Sexual misconduct and your career development

Dr. Joseph Barber

There has been an on-going focus on topics related to sexual violence and misconduct prevention at Penn. This is a topic that can affect students, staff, and faculty on campus and beyond, and there are readily available resources for each of these populations to use if individuals have experienced these negative situations. Here are a selection of these resources:

From a career development perspective, it is good to be aware of the types of situations where the potential for sexual misconduct, or confusion over whether there is sexual misconduct, is increased. That is not to say that you will experience this on your career path, and so this is not meant as a post to put you off effective approaches such as networking and seeking internships (it is going to be hard to avoid these if you want to be successful in finding the job that matches your skills and career goals). It is important to know how you can respond to any form of inappropriate behaviour or sexual misconduct in these situations.

The great benefit of networking is the ability to make new contacts who can share information and advice with you that you can use to be effective in your job or internship search. It goes both ways, and so by networking with professionals you will be able to present your skills, experiences, and future potential to them too. Compared with the lively, career-focused, in-person conversations you can set up through your networking efforts with people in different industries or at particular organizations you like, no amount of online research will help you get the same critical insight into a particular career, role, or organization. The people you can meet will also be incredibly helpful in sharing opportunities with you – opportunities you might not have been aware of before you had that conversation. Take advantage of resources like the Penn alumni database (QuakerNet) and LinkedIn to find people happy to share their advice and experiences with you.

Trying to find a perfect contact at your preferred organization can take a lot of hard work, research, and other networking to achieve. When you finally make a contact, or have a meeting, what happens if your interaction with this contact doesn’t quite feel right, or worse, that the contact you just wanted advice from asks you if you are single and interested in dating? Natalie Lundsteen provides some great advice in her post on the Carpe Careers blog (on the Inside Higher Ed website). She states:

He or she has absolutely no excuse for unprofessional behavior, especially if you have presented yourself as a student or recent graduate seeking advice and assistance.”

And concludes her advice-filled post by saying:

Negative or awkward networking experiences certainly will not occur often, and may not ever happen to you. Don’t let this discussion put you off the idea of informational interviewing or chatting with a stranger at your next conference. Just be conscious that networking can at times veer unexpectedly from the professional to the personal — and know that you are able to exit those conversations and find better opportunities.”

If you have a negative experience during a networking interaction, then heed some of the advice that Natalie offers, and remember the on-campus resources available to you (listed above) if you need them. Advisors at Career Services can also help you to successfully navigate your networking attempts, and to develop strategies to hopefully avoid these types of situations arising in the first place.

Having an interview for an internship or job is a great achievement, and most people will spend a significant amount of time preparing for these events. In any interview you are pretty much guaranteed to be asked these questions:

  • Who are you/tell me about yourself
  • What do you know about our organization?
  • Why do you want this position?
  • What can you bring to our organization/what are your strengths?
  • Do you have any questions for us?

Everyone should be prepared to answer these questions. But these aren’t the only questions you will get asked, and sometimes you will face unusual ones (e.g., what kind of fruit would you be?), negative ones (e.g., what is your greatest weakness?), and even inappropriate ones. These inappropriate ones are sometimes described as illegal questions (see also here), but it is not illegal to ask them. What is illegal is to discriminate against people based on their answers. And this is why it is inappropriate to ask them. Examples of these types of questions include:

  • What does your spouse do?
  • Where were you born?
  • Are you an American citizen?
  • What language do you speak at home?
  • How old are you?
  • Do you take any time off work for religious purposes?
  • Are you planning on having children soon?
  • Are you married?
  • What will your partner think about all the travel you would be doing if you got this job?
  • Do you take any prescription drugs?
  • How many sick days did you take last year?

There is a lot of different advice given about how to handle these types of questions, but this approach might be a good starting point. You can practice how you might respond to these questions by setting up a mock interview with an advisor at Career Services.

Graduate students might face a different type of situation when applying for academic jobs, as many fields conduct multiple interviews at annual conferences, with the interviews themselves taking place in hotel rooms. In an ideal setting these interviews might be in a professional-looking hotel suite. In some cases, the interview is conducted in plain sight of the interviewer’s bed (and usually there are multiple interviewers in the room), in a setting that seems far from ideal or professional. Cheryl Ball and Katherine Ellison describe some of these conditions in an article on MLA interviews:

“…one major drawback in hotel-room interviews is that you’re in a hotel room. This can be awkward, not the least of which because the size of the department’s budget often determines the size of the room you’re interviewing in. And it has been said that sometimes candidates end up sitting on hotel beds during their interviews. Awk. Ward. Thankfully, we’ve heard of this happening less and less over the last decade, as departments strive to show their professionalism

Like most interviews, internships usually happen off campus. During your internship you have a wonderful opportunity to learn new skills, apply the knowledge you have gained from courses and research you have completed at Penn, and discover for yourself whether you can see yourself working in this field in the future. When employers are trying to fill full-time opportunities, they will look closely at the internships you have had, and will value your exposure to the work that they do. In most internships, these are some of the skills that will be helpful as you try to make the most of the experiences:

  • Time management
  • Effective communication skills, especially asking good questions
  • Learning new skills quickly
  • Taking initiative
  • Prioritizing work projects, especially when these come from several different supervisors
  • Managing ambiguity and conflict

Some internships will be part of formalized internship programs. Some internships you might create just for yourself by establishing an effective professional relationship with a contact at an organization you are interested in. Whatever the type of internship, whether it is paid or not, there is never an excuse for unprofessional behaviour. There have been several recent cases where this has happened in different contexts, and these articles describe some of challenges faced in these situations:

If you experience any form of sexual misconduct during an internship experience, make use of the campus resources listed above. The advisors at Career Services can be a great resource to talk about any aspect of networking, seeking internships, and succeeding at interviews (everyone should set up an appointment to have a mock interview – they are incredibly helpful). Career advisors can offer useful suggestions for how you can make any of these experiences as positive and productive as possible, so that you always know how to handle yourself professionally when faced with any of the situations described above. Please take advantage of appointments and walk-in hours to meet with your career advisor – call 215 898 7531 or visit

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).