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.

A New and Improved PhD and Postdoc Careers Webpage!

One of the exciting projects that I was working on this past summer and early fall was revamping our webpage for PhDs and postdocs in collaboration with my colleagues. If you haven’t seen it yet, check out our new Ph.D./Postdoc Careers page! This new webpage centralizes all job and career-related resources for Penn doctoral students and postdocs. It’s structured into three main sections to help you easily find the information you’re looking for.

Here’s a quick run-down of how you can use the webpage:

If you’re currently in a PhD program or postdoc and have questions about which career paths would interest you or how you should prepare for your career, check out the Making the Most of Your Ph.D./Postdoc page. It features a four-step career exploration process to guide you in identifying and preparing for careers that would be a strong fit for your interests.

Are you actively applying for academic jobs and/or jobs beyond academia? The Searching, Applying, Interviewing & Negotiating for Jobs page contains information on the entire job search process for postdoc/faculty careers as well as careers beyond academia. You can find resources on preparing your job application materials as well as preparing for job interviews and negotiations.

If you are looking to find out what Career Services can offer you, take a look at the Taking Advantage of Career Services page, which lists all of our services for doctoral students and postdocs—from one-on-one advising to workshops to digital career resources.

We hope you’ll check out our new webpage—you’ll see below some testimonials from your fellow peers on their experiences using the webpage in our focus group.

The Graduate Student and Postdoc Team at Career Services is eager to help you in all aspects of your career exploration and planning process, for jobs in academia and beyond, so make an appointment to see us!

“The breakdown of the four-step Career Exploration Process on the Making the Most of Your Ph.D./Postdoc page was helpful in clarifying what had initially seemed nebulous to me, and it allowed me to move through the steps systematically without feeling overwhelmed.” –Ph.D. Candidate, Department of English

“I found the Professionalize and Gain Experience page extremely useful because it lists several concrete ways in which one can gain work experience at Penn that extends beyond academia.” –Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Linguistics

“I gravitated towards the Making the Most of Your PhD page. I didn’t realize there were job simulations until now, and I am definitely going to play around with that resource!” –Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Genomics and Computational Biology

“I was really impressed with the Career Exploration Process information. That is a really concise, concrete and useful resource.” –Ph.D. Candidate, School of Engineering & Applied Science

“The webpage’s new step by step overview of how best to use your time in grad school is an invaluable resource!” –Ph.D. Candidate, Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations

CS Radio – Episode 70: “The CS Internet of Things”

Celebrating 70 episodes!  Special guest Helen Pho, Associate Director at Penn Career Services, joins us to talk about the major overhaul coming to the PhD and Postdoc section of our website.  While on the topic, Michael and Mylène highlight other new additions and classic hidden gems of the sometimes overwhelming CS website.  Enjoy!

Show Notes
Graduate Student landing page (Will update to new site when live)
New Digital Career Resources page

The Hub of Hope

This is the next in a series of posts by recipients of the 2018 Career Services Summer Funding Grant. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they’ve been spending their summer. You can read the entire series here.

This entry is by Carolyn Ziembo, MSW ’19

This summer I was fortunate to serve as the Graduate Policy Intern in the Office of the Deputy Managing Director of Health and Human Services (HHS) for the City of Philadelphia. Over the course of the summer, I worked on a variety of projects, many of which focused on the City’s response to the current opioid crisis and associated northeast Philadelphia encampments, homeless prevention, and affordable housing. The experience provided me with a wealth of information on how the City serves vulnerable populations and responds to health crises, as well as skills in program management and memo drafting.

One of my favorite projects was supporting the Hub of Hope. The Hub of Hope is a daytime engagement center for people experiencing homelessness. It is operated by SEPTA, the City of Philadelphia, Project HOME, and Philabundance in the subconcourse adjacent to Suburban Station. At the Hub, which opened in January 2018, guests are welcome to have a warm cup of coffee, eat a meal, take a shower, wash their clothes, get medical care, and access treatment and housing. Pulling from a list I maintained of current projects and tasks, I prepped agendas for meetings at the Hub every other week with program managers from the City and nonprofits. Attending the meetings was a great way to see how municipal staff and nonprofit organizations interact and successfully run a social service program together.

In addition to Hub of Hope logistics projects throughout the summer, such as ensuring volunteers had clear protocols and instructions in accessing to the Hub, I also took part in the outreach for Meals and More, a grant program designed to bring Philadelphia volunteer meal providers to the Hub. I was involved in every aspect of the grant process, including contacting potential applicants and collecting applications, creating criteria determinants and score sheets, scheduling and attending the review panel, and ultimately giving notice to the grant winners. I enjoyed working with the meal providers, who were all thrilled to begin serving at the Hub. It was another example of the City and nonprofit organizations partnering to best serve Philadelphia’s vulnerable populations.

Beyond the Hub, I sat in on many meetings and observed firsthand how the City is responding to the opioid crisis in Philadelphia. Again, collaboration was key in the planning and implementing of various strategies and meetings were attended by people from across many City departments, as well as from nonprofits directly serving those affected by opioid use disorder. It was also encouraging to see the City regularly hold meetings with representatives from Kensington-area community groups and advocates. Additionally, I was fortunate to go on a site visit to the area hardest hit by the opioid crisis and see for myself the work that had been accomplished. I found the trip very useful; being able to visualize what was being discussed in meetings was important to understanding all aspects the topic. I think this is true for any policymaking or programming.

Although I had worked and interned in nonprofits previously, this summer’s internship was a new look for me into how City government functions. I was fortunate to meet and learn from so many knowledgeable people and am grateful for all the insight I gained.

Designing Your PhD with Pipe Cleaners, Mind Maps, and Drawings

As the academic year starts again soon for graduate students and postdocs, it can often be a hectic time especially for those who are planning to be on the academic job market, teaching their own courses, conducting research, and writing chapters of their dissertation, among other things. It seems that there is always more and more to do. Before the fall begins, however, it’s important to take a step back and reflect on the things that you’re doing and how they fit into your life overall.

This summer, my colleague and I ran a pilot interactive workshop called Designing Your PhD for around 25 graduate students with the goal of having students spend time to think about what work values are important to them, what skills they have, and what things they enjoy doing. Based on the popular book, Designing Your Life, by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, our workshop used the process of design thinking to help graduate students understand the career exploration process. The first stage of the design process involves understanding the user, which in this case is the student. Students had fun using pipe cleaners to visualize their concerns and aspirations about careers and used card sorts (based on the helpful assessments from ImaginePhD) to prioritize their top five skills, values, and interests. They also created mind maps that brought together different aspects of their lives (involving work, play, health, and love) and drew different versions of themselves that they can then “test” out as part of the career exploration process. We ended the workshop by discussing the MIND Career Exploration Road Map from UCSF to help guide students as they make decisions about their careers. It was by far one of my favorite workshops as we got to see what students created with their pipe cleaners, mind maps, and drawings.

If you didn’t get a chance to attend our pilot workshop, no worries! We’ll hold the workshop again in the future as well as with different departments and graduate student groups. Until then, however, make an appointment to speak with a Career Advisor about your career exploration plans. You can also check out some of these resources below so you can begin to reflect on your interests, skills, and values, explore careers that may interest you, and think about how you can design your PhD career in a way that you’ll find satisfying, productive, and rewarding: