Career Certainty – and the Uncertainty of It All

Dr. Joseph Barber

I have always enjoyed working in fields that include a lot of gray areas — those nebulous, intangible zones between something being absolutely correct and being incorrect. After all, if there is a singular right and wrong answer, it means you have much less room for creativity or flexibility — and I like thinking creatively. Career advising is one of these gray-area fields because one’s future career path is not predetermined.

That means that whenever someone meets with me looking for absolute clarity on their next career move, they are probably not going to leave my office with a singular answer. Instead, I’ll suggest a series of action steps that they can take to build confidence in the answers that they’ll discover on their own through a variety of different networking and exploration processes. I recognize, however, that when you want easy answers, receiving a “series of action steps that you can take to build confidence in the answers that you will discover on your own through a variety of different networking and exploration processes” doesn’t always feel so satisfying.

All that said, even within the field of career advising, you can, in fact, take certain actions that have very predictable outcomes. And it is worth thinking about some of these as illustrations of what career certainties can look like.

Writing generic applications. You unquestionably won’t get 50 job interviews if you send 50 versions of the same résumé with a cover letter that only differs because you remembered to change the name of the employer in the text (but not always in the file name of the attached document — oops!). You can find out why here, but you can probably guess that 50 different hiring managers at 50 different companies are each looking for something specific to their needs and interests. Generic applications certainly won’t interest people — and even more certainly, they won’t impress companies’ tracking software that scans applications to see if they match keywords in the job description. The robots like relevant keywords, and they are not so good at reading between the lines.

Downplaying your expertise. If you don’t apply for a job because you personally think you might not have enough experience for it — if they are asking for, say, three to four years of using a set of skills and perhaps you only have one — then you definitely won’t get an interview. If you write in a cover letter, “Although I don’t have the three to four years of experience you are seeking, I do have …” they will certainly agree with your lack of experience and probably won’t see what you do have.

But if you describe your actual experience, and tell them in words they are familiar with based on your research into the field and the many informational interviews you’ve had, you will make a much better impression. You can never be absolutely sure what a hiring manager is actually looking for in a new hire, so let them be the judge of your experience. They may see potential in your background that you can’t see from your perspective.

Raising no interview questions. If you don’t have questions at the end of a job interview, you are most assuredly increasing the chances you won’t be asked back for another one, much less given an offer. If you are uncertain why, then read this.

Predicting when job offers will come in. When you receive multiple job offers, you will probably never be able to get them all to line up at the same time so that you can choose between them — no matter how well you negotiate or stall for more time. And just as it seems that buttered bread always lands butter side down when dropped, it can certainly feel like offers from less preferred employers always come first. They also have more immediate turnaround times than offers from the employers you really want. I have met with many students and postdocs who have an offer on the table from a less preferred employer that will probably expire before they can even complete the interviewing process for a more preferred one. No one can know for sure what will happen in the future if that first offer is turned down or accepted.

Not negotiating. You will certainly regret not negotiating. You may not feel it all at once in the glow of receiving and immediately accepting a job offer, but over time, you will increasingly wish you had asked for something. You don’t have to negotiate for much to feel satisfied that you have advocated for yourself. A small salary increase, a reduction in your teaching load for a couple of years or priority access to your new employer’s day-care facilities can all make a meaningful contribution to how you feel. But you should always negotiate positively — and do so as confidently as possible.

Questioning your decisions. You will always look for career certainty as you make your decisions. But in most situations, once you make a choice, you will remain a little in doubt about your future career prospects. Will your decision get you closer to your dream job or employer, or will it take you down a path that will lead you away from it? You can never tell for sure.

The thing about career uncertainty is that it actually exists no matter what choice you make. And while that may sound a little scary, if we flip the narrative around, it means that there aren’t really any wrong choices. You will have to make many different choices. Some will be strategic ones that move you toward some future career goal, some will be more immediate to address a crucial need (e.g., financial) and some will be less about the work and more about your family or personal well-being.

Each is valid in its own way. As long as you have given thought to why you have made the choice and are committed to making the most of the situation, you can continue to leverage the experience you gain in any role for whatever future career move you choose to make.

Here are five steps that I would certainly recommend once you have made a career choice in order to feel satisfied that you can make the most out of it:

  1. Thank everyone who has helped in your job search, especially your references.
  2. Take advantage of any training or mentoring available in your new role.
  3. Make a concerted effort to grow your network within your new employer, as well as within the employers’ broader professional industry.
  4. Identify new skills or knowledge you can gain in your new role that you didn’t have before.
  5. After you have settled into the new role, begin to think about the different career steps you can take next, and what you will need to do for each of them.

You can always learn from the past decisions you have made. But rather than second-guessing a previous career choice, invest your energy in developing a forward-looking strategy that will help you be as informed and confident as possible when taking the next step.

Career Lessons from Buddy the Elf

By Dr. Claire Klieger

‘Tis the season for holiday movies on tv, pretty much 24-7. One of my favorites is Elf. So, in the spirit of the season, here are some career takeaways from Buddy himself:

“I just like to smile; smiling’s my favorite.” Remembering to smile, especially in interviews, can shift the whole tone of the exchange. Similarly, smiling when you first meet someone in a business meeting helps to put them at ease. Smiling in a professional setting really should be your favorite!

via GIPHY

“I’m a cotton-headed ninny-muggins.”Admitting when you’ve made a mistake and taking ownership of it in the workplace goes a long way, especially when you can identify an issue when there is still time to correct it.

“So, good news—I saw a dog today.” Try to focus on the positive, both in your work place and in your job search. Taking stock of those “small wins” even in the everyday will power you through the more difficult days.

via GIPHY

“I’m in a store and I’m singing!” Be willing to step outside of your comfort zone and stretch yourself from time to time. Take on a new project, learn a different skill, be willing to explore a career path outside of Penn norms.

“You did it! Congratulations! World’s best cup of coffee! Great job, everybody!” Ok, so what makes this hilarious in the movie is that he’s celebrating mediocrity and every coffee shop in New York’s claim to have the greatest cup of coffee. That said, taking time to acknowledge others’ genuine successes is really good way to build rapport in the work place.

“I passed through the seven levels of the Candy Cane forest, through the sea of swirly-twirly gum drops, and then I walked through the Lincoln Tunnel.” Persistence, whether it’s traveling to find your human dad who lives in the Big Apple when you’ve been raised by elves at the North Pole, or on the job search, on that big project at work, is a great quality sure to serve you well.

Happy Holidays from all of us in Penn Career Services!

Replenish: Taming Overwhelm in the Job Search and Beyond

by Sharon Fleshman

Career decision-making, the job search, and even starting a new job can be a bit overwhelming, so making room for replenishing is a great habit to start (or strengthen). To that end, here are three questions to ask yourself as you move toward your next semester or phase of life:

Who and what brings me positive energy and joy?
Answering this question is a good way to make sure that you can be intentional about including life-giving people and activities in your day-to-day life. It can also give you clues for finding a good career fit.

What am I noticing about myself right now?
This question can help you to assess how you are feeling and showing up. Any concerns about what you notice can pave the way for helpful interventions, whether quick ones such as deep breathing or calling a friend, or more long-term ones such as attending a mindfulness program or counseling.  Don’t forget to take the time to notice and celebrate the positive as well. 

What is my strategy for self-care?
Even with the most rewarding work, having a plan for replenishing is necessary.  Self-care can encompass many areas of your life (e.g., physical, emotional, relational, spiritual, etc.) so you will want to be holistic in your strategy.

Feel free to connect with a Career Services advisor to discuss how your answers to these questions relate to your job search or other career planning activities.  We also have a list of self-management and personal wellness reflection questions on our website.  

Here are some additional resources to check out:

Wellness at Penn

Student Health Service

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction/CAPS

Office of the Chaplain

Weingarten Learning Resources Center

 

How listening to a podcast got me thinking about workplace dynamics

Natty Leach, Associate Director

With the summer now fully upon us, I’ve been trying to catch up on a few podcasts. Something I heard recently that instantly caught my attention wasn’t even part of an actual podcast, but more of a teaser.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and profound thinker of thoughts, has a fascinating podcast, Revisionist History, on things misunderstood and what implications may stem from these missteps. It was through a bonus episode leading up to the new season that I heard Gladwell speak with Adam Grant, University Pennsylvania’s own professor and podcast host of his own. The two talk mostly about social and cultural dynamics in the workplace, the effectiveness of teams, and more. And while they may not have been so explicit, I think there’s a lot to think about especially in regards to starting a new role or during an internship this summer.

A few highlights:

Specificity and Surprise:

Gladwell talks about how his creative process is driven by a sense of specificity rather than pontificating broadly. By examining minute details while keeping an eye on the lesson or implication this has for the big picture, everything is more interesting. That point may be relevant in how you go about examining complicated problems or could even apply to something like a cover letter where adding specific details can really illustrate your skills and accomplishments.

Teamwork and Organizational Fit:

Environment is hugely linked to success and many times this environment is created through teams. In whatever you’re doing this summer, think about how your work is influenced and strengthened by the environment around you and, in particular, how you fit into the groups of people who shape that environment.

When/How to Express Different Opinions at a New Job:

So, Gladwell’s answer of being as bumbling and passive aggressive as possible is probably not the best way to express your opinion. I did, however, just today on my commute to work hear a take on this through another podcast, Simms & Lefkoe, who highlight the importance of showing a sample of results when bringing a new idea to the table.

If you have some time this summer either to yourself or during a commute, the whole talk is definitely worth checking out and could even reveal some of the workplace dynamics of your summer internship or job.

 

Retirement

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.