Tomorrow on @PennCareerDay: Jeff Barg, COL ’02/MCP ’10 – PA Horticultural Society

Be sure to follow @PennCareerDay tomorrow for great insights from another Penn alum about their career path and a typical day at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society!

Jeffrey Barg is Associate Director for Planning and External Policy Relations at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.  At PHS, he develops and maintains the organizational policy agenda and government relations at the federal, state and local level, and manages projects related to urban greening, creative placemaking, vacant land reclamation, urban agriculture, community and neighborhood gardens, landscape studies and more.

Prior to his work with PHS, Jeff worked with the Penn Institute for Urban Research at the Consortium for Building Energy Innovation at the Philadelphia Navy Yard.  Before that, he had a long career in journalism as managing editor for Philadelphia Weekly.

Jeff holds a BA in American History and a Master of City Planning, both from University of Pennsylvania.  (Editors note: He also plays a mean blues guitar.)


Illustrating Career Readiness Competencies: Part II

Dr. Joseph Barber

Employers value candidates who have developed career readiness competencies throughout their diverse academic experiences. Graduate students and postdocs in particular should aim to incorporate those transferable skill sets into their professional development so that they can be seen as more than just researchers and teachers. More than that, they need to be able to provide tangible illustrations of such skills and competencies in action to convince future employers that they are qualified for professional roles.

In a previous post I introduced the seven career readiness competencies we are developing at the University of Pennsylvania, based on the original National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) competencies. I also gave examples of some of the ways that the first three competencies could be illustrated. In this post I will focus on the other competencies from the list we are using at Penn: teamwork and collaboration, leadership and project management, professionalism and work ethic, and career management.

Teamwork and collaboration. Don’t be fooled — it is actually quite easy to be on a team. Indeed, sometimes it is so easy that you can find yourself on a team, a committee or a collaborative research project when you don’t even want to be. Teamwork is more than just participating on a team, however. It is about being able to effectively deal with all of the chaos that comes from a group of individuals with their own ideas, approaches, experiences, knowledge, egos, quirks and associated bad habits that is trying to work together with a mostly common goal in mind. Teamwork is about developing and managing relationships, negotiating conflicting ideas and uneven workloads, and self-advocating for your own role, ideas and results. Simply stating “worked on a team” or “participated in a team project” on a résumé or in a cover letter doesn’t illustrate any of the most important teamwork skills.

Not all team experiences are pleasant, but each one can be a learning experience that can help you anticipate future challenges and hopefully address them more effectively. Think about the last team-based experience you had and try to list all of the different roles you played within that team (leader, motivator, scheduler, conflict resolver, devil’s advocate, etc.). Think about the challenges that made that team experience complex and stress inducing. Then think about how you helped to overcome these challenges. Tell people why you enjoyed the experience, if you did. Tell them how you know your role was essential to the team’s success. Show them how flexible an employee you can be by illustrating the different types of professional working relationships you established with a wide diversity of people.

Leadership and project management. Certain industries, like consulting, put a lot of focus on leadership skills when they list desired experience in job descriptions. But the employer survey results that NACE collected in the development of their career readiness competencies show that leadership is not always seen as a vital trait. After all, most entry-level positions suitable for Ph.D. students or postdocs are generally not positioned as leadership roles — those roles come later on in the normal career trajectory.

That can be a relief to many students and postdocs, because some academic experiences may not feel like they offer many opportunities to be leaders — although that depends on how you define leadership. You don’t have to be called a leader, or be in a leadership role, to demonstrate leadership qualities. If you have ever changed someone’s mind or their perspective about an issue, you have demonstrated leadership qualities. If you have convinced other people to get involved in a project or program even though there was disagreement and a lack of consensus, then that is leadership. If you have been able to help others use their natural skills and abilities when working on a project, then that is leadership. If you think of leadership as more of a state of mind, then there are always opportunities to describe this competency in action even within a purely research setting.

That is not to say that seeking out actual leadership roles won’t be helpful. Serving as the vice president of a group on the campus run by students or postdocs can sound impressive. However, much like participating in a team, just listing a fancy-sounding title can feel a little empty if you can’t effectively demonstrate your skills in action. Be ready to tell a story about how you managed your emotions, and those of your colleagues, while working on a challenging project. Disappointment and negative results are a normal part of research; how did you overcome that? This part of the story is likely to be engaging to a future employer and represents a much more professional perspective of what leadership actually involves than merely listing leadership titles.

Professionalism and work ethic. Here is a list of common behaviors that I see from students on a regular basis that hint at a lack of professionalism:

  1. Setting up an appointment with an adviser and then not showing up on the day of the appointment.
  2. Registering for an event with no real intention of attending the event.
  3. Turning up 15 minutes late to an appointment, but not apologizing for being late or making any mention of it.
  4. Continuing to ask questions once an appointment has come to an end, despite the adviser standing up, opening the door and suggesting the next step of setting up a follow-up meeting to ask additional questions.
  5. Leaving a panel discussion 20 minutes into a 90-minute program

These are all relatively minor faux pas and can be easily addressed, but they can also be additive. Once a student or postdoc shows a consistent pattern of such unprofessional behaviors, people will find it harder to imagine them being able to present themselves professionally when it is much more important (like during a client-focused meeting).

When it comes to demonstrating this competency to future employers, you must do so through actions. I have seen an offer for an internship at a prestigious nongovernmental organization rescinded because the student’s tone was unnecessarily rude and dismissive in emails with an administrative assistant about finalizing the paperwork for the position.

If you want insight into what professional behavior looks like, spend more time talking to alumni in professional roles and asking them about their day-to-day work experiences and challenges. In fact, ask them what professional behavior looks like at their organization and actively listen to their reply so that you can model similar types of appropriate behavior. Respecting the time of your networking contacts, sending thank-you notes, choosing the appropriate tone for even informal communication, following up or showing up when you said you would — these are all great demonstrations of this competency in action.

Career management. Like leadership, the career management competency isn’t one that employers will ask about directly in job announcements, and it doesn’t rank as highly in the list of essential traits that they are looking for. But a good employer will hope that you can advocate for your own professional development and growth. In this way, if you do stay and grow within the organization, you will be able to contribute in meaningful ways at every point in your upward trajectory.

Whether or not career management is important from the employer’s perspective, it is always going to be essential to you — not just for the first position you are seeking but for every other position you will have throughout your professional life. The goal of “identifying and expressing skills, strengths, knowledge and experiences relevant to both the desired position and career goals, and identifying areas necessary for professional growth” can be achieved by working on developing all of the other career readiness competencies that I have been describing.

This won’t happen in a week or a month, but by working with career advisers, mentors, supervisors and your peers, you can continue to develop as a professional over time. Who doesn’t like lifelong learning? It sounds like something that most Ph.D. students and postdocs I know would, and should, willingly embrace.

Get Some (International) Perspective – Reflections from a Recent Experience Abroad

By: S. David Ross, Associate Director

I was fortunate enough to spend 8 days abroad on a recent business trip to Israel. As this was my first visit to the country, I knew there would be much to learn and process. After spending some time reflecting on my trip, I realized some of what I discovered (or was reminded) may be useful for those preparing for internships and full-time employment. Here are just a few observations:

The solutions to some of the most vexing domestic issues can be found abroad. During one of my meetings, I had the chance to speak with a principal at a local elementary school. I was curious to hear more about the school’s philosophy on educating students and how they achieved success. He was very candid and offered his opinion based on years of experience working in the country. Thinking about what he shared, I realized a similar approach may be helpful at some schools in the U.S. that have encountered challenges. Ultimately, this conversation reminded me that some of the answers to very challenging issues in the U.S. can be found abroad – so it’s important to take advantage of the chance to spend time abroad, visit different countries and learn as much as possible.

Perception can be significantly distorted by limited perspective. Prior to my trip, I revisited some articles written about the country from the perspective of individuals in the U.S. But I was quite curious to hear opinions from those who actually lived in the country. A few conversations with local citizens reminded me that perspectives can vary drastically on events and there is much value in hearing different viewpoints. What is especially great about visiting other countries is hearing firsthand accounts from those who lived through events others have read about in the past. Developing an appreciation for different viewpoints and appreciating the value of global mindset can be very helpful while working in companies or organizations and throughout your career.

While differences may be apparent, there may be more similarities than you expect. During a few conversations with other colleagues on the trip, a few people remarked how different cities and neighborhoods we visited reminded them of areas in the U.S. While it may be easy to focus on differences we see and observe, I was reminded that people’s lifestyles and experiences in other countries may have more in common with the U.S. than people realize or assume. Having the willingness to be open-minded and appreciate the similarities and differences of individuals you encounter will be helpful as you prepare for a global workforce.

How to Illustrate Your Career Readiness Competencies

Dr. Joseph Barber

In a previous post, I highlighted examples of career readiness competencies that are being integrated into approaches to improve the career and professional development of students. While the original NACE competencies may have been developed primarily with undergraduates in mind, they are equally applicable to graduate students. Indeed, they may actually be far more important to graduate students because of the tendency of those students, as they approach the end of their academic programs, to suddenly realize they’ve totally forgotten how to talk about their strengths, skills and abilities to different types of audiences.

Some of the students I meet with at the University of Pennsylvania readily explain that the last application materials they created were for their entry into graduate school — sometimes five or more years ago — and that they have not applied or interviewed for anything that resembles a job or an internship since then. The consequence of this lack of practice is a great deal of verbal rustiness when it comes to presenting clear, illustrative narratives that describe skills and experiences — academic or otherwise.

Even in the most ideal situations, graduate students can feel a little awkward talking about their research to other academics. Describing the transferable skills that explain how they actually approached and completed their research can feel even more awkward, given the fact that they rarely discuss such skills in conversations with their advisers or other faculty members.

Are you, in fact, one such graduate student? If so, not to worry. There are many ways to practice and become more fluent in professionally appropriate, skills-based talking through networking. You can read about them in this post and this one.

You can also become more fluent in this language by thinking about career readiness competencies and using them as a starting point for illustrating your skills in action. And, yes, if you are wondering, focusing on career readiness competencies is just as appropriate for those seeking faculty positions as it is for those who are not.

Here are some suggestions for ways to think about such competencies in order to tell better stories to future employers and networking contacts about your research. Those competencies — and I’m using those that we are developing at Penn, adapted from the NACE ones – cover some of these areas.

Self-management and personal wellness. Interestingly, most job descriptions don’t list skills like resiliency or emotional empathy in the lists of skills employers often seek in ideal candidates. But everyone needs them. While you might not write about them in your application materials, they certainly pop up in interview questions such as “What has been your greatest mistake?” “How do you deal with failure?” or “How do you address conflict in a group situation?”

As researchers, the ability to provide examples that highlight resiliency should be easy. Research frequently doesn’t yield positive results, grant applications are not always successful, manuscripts are often turned away at first and so on. Your job is clearly not to bring up a long list of failures in interviews. But using these as context to explain how you responded to these setbacks, what you learned from the experiences and how you have used this knowledge in more recent situations can nicely demonstrate this competency in action. No one is perfect, and being able to talk positively and confidently about how you have looked failure in the eyes and moved on can be a narrative that appeals to employers looking for candidates with emotional maturity and strength.

Active listening and effective communication. Attending a conference where you are giving a presentation (or, in the case of some disciplines, where you are strangely reading word for word a research paper that the audience members could just read for themselves — come on, you must admit that this is a bizarre activity!), provides an opportunity to demonstrate public speaking skills. That’s great, until you see how students and postdocs often refer to such experiences in their application materials:

  • Barber, J. C. E., 2016. “Chickens are fab — a metaphysical analysis of the philosophical surrogating of domestic fowl.” The Third International Conference of Poultry Philosophy. Denver [Oral Presentation]

While it might be standard to list talks in this way in an academic CV, outside a faculty search committee no one is likely to find this an effective illustration of any sort of communication skills. And, in fact, one of the key attributes of the “Active Listening and Effective Communication” competency is to adapt communication approaches to different audiences.

The résumé and cover letter should illustrate this. In other words, you can’t just talk about other experiences where you adapted communication styles. The entire way you write and talk about yourself has to be one giant representation of this skill set in action. The language you use should be the language of the employer who will be reading the résumé. The skills you talk about should be the skills that are relevant to the job. Thus, I might reframe my oral presentation reference above to say, “Analyzed three fields of research on chickens and gave a multimedia presentation to an interdisciplinary audience of 300 that included philosophers, agriculture researchers and federal policy makers.”

It is helpful if you can describe your experiences by telling stories rather than just listing task after task. A good story describes some of the challenges and obstacles that your distinct set of skills, experiences and knowledge helped you to overcome, and it explains why you embarked on whatever experience you are talking about. People will remember your stories more than they remember the tasks you completed. In fact, people will understand your ideas better and will feel more connected to you and your work if you tell stories.

Need some help telling stories? Try integrating these six words, adapted from a presentation given by Dave Evans, a lecturer in the design program at Stanford University, at the 2016 Graduate Career Consortium annual meeting, into your next attempt to describe some of your research experiences:

  • Initiative: Why did you take on the research project in the way you did? What did you have to do to even get started?
  • Innovation: What was new about the questions you have been asking and the approaches you have been taking?
  • Implementation: How did you get your research going? What were the resources you found, and who were some of the people you connected with to help you? What obstacles were in your way?
  • Insight: What have you learned from doing it?
  • Iteration: What did you change along the way? How have you changed by doing it?
  • Impact: What did you find? Why is this important to your field and to the person you are talking to?

Critical thinking and problem solving. No one is going to doubt your ability, as a Ph.D. researcher, to think deep thoughts. Instead, many people may believe that you can only think deep thoughts, and they will wonder whether you are able to take your thinking and turn it into actions. To address that, you should consider and articulate some of the research-relevant decisions you have made along the way as you talk about aspects of your academic experience.

For example, don’t just say that your research focuses on X. Be ready to talk about why you chose this research topic in the first place. Given the infinite multitude of research projects that can exist, why did you pick this one?

Remember, the topic of the research itself is usually not going to be relevant to most audiences, so your particular story has to be more about the decision-making process than the research. You made the choice to ask certain questions — why? You chose the methodology and the approach to getting answers — why? And remember, while your research may not have solved any global problems, you definitely had to deal with challenges to conduct it. These could be challenges with methodologies, gaining access to resources, acquiring funding, getting along with your adviser or collaborators, and so on.

I have focused on reframing research experiences using these career readiness competencies, but most Ph.D. students and postdocs have done much more than just their research during their academic programs and training. All of these other experiences can also be used as the basis of skill-focused descriptions, narratives and stories. In my next post, I will focus on the other competencies from the list we are using at Penn: teamwork and collaboration, leadership and project management, professionalism and work ethic, and career management.

Identify ways to avoid job search stress

by Jamie Grant C’98 GEd’99, Associate Director

I meet with many students seeking internships and full-time positions who are at times incredibly busy with their coursework – and on top of their studies, trying to balance a comprehensive and effective job search.  This can understandably be a very stressful combination of activities, and so Career Services is always working to identify resources and tools to help our students not only strike a balance but succeed in both arenas. 

To that end, a partnership between Career Services and CAPS has generated an upcoming workshop series designed to help students excel in the career planning and application process – with sessions on different kinds of personality and strengths assessments as well as the aptly titled “Managing Anxiety Related to your Job Search,” participating students will have several opportunities throughout the upcoming year to bring their concerns and identify solutions and strategies to enhance their application process.  At the start of the semester, please be sure to check the Career Services calendar and/or the CAPS website for details on specific programs and their scheduled dates/times.

Beyond workshops, Career Services is also always working to identify and provide the latest tools to help students manage their career development.  A really neat resource, free for our current students and discounted for alumni, is Jobtreks – your Jobtreks account will allow you to: 
     – Access a proprietary database of 9,000+ companies
     – Create your target list of companies
     – Browse 30+ job boards and other job search resources
     – Manage your companies, contacts, & job applications
     – Create to-do lists, notes, & alerts, and
     – Prep for interviews and networking

so that you can keep all of your thoughts, research, contacts and networking resources and more in your own private database!
Jobtreks logins are by academic status, so please see the list below for your appropriate link to register:

So, with these upcoming workshops and tools like Jobtreks, you have a few special resources to help your job or internship search to be a manageable and interesting journey of self-discovery and possibilities.  And, if ever you feel the least bit overwhelmed or stressed about career-related issues, please reach out to one of your career advisors to discuss your individual concerns.