Don’t Follow this Advice

Dr. Joseph Barber

I was reading this blog post the other day, and found the content to be quite interesting and useful. Well…, all except for the sentence in the final paragraph that stated:

“However, do not seek the advice of career services at your university (the topic of a column in this space in the future)”

While I appreciate the idea of cliffhangers to keep readers interested in future articles, this one seems unnecessarily negative and unhelpful – especially since I work at Career Services and think you should come and see us. It is a little like saying:

“…and whatever you do, do not drink hot drinks on a cold day – and I’ll tell you why in two weeks”

You are left imagining all of the horrible situations that might arise if you do. Are hot drinks going to melt my insides, make my teeth shatter, or will they just happen to fog up my glasses momentarily when I take a sip? A little context would be helpful.

I don’t know why the author suggests that you shouldn’t visit Career Services (don’t follow this advice!). There may be some very good reasons if the Career Services office at a particular university does not have a team focusing specifically on graduate students and postdocs, like we do here at Penn. Advice for a cover letter for an undergraduate-level consulting position and advice for an faculty job cover letter will be very different, and advice given for the former may not always be relevant to the latter. The wrong advice is perhaps worse than no advice at all in this case.

Staff members at Penn’s Career Services do work directly with graduate students on their academic job search materials. We often partner with other university student services, like the Center for Teaching and Learning, in our workshops and programming. We utilize Penn faculty and other Penn alumni in faculty roles at other institutions to provide their perspective in our speaker discussion panels. Our staff also includes one of the authors of the Academic Job Search Handbook!

So, definitely come to Career Services. However, take the advice that we give you under your own advisement. That is, we are not telling you what you must do with your application materials, your answers to interview questions, or your offer negotiations. We are providing advice based on our own professional and personal experiences that have been gained from a variety of different sources, including working with many, many students/postdocs who have been in the same position you are in today.

You will get some conflicting advice. Given that there is no one way to format a CV, for example, you’ll get some people telling you to order the sections in one way, another suggesting just the opposite, and someone else telling you to forget about ordering the sections and to focus on the size of your margins instead. Different advice from difference people with different personal experiences will always be a little conflicting, and it is OK to be initially confused.

As a researcher, your business is processing large amounts of information and being able to identify relevant patterns and themes to the argument you are making. Make sure that you use the same approach when you are seeking advice about your future careers. If a Career Services advisor makes one suggestion, but your thesis advisor makes a different one, you will need to weigh up your options. Each discipline has its own peculiar conventions when it comes to submitting applications. You may want to follow those as much as possible. A Career Services advisor might not come from your specific discipline, but will have reviewed many, many differently formatted CVs from across disciplines, and will have identified best practices to share.

I have seen CVs used successfully to get academic interviews that I would have covered in red ink if I were doing a critique. Obviously, I am not the final word in what is deemed good or bad. It helps to realize that this final word rests with the ultimate user group in the job application process, the individuals who read your applications and determine from their personal and professional perspectives whether they like it or not.

If you are going to take anyone’s advice, take theirs. Unfortunately, they don’t regularly give advice on these sorts of things, and so you will have to gather advice from multiple other sources and decide which is the most relevant for your unique applications – and remember, each application should be tailored so that it is unique.

You are the ultimate arbiter of the advice, suggestions, and feedback you receive. I would recommend seeking out as much information from as many people as possible to be in the position to make an informed decision about what you feel is useful information. That means you should come and visit us at Career Services…., and reach out to Penn alumni (and here too)…, and speak with your thesis advisor or PI…, and read helpful blogs like this.

Just don’t follow all of the advice you are given – you’ll be glad that you did…, or didn’t…, wait, now I’m confused.

Author: Joseph

Joseph Barber is a Senior Associate Director at Career Services serving graduate students and postdocs. He has a PhD in animal behaviour and animal welfare, and continues to teach these subjects as an adjunct professor at Hunter College (CUNY).