Take Time to Reflect

By: Erica Marks

As my time at Penn comes to a close, I find that I am still moving at full speed. In my short, one-year Masters program I am constantly consumed by courses, work and creating a plan for life after Penn. How is it that there are only two short months until graduation? Where has the time gone?

After a week (and weekend) of an exhausting amount of paper writing, I realized what I needed – reflection. Like so many overbooked Penn students, I was operating at an unsustainably fast pace. So I decided I would try it out. How had I not thought of this before? I looked up the definition, Webster’s claims that reflection is, “ a thought, idea or opinion formed; or a remark made as a result of meditation.” It sounded so simple, like something I could accomplish at yoga class. Kill two birds with one stone, you know.

And then it hit me like a brick. Reflection isn’t something that I can multi-task. It can’t be checked off my to-do list. If I couldn’t schedule it, how was I going to do it? Taking time to sleep is difficult enough. The thought of taking time to reflect (when its not conveniently coupled with another task) seems absurd. There is so much pressure to know what you are doing next, there is no time to stop and live in the present.

Taking time to reflect means slowing down enough to stop, enjoy the adventure and figure out what is really important to YOU. Learn what you like and dislike. Do something for fun… for you. All of this reflection may actually help you plan for the future, weird.

I learned something this weekend, in my reflections. You can have ideas about what you want, but you cannot plan your life to a tee. Some of the most important decisions and opportunities will come to you in ways in which you cannot predict. So take some time reflect. And I don’t mean during yoga class.

A Day in the Life: NPR Producer

Read Melody Kramer’s archived tweet feed here: http://www.vpul.upenn.edu/careerservices/MelodyKramer_Feed.pdf

Have you always wanted to produce your own radio show? Broadcast to thousands, even millions, of people with the flick of the “on air” switch? Not surprisingly, there’s more than just the flick of a switch to make it happen.  Next Thursday, March 24th @PennCareerDay welcomes Melody Kramer.  Melody will post live throughout her day and highlight life as an associate producer with NPR.  To learn more about her, read below and check out her posts here.

Melody Kramer (SAS ’06)

Melody Kramer is an associate producer at Fresh Air with Terry Gross in Philadelphia. She previously was the director and associate producer of NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me in Chicago and an NPR Kroc Fellow in Washington DC. She graduated from Penn in 2006 with a B.A. in English. At Penn, she was a member of the Penn Band and wrote for The Daily Pennsylvanian and The Punch Bowl.

To find Melody on Twitter, follow @mkramer.

Guest Perspective: Be Your Own Boss as an Independent Consultant

by David Goldstein

Independent consulting has been my career choice for entrepreneurial rewards without all the risks of offering products.   As a “software guy” I couch this in terms of a software background, but everything mentioned can be applied to consulting in diverse fields, from finance to movie costuming.  I compare this career to two others’ of mine: software engineer and entrepreneur.  I discuss consulting in terms of expectations, realities and the skills needed.  Because consulting requires specialized expertise, this career may be your second or third job out of school, instead of your first.

What does an independent consultant do ?

I provide  contractual services to organizations independent of large consulting firms.  Both independent consultants and consulting organizations charge a premium for their services – but independent consultants are their own boss, keep more of the fees they generate and “wear many hats.”  One of the greatest advantages that I have found is your clients can be all over the country, from Richmond, VA to Oakland, CA. I have consulted for many organizations in the Fortune 500.  The key is to be aware that engagements can end at any time; this is a high-risk, high reward career path.

What does it take to be an independent consultant?

The key elements are expertise, professionalism and business savvy.  Your expertise determines what the client would pay, your professionalism keeps engagements going, and your business savvy affects the percentage of that amount you keep.

My expertise comes from a computer science Ph.D.  Each client – as well as hobbies, volunteer work and other endeavors – also provide valuable expertise.  For example, working at Freddie Mac provides credibility in the mortgage business.  Expertise within a field can be as valuable technical skills.

Business skills are important for anyone but are essential for consultants.  Everyone should be able communicate with executives, speak publicly, and write well. Consultant’s skills also include entrepreneurial skills to acquire and manage business, such as contract writing, accounting, marketing, and negotiating.

What are the rewards of independent consulting?

Consulting can offer a great salary, which should be a part of any high-risk career path. Robert Half’s “Salary Guide 2011” gives the median income for a software engineer at $92,750 per year.  A staff consultant’s corresponding income is $75,500 and a senior consultant’s is $99,250.  As a consultant with specialized skills in (1) Business Process Modeling and (2) Business Rules Management Systems I have always billed at several times these salaries.

All of these characteristics are applicable to consultants in other fields.  For example, my friends in finance report that consulting rates as independent consultants range from $150/hr to $1000/hr.

Consulting also offers frequent change, which exposes you to a lot of people and businesses.  I’ve met people from around the country.  I understand many industries well; I could pursue a career in banking, insurance or other client fields if need be.

Independent consulting also hones many entrepreneurial skills.  My small software firm sold its products in the U.S. and abroad, but being a consultant has taught me a lot about building software and businesses.  Consultants see numerous firms create, sell and service products.  Thousands of things can destroy a company: learning from other’s errors is important for building a company that makes products, instead of mistakes.

What challenges independent consultants?

An independent consultant trades many things  for increased income.  Some of these factors include:

  • Travel: Many students relish the thought of travel.  However, most consultants would prefer to see their bedroom and spouses on weekends instead of hotel rooms and co-workers.
  • Stability: Independent consulting is very susceptible to economic trends.  Consultants can find it difficult to get their desired rate.  Most contracts are also “at will”, whereby either party can end an engagement at any time: bad corporate news, office politics, leadership changes, etc. can end an engagement.  Traditional consulting firms allot overhead for non-contract time and independent consultants should have a “rainy day” fund.
  • Bureaucracy: Every company has policies and systems for accomplishing mundane tasks, such as time tracking and purchasing.  While employees learn such policies and systems once, a consultant may need to learn many such systems each year.  Similarly, when working through third parties consultants may have to deal with extra levels of paperwork.  Even simply getting a client may involve dozens or hundreds of pages of documentation.

These three factors mean consultants need patience and self-confidence to overcome being on the road, worrying about engagements, and dealing with bureaucracy.

Independent consulting is a good high-risk, high-reward career path for many individuals. All consulting practices involve travel, flexibility, and workplace variety.  Working independently offers more compensation at the cost of stability, bureaucracy and other factors.  Bright, savvy professionals often choose independent consulting for its entrepreneurial feel and high income.


About the author:

David Goldstein received his M.S.E. from University of Pennsylvania and his Ph.D. from the University of Texas – Arlington.  He was a professor at several universities, most notably North Carolina A&T State University.  He has run several small businesses and is currently an independent consultant.  He specializes in building large financial systems using Business Rules Management Systems and Business Process Management tools. David serves as the associate director of Penn’s SEAS alumni board.


A dog is for life…, but a job doesn’t have to be

Dr. Joseph Barber

Many of you have probably heard of the saying: “a dog is for life, not just for Christmas”. It is a reminder to parents that while their children may really want a puppy for Christmas, they have to realize that they can’t just throw the puppy into the cupboard (or leave it lying around on the bedroom floor, more likely) when they get bored of it, or no longer want to play with it. Owning a dog is a life-long commitment. Although people do, one should certainly try to avoid taking a dog back, especially to a shelter, like it is some ill-fitting pair of trousers that someone bought you. The same advice about thinking carefully about the commitment involved holds true for bunnies and chicks (often purchased for children around Easter), for parrots (perhaps bought for International Talk like a Pirate Day – yes, there is one), and guinea pigs (bought for…, ok, well, there is no holiday I’m aware of that is strongly associated with the buying of guinea pigs, but you get my point). On the other hand, most turkeys purchased for Thanksgiving are just for Thanksgiving, and perhaps one or two more days beyond – but this is a special situation.

If you are a little unsure of what type of job you want, or afraid to commit to a certain type of job in case it turns out to be the wrong path for you, then it is helpful to know that a job doesn’t have to be for life. Any job you accept can be a stepping stone to a different type of job in the same career field, or a completely different type of career altogether. Of course, you might be completely surprised and find that you really like the first job you get, and continue on happily down that career path – you won’t know for sure unless you give it a go.

Now, that doesn’t mean that you should just apply for any old job, in the vague hope that you will figure things out along the way. For starters, it will be much harder to be offered a job if you cannot provide a convincing answer as to why you are applying to it. Here are some answers to the “why do you want this job?” question that may not do you any favours:

  • “I don’t really know what I want to do with my life, but I saw the job advert and it looked interesting, something I might apply to, and so here I am”
  • “I have discovered that I really don’t like working in a lab environment, and I have had some bad experiences within academia, and so I am looking for a new direction where I can be happier”

Put yourselves in the shoes of the employers listening to these types of answers, and you’ll see why they are not so great. Would you hire someone who didn’t show honest interest in your company or in the day-to-day elements of the job? Even if you a little unsure why you are applying for a job, you can still come up with a convincing and honest statement that will speak more directly both to the needs of the employers, and to what you can offer them. For example:

  • “I see this opportunity for me to apply the skills I have gained through my experiences at Penn, and to be able to use my effective writing and editing skills to complement the other staff in this department, and to maximize productivity. For example… [and an illustration of skills mentioned should follow]”
  • “I think I bring with me a unique perspective that would enhance this organization’s ability to interact with international clients, and I am looking forward to the opportunity to work with the program experts you have here to quickly and efficiently learn the new skills I need to take on the project requirements listed in the job advert. I have always been good at learning new skills. For example… [and an illustration of skills mentioned should follow]”

These statements are overly broad, as I don’t have particular job in mind. The key point is that you don’t have to convince an employer that you only want to do this one job at this one company. However, you do have to convince them that you know what their needs are, and convince them that you have some combination of experiences, skills, or technical abilities to offer something that other candidates don’t have.

It may be that you apply for a job, accept an offer, but find out over time that the career field you are in may not be for you. Make sure that you have invested enough time at the job to make an objective decision about this. All jobs are challenging when you first start. Make sure that you have also looked at whether there are any opportunities to change the nature of the position to better meet your needs – perhaps moving laterally within a company to another position, department, division, rather than considering leaving altogether. However, if you feel as if you need to leave, make sure that think about what skills you might need when applying for jobs in different career fields, and seek out as many opportunities as possible to put those skills into action in your current position. Focus on the key transferable skills that are valuable in any profession, such as communication, leadership, management, problem-solving, and taking the initiative.

Having specific illustrations of your skills in action being actively used to achieve tangible outcomes will be the best way to convince future employers that you are a viable candidate. Any job that you take on, even if it turns out not to be what you want, will give you a chance to put these skills into action, and so will further enhance what you can say in your cover letters and resumes when applying for future positions.

So…, dogs, bunnies, chicks, parrots, perhaps guinea pigs (but not roasted turkeys) may be for life, but the jobs you take on can be stepping stones on a straight or more convoluted path towards your ideal career. Sometimes you just need to take that first step.

When You Wish Upon a Medical School


When you wish upon a star…makes no difference who you are…anything your heart desires…will come to you….

If only one could wish upon the North star and turn into a real medical student, no strings attached.  Many of you are deciding whether to apply to medical school this year or not, which is an important and personal choice — there is no Magic Eight Ball that can offer up a “right” answer (although it would be pretty neat if they could hand those out to pre-health advisors at national meetings along with the tote bags and other excellent swag).  Many potential applicants find it helpful to reflect upon which parts of their thinking are wishes that might be interfering with the formulation of a sound strategy for gaining admission.

Don’t get me wrong…wishes are very important and make us human.  All people must stay in touch with their dreams, desires, and goals; however, we also benefit at times by detaching from our emotions to consider plans of action.  Here are some wishful comments that we hear in our office daily this time of year:

“I know [insert any significant issue with a potential application], but I just want to go straight to medical school.  I never saw myself taking more time.”

“If I make it to the interview, I know I will have it made.”

“If I get a 40 on my MCAT it will be okay.”

“I’m going to apply to one school this year, just to see what happens.”

Considering how difficult it is to gain admission to medical school as well as the stress and expense of the admissions process, we advocate that students take some time to think strategically.  This can be as simple as considering how one’s application might appear this year compared to next year, or even further into the future.  When I raise the issue of waiting to apply another year, it is not to discourage a potential applicant; rather, it is to encourage him or her to consider all the paths to making a dream come true.

For many potential applicants, the down side of waiting to apply is detaching from the immediate gratification of applying.  Yes, you can say, you are applying…and isn’t there a chance it will work out?  If there’s a chance, why not take it?  Yet, when one’s hopes do not materialize it can be extremely frustrating.  Often, while feeling hopeful, applicants have not taken steps to gain the clinical exposure or take the classes that would make a difference a second time around.  Sometimes the process of applying to medical school stretches out for years with mixed results.

We know that applying to medical school is a stressful and emotional experience.  Keeping your emotions from taking over while making decisions is difficult for all people.  Your pre-health advisors are glad to meet with you to discuss your options with an eye towards maximizing your success and helping you reach you goals.  Many potential applicants find it helpful to meet with other Career Services staff to discuss alternate careers or options for employment after graduation.  Drawing upon the support of friends and family as well as University counselors and advisors can be especially helpful.

I encourage all potential applicants to consider the timing of their application, regardless of their GPA or amount of clinical experience.  It’s an important decision that opens up alternatives and flexibility in what can seem like a “single-track” process and, hopefully, makes wishes come true more often than not.