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.

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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.

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Toast for the New Advisor Serving Penn’s Grad Students and Postdocs

Andrew Karas has joined Career Services as an Associate Director on the advising team that works with graduate students, postdocs, and alumni of graduate programs. Before joining Penn’s Career Services, Andrew taught introductory writing courses at Yale and Harvard. He holds an AB in literature from Harvard and a PhD in English from Yale. As an introduction, we decided to ask him a few questions:

What did you enjoy most about your PhD program?
I feel very lucky to have attended the program I did. Yale’s English department, and its graduate school more generally, is a collegial, stimulating, and well-resourced place.  A real standout for me, though, was my teaching experience. Working with eager, engaged students on interesting material: I’m not sure it gets much better than that. And it’s precisely that kind of personal engagement that I look forward to carrying over to my new position.

What drew you to work as a career advisor for graduate students?
I believe that the skills and experience acquired while obtaining a PhD or other advanced degree are applicable to a wide range of career options, limited only by an individual’s interests and passions. As part of my own career search, I undertook a number of informational interviews (and even some job interviews) in diverse fields. I ultimately decided that I wanted to remain a part of the academic community, and this position clicked as a way to build on my experiences and take on a new challenge.

In what ways has your background prepared you for this work?
My teaching experience is mainly in introductory-level writing courses, where I made extensive use of one-on-one conferences with my students to identify goals for their writing and concrete steps they could take to achieve those goals. Although the context and the audience are different in Career Services, the one-on-one engagement with bright, motivated people remains the same. Also, as I mentioned above, I’ve done a fair bit of both academic and non-academic career exploration myself, so I’ve “walked the walk” in that respect!

What have you enjoyed so far, as you have gotten familiar with Penn?
I’ve enjoyed getting to know my new colleagues in Career Services. They’re a really dedicated group, and together they bring a vast amount of experience, knowledge, and sensitivity to their work with students from across the university. I’ve also enjoyed learning some of the particularities of Penn’s unique culture (though I’m sure there are plenty more things I’ll pick up along the way). For example, my partner and I have tickets to a Penn football game later this fall, but I just recently learned about the tradition of throwing toast on the field after the third quarter. That sounds like something you really have to see to understand!

What are you looking forward to in the coming year?
Besides throwing toast onto Franklin Field? I am looking forward to meeting a lot of interesting, passionate people, hearing about their experiences and aspirations, and assisting any way I can as they take their next steps.

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Guest Perspective: Passionately Passionless

By Alexis Dinerstein (CAS ’10)

“Find your passion.” That’s what everyone seemed to be saying during my Penn tenure: advisors, counselors, professors, peers.  Even the urban squirrels seemed to be mouthing these words as I hurried past their furry presence.

So, I looked: I tried to study in topics I thought would be interesting, tested other interests through extra-curriculars and pursued occupational interests during summer breaks.  I couldn’t find it.  This integral aspect of my essence did not seem as distinctly present and compelling as everyone’s descriptions.  I was miffed.

Perhaps I was the problem.  Prior to my last semester, having whole-heartedly filled all of the pre-med requirements up until that point while being half-heartedly interested in medicine, I decided to postpone my medical pursuits in favor of permaculture, a topic I had been reading about but had yet to pursue.

I graduated in December of 2010 and began my post-collegiate passion pursuit. Since graduating I have interned at a permaculture institute, taught English in the Republic of Georgia, apprenticed on an organic farm and, most recently, have returned to Philadelphia, ultimately working for a landscape designer doing, fittingly, landscape work.  My explorations were all fairly spur of the moment, of varying durations, and varying degrees of satisfaction.

I can’t offer any advice regarding how to arrive at a destination similar to mine, as I am still refining my existence and plan on doing so until my existence ceases.  What I can offer is a relatively concise and objective assessment of what I have learned beyond the university.

First, work is work.  Some work to live, deeming work merely as the means through which to sustain more pleasurable aspects of life.  Others live to work, crafting a career that connects graduation with retirement. I can’t say which option is best, as I have not concretely concurred how an occupation would ideally occupy my time.  What I realized is that through associating passion with work, I incorrectly misjudged what work really is.  As many have noted, if there wasn’t money involved, no one would work.  You may be lucky enough to find an occupational passion that perfectly suits your desires, but most likely there will be some aspects of the work process that are unpleasant.  Keep this in mind.

Second, don’t fear who you really are.  If you dismiss your interests, abilities or opportunities because of others’ expectations, real or imagined, then you will ultimately be living the life others expect and not what you do.  If you are content doing so, then continue accordingly.  If you are not, recognize that you are the one responsible for channeling your uniqueness into action, and do what you want to do, whatever that means and regardless of the anticipated consequences.

Third, be aware that education deals with theoretical possibilities while the real world isn’t necessarily so theoretically accommodating.  You may read extensively on a topic, describe your fascinations endlessly to others, or sit transfixed as you hear a professor extol the virtues of some subject.   However, the aspects you find so interesting may not be what you expected when you actually have to interact with them, they might not even be applied as described or may not even be present.  If you expect the virtual world of pages and screens to indubitably come to fruition, prepare for disappointment.

Last, university is not a means to an end but a means to meaning.  If you are lucky, you may have a terrific experience that carries over into your professional life.  If your college experience wasn’t so hot, feel relieved that much of what you experienced as an undergraduate does not occur in the realm beyond.  The heaps of responsibility and obligations one encounters on a daily basis are refreshing reminders that life is not the intermittent mingling of studying with socializing.  Life is a process, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but a challenge that can be personalized to whatever your heart desires.

As I descend from my philosophical soapbox, I resume the role of regular civilian in search of personal satisfaction.  I’m still not sure what my passion is, how I can find it, or if I would even recognize it if it were to stare me in the face and say “I’m here.”  What I do know is that I’ve learned and will continue to learn; maybe that’s what this whole passion thing is all about.

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Working in the Complaints Department

Last week I went to a comedy show in Old City where the comedians and most of the audience were in their 20s, perhaps some in their early thirties.  One comedian, riffing on the strange habits of co-workers, began his set up with this question to the audience: “How many of you don’t like your jobs?”

Guess what? There were about 3 people, including myself and my friend (a law professor) who indicated we were happy with our work.  I imagine this crowd of Millennials isn’t exactly a random sample; but with all these dissatisfied employees, needless to say there were some good implications for MY job as a career counselor.  Clearly there will be a demand for the kind of service I provide from the upcoming generation.

And so I began to wonder, what was going on?  Was this about the economy and the lack of opportunity for 20-somethings?  Was this about the contagion of emotions, so if you work in a place with a negative atmosphere or are surrounded by friends with discontented attitudes you too may adopt the negative mood? Is it just plain cooler to complain?

I admit I don’t yet have an answer to the questions posed.  I could see that there may be some positive value in being collectively disgruntled, a strength in feeling that if things aren’t “right” at least you can commiserate.*  But my reaction is to consider the opposite approach: that finding what you like in work gives you the energy to address problems or make changes and a sense of purpose and satisfaction.   For example, there I was on my time off, finding the opportunity to think a little more deeply about my work while listening to the audience laugh at the pitfalls of a comedian with a coworker who blamed the office printer for the flatulent noises coming from his cubicle.

Few individuals find their work life perfect, but each can make the choice of focusing on what they do enjoy.  Like today’s Millennials, I graduated from college into a recession, and along with many other young people landed two part time jobs doing entry level work that was not very intellectually engaging.  Even so, I found that I enjoyed a feeling of professionalism, because I knew the employers I worked for needed my efforts, I liked helping people, getting recognition for my work, and organizing and implementing my own projects.  Eventually I chose my profession, returning to school for a graduate degree in counseling based on the insights I gained from my administrative positions.

You can find your work in the “complaints department,” perceiving your experience as bad if there are elements you don’t like, but even a job with clear limitations – one that is frustrating or “dead end” – can give you something positive in the future including an ability to face challenges, know yourself better, and at the very least make a memorable joke.

* There is a fair amount of information out there about how negativity affects the workplace. See this article on complaining in the workplace and note Wharton Professor Sigal Barsade’s work.  (Also see: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=1708.)

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