Sheila Curran talks with Kesav Mohan, a 2009 graduate of Duke Law School, about law, consulting and entrepreneurship.

Sheila Curran (SC): Many people have predicted that graduates of undergraduate, graduate and professional schools will have a hard time finding work in 2009.  You’re going to be graduating next May with a law degree and have been looking for work.  On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most difficult time, how bad is the employment situation looking for new grads?

Kesav Mohan (KM): Sadly, I would put the situation at about a 7. The legal field tends to be among the “safest” professions – law students are usually pretty comfortable with their job prospects. Unfortunately, the lack of business activity means that law firms are getting less work. Which means they are hiring less. So I would say that a 7 is pretty accurate.

SC: What kind of work have you been considering?

KM: Law firms and consulting. I’m also launching a new product under my company: cashbackautomator.com. It’s getting some pretty good reviews.

SC: I know you have a good offer to join a law firm. How have things been progressing on the consulting front?

KM: Unfortunately, I didn’t get a consulting job. I made it to the last couple rounds of a couple firms. I was told that if it had been last year, I would have made it farther in the process.

While consulting firms have gone through the motions of hiring, they actually are severely cutting back on how many new hires they take on. The reasons are that they are seeing a lot less attrition from the firms, they are expecting to get less work, and they are seeing a flood of candidates from MBA and undergraduate schools. These candidates tend to be people who had ibanking or other finance jobs, and are now shifting their applications over.

SC: You were successful in getting interviews. Why do you think companies were interested in you?

KM: Bar none, it was the diversity of my experiences. I’ve been fortunate to do a lot of varied things – from traveling around the world to owning my own company.

I think it’s important to note that people were more impressed by my “initiative” experiences than anything else. What did I start? Who did it help? What challenges did I face? Any job I have applied for has been impressed by the fact that I’ve sweated to transition so many things from the idea stage to reality.

Ultimately, you need to have a story. I think the biggest mistake that candidates make is not putting themselves in their interviewers’ shoes. Take a look at your resume with a critical eye. Is there anything there that makes you special or standout? If not, you better go find something. And don’t do it right before your interview. Build your life experiences early and often.

There are tons of kids who come from good schools. Or get good grades. Or do [enter typical activity here]. But ultimately, an interviewer has to pick. So the question is – what have you done that is memorable? I’m lucky to have a lot of stories – worked in prisons in South Africa, lived in Ireland, etc.

SC: What insight can you share with candidates interested in consulting positions?

KM: Prepare. You really need to prepare. Get the consulting books and go to as many practice interviews as possible. Frankly, I did a ton…but still didn’t do enough.

Also spend a lot of time doing math in your head. Learn how to round numbers. You will be impressive if you can get the answer to a numbers problem quickly.

SC: What about general job search advice for a deteriorating economy–for undergrads as well as graduate and professional students?

KM: Two things.

First, this is an excellent time to start a business. People always worry about access to capital. But the flip side to a bad economy is that there is a ton of skilled available labor and cheap resources. Good people are willing to work at lower prices, and people are selling a ton of goods.

Second, build a diverse skill set. Start thinking about how to learn skills you wouldn’t normally consider. There are still a ton of jobs out there – but they want people who can do “X”. They more you can prove to employers that you don’t need training to do a particular task, the better.

Kesav Mohan biography:

Kesav graduated from Duke University in 2004 with a self-designed major in Global Justice. He was fortunate to win the George J. Mitchell Scholarship to spend one year in Ireland completing his Masters in International Relations at Dublin City University. He then won the ELI Fellowship, where he spent one year working for non-profits in five different countries: Dubai, Venezuela, Canada, USA, and Ireland. He recently created CashbackAutomator.com.

How can I get a job in finance in 2009?

Question:  I really want to go into finance when I graduate next year.  I know the situation is bad, but there have to be some jobs available.  How can I make myself more competitive?

Answer: To get the inside scoop on jobs in finance, Sheila Curran asked an expert, Dr. Emma Rasiel of Duke University, for her opinion.  In this article, Dr. Rasiel shares insights and essential strategies for graduating seniors.

•••

Sheila Curran: We’ve heard a great deal about problems in the banking industry which are anticipated to continue in 2009.  How has that affected opportunities for new college grads, particularly in the highly-coveted investment banking positions?

Emma Rasiel: Unquestionably the number of available investment banking jobs will be much smaller.  The investment banking industry, and more generally the economy, are expected to continue to contract over the next several months.  Along with these changes come inevitable layoffs at all levels of the financial industry.  While the banks are expected to continue to hire new college grads, they will inevitably hire significantly fewer.

Sheila Curran: Which students still have a shot of being hired this year? What characterizes their background, experience or skills?

Emma Rasiel: Students will need to demonstrate more clearly than ever their genuine and longstanding interest in finance, as well as evidence of considerable preparation. In order to get interviews, students’ resumes will need to indicate academic excellence in a quantitative/analytical field of study, relevant extra-curriculars, and ideally some finance-related work experience.  The era of “taking a chance” on a student with limited relevant background/coursework/experience is over. 

Sheila Curran: Are there areas within investment banks that are easier to enter than others?

Emma Rasiel: As always, the banks will hire more students for Banking and Sales & Trading than for other areas (such as asset management or research).  But I think that the supply of available jobs in all of these areas will have shrunk.

Sheila Curran: If students have the required background and experience, how can they separate themselves from the pack and get the job?

Emma Rasiel: Take the time to read the Wall Street Journal every day and follow the significant stories so that you can talk intelligently about them in interviews.  Try to get an understanding of what has been happening over the last few months, and ways in which it has affected the industry.  There are almost daily stories about the credit/liquidity problem in the news media—read broadly on these, and start to develop your own view of what went wrong.  Some possible explanations include:

  • Greenspan’s loose interest rate policy in the first few years of this decade, following the dot-com boom and bust.
  • The erroneous belief across both Wall Street and Main Street that house prices would always go up.  
  • Predatory lending practices
  • Political short-sightedness in urging Freddie and Fannie to broaden their range of what is “acceptable” borrower income and documentation for a home loan
  • Advances in financial technology, permitting ever more complex and opaque financial securities.
  • Lack of accountability at each level of the lending-securitizing-investing chain.

An ability to talk intelligently about all of these issues, and even better, to have a view on which were essential precursors vs mere exacerbators, will give students the wherewithal to differentiate themselves in interviews.

Sheila Curran: What advice do you have for sophomores and juniors who are hoping to join investment banks after graduation?

Spread your net far more widely than just “traditional” investment banking!  The number of available jobs in the “big banks” has shrunk considerably, but there are other finance jobs out there, in which you can learn similar skills and still get your career off to a great start. Think about mid-market investment banks, private equity, asset management, hedge funds.  It will be harder to find jobs in these institutions, since they are less likely to recruit on campus, so you may have to do your own primary research:

  • Who are they?
  • Where are they located?
  • What is the application process?
  • What skills/experience are they looking for?

On the plus side, students who are willing to go to this extra effort will then clearly differentiate themselves from students who simply wait for these firms to show up on campus—if they do so at all.

Dr. Emma Rasiel is a Professor in the Economics Department at Duke University, as well as the Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies. Professor Rasiel completed her PhD in finance at the Fuqua School of Business, Duke University, in 2003. Prior to beginning the PhD program, she spent seven years at Goldman Sachs, including five years in London as a bond options trader. She holds an MBA from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and an MA in Mathematics from Oxford University.

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.

“Major” Decisions

Choosing a college major can feel like an overwhelming decision. Teen Ink asked Duke University Career Center’s Sheila J. Curran to give some expert advice. Here’s what she had to say:

Moms, dads, aunts, uncles, friends. As soon as you reach high school, they’re asking you where you want to go to college. Their next question, invariably, is “what are you going to major in?” The answer is supposed to come tripping off your tongue, but your likely reaction is to want to bury your head in the pillow. The reality is that most teens are confused about their direction. Colleges provide plenty of majors that aren’t even available in high school. And what you are good at in high school may be very different from where you excel at the college level. To help you figure out the right major for you, here are some questions you should ask yourself.

Are you sure you want the subject matter of your major to be your career? If you major in accounting, employers will assume you want to be an accountant. A pre-professional major can be helpful if you know exactly what career you want to pursue when you graduate, but it can also pigeon-hole you.

Are you truly interested in a particular subject? If your passion is history, don’t be put off by the fact that you can’t associate history with a future job title. If you study a liberal arts subject, you’ll be gathering plenty of job-related skills, like research, communication and problem-solving ability. And if you study a subject you enjoy, you’re likely to work harder and get a better GPA.

Do you need to decide now? Many colleges allow you up to two years to declare a major. This gives you time to try new subjects and explore where they may lead. The vast majority of students change their minds about what to study — often several times — between the time they start college and the time they declare a major.

When you get to college, you’ll find plenty of advisors who are willing to help you plan your education, and tell you how to reach your educational and career objectives. So unless you have to commit to a particular course of study prior to going to college, tell your family “I haven’t decided on a major. But I’m sure I’ll figure it out.”

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

 

Designing Your Own Career Makeover

The holidays are coming!  So what’s on your wish list?  A Caribbean cruise? Playstation 3? Tickets to the revival of Les Miserables?  All great choices.  But the best gift—the one that you ultimately appreciate the most–may be the one that you give yourself: a career makeover.

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 your current employer is still good for you.

If your analysis indicates that switching employers is a prudent move, how do you find a good “fit” somewhere else?  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.  They’re 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.

2007 is a great time for a career makeover.  The job market is robust and excellent opportunities abound, particularly for those with college degrees. But that doesn’t mean you have to move on. After you’ve done your homework, you may decide that the best place to be is exactly where you are now.

If that’s the case, don’t think you wasted your time going through the four steps. This work will help you be much better prepared when you are ready to make a move. Anything that makes you count your blessings is truly a gift!  Happy holidays.

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.

Strategies for the Career Fair

How many times have you remarked that it seemed like only yesterday that you left high school?  Now you’re much closer to your college graduation, and you probably can’t imagine the next stage of your life – being employed.  Will coming to the Career Fair get you a job?  Probably not.  But by following some of the advice below, it can move you several steps ahead in the job search.  For those of you who are “just looking”, have fun, get information and save the advice for when you’re ready to find a job.

Imagine yourself in the shoes of the person “across the table” representing a company. They’ve often come a substantial distance and they’re on a mission.  They want to convince YOU that they should be your employer of choice.  But this goes both ways: YOU have to convince them that you are their candidate of choice.

How do you do that?  Here are some key ways to getting noticed:

Dress and act the part. Dressing as though they’d already selected you for an interview is always helpful.  Even if you have a 4.0 and tons of extracurriculars, you probably need to forego the body piercings if you want to have them give you a second look. (The right kind of second look.)

Read the company’s website.  You’ll usually find the url’s of Career Fair attendees listed on your career center’s website.  This can save you a lot of time, and the research will make you appear more focused.  It can also help you avoid going to tables of companies in which you are no longer interested.

Make sure you have a targeted approach.  If the employer sees you weighed down by the freebies of dozens of other companies, they may not take you seriously.  Plan to spend at least 5 minutes at each organization in which you’re really interested.

Wow the employer with intelligent questions.  If you’re just looking, you can ask questions like “So what does your company do”.  But if you really want to get noticed, ask them their reaction to articles you’ve read in the news about the company, or more personal questions like “what do you like best about working at xyz company”. (It’s probably a good idea to make small talk first!)

Go to a table when there aren’t too many people around.  Employers hate to stand waiting for someone to come to them.  Get up early, be the first at the table of the employer in which you’re most interested.

Build a relationship.  This is hard to do if there are a lot of students in line, but if you can spend 5-10 minutes chatting with the recruiter, they will remember you a lot better. (See 3) above: get up early!)

Don’t assume they wouldn’t want you because you have a lower GPA.  There are plenty of instances where good human relations skills (aka, the fine art of intellectual schmoozing) has made up for resume deficiencies.

…and talking of resumes

Make sure you leave the organization a copy of your resume that highlights your background and talents, particularly as they relate to the kind of job in which you’re interested.   (You may need to have more than one version of your resume.) A career fair is the one place that your resume always has to stand alone, without a cover letter.

Check out when the employer’s information session will be held.  Ask the representative at the Career Fair whether you’ll be able to continue your conversation with them at that time.  Often companies send different people to the Career Fair and Information Sessions, but you’ll still impress them with your knowledge of company activities.

Ask for the representative’s business card and ask if you can follow up with them after the Career Fair.  Then, FOLLOW UP! Doing what you say you’re going to do sets you apart from most applicants.

GOOD LUCK!

The Over-Qualification Quandary

Will 2008 be the year you finally make good on your resolution to give up the daily grind and find work you love? Perhaps you’re a lawyer who’s painfully aware that being in a courtroom isn’t as much fun as it looks on TV. Or, maybe you’re a baby boomer, whose concept of retirement is an opportunity to do meaningful work, rather than joining the golf crowd. Unfortunately, downshifting or changing your career is easier said than done, even when you have a lifetime of experience in a wide variety of positions. To be successful, you’ll need to jettison some old assumptions about how to find jobs.

When you’ve applied for positions in the past, you’ve proudly listed accomplishments. You thought climbing the corporate ladder was a plus. And in your old life, it was. But when you’re applying for work in a completely different field or at a lower level, your stellar resume may be treated with suspicion.

A potential employer, who hasn’t been privy to your soul searching, is likely to see multiple red flags in your application. The hiring manager can’t understand why, for example, you would want a job that pays perhaps a quarter of what you’re currently making. She may doubt your sincerity, commitment, or understanding of the work environment. Worse, you may be perceived as not having the basic skills for the lower level work. So, you’re not only overqualified, but under-qualified as well, and your application is likely to be consigned to the circular file.

This means that you are going to have to find a way to tell your story. And you can’t do that with a standard application or a laid-back “come and find me” approach. The key to getting your application to the top of the pile is focus, preparation, and a fair dose of chutzpah.

Focus

It pays to know exactly where you want to work, why you want to work there, and what you have to offer. Don’t waste your time applying online to hundreds of jobs or going through headhunters. Replying to job ads is another recipe for disappointment, because your application, by itself, will raise the dreaded red flags. Preparing careful approaches to twenty employers will get you much further.

Always do on-line, in-depth research on your targeted employers and their personnel. The more you discover, the better you’ll be able to identify where you might fit within the organization. And advance information about the background of your future boss or interviewer can be invaluable.

Preparation

Throw out your old approach to resumes and cover letters. When an employer reads your application, he doesn’t want to know about your 10 years of progressively responsible experience in a different industry. He wants the answers to “red flag” questions. Your new resume should demonstrate that you have the knowledge, skills and abilities for the open position—not one several levels up. And, your new cover letter should provide a compelling argument for why you want the position for which you’re applying, and why you’re the right person.

A good way to re-invent yourself on paper is to do a combination functional and chronological resume. In the functional part, you can easily zoom in on the experience and characteristics your new employer needs, highlighting accomplishments in each area. Don’t forget your volunteer work; it may be the most relevant experience you have. And remember that when you list the positions you’ve held, you get to decide how far back in your work chronology to go. You don’t have to include that first job out of college—or even your first few positions. Nor do you have to state your date of graduation.

I once avoided being viewed as over-qualified by not sending a resume at all for a position that was significantly lower than the one I’d left when I moved from Washington, D.C., to Rhode Island. I simply wrote the hiring manager a three-page letter describing how I thought I could be helpful in the open position. The letter got me in the door for an interview, and only after I was hired was I asked for my resume.

Chutzpah

However compelling your application, you have to find a way to reinforce your value through a face-to-face meeting. There is no substitute for personal connections, so cultivate relationships with friends and fellow alumni who work in your chosen field. Find like-minded people through CivicVentures.org, or—for women—thetransitionnetwork.org.

Any time a trusted person puts in a good word for you with an influential person in your desired field, you have a major advantage. Ultimately, of course, your goal is to get an interview for an open position, but with a little chutzpah, you can often get your foot in the back door, even if an opportunity doesn’t officially exist.

Dan was a seasoned international business executive who wanted to transition to a lower level position in academia for his final working decade. He focused on North Carolina, moved to the area, researched target institutions and departments, read job descriptions of open positions, and prepared his resume. Then he got to work making calls requesting informational interviews. With his foot in the door, and a good story, Dan was referred to many other department heads. He started by asking for information. But after several “informational” interviews, he ended up with a job in the international studies department.

Over-qualified does not mean unemployable. Your background and experience provides much material with which to work. But recasting yourself in a new light requires a different mindset. With focus, preparation and chutzpah, you’ll soon be on your way to a more fulfilling life.

First published in BusinessWeek.com

Job Search 101 for College Seniors

If you have a 3.9 GPA, a multitude of extra-curricular activities and a winning personality, read no further.  For everyone else, follow these tips and you’ll be the one walking out of the interview with the job offer:

Find a Career Advisor.  Everyone can use an advocate in the job search, so make friends with a career advisor. The more they know about you, and your interests and values, the better able they will be to help you find and pursue opportunities.

Learn how to format your cover letter according to accepted business norms.  Unfortunately, this critical skill no longer seems to be taught in high school.  So it’s not surprising that many students don’t know where the address of the recipient goes, how to address your future employer, how to place the letter within the page, or how many spaces you have to put between your closing sentence and your name.

Pay attention to the content of your cover letter.  The purpose of a cover letter is not just to put on top of your resume, but rather to entice an employer to interview you.  Most employers will want to know how you found out about the job opportunity, what you have to offer and why you want the job.  Cover letters are critical to some employers, yet deemed totally unnecessary by others.  Unless an employer has specifically told you not to send one, however, consider it an essential part of your application.

Get a second or third “read” of your resume and cover letter to make sure they have no typographical or grammatical errors.  Some employers immediately eliminate candidates whose materials are not word perfect.  When you’ve been working hard on a document, you may not notice that you wrote “who’s” instead of “whose”.  It matters.  Have a detail-oriented friend proofread for you – every time you send a letter or update your resume.

Have your resume critiqued.  The obvious reasons are to eliminate careless errors and to make sure the resume is appropriately formatted.  But there’s another reason to get a critique:  to make sure the focus of your resume is as close to the focus of the job you desire as possible.  What image does your resume give of you?  If it says you’re a brilliant academic, but you really want to go into business, you need to re-orient it.

Don’t rush.  It’s tempting to use a similar cover letter and resume for each job.  Although the basic format can be the same, you need to customize each one.  Employers can sniff out “form” letters a mile off.  If you give the wrong title of the position you want, it’s a dead give-away that you’re searching for multiple positions.  Every employer wants to feel that you want their job, not any old job.  Make them feel special!

Project enthusiasm.  If you can’t get excited about the job, you’re unlikely to get it.  You may see it as a boring, entry level, position, but your future employer is probably investing significant time and energy in hiring the right person.  To be that right person, you need to indicate through your application that you’re familiar with the job and the company (read the website carefully and do your research), that you know what you can contribute, and why you want the job.  In a recent survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, enthusiasm for the job was one of the most important factors in the employer’s decision-making process.

Be selective where you apply.  That’s difficult to do if you don’t care where you work and you just need to make money.  However, your attitude will show through if you use the “shot-gun” approach.  Think of it this way:  You will be unlikely to compete well against other candidates using a generic approach – even if you apply for more than 50 positions.  On the other hand, if you do ten really thorough applications, your efforts will stand out, simply because so few people pay this amount of attention to the job search.

Follow through.  You set yourself apart from other applicants even more if you follow up in person on your application.  Some employers state that they do not want telephone calls.  In that case you will need to email to ensure that your materials have been received.  However, a telephone call gives you the opportunity to start to build a relationship with your future company, and to give them a sense of you as a person.

Build relationships with adults!  There are plenty of people who want to help you find a position if you give them a chance. Faculty, staff, former employers, career advisors, friends and relatives can all be invaluable resources for identifying opportunities, promoting you as a candidate and, except in the case of family members, acting as a reference.  The more people know about you, the better able they are to sing your praises.

The Career Advantages of Study Abroad

What’s your dream?  Touring castles in Scotland?  Walking on the Great Wall of China?  Working to improve the lives of women in rural Uganda?   If you’re thinking of studying abroad, there’s no end to the places you can go, things you can see, and subjects you can study.  At many top schools, like Duke, Tufts or Brown, over a third of the junior class take the opportunity to complete part of their education out of the United States.  Even if your school doesn’t have an extensive study abroad program, you can often get credit from a different school.

Multiple benefits accrue to those who spend significant time in another country, and a significant proportion of students see the experience as an important part of their college years. You’re likely to have fun. But if you’re also thinking about study abroad as a way to gain a critical career advantage, read on.  You’ll find that all foreign experiences are not created equal in the minds of employers.

Employers are looking for graduates who can communicate well with others, both in person and in writing.  They know the importance of cross-cultural understanding and an appreciation for different points of view.  They gravitate towards students who demonstrate maturity, initiative and creativity.  All of these assets can be demonstrated through your study abroad, but it’s going to be much harder to set yourself apart if you’ve taken the “easy route”.

It’s not hard to find the “easy route”:  that’s the one where you go with your friends to another country; all the arrangements are made for you by the school—including the American-style apartment where you live with your classmates.  In this scenario, it doesn’t matter which country you go to, because all your classes will be in English, possibly even taught by your American professors.  You’ll undoubtedly have a somewhat different experience, but to do the “easy route” is to forego some of the major advantages of your time away.

Consider these ways of standing out from the applicant crowd and finding your “hook”.

  • Study in the language of the country wherever possible, even though it makes for a tough first few weeks. (That’s assuming the native language of the country isn’t English!) You’ll smile when your potential employer realizes you really can conduct an interview in your fluent Spanish.
  • Live with a family, rather than with fellow Americans.  You’ll start to understand the nuances of culture and how things work:  great for a question on cross cultural communications.
  • Select courses that take advantage of your study abroad location, such as Art History in Florence, or a study of lemurs in their natural habitat of Madagascar.
  • Seize the opportunity to do an internship, volunteer assignment or work in the place you’re studying abroad.  You’ll get a completely different view of the country if you work with the local community.  It may also make you want to come back after college!
  • Experience things you’ve never done before, like joining a family for a religious celebration, or bargaining for a carpet in a souk in Morocco.  Not every experience is a good one, but a certain level of discomfort or failure can make you more resilient.
  • Explore, explore, explore.  Make your own arrangements.  Take trains and buses. Get off the beaten path.  Find villages that are not on any tourist map.  Talk to the local people in their own language—however bad your pronunciation.

Study abroad can be a welcome relief from the rest of your studies, or it can be the most formative experience of a lifetime.  It can be just one more item on the resume, or it can provide the most colorful examples in your interview.  If you take a few calculated risks, plan in advance and take advantage of all study abroad has to offer, you will become that “memorable candidate”—the one who truly gets the employer’s attention. In the process, you will have developed skills and attitudes that will stay with you for a lifetime.

First published in Going Global, Transitions Abroad, and the Duke University Study Abroad Guide

Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Foreword for Parents


“Career is not what it used to be; it’s much more interesting”

One week into a new term.  The message on my voicemail was from a distraught father, claiming that his student son needed intensive career counseling.  Returning the call, I inquired, “What year is he?” “Well, actually, he’s a freshman,” replied the father. “In fact he’s still in orientation.  But I need your help.  You see he’s always loved computer science.  He came to Brown because he knows you have a great computer science department.  Trouble is, he’s met some wonderful people and now he’s convinced that he should study philosophy instead.”  There followed a pause, and then the father said what was really on his mind. “But what can you do with a degree in philosophy?

Actually, you can do just about anything with a liberal arts degree as the  stories in this book so vividly attest.

But if you’re like most “millennial” parents, you won’t be satisfied by such vague pronouncements, and maybe not even by statements from Fortune 500 CEOs who say “we love liberal arts graduates.” Wanting the best for your children, you’re eager to know how you can help them make the most of their liberal arts education—while also preparing them to get off the family payroll!

Identifying and happily settling into a career that matches a heartfelt passion isn’t easy for anyone. Think back:  how quickly did you identify your own passion? How long thereafter until you brought your career and your passion in synch?  Have you yet?

In a recent Duke University survey of its soon-to-graduate seniors, over half claimed that their primary source of career advice after graduation would be their families. But most families are ill-equipped to help with post-graduate career decisions. Your own college or work experiences no longer provide a good enough compass to guide your son or daughter from point A (graduation) to point B (career success). Why?  Because in recent years the career landscape has changed dramatically.  Choice has exploded, new careers—like “usability specialist” —have been invented, and the Internet has changed everything about the way people look for jobs.  Examine the myths in chapter one. Did you think they were true? The reality for today’s liberal arts graduates may be very different from what you expect.

Suzanne Greenwald and I wrote Smart Moves because there’s a black hole of ignorance between graduation and career success. You’ve read in the media what’s “out”: commitment to a single career, a continuous upward financial trajectory, and lifetime employment. You probably even know what’s “in”: managing your career, moving frequently, seizing opportunities.  Much less clear is how a liberal arts graduate actually identifies and follows his or her passion. With so much personal happiness riding on this seldom studied but quintessential career imperative, we thought we’d search for answers by looking in depth at the lives of a small but very diverse group of liberal arts graduates.

The stories and voices of these twenty-three graduates fill most of this book. Their lessons are not prescriptive, and don’t come with a money-back guarantee. We can’t tell you a fail-safe formula to conjure up career readiness or a six-figure salary.  There isn’t one. So much depends on interests, talent, personality—and luck.  But the collective smart moves of our graduates, which we’ve gathered into seven career lessons, do provide a framework for success. As you consider career realities in the twenty-first century, you may be surprised to learn that:
•Major doesn’t equal career.
•Graduate or professional school may not be the best choice immediately after graduation – if ever.
•Your son will probably not get his first job through on-campus recruiting, but he may still benefit greatly from career office resources.
•Internships may prove more valuable than a second major, or summer school—and often the most valuable internships are unenjoyable ones.
•What happens outside the classroom is just as important as what happens inside.
•The best first job after graduation doesn’t have to be the most prestigious, or the most lucrative; ditto the second job and the third.
•There truly is a career value to a liberal arts education.

The final chapters of Smart Moves are devoted to stories from some of the most interesting liberal arts graduates you’ll ever meet. Liz, an American studies and art history major, is now the cheese buyer at one of America’s most celebrated cheese shops. Theresa, a philosophy majors, runs her own small non-profit, providing technical support to other non-profits that can’t otherwise afford it. Brad is a human biology major, who’s combining his work in finance with his interest in third world health issues.

If you’re looking for a quick rundown on which colleges and universities our graduates hail from, what undergraduate majors they pursued, and their current position, just turn to the story chart at the back of the book. Perhaps we’ve profiled someone from the college or university that you attended.

And speaking of you, perhaps now, a generation out of college, you’ll discover this book helpful to you as well as your children.  We strongly believe that you’re never too old to learn – or to change jobs.  You may not be able to go back and re-live your college years, doing everything right this time around.  But there are plenty of tips and insight in these stories to inspire you to action—whether you’re contemplating a mid-life job or career change, or battling a full-blown mid-life crisis

Perhaps you intend to give Smart Moves to a son or daughter in need of career direction.  Or, you may discover like me, that your wonderfully smart and charming second son has no intention of reading this or any such book until after he’s made his post-graduate career mistakes.  If that’s the case, recognize that the best you can probably do for now is to ask the right questions and steer him in the appropriate direction for advice, support and knowledge.

Career planning is like learning to walk and talk.  Everyone does it in his or her own time. Those who walk first don’t necessarily grow up to be dancers and sprinters. And those who talk late–well, some of them grow up to be actors and newscasters and virtuoso mezzo-sopranos.    Read Smart Moves for your sons and daughters and read it for yourself. There’s enough inspiration to go around.

When Your College Graduate Comes Home

This summer, there are more than 100,000 unexpected guests at the family dinner table. They’re adult children — the ones who’ve just graduated from college but expect to remain, at least temporarily, on the family payroll. Some may have jobs that don’t pay enough to support the lifestyle they expect. Others want to get a head start on paying back loans. But most simply don’t have jobs at all.

I can relate. I have advised students and alumni on their careers for decades, first at Brown University, and currently as director of the career center at Duke University. My own son, a 2006 Colgate University graduate in philosophy, has also recently rejoined the family. It is small comfort that I am not alone.

A May 2005 survey showed that a quarter of the class of 2006 expected to spend more than seven months living at home, up from 23 percent of the class of 2005. I now join the hundreds of thousands of parents forced to become a personal career counselor for an “adild” — an adult child.

For most parents, the role of advisor is familiar. From early childhood, parents have imparted wisdom to their children on everything from first dates to how to get into a good college. And children have heeded their advice — keeping parents on the cell phone speed dial.

It’s not surprising, then, that parents would be co-opted in the search for post-graduate employment. But the role of career counselor to an adild is fraught with problems, not to mention the kind of emotional angst that can divert retirement funds to psychotherapy. Parents and their adilds have the same goal: success in life. Unfortunately, definitions of career success and strategies to achieve it vary substantially from generation to generation. What parents may consider the “perfect position” may leave an adild cold, no matter what its prestige and pay.

In the absence of direction, it’s easy to revert to the old “law school/grad school” option, especially if parents are willing to pay. This is a potentially risky proposition: The financial rewards of such an education, if it’s not required for a particular career, may not justify its expense.

It’s the savvy parent who understands how much he doesn’t know about the career landscape for recent college grads. In the past 30 years, since parents were in school, career options have exploded, attitudes changed, and strategies fine-tuned. Advice that may work brilliantly for a mid-career changer may be totally inappropriate for a new grad. The best way for parents to help their adild find a job may actually be to avoid giving them any specific career advice.

Avoiding advice does not mean withholding support. Support can be as simple as helping an adild set short-term goals and identify strategies to achieve them, or encouraging her to return to her college’s career center for help, even if she avoided it like the plague in school. Career readiness comes at different times, and unemployment has a wonderful way of focusing the mind on the need to learn effective ways to present abilities and qualifications. Given the number of times an adild is likely to change jobs, an excellent résumé, cover letter and interview skills are critical.

Perhaps the most important thing parents can do is to encourage their adild to find her passion. This is often one of the hardest things to do. Sometimes the discovery only happens by trial and error, working in a number of “not-quite-right” positions. Family, friends and acquaintances can all help, by providing insight into different careers and valuable connections.

One final piece of advice: Set a time limit on living at home without a significant contribution to household expenses. Careers take off more rapidly when graduates take responsibility for their decisions — good and bad — and learn from them. Almost every successful professional has taken risks and experienced failure. The lessons that come through such experiences are invaluable, but much less likely to happen if there is an ever-present parental safety net.

Even if parents enjoy having their adild at home, they need to let go for the sake of their child’s career. Once they do, they’ll be able to return to all those activities they put on hold while raising children. In the process, they’ll be giving a priceless gift to their graduate.

First published in 2006 in the Louisville Courier-Journal and The News and Observer

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.