Career Exploration Lessons from the Cheshire Cat

I’m definitely not the first to compare Lewis Carroll’s  character of Alice lost down a rabbit hole to the career exploration process. However, sometimes as a career counselor I feel a little like the Cheshire Cat, if slightly less cheeky. With that said, I do feel this particular sassy feline has a lot of good advice to offer, particularly as it relates to looking for that first job after graduation. Here are some of my favorite quotes of his and how they apply to life after Penn:

alice-with-cheshire-catAlice: “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

Cheshire Cat: “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”

Alice: “I don’t much care where –”

Cheshire Cat: “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”

Before you start applying for jobs, it is important to have some direction because what you want greatly influences how and where you look for those opportunities. Once you identify a goal, we in Career Services are happy to help you develop a strategy to get there. However, if you aren’t sure what you want and you’re not ready to decide (a topic for a whole different blog), then you open yourself up to possibilities, which can be as exciting as having a more concrete goal.  Just like Alice picking from different possible paths, if you aren’t sure of what your long-term plans are, just about any first job will help you get there. This is because any role will help you develop new skills that you can use in future positions as well as give you a better sense of what you want (or don’t want) in future jobs. The trick is to take advantage of all experiences put in front of you because you never know which path they will help illuminate next. You might even think of it as an adventure…

And, as the Cheshire Cat also wisely said, “Every adventure requires a first step. Trite, but true, even here.”  In other words, don’t be afraid to test yourself and explore new things. Even in the nerve-wracking and stressful process of figuring out life after graduation, each small step along the way, whether that’s updating your resume or doing an informational interview with a Penn alum, can help you get there. Or, taking a risk on an unusual first job may also be that first step towards an adventure.

 “Only a few find the way, some don’t recognize it when they do – some… don’t ever want to.”

Thicheshire cattrees quote could be interpreted many ways but in this instance I take it to mean that very few people find careers about which they are truly passionate. And even fewer are passionate about something as a senior in college. Some spend the rest of their lives looking for it and some never find it. For those lucky few who seem born to do what they do (think Steve Jobs, Jim Henson, Jane Goodall), they have typically taken the path less traveled or more risky to get there. So it’s okay if you’re not passionate about something now. That’s not what your first job is all about. It’s just the first step along your adventure. But as you travel on your own winding path or tumble down a rabbit hole, be on the lookout for the Cheshire Cats in your own lives. We may be frustrating, or even cheeky, but hopefully we will help you ask questions of yourself, what’s important to you, and which way you want to go.

The Complexity of Career Planning

puzzlepiecesI’m currently studying complexity theory, the way “patterns emerge through the interaction of many agents.”* Because the actors and issues and environment continually change, patterns also change as they emerge, stabilize, and then perhaps dissipate. Observation and flexibility are the keys here.

This seems particularly applicable to planning and navigating careers. Since everything is in flux—organizations, technology, economies, the environment, politics, relationships, and YOU—we’re aiming at moving targets. Preparation for a career can take years as we study, develop skills, and gain experience. When we finally get “there,” the “there” has likely changed.

So in order to prepare for the evolving and complex landscape of the future, developing the skills of observing, learning, and adapting is critical. “Probing” is key. Your liberal arts education at the University of Pennsylvania provides a foundation for this perspective. I encourage you to observe, question, discuss, and engage as often as possible. In the realm of career planning, this means opening up to a range of options. If you have already identified a career goal, plan for it and pursue it while simultaneously continuing to learn about other opportunities and how they are similar to or differ from your initial focus. If you are exploring career options or haven’t yet begun to do so, jump in and learn about career possibilities in every setting. Pay attention to the work that people do and ask them questions about it. Whatever it is that you enjoy doing, do it! And talk to others who also do it to see if/how they’ve used their skills in professional settings.

The best tactic, the one that will help you adapt to how the future unfolds, is to explore.


*From Kurtz, C.F., Snowden, D. J. “The New Dynamics of Strategy: Sense-Making in a Complex and Complicated World,” in IBM Systems Journal (42:3), 2003.

Timely Advice on Job Offers

Right about now, some of you may be actively interviewing for jobs and internships, or in the process of receiving and deciding on job offers.  A big mystery is knowing “what you are worth” and evaluating the offers to make sure you are getting fair compensation, and the work conditions that will make you happy to accept the offer.  You can read tips on our website, “Deciding on Job Offers,” or gather data from Career Plans Surveys (including salary information for recent graduates) or learn about negotiation strategies.  Below is a short collection of blog entries written by career services advisors that provide great advice to anyone at this stage of the job search:

Make Your Own Path: Career Advice from a Penn Alumnus

When career services asked me to write this blog post, my first thought was: who am I to give career advice?  I’ve worked for a total of 5 years and a few summer internships, and am still very much on the long path to figuring out what I want to be when I grow up.  But then, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I was just the person to talk to college students and recent alumni.  First, I am a student myself, in my third year of graduate school. Second, at 29 I am not so far away in age that I can’t relate to anyone at the beginning of their careers.  Third, I’ve been lucky enough to have many experiences and jobs in different places, and the time to reflect on what has worked and what has not.  I have by no means figured it out, but I put together some advice that I hope will be useful.

1.    Nothing matters as much as your health, so protect and nurture it!

Many of the ideas for this blog post came from a twelve day, 220-mile hike on the Appalachian Trail that I took between my summer internship and the beginning of this academic year.  When my knee started to hurt on the second day of the trip, and the pain began to dominate my every thought, I reflected on how much we take our health for granted.  As simple as this may sound, guard your health carefully, eat well, and take care of yourself.  Career success means little to nothing if you can’t enjoy the fruits of your labor.

2.    Time is more important than money

Before you go off to become an investment banker or a management consultant, and commit to 80-hour workweeks for the rest of your 20s, make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.  Jobs that consume most of your time and energy can be meaningful, challenging, and for some people, very enjoyable, but if you are planning on working primarily for the money, I would urge you to think again.  It is much more enjoyable to have time for friends, family, hobbies, travel, and adventure now when you’re young, than to have that time later, when you don’t have the energy or freedom.  Work hard, by all means, and save for the future, but remember to strike a balance.

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Career Exploration Parallels to Downton Abbey


Like millions of Americans, I’ve been completely seduced by the intrigue, romance, verbal sparring and fashion of Downton Abbey and am so excited that season three is finally here. And when you work in career services, you can’t help but see parallels between just about any show you watch and the job hunt. And apparently, this time I’m not alone since PBS has just launched a “Which Downton  Abbey Job is Right for You?” quiz, which is actually quite well done.  This quiz obviously plays off of one of show’s strongest themes: Finding one’s appropriate role in an ever changing society. downton3Since I lack Lady Grantham’s gift for barbed wit, I’ll refrain from attempting any cute one-liners in this post but this is a struggle that most of us share with the characters of Downtown Abbey.

Most Penn students and alumni I see want to find careers that are rewarding but many don’t know where to start. A great first step is thinking about your values–what’s important to you in a workplace or job as well as your own personality traits and strengths. Do you favor an environment which depends upon you to be entrepreneurial and have creative spirit or are you happier in a more structured and traditional environment? Today we are very fortunate to live in a world where you have many more options and choices than the characters of Downton but that can also be overwhelming. Here are some other lessons learned from Downton Abbey that also will help you find a career path that is right for you.

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