What’s Your Story? The Power of a Career Narrative

by Sharon Fleshman

You may have career goals which seem clearly aligned with your background or you may be seeking a career transition.  Either way, you will want to develop a compelling career narratives which would include the following:

— An experience that exposed you to a given career and served as a catalyst for you to pursue that career.

— An experience in which you were energized and made a positive impact, confirming for you that a particular career or job is a good fit for you.

With these kinds of defining moments and accomplishments, you can connect the dots between your work history and the next step on your career path.  Consider the following scenarios and career narrative examples:

A student completing a BSN degree and planning to apply to Registered Nurse positions.  
“I became drawn to nursing in high school when volunteering at a pediatric hospital and shadowing a nurse.  I continue to enjoy community service work which allows me to mentor and empower children. In my recent clinical rotation in pediatrics, I was able to bring comfort and clarity to the anxious parent of a patient, which was noted by the parent and my supervisor. This affirmed my desire and ability to offer patient care that has a positive impact not only on children at the hospital but on their families as well.”

An alum who has worked as a teacher, returned to school to study policy, and plans to apply to policy research positions.
“As I worked as a teacher in public school, I began to ponder the best ways to assess student achievement in the classroom. As I did this, I also saw connections to broader and more systemic issues. This discovery led me to attend a graduate program which allowed me to cultivate skills in policy analysis and data analysis to complement my teaching background. I found that in my internship, my track record as an educator paved the way for me to build rapport with teachers and administrators whose participation was vital to my research.   I hope to leverage my mix of experiences and skills to conduct policy research and analysis that promotes increased equity and access in education.”

There are a number of contexts in which you can apply your career narrative:

Cover letters:  Cover letters allow you to address a specific employer about a specific job.  Therefore, you do not want to merely repeat what is on your resume. Instead, adapt and build upon your career narrative to highlight experiences that demonstrate why you are interested in and qualified for the job, and a good fit for the employer.

Career Fairs: Career fairs allow you to engage representatives from various employers, usually in brief conversations.   The career narrative, adapted to a particular employer, can offer a great way to introduce yourself and pave the way to ask a thoughtful question or two.

Networking: Whether you converse with your networking contact at a reception or an informational interview, your career narrative is a great tool to offer a bit about your background and career interests before you ask for perspective or advice.

Interviewing:  Many interviews open with the “Tell me about yourself” question, which can be a bit daunting.  Having a career narrative that connects your key experiences and career goals to the employer and the job will help you begin the interview with enthusiasm and confidence.

Feel free to make an appointment with a career advisor to discuss how to craft your career narrative. In the meantime, take a look at the following articles for more insight:

What’s Your Story? – by Herminia Ibarra and Kent Lineback, Harvard Business Review, January 2005

Younger Workers Need a Career Narrative by Heidi Gardner and Adam Zalisk, Harvard Business Review, February 15, 2013

 

Informational Interviewing: A Summer Project

by Marianne Lipa, Career Advisor

As the mid-point of the summer has passed, it’s the perfect time to think about ways to connect with people to learn about their careers, organizations, positions, and gain useful information in your future job and internship searches.  If you are currently interning this summer, reflect on how the internship provides practice, experience, training, and skills.  Informational interviews are conversations that provide an opportunity to gather information, establish connections, and allow you to share information about yourself in order to achieve your career goals.  Some key tips to remember:

  • Reach out to potential contacts via email.  In the email, remember to explain how you found their name (both LinkedIn and Quakernet are valuable resources for finding alumni), introduce yourself, and ask if you could schedule a time to speak with them about their career path.
  • Come prepared with questions to ask during the informational interview/conversation!  Check out this list of:  sample informational interview questions
  • Informational interviews focus on various topics such as:
    • Preparing for a career in this field
    • Particular organization/company the person works for
    • The person’s current job
    • The person’s future career goals/steps
    • Prior experience and preparation
    • Lifestyle/Expectations
    • Factors taken into consideration for hiring decisions
    • Referral to other contacts
  • It’s important that you do NOT ask for a job/internship.  You are welcome to mention that you are conducting a job/internship search by asking general questions and seeking advice about how to best approach the process.
  • When setting up the informational interview, plan to allocate no more than 30 minutes.  Remember that they are busy individuals offering to share their time and expertise with you so it’s important to be respectful of their time.
  • Lastly, always send a thank you email to your contact.  This allows you to show your appreciation and they might be able to assist you in the future especially if an opportunity arises at their particular company or if they know of another opportunity within their network of contacts.

Feel free to further discuss informational interviewing with an advisor in Career Services.  We’re happy to help you, and enjoy the rest of your summer!

Case interviews 101

Jingy Yen, Career Adviser

Interviewing is usually a nerve wracking, anxiety inducing experience. Case interviews bring a whole new level of stress and uncertainty. Here are some tips and tricks for tackling the case interview and making the process more manageable.

First things first –what is a case interview?

A case interview is when the employer presents you with a business problem, likely something that the company has to deal with regularly. Your job is to analyze the problem and give some solutions. There is usually no clear right or wrong answer. The interviewer is assessing your problem solving ability, how you approach different situations, and your ability to talk your way through it.

So when I be expected to do a case interview?

If you are interested in consulting or similar fields, you will most likely have to do some variation of a case interview. Sometimes it’ll be one-on-one with an interviewer, other times you will be expected to present your ideas in front of a panel.

Yikes this sounds scary. How do I prepare?

The good news is summer is a great time to prepare for case interviews. Recruiting starts the minute you get back on campus, so you won’t have a lot of time to prepare in the fall. Start by reading some case books and watching videos online to get an idea of what the case interview looks like. Then, find peers to practice with. You can also make an appointment with a career advisor to do a mock case interview. It’s hard to practice for this on your own, so the best strategy is to connect with as many people as possible to practice with each other. There isn’t a magic number for how many to practice, just try to fit as many in.

Okay fine, but what can I do on my own?

There are many things you can do on your own to prepare as well. Brush up on your mental math. I’m not talking calculus here, I’m talking long division and percentages. Keep updated on current business trends, read The Wall Street Journal and The Economist. This will help you come up with unique strategies and solutions. You can also do “case starts.” Read yourself the case prompt, and set up your initial framework to practice how you would start a case.

What are some resources for case interviewing?

Books (Available to preview in the Career Services library):
Case in Point by Marc Cosentino
Crack the Case by David Ohrvall
Case Interview Secrets by Victor Cheng

Websites:
https://www.caseinterview.com/ (great mental math exercises)
https://managementconsulted.com/
https://www.preplounge.com/en/

Videos:
MConsultingPrep You Tube Channel : https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGo4-qWsTYnGKhXeghZE6hA

The Mindful Job Search

By Sharon Fleshman

Mindfulness programs seem to be increasingly prevalent on university campuses and in the workplace.  In fact, Penn has offered a number of these programs for students and staff.  It might be tempting to reduce mindfulness to sitting in a quiet space and breathing deeply, yet it can be much more. 

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, defines mindfulness as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

How can mindfulness be applied to the job search? Let’s consider the potential of being mindful as a practice that can enhance the interviewing process.

Prepare positive impact stories

One of the challenges that mindfulness confronts is our tendency to ruminate over past occurrences (usually negative ones) and to worry about the future. What if you could intentionally focus on times when you have made a positive impact on a person or situation? Form a mental picture of someone you helped and tell yourself the narrative of the person’s situation, your actions, and the results.  Imagine that person’s response if someone else was asking them about you.  Journaling your stories and reading them over would likely solidify your positive memories even more and pave the way for increased gratitude. These exercises can not only boost your confidence, but help prepare you to answer behavioral questions in an interview and show how your positive impact can continue in the future.  Even “negative” events such as mistakes or conflicts can be reframed for focus on positive impact if you learned vital lessons and experienced growth as a result.

Press the pause button

Often the job search feels like a job in of itself, and for that reason, it is crucial to give yourself space to replenish.   For more on this, check out my previous article.  Though mindfulness is not limited to sitting quietly in a contemplative stance, regularly taking time to just breathe and embrace the silence can reap future benefits, even in interviewing.  Briefly pressing the pause button during an interview can help you navigate thoughtful or challenging questions and decrease use of filler words (e.g., um, uh, you know, etc.)

Practice paying attention

Imagine a moment when you are talking with a friend on your phone, then you hear the chime from a text message, and then a notification for an Instagram post, and then…. Paying attention to one thing at a time has never been so challenging. Mindfulness exercises can help you focus your attention on activities as simple as breathing, munching on an apple, or watching a squirrel scurry up a tree. This practice allows you to be present in the moment, which will serve you well for interviewing.  For example, it is wise to prepare for interviews by considering how you would answer anticipated questions, but you don’t want to be preoccupied with recalling scripted responses.  With mindfulness, you can be prepared and interact with your interviewers in a genuine and engaging way. 

Please note that a mindfulness program will be offered on-campus for Penn students in the fall. To further discuss how you can use mindfulness in a practical way to enhance your job search, feel free to set up a time to speak with a career advisor.

Career mythbusting, and interesting facts about vegetables and Vulcans

Dr. Joseph Barber

As we conclude this academic year, let me take this opportunity to clarify some common areas of career confusion relating to the job search. But first, some interesting facts to start us off. Did you know that May is the only month that spells a vegetable backwards? I was going to say that May is also the only month that spells another actual word backwards, but then we would be forgetting about April. “What is a Lirpa?” you might ask yourself. Go ahead, look it up, and you will be ready to impress the next Trekkie you meet at a party. OK, and now onto some areas of career confusion and other assorted myths.

  • Professional recruiters only spend an average of 8 seconds reading your resume

I am sure some data have been collected on this, but I am also positive that these data are unlikely to be representative of all industries, and all jobs, and all people. It is the kind of statement that attracts people’s attention, though, and there is some element of truth to this. The reality is that different people will read your application materials at different points along the process, and each person will be looking for something specific from your document. But it is true, that all of these people have busy jobs, lots to do, and so just can’t spend an awful lot of time trying to figure out if your experiences as described might be a good fit for a position. Moreover, the first person who reads your application might not be a person at all. More and more companies are using application tracking systems and software to compare keywords from resumes against keywords from the job descriptions. In a mere fraction of a second, these systems can give a score that addresses how many keywords, skills, and concepts from the job ad are covered in your materials. If there is too low a match rate, then a real person is probably never going to read your materials at all. Your job in your resume is to demonstrate to a very specific population of people at one organization interested in filling one particular role that you have something of value to bring to that specific role. So yes, you need a tailored and customized resume for each job application so that in the short time that someone does spend reading the document, that it really addresses their needs. This leads us to myth #2.

  • But I thought only cover letters need to be customized for each separate job

Cover letters also need to be customized. If you only customize your cover letter, and no-one reads it, then have you actually customized anything at all? That’s a philosophical question for you. Not everyone will read a cover letter. Some application tracking systems won’t scan cover letters in their analysis. Now, don’t get me wrong, you want people to read your cover letter. You want them to read both the letter and the resume. Each document provides something rather different. The resume focuses on relevant skills for the job, and presents them as short, punchy, bullets that illustrate the relevant, takeaway skills in action, provide enough context to make the skills make sense, and ideally point to outcomes that show how effective the skills are. The cover letter takes the most relevant of these and tells more narrative stories that have some aspect of humanity integrated within. So, in a resume you might state:

Created a new experimental protocol in partnership with a bioengineer from a separate lab that resulted in a run time that halved the experimental timeline, and produced sufficient data for a publication now in press.

In a cover letter, you might tell the story behind this bullet point experience, structuring your story using the STAR format (situation, task/challenge, action, result):

In my last experiment, I was trying to get data from my cell-lines using the standard lab protocols, but realized that there wouldn’t be enough time to complete it before my funding ran out. I tried all sorts of approached before I reached out to a bioengineer from another lab at Penn who I had heard give a talk about a new filtration technique she was developing for her research. I was able to collaborate with her to modify her approach to my cell-lines, and actually double the experimental yield. It was really exciting to try an untried, innovative approach, and I really enjoyed the collaboration I established. My advisor has now started using our modified protocol on his own research, and we now have a paper in press. I am looking forward to bringing my creative problem solving to this new role, as I know this quick thinking is essential in a lean start-up environment.

Words such as “enjoy” or “excited by” are hard to use in a resume, but are more easily integrated into the cover letter. A one-page cover letter that has a couple of interesting and unique stories that contain just the right amount of drama and emotion will always be engaging to the reader.

  • You will never get a job by applying online – you have to network to get a job

Well…, networking will absolutely maximize your potential to get a job – and the job you want – but plenty of people I have worked with have received interviews and offers after applying directly to a job posted online. Companies wouldn’t waste their time posting jobs on LinkedIn, Indeed.com, their own websites, or a host of other websites if these were just for show. In fact, in most companies, you do have to apply online to be officially tracked within their applicant tracking system. For most companies, there is a candidate hiring process that they need to follow, and specific steps you and they need to take. Networking helps you along this process, but it doesn’t replace it in most cases. Applying online with a generic resume might not get you through the applicant tracking robots, and a cover letter that doesn’t engage the reader might not get you the interview, but that doesn’t mean that this is the fault of the online application system.

  • If the employer has answered all of the questions you had prepared ahead of time during the interview, it is OK to say that you don’t have any more questions when asked at the end

If time allows, you should always ask questions – always. In every interview that I have been part of (as an interviewer), the people who don’t ask any questions at the end, or who only ask one, or who ask a weak question, are always seen as least favourable candidates at the end of the process. Saying that you don’t have any questions basically tells the interviewer that you are disinterested. If you are applying for a new job, you can’t possible know everything there is to know about it, and so take every opportunity to ask smart, engaging questions about the specific role that you are interviewing for. Here are a few examples:

  1. Over the first 3-6 months, what will be the main priorities for the person in this role?
  2. How does this role fit into the team structure in this office – if I were in this role, would I be working with the same team over time, or on different teams for each project?
  3. What types of professional training opportunities are available for the person in this role?
  4. What are some of the most exciting challenges that the person in this role might face in this work?
  • You should only go to Career Services if you have a specific question, and only if you are an undergraduate

No, you can come at any time, and we will help you identify some of the questions you should be asking if you are having a hard time figuring out what they are. Career Services is also divided into teams, and you will find career advisors who work specifically with undergraduates, and some who only work with graduate students and postdocs. So, if you didn’t take the opportunity to stop by during Lirpa, we look forward to seeing you later in Yam! We are open all summer long!