Life Is Like That….

Careers can be winding, like this road

By Barbara Hewitt

I just started reading Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese and quickly stumbled upon  a sentence that intrigued me…..

“Life, too, is like that. You live it forward but understand it backwards.”

It struck me that careers are also like that for many people. As career counselors, we tend to be very forward thinking. We encourage people to think about and plan for their careers. What interests does one have? What skills could be valuable in a given industry? What educational background is necessary to enter a particular field? Researching and planning for careers does (at least I believe!) increase the likelihood of achieving career satisfaction. That being said, equally important to planning is the ability to remain open to new opportunities and to realize that for most people, careers take a winding as opposed to linear path. We learn from each experience about what we enjoy, what motivates us, and what we absolutely can’t tolerate in a work setting. Life circumstances also change on a regular basis and what might work for us in one stage of our lives doesn’t work in another. For example, a new college graduate might be 100% devoted to her career and be willing to work 70 hours a week or travel frequently for work. Individuals caring for small children or aging parents may need to re-prioritize and find work that is less all-encompassing.

Sometimes we spend a lot of time planning for a scenario which doesn’t pan out the way we had hoped (i.e.: the pre-med student who planned on becoming a doctor but isn’t accepted into medical school or the person who wants to be a pilot but whose eyesight is poor). Sure – their career aspirations may need to change, but it doesn’t mean that they can’t be successful in another field by opening themselves up to different opportunities. They may go down an unexpected path, but one which could bring great rewards.

As we enter the final days of college for the Class of 2011, I’m sure many seniors have landed jobs or graduate school offers that align closely with their dreams. Other seniors are still working out their post-graduate plans. I urge those of you who are still seeking opportunities (or those of you who feel you didn’t get your “first choice” option) to look at the future optimistically and see what it can hold. When I was a senior in college my dream was to attend an APA (American Psychological Association) approved PhD program in counseling psychology with the goal of becoming a licensed psychologist. I was sure I wanted to spend my work days counseling people on personal issues. Even though I had strong grades, I knew acceptance into one of the APA programs was a long shot since I didn’t have a lot of research experience. As a back-up, I also applied to several Masters in Counseling programs as they were easier to get into and less research intensive. I was terribly disappointed when I was not accepted into any of the PhD programs to which I applied. However, I decided to enroll in one of the masters programs and very quickly realized that it was a better choice for me. As I started my practicum which involved providing personal counseling for individuals, I realized that I didn’t enjoy personal counseling as much as I had thought I would, but indeed loved the work that I was doing in my assistantship in the university’s career center. I was able to easily switch my focus in the counseling program from community counseling to student affairs, a much better choice for me in the long-run. Eventually I did go on to receive my doctorate from Penn – but in Higher Education Management as opposed to Counseling Psychology. This is a prime example of a situation which appears very different when viewed “backwards” as opposed to “forward” – my perspective totally changed. We can learn a lot from the experiences in our lives – the successes and failures, the “planned” events and the “unplanned” ones – if only we remain open to possibilities.

To the Class of 2011 – my hope for each of you is happiness and success in your careers, no matter how winding your path may be. Although for now you are likely focused on looking forward, as is fitting at this time of year, remember in the days and years ahead to take time to look backwards at your experiences. You are likely to learn just as much from that perspective.

MAYBERRY R.F.D.- Looking Back and Looking Forward

By Anne Guldin Lucas


Most of our blog readers are probably too young to remember Mayberry R.F.D. (starring Andy Griffith and Ron Howard as a boy) on TV—unless it’s popular in reruns or in DVD collections.  Although my life wasn’t quite as hokey as it was for the characters in Mayberry, the 60s were indeed simpler times.  In my neighborhood, on summer evenings we literally sat on our porches playing cards, and drinking root beer floats or lemonade.  (Personally I never did care for Cherry Coke.)

Last weekend a longtime friend and his family visited us as they were passing through our area.  So please excuse me if this Baby Boomer becomes a bit nostalgic.  I promise there’s a point that will eventually relate to careers (sort of).

My friend arrived with his wife and the youngest of his three children—a 12-year-old daughter.  When my friend and I were twelve, we were neighbors, school mates, and members of the same swim team.  So we spent a lot of time together in our youth.  Since this friend and I have never lived in the same location since our college summers, it still feels strange to see him as an adult, with a wife and family.  I remember us as the same age as his 12-year-old daughter–braces and all!  (In fact, I got my braces off on the last day of 6th grade–the12th birthday of this same friend!)

Yet here we were last weekend—adults—middle-aged ones now, with jobs and families, sitting on the terrace of my house—MY house, not my parents’ house (or porch!).  Who could have imagined that we would actually grow up into reasonably responsible adults who owned homes, held jobs, and raised families?

Aha—that’s the point!  It happens to all of us.  Whether we had a plan when we graduated from college or whether it took years and some job changes, we do eventually grow up.  Whether it’s a straight line or a crooked path, somehow, we usually find our way to a good place—to jobs we enjoy and valued relationships that are so important to a life well lived.

During the past few weeks in my office at Penn I’ve met with triumphant students who are negotiating job offers and making plans to find apartments and move to new cities.  Congratulations to those of you who fit into this category; I know you’ve worked hard.  I’ve also met with students who feel as if they are the only one without a job and a definite plan for after graduation.  I can assure you that you are not alone in this situation.  You have also worked hard, making the most of your precious time at Penn, and you deserve to celebrate Commencement just as enthusiastically as your already employed peers.

MANY Penn seniors will wait until after graduation to begin or to resume a job search.  It’s okay.  In fact, despite the presence of Career Counselor Mother (obviously not to be confused with Tiger Mother) in their lives, neither of my young adult children had jobs upon graduation or had even begun their job searches at the time they walked up on the stage for their undergraduate diplomas.  They are now both gainfully employed, living independently, and one has even earned an MBA.  Believe me—you too will visit an old friend thirty or forty years from now and realize that amazingly, you found direction in your life—and the anxiety surrounding your first post-college job search will have faded into a blurred memory.

Although I have tried repeatedly to find a magic wand and crystal ball to aid me in helping you with your career exploration and decision making, there is ultimately no magic available to make this journey easier.  There may be serendipity along the way—and I wish you a healthy dose of it.  However, I suspect it will take some work and some self-analysis for you to merge your interests, talents, and experiences into a career choice and successful job search.

Please remember that you have lots of people to support you and cheer you on as you begin or continue on the journey to YOUR adulthood and independence—to YOUR own terrace or porch.  You know how to find us in Career Services.  Please reach out and let us know how we can help you get started on the path to your porch—and if you should happen to stumble upon a magic wand or crystal ball, feel free to bring that along too.  Maybe we can use it to look to a future with a little more Mayberry in it for us all!

Good luck with exams, hearty congratulations to the Class of 2011, and Happy Summer Vacation to all!

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.

Beware of leaky pipes!

by Dr. Joseph Barber

In the midst of the recent holidays, water began pouring from the living room ceiling in my house, which had all of a sudden developed a serious case of “leaky pipe syndrome”. The original 1926 lead waste-water pipe in the bathroom sink had given up and lost its structural integrity, providing a novel way for us to water the Christmas tree. [Editor’s Note: Must be contagious. Reminds me of last Christmas in Career Services. – JMD] The professional plumbers we brought in to address this issue replaced the pipe…, but only after accidentally rupturing the hot water pipe supplying water to the sink. Since they hadn’t turned off the water at the mains, there was suddenly a lot more water pouring through the ceiling, leading to a case of extreme “leaky pipe syndrome”. The issue has now been resolved, you’ll be glad to know. The lead pipe has been replaced with PVC, and the copper pipes supplying the hot and cold water have now been replaced with flexible plastic ones (the ones that Mike Holmes on “Holmes on Homes” is always talking about, so they must be good. Oh Mike Holmes, why can’t you come down from Canada and fix up my house?!).

This watery experience reminded me of a different type of leaky pipe that is much harder to address (even for Mike Holmes) – the so-called “leaky pipeline” of women in science. The essence of this issue is that despite there being a fairly equal number of men and women working through undergraduate and graduate science programs, there tend to be a greater proportion of men the further up the career ladder your go – both within academic and other research-focused career fields. The pipeline is leaky because there is a greater attrition of women over time. The NSF (2009) provides some evidence of this within academia in their study on “Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering”, and some of the data from this study are summarized in the table below.

  % of women in BS programs % of women completing PhDs % of women as faculty members
Biology 50-60 50 25
Chemistry 50 13
Chemical engineering 30 25 10

As women still take on the majority of infant and child caretaking responsibilities, this is one of the main factors associated with attrition. Many other reasons have also been suggested for these leaks (Handelsman et al. 2005; Barrett 2010) including:

  • Long-term family responsibilities and other work-life conflicts that disproportionately affect women (e.g., maternity leave, breastfeeding; care of elderly)
  • Systematic inequities in pay and conditions of employment on the basis of gender
  • Conscious and unconscious biases that reduce female hiring or funding
  • Underrepresentation of women in leadership and decision-making positions

Biases exist that may affect both hiring and funding success. For the National Institutes of Health (NIH) career development awards in clinical research, Jagsi et al (2009) report that men tend to receive 25-30% more R01 funding than women. In terms of jobs, if fewer women reach senior positions, this by itself can have a trickledown effect on future generations of women coming through the system. Research has shown that there is a connection between the number of women faculty members at an institution and the future success of women students in the field (Trower & Chait 2002).

Obviously, the need or desire to take maternity leave, for example, should have no bearing on a person’s ability to generate good ideas, research, or teaching approaches in scientific fields (Justice 2009). Family commitments can contribute to longer times between publications, and fewer publications overall (Taylor et al. 2009), but there is no evidence suggesting that this decreases the quality of science produced, or the abilities of women to continue on and become leaders in their fields (Justice 2009).

What seems to be needed to address this issue is some flexibility. Like the flexible plastic pipes that now supply water to my bathroom sink, flexible career pipelines will ensure that women scientists can reach senior positions in their fields whether or not they have also invested time in their personal and family lives. There are some straightforward suggestions offered to help academic and research institutions increase flexibility for women and men (Chesler 2010), and these include:

  • Implementing dual-career hiring programs
  • Tenure clock extensions for childbirth, adoption, and elder care
  • Flexible part-time option for tenure-track faculty with care giving responsibilities
  • On-campus lactation rooms
  • Access to high quality or university-sponsored child care facilities (including emergency backup child care facilities)
  • Childcare options at academic conferences and symposiums
  • Emergency funding available to support a faculty member’s research program when he or she is facing significant life cycle challenges, (e.g., birth of a special needs child or illness of a parent)

How likely these strategies are to be implemented is uncertain, especially when finances at universities and research facilities are tight, but they seem to make a lot of sense. In the meantime, it is worth being aware of some of these possible challenges that exist within academic and research fields when it comes to balancing work and life. Everyone will likely need to overcome some of these challenges at some point in their lives. For those of you perusing the academic path, you don’t want to be surprised by whatever the life-equivalent of water pouring out of the ceiling is, and you certainly want to be able to make sensible career choices with your eyes wide open. It is also worth remembering that men and women voluntarily leave the academic pipeline for many reasons, and go on to have successful, fulfilling careers applying their academic skills elsewhere. I don’t think of these as leaks. They are purposeful changes in career paths. The flexible pipeline has many branches and can take you to many different places – here are just some examples of alternative careers.

The references cited in this blog have more information on the leaky pipeline, and on approaches that currently exist to plug the leaks. There are also resources at Penn that you can turn to. Career Services co-sponsors a “Faculty Conversations” discussion series each spring semester, with support from the Associate Provost for Education. One of the topics often covered is work/life balance, where current faculty members talk about their own experiences, the challenges they have faced, and what they have done to cope. The Graduate Student Center also has a page of resources for graduate students who have children or are expecting children.


Barrett J. 2010. Barriers to gender equality in US biomedical science. Physiol. Sci. 60: 232-234.

Chesler NC, Barabino G, Bhatia SN, Richards-Kortum, R. 2010. The pipeline still leaks and more than you think: a status report on gender diversity in biomedical engineering. Annals of Biomedical Engineering 38(5): 1928-1935.

Handelsman J, Cantor N, Carnes M, Denton D, Fine E, Grosz B, Hinshaw V, Marrett C, Rosser S, Shalala D, Sheridan J. 2005. Careers in science. More women in science. Science 309(5738): 1190-1191.

Jagsi R, Motomura AR, Griffith KA, Rangarajan S, Ubel PA. 2009. Sex differences in attainment of independent funding by career development awardees. Ann Intern Med. 151: 804-811.

Justice AC. 2009. Leaky pipes, Faustian dilemmas, and a room of one’s own: can we build a more flexible pipeline to academic success? Ann. Intern. Med. 151: 818-819.

National Science Foundation (NSF) (2009). Women, Minorities, and Persons with Disabilities in Science and Engineering. Division of Science Resources Statistics. NSF 09-305, Arlington, VA. Available at

Taylor KS, Lambert TW, Goldacre MJ. 2009. Career progression and destinations, comparing men and women in the NHS: postal questionnaire surveys. BMJ 338: b1735. [PMID: 19493938]

Trower C, Chait R. (2002). Faculty diversity. Harv. Mag. 98: 33-37.

The Dance of Vocation

by Sharon Fleshman

In my last blog, I referred to one of my favorite scenes in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. This time around, I’m fondly reminiscing about the Peanuts gang gathering for the holidays in A Charlie Brown Christmas.  In this annually aired episode, the part that always strikes me the most is the exuberant dance scene.  While everyone is moving to his or her own rhythm, however odd or offbeat, there is a sense of camaraderie present as well.

As part of the Penn community, you are finding your own rhythm, yet growing more aware that you’re part of a bigger picture.  I encourage you to make the most of this time to develop your understanding of vocation as you connect with others, attend classes, intern/volunteer for organizations, and participate in extracurricular activities. By “vocation,” I don’t just mean what you choose as a career or what you end up doing as your first job after graduation.  Vocation points to a broader perspective, where you can envision how your skills, values, and experiences come together in a purposeful way.

So what more does vocation have to do with dancing?  I’ll leave further explanation of that to Rev. Dr. Chaz Howard, the University Chaplain, who gave an inspiring talk during the recent TEDxPenn conference held on campus.  Enjoy!