Dr. John F. Tuton, Career Advisor

I’ve been thinking about retirement a lot lately, partly because one of my long-term colleagues at Career Services retired earlier this year and two others are about to retire this summer.  And, full disclosure, I’m old enough to “retire” myself, if I wanted to.  But the main reason retirement is on my mind is that I’ve been meeting with more and more Penn alumni who are approaching retirement age themselves and have come to me for advice.

But before I get into that, why should I even be blogging about “retiring” on this website when most of you who are reading this are probably younger than 30 and looking forward to a future career that may span over 40 more years?  How can you possibly look 40 years ahead, when it’s not at all certain what the future will be for any of us?  And how realistic is it to even consider retirement as a reality, when your first priority right now is launching your career, not ending it? 

My answer comes from the thoughts that senior alumni have shared with me, and even though they vary, there is a surprising consistency to what they’ve said.  When I met with the first one or two, I started the conversation by asking, “What sorts of skills do you have?” hoping to get some information that I’d want to see on a CV or resume.  But their answers went far beyond “job” skills, and included much more personal qualities, like curiosity, empathy, creativity and perseverance.  And when they shared these “skills”, they clearly were excited about claiming them, and I got the message that these were qualities that they truly enjoyed using and, from the examples they gave me, had become quite adept at doing so. 

So my “skills” question went well beyond a simple list of technical abilities, and became an exercise in affirming what they felt were their strengths and how rewarding it had been for them to put them to good use.  And because their enthusiasm was pretty obvious, it led to another question, “Why are these skills so important to you?”  Their answers were even more revealing, and ranged from “Because they’ve helped me solve a difficult problem…understand what someone needs…deal with setbacks…see things in a new way.”   And this led to lots of discussion and clarification about their basic motivations, what they valued most in their lives, and what their deepest concerns were.

Digging a little deeper soon led to a third question: “What helped you along the way?”  And here I discovered all sorts of information about the particulars of their relationships with the superiors, colleagues, family members and friends who had valued their “skills” and respected their motivations and concerns.  Out of all of this came a detailed picture of their ideal “environment” – the people and the places – that had supported the best use of their skills and honored the values and concerns that were most important to them.

From all this, it was possible to create a “template” for what they wanted to do next, why they wanted to do it and where might be the best setting to do it in, and the rest of our meetings were devoted to strategizing about specific opportunities that they might want to pursue. 

So here’s why I’m writing this blog for those of you who are under 30 and see retirement only as a vague concept in the distant future.  Because knowing your “what, why and where” is as important at the beginning of your career as it is for the alums who I’ve worked with who are at the tail end of theirs.  And the good news is that you already started to define your “what, why and where” the moment you discovered a particular job posting.  Choosing a job that fits your resume and skill set, creating a cover letter that communicates your interest and enthusiasm, and even answering an interview question like “Why do you want to work here?”—these are all opportunities to state your “what, why and where” in ways that will work best for you.  And if your application leads to you being hired, your next step is to continually keep track of what you do best, why you do it and where is the best, most supportive environment to do it in, so that your future career path becomes clearer and more fulfilling, no matter how far it may go. 



Vitruvius – Firmitas, Utilitas, Venustas

by John F. Tuton

I am a furniture maker.  And whenever I start to work on a piece, I am guided by the three-part rubric “Firmitas, Utilitas et Venustas” coined by the Roman architect and engineer, Vitruvius.  The three words translate to “Strength, Utility and Beauty”, and have come to be recognized as the cornerstone of any successful act of “making” by studio furniture makers world-wide.

But the qualities of “Strength, Utility and Beauty” aren’t just something for us furniture makers to keep in mind.  They are equally important for every Penn student, graduate and undergraduate, who is thinking about their career.


Like any good piece of furniture, a worthwhile career has to have “Strength”—it has to be built to last.   The parts of a chair—seats, arms, legs etc.— must be made of the right material and properly fitted together or it will not wear well and might even fall apart.  And just like a chair, the “parts” of you that you will use to build your career—your skills, your knowledge and your experiences—must be made of the right material and fitted together properly in order to last.  As an example, your problem-solving skills, your technical knowledge and your experiences as a team member should not only be as strong as they can be in and of themselves, but they must fit together in a way that will strengthen your career and make it last.


The “proper fit” of parts that give a chair its strength is not enough, however.  The chair must also be practical and useful, or in other words, it must work like a chair.  And your “parts” must not only be strong and fit together well, they must also have a practical use.   Just as a chair needs to be comfortable to sit in, with the seat and back at the right angle and height—your “parts” need to be useful as well, in the right setting and circumstances.   So the combination of your problem-solving skills, your technical knowledge and your “teamwork” experience needs to yield practical outcomes.   For instance, you may know how to use your problem-solving skills in an academic setting, but you may have to adapt those skills to fit the requirements of a more practical setting like business or industry.


But how does the idea of “Venustas”, or beauty, apply to a career?  How can a career be pleasing to the eye?  Because just like a chair, your career must not only be strong and useful, it must be appealing, or you won’t want to pursue it.  The strongest chair in the world, put together in the most serviceable way, will not succeed unless it is “attractive” to you, or “invites” you to sit in it.  And your career must be pleasing to you as well—it must fit your hopes and expectations—so that you will want to keep “sitting” in it.

Two last thoughts about chairs and careers.  Both are living, dynamic things that can constantly change.   For instance, chairs may occasionally need to be repaired when they are overused.   And this is also true of your “parts”—you may need to increase your knowledge or even learn a new skill in order to advance your career.  And, like a chair, you may find that at some point you are being moved to a new setting or environment, where you’ll have to adapt to different conditions.  If you’ve paid attention to the “Strength, Utility and Beauty” triad, though, you’ll have a firm foundation to build on so that your career, like a treasured family heirloom, will last over time.

Turning the Tables

by John F. Tuton

Getting the job interview is a major goal in any job search, and most of the advice that career counselors offer is focused on how to handle four kinds of questions—open-ended ones like “tell me about yourself”, evaluative ones like “what are your strengths and weaknesses?”, focused ones like “can you tell me about a time when you…” one and lastly, challenging ones like “why should we hire you?”.   Anyone who’s been through an interview has encountered at least two or three of these, and the ideal response (hopefully strengthened by practicing beforehand) has always been to focus on the positives and manage the question in as confident a way as possible.

It’s certainly important to answer these questions in the best way you can, but I think they could also be extremely useful if you asked them yourself, or in other words used them to turn the tables on the interviewer and find out more about the job, the organization, or some aspects of the culture you might be joining.  For instance, it might be very interesting if you asked an interviewer, “What do you think your organization’s strengths and weaknesses are?” or “Can you tell me how you handled a downturn in business” or even, “Why should I want to work here?”  That last question might sound pretty bold at first, but think about it—if it is asked tactfully in the right tone of voice, it might yield all sorts of useful information, like how much effort is put into orienting new employees, what career paths are available, what the organization thinks of its competition and how much time is devoted to employee training and development.

Turning the tables on an interviewer might sound like a risky thing to do, but it could also lead to the most important outcome of any interview—understanding how well the organization fits you as much as how well you fit it.

Like the Wise Old Owl…

by John Tuton

A graduate student recently came to see me for a follow-up visit a few weeks after we’d first met.  At that meeting, she’d said she was interested in careers outside of Academia, so we’d talked about how networking could help her find out more about them.  As we sat down for our follow-up meeting, I began by asking her how her networking was going.  She said, in a sort of apologetic way, “I haven’t really done very much; I’m still a little shy about telling other people what I’m looking for.”  I responded by saying that networking wasn’t the easiest thing to do, especially if she felt like she was “selling” herself, and suggested it might be easier if she just thought of networking as a quick check-in with friends, or a “light, social touch” just to re-establish contact with people she already knew.  She replied, “Oh, I’ve done a lot of that—I must have talked to 20 or 30 of my friends since I saw you.”  I asked her what they’d talked about, and she said, “Oh, you know…what sort of job they had, how they liked the company they worked for…things like that.”  I immediately said, “Well, that’s the best example of networking I’ve heard in a long time—what did you find out?”  After we talked more about some of the meetings she’d had, it was clear that she’d made some real progress in her job search—she’d developed a much better idea about the kinds of jobs she was qualified for and was more focused on the sort of organization she’d like to work in.

The most interesting thing she shared with me though, was that each conversation she’d had—at a family party, a college reunion, a gym etc.,  had begun with someone else asking her, “What do you do?”  Almost always, she’d answered with only one sentence, “I’m a graduate student at Penn working on a PhD in Biochemistry—what do you do?”  That answer had triggered a response, which led to her asking another question, which triggered another response.  And instead of doing most of the talking, she had just kept listening to what the other person had to say, and asked them to tell her more about it.

I think one of the by-products of education is the requirement to communicate your ideas, answers, etc. in a clear, convincing way, or in other words, when you’re asked a question do most of the talking and do it well.  And I think we at Career Services spend a good deal of our time counseling students on how to do just that, especially in a job interview.  But how much more effective it would be if we also reinforced a student’s ability to listen, especially when networking or doing informational interviewing.  I’m reminded of a poster of an owl that still hangs in my son’s bedroom at our house—it has a caption that reads:

A wise old Owl lived in an oak
The more he heard, the less he spoke
The less he spoke, the more he heard
Why can’t we all be like that bird?

Why can’t we, indeed?  Why not try to speak less and listen more?  Like the PhD student in Biochemistry who came to see me, you might find out a lot more than you think.

The Back-and-Forth of Transferable Skills

One of the things we constantly emphasize at Career Services is how you can ‘transfer’ the skills you’ve learned during your academic career to a job in industry or consulting. I recently heard from a PhD in Biochemistry who just accepted an academic position at a Florida University that the ‘transfer’ can sometimes go the other way.
In his email, he emphasized that what made the most impact on his selection committee was what he’d said in his “Statement of Teaching Philosophy” about how to get his students to approach a research problem. Instead of using a piece of academic research to illustrate this, however, he’d used something straight out of a workshop I’d led on ‘Managing the Non-Academic Interview”—how to answer an off-the-wall quantitative question like, “How heavy is a Boeing 707?”
First, he emphasized that the wrong thing to do would be to try to come up with the ‘right’ answer, as students might be tempted to do if they were facing an academic advisor or dissertation committee. Instead, he went into some detail about how the question should be clarified (“Before or after a flight?”, “With passengers or without?” etc.) and then separated into component parts, (“Let’s see…a Boeing 707 probably has 30 rows of seats, with 6 people in each row, except for first class…6 rows of 4 seats, so that’s 24 + 144…160 passengers with an average weight of let’s say 150 pounds, and average baggage of 25 pounds, so 175 x 160 equals 28,000 pounds. Then the plane itself is pretty light—less than what a car would be per passenger—let’s say 1000 pounds for 4 passengers, or 40,000 pounds for all of them. Then a gallon of fuel is lighter than a gallon of water, and that weighs about 8 pounds, so let’s say 6 pounds x 1000 gallons…”) You get the idea.
What made this so appealing to the selection committee was that it closely matched the spirit of inquiry and cross-disciplinary thinking that were fundamental components of the University’s mission. The ‘thinking-out-loud’ aspect of the description triggered a lively discussion of the candidate’s interview, and gave him much more of a chance to display his teaching style and techniques than any discussion of his own research might have done.
So the next time you’re in a Career Services workshop on the Non-Academic Job Search, keep your eyes open for something that might be useful on the academic side as well!