By LOIS KEANEY SMITH, student in the Writing and Consciousness MFA program and intern in the CIIS Communications Department.
At several points in my life, I have faced a dreaded beast: the Craigslist job search. I sat at the computer, watching my hope free-fall until I felt only despair, clicking through listing after listing and finding nothing. By the end of the day’s job hunt, I felt desperate, hopeless, and, worst of all, directionless. There are no jobs at all. There are too many jobs. I don’t know where to look. Back then, I didn’t really know what I wanted to be, so where would I even start looking?
We did not have a career counselor at my high school, just a college counselor. I never visited the career counselor as an undergraduate—it simply did not occur to me to go. So, on a Friday morning this fall, at age 28, I visited a career counselor for the very first time in my life.CIIS career counselor Margie Lam made the experience as painless as possible. She grabbed her mug of herbal tea and we headed into a meeting room.
Margie listened patiently as I described my wayward journey towards a career. I asked her if she had any general job hunting advice that would help anyone who was in graduate school. The first step, Margie explained, was to develop a “career action plan.” A career action plan, as Margie described it, works best when broken into small, orderly, bite-sized pieces. The necessary steps for any job search should function in much the same way. Here are some of the steps:
- Start in school
- Know yourself
- Stay specific
- Ask for help
- Be realistic
- Be flexible
Start In School
“Don’t see yourself as just a student,” Margie warned. Instead, she stressed the importance of seeing graduate school as an opportunity to further your career and to make connections that might benefit you in the future. There are many ways to do this, she said. One is to make connections with people in this community. Another strategy is becoming close to other students and to professors, and knowing what projects they are working on.
Margie recommended taking on “internships or volunteering, paid or not. Take on leadership projects, coordination, anything to add to your experience and skill set.” There might also be a professional association to get involved in through your program. The goal of all this, of course, is to build connections, and to learn what is out there in your field.
But before you do any of this, you have to know what your field is. If you are still figuring this out, or have many interests and have trouble narrowing it down, as was my problem, there are several resources that might help. One is a personality-based career test. Two tests Margie recommended were the John Holland Typology test and the Meyers-Briggs type indicator. Both ask you a variety of questions about your personality, interests, and skills, and then based on your answers, classify you into a particular group.
I took one test and found that I was categorized as: ASE: Artistic, Social, and Entrepreneurial. Artistic and social were not a huge surprise, but I’ve never seen myself as being particularly entrepreneurial, so that was news.
Many of my ambitions over the years have been vague, which made it incredibly difficult to know how to begin working toward them. I knew I wanted to write, and I knew I wanted to help people. I had no idea what career those vague aspirations might translate into. The trick, Margie explained, is to find ways to narrow your dreams down into something achievable: “Look at your dream and see it as a goal. The more you can narrow it down and be specific and concrete, the better.” It is far easier to start researching organizations if you know what you’re looking for. It’s also far less scary and overwhelming if you have a specific place to start.
One resource to help you concretize your dreams is the Occupational Outlook Handbook provided on the United States Department of Labor. This handbook provides useful, specific information about skills required in different fields, what the job market is like in these fields, and the training and education needed.
Ask for Help
A good strategy for learning and making connections is informational interviewing. Seek out someone who’s in the field that interests you, make contact, and start a a conversation. According to Margie, this is not such a hard thing to do: “People like talking about themselves, so usually if you contact someone, they are going to be willing to talk to you.” Once you connect, you can ask how they got where they did in their career, what advice they have for someone just starting out, and the pros and cons of the field.
Finding an internship is another great way to learn more and make connections. You can hunt for existing internships through organizations that interest you, but you can also write to an
organization and propose an internship. Or, look for a mentor: someone who works in your prospective field who you can go to for advice or help. Ideally, Margie said, it should be “someone you feel safe with.”
I asked Margie to weigh in on a trend I’ve been noticing, particularly among those in my age group. Many of us were told by parents or teachers to “follow our dreams." This vague advice has created unrealistic expectations about work life. Many members of my generation seem to expect a job that is transcendent and life-changing, that fulfills the very core of their soul, and that changes the world.
While these are, of course, noble goals, they are often unrealistic. How many people do you know who describe the job they actually have in these terms? Okay. “There is fallout from that,” Margie agreed. “I see that with a lot of our students here: everyone wants to make a difference. You get these grand ideas, and they just balloon and you get overwhelmed.”
What solutions are there for those afflicted with this paralyzing career idealism? Margie recommended we start small and remain concrete. We need to have a very specific goal in mind, and a step-by-step plan of how we aim to get there.
Despite how detailed and specific our career action plan may be, our ideal career may not pan out the way we’d like. “Remain open,” advised Margie “You can’t necessarily stick to things to the letter. Don’t close yourself off because you have one dream in mind.”
“So, should we have a back-up plan?” As soon as I asked this, I knew what the answer was going to be.
“Always, always have a back-up plan.” Another technique Margie recommended is a “portfolio career”—more than one source of income. This is especially useful for artists, because it takes the pressure off their day job for providing them with total fulfillment. Working several part-time jobs also gives you time to work on your creative practice without the pressure of supporting yourself by it.
I thought back to my hopeless Craigslist searches. Perhaps this technique was needlessly
painful and, ultimately, ineffectual. I asked Margie what she thought about Craigslist. “Blind
submission of resumes are really hard to get jobs from,” she told me. “Craigslist can’t be the only thing you do. You have to network and meet people, and you have to start now.”