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Posts by Liz Koblyk

Pitching “the pitch”

Posted on 26 June 2013 by Liz Koblyk

For reasons best known to the gods of coincidence, I’ve recently been in several formal networking situations. In those situations, some people have used pitches, and others have not.

Here is what I have noticed about pitches:

1)   If the conversation is going to last more than 10 minutes, it might just make sense to make your pitch right at the start. In fact, forget about it being a pitch – it’s an introduction to who you are in the context of the work you want to do. So, when you’re launching that informational interview, go ahead and say why you’re considering the career that you are, and what made you think you might be good at it. This helps shape the direction of the conversation and lets the other person know why you’re there.

2)   If a conversation is starting to close, and you haven’t said what you want to say about yourself, throwing in a pitch right at the end can be awkward if it disrupts the conversational flow. Worse, it can make it sound as if the conversation preceding the pitch was unimportant to you, and that you were just waiting to make your pitch. Instead, try setting up a future conversation by saying something like, “It looks like the next concurrent sessions are about to start. Could I email you after the conference?  I’d like to get your opinion on [whatever you’d like to get their opinion on…the field in general, their workplace in particular, etc.].” That way, you’ve set the stage for a conversation where they’re expecting you to ask for and share a certain set of information.

3)   In some situations, setting up a further discussion is a challenge – say, if you are conducting an informational interview and don’t want to further impose on the person’s time. In that case, save what you want to say for the thank-you message afterwards.

4)   No pitch, no matter how polished, is guaranteed to work – especially if you don’t know what the other person needs or wants. So, much as you should know what an employer in your area would need to know about you in order to figure out whether the two of you should talk further, know what else would make networking successful for you. Getting a job might be your primary goal, but if you’re looking for a local job and you’re talking with an employer who’s a giant commute away, you could find out whether they have contacts local to you, introduce them to someone of potential interest to them, chalk it all up to networking practice, or just enjoy the conversation.

5)   Caveats aside, having a self-introduction is a good idea, for you and the people you network with.  People come to formal networking settings because they have some need that they think someone else can fill. By stating what it is that you most want to do and how you can do it, you can help the people you speak with get past the awkward small talk and into the needs that brought them there in the first place.

When adapted to the context of your networking conversations, the self-introduction isn’t a sales pitch, but a courtesy and a useful tool.

A little non-academic experience helps

Posted on 3 June 2013 by Liz Koblyk

I just came back from the Education at Work conference, which wrapped up with an employer panel. I like employer panels – they give me a chance to test out whether I actually know what I’m talking about, or whether I’ve developed an artificial, Disney-esque view of the way one goes about finding a job.

Good news for me – I don’t have to buy any mouse ears yet. The advice offered by the employers on the panel sounds largely like what you’ll read in any of the Careers Café posts by any of the blog authors.  Along with a few messages that might not inspire a Careers Café blog post (Don’t tweet about your sex life! Wear interview-appropriate clothing!), there was plenty that will look familiar to you. That advice included researching organizations you’re applying to, talking openly about your accomplishments, and having some experience outside the classroom. Not a boatload of experience – actually, in the words of one of the employers, “any experience.”

There’s nothing wrong with what you learn in the classroom or while completing your dissertation. But, once you’re enrolled in an academic program, it’s hard to get kicked out for reasons that would make one a problematic employee – such as having an abrasive communication style, failing to meet deadlines, or putting personal advancement ahead of organizational goals. Having even small pieces of experience working for someone who has the option of firing you shows that you could meet that person’s expectations of what needed to be done.

Of course, it also gives you a wider range of experiences to draw on in your interviews, a broader range of skills to highlight in your résumé and cover letter, and a bigger network to draw on when looking for job leads – as well as more information about what you like and don’t like when you’re evaluating your career options.

That said, you don’t have to say yes to every opportunity to try something new. If you’re feeling anxious about your career future, it can be tempting to try to follow every bit of career advice to the nth degree. You don’t have to leap into gathering experiences – you can step into the process, one foot at a time.  Jo Van Every’s advice on handling career suggestions applies to ideas that come from you, as well as those that come from other people.

So, allow yourself the luxury of considering the experience you might embark on, whether it meets your priorities and how much of your time it’s likely to take. And, worst case scenario, if that experience doesn’t give you what you’re looking for, you’ve ruled something out, and altered your criteria for how to pick the next experience you’ll add in your career.

Reinventing the wheel

Posted on 13 May 2013 by Liz Koblyk

This is a bit of an odd blog post, because I’m asking you not to do something: don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t need to.

Many of you reading this have access to a university career centre. Chances are good that that centre competes with lots of other offices, services, events and clubs for your attention. Your attention is a finite resource and your career centre has a limited marketing budget, so there are probably hidden treasures in your career centre that few students are aware of.

What tends to happen, when services fly under the radar, is that those services are re-created in miniature elsewhere on campus. Someone has an idea for a service or event that would be useful and, given the range of related offices and clubs, it’s a challenge to figure out which of those might already offer a similar service or event. For example, you might rightly think that it would be useful to have a panel event in which people in academic and non-academic careers share their career stories. And it could be that your university career office already does something like that – or, if they don’t, that your alumni or student success office does.

It’s common knowledge that career centres help with resumés, interview skills and the like. But there may be lesser-known services that your university is struggling to tell you about. At the University of Waterloo, we have a few off-the-wall options. And, much as I’d like to think that we set the bar for off-the-wall-but-useful options, your university’s career centre may have some equally interesting offerings.

For example, our career office, alumni office and faculty of science collaborated on a database of Waterloo science alumni career stories that’s beautifully searchable, explicitly states how people use what they learned in their degree, lets people rank the careers they read about and save notes in a password-protected space. This coming term, we’re focusing on grad students in the faculty of arts, offering traditional services, such as a workshop on careers beyond academia, and less traditional ones, like our living library.

So, if there’s something you wish your career centre could help with, go ahead and ask them. Ask, even if you can’t find the service you’re looking for on their website – sometimes professional jargon gets in the way of clear descriptions of services. And ask, even if a colleague has assured you that a service isn’t offered – offerings change over time.

Finally, if there really is a service that you want which isn’t already available, find out whether it’s something that the relevant service office would help you develop. That way, whatever wheel you invent together will continue to be available to the students who come after you.

Testing out vocational tests

Posted on 22 April 2013 by Liz Koblyk

I recently had a peek at a new career assessment, and it has me thinking about the benefits and pitfalls of vocational assessments in general.

If you’re considering using career assessments, make sure they’re only part of your plan for exploring career options, because they only illuminate part of the picture. Vocational assessments typically look at some slice of a person (interests, values, personality as defined by the assessment developers), and compare it to a narrow range of careers. On the plus side, good assessments are very clear about what they measure and what they don’t.  So you’ll know that the careers that the Strong Interest Inventory suggests as good matches are based on your interests alone, for example. Assessments also typically refer to a broader range of careers than you might already have on your short list. Still, for a career assessment to be manageable, it has to draw from a pretty small percentage of the 13 000+ job titles out there.

Career assessments that direct you to job titles also have to assume a certain amount of uniformity in terms of how each job title is performed. But knowing that “electrical engineer” showed up on a career assessment as a good match doesn’t necessarily tell you whether you’d be happy working in a large, medium or small organization, or as an entrepreneur; whether you’d be happiest having a lot of contact with clients, a lot of contact with colleagues, or not much contact with anyone; whether you’d like your expertise to be as broad or as deep as possible within your field; or other factors that impact what being an electrical engineer might actually be like from day to day.

If you’re in the midst of feeling profoundly dissatisfied with a certain career, it can also be difficult to answer questions on an assessment with an open mind. It’s hard to avoid answering in a way that will prevent your current occupation from showing up in your top results.

The results of career assessments can seem so very authoritative, but those results are really just the starting point. They can suggest careers to research that you might not have thought of. They can make you aware of whether it would be valuable to do some extra research into careers that appeal to you, yet seem to be “poor” matches, according to the assessment. But in all cases, their conclusions should be treated as hypotheses.

There are some really sound assessments out there, and your average university career centre will stick with ones that have good reliability and validity, and that have been normed against populations that make sense for their student body. Just make sure that taking “tests” doesn’t replace the process of testing out your assumptions about the work you might like to do.

You should really be a…

Posted on 25 March 2013 by Liz Koblyk

Jo VanEvery’s most recent post, on approaching advice strategically, is itself full of good advice.  As she points out, when people offer you specific opportunities intended to advance your career, you’re under no obligation to take them up.  The same applies to advice people give you about which career to pursue.

It’s difficult to disregard other people’s suggestions for your career path, whether it’s because you respect or love the people offering the advice, because you fear they know something about your job prospects that you don’t, or because choosing a career can be so overwhelming that it would be a blessed relief to have someone else nudge you in the right direction.

Of course, that sort of advice may assume that there is one right direction.  It can also imply that there’s a wrong one – the one you’re currently on.

When someone suggests that a career is right – or wrong – for you, you neither have to accept their advice as more credible than your own opinions nor dismiss it out of hand.  If it seems like the advice giver might be onto something, go ahead and give yourself permission to explore, without assuming you have to throw your current career plans out the window.  Your university’s career centre can get you started on where to find the information that would best help you decide whether or not a career stays on your list of options to consider.

If someone’s suggesting a career option that you’ve already ruled out with good reason, go ahead and ignore their advice.  In fact, it might be useful to write down why you’re not going to pursue that particular career, so you don’t have to expend more mental energy on similar advice in the future, and even to help you rule out other careers that don’t match what you’re looking for.

The word “advice” is derived from an Old French word meaning view, opinion or judgment.  When you receive advice, remember that you are being offered someone’s viewpoint, but you always reserve the role of judgment for yourself.

“What do you do?”

Posted on 4 March 2013 by Liz Koblyk

Shortly after you tell a new acquaintance your name, you typically get the opportunity to share what you do as a career.  Or, less comfortably, you get to avoid eye contact as you mutter something about a job you dislike, or admit that you don’t know what you want to do with your life.  Good times!

“What do you do?” and its cousin, “What are you going to do after you graduate?” cause such discomfort, that clients in my office sometimes confess to having a fake career goal.  They’ve landed on an answer that they readily give in response to the question, but they don’t really know whether the career interests them.

It’s hard to give up a fake answer when it receives so much more praise than admitting to uncertainty.  Say that you want to be a software engineer when you graduate, and people relax and smile.  Say that you’re investigating career options, and people get nervous.  Are you going to teach?  Are you going to waste your degree?  Should you have gone straight to college instead of university?

Why is it more praiseworthy to have a one-word answer than to admit that your career, like most, is bound to be a meandering path?  It’s a status issue – not just regarding whether you’ll land in a professional career, but also regarding certainty itself.  We ascribe status to those who have a specific career goal.

So, what do you do if you aren’t in the high-status group of the career-certain?

First, know that the status conferred on career certainty is goofy.  Really and truly goofy.  There’s nothing wrong with having a career goal and working towards it, and it certainly helps you to navigate professional development and the world of work.  But it’s hardly a character flaw or a sign of weakness to examine your goals openly.  And you can’t examine your goals – or create them in the first place – without experiencing ambiguity first.  Uncertainty is an inevitable part of planning.

Second, accept that not everyone is going to love ambiguity, especially those who love you.  They may have plenty of goals for you (professional and material success, happiness) that seem at odds with career uncertainty.  So, they want you to get out of that stage as quickly as possible, even if it’s more quickly than is actually useful to the whole process of identifying meaningful career goals.  (By the way, if you feel like you’re letting people down by not matching your priorities to theirs, Jo Van Every’s other blog has wisdom to offer).

Finally, take heart in the courage you’ve shown by admitting uncertainty – even if only to yourself.  It’s heartbreaking to meet with a client who knew – just knew – that they wanted to be, say, a vet, devoted their time and energy to following that path, and then discovered that they hate the job.

If you find yourself using an admirable but fake career goal when people ask what you plan to do, consider sharing a bit of your career exploration story, without apology.  You never know – you may receive helpful information.  Whether you admit to ambiguity or smooth over career discussions with an answer that will allow you to move on to another topic, keep on with your own career exploration.  The status briefly conferred by naming a job title doesn’t hold a candle to wrestling with your options and finding some that work for you.


Make the job search part of the plan

Posted on 4 February 2013 by Liz Koblyk

Think of the times when you sat down and just started whacking away at a paper you had to write.  Compare those with the times when you devoted a few moments to planning your research and your argument.  I’m going to guess that planning has paid off for you more often than not.

I promise not to claim that, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.  First of all, plenty of people who aren’t particularly planful land jobs anyway.  That said, planning can remove a lot of the stress of the job search, and it can keep you from spinning your wheels on tasks that aren’t likely to pay off.  (Flexible planfulness also helps your overall career development, as David Lindskoog’s excellent blog points out).

You’ve probably read advice to think of the job search as a full-time job.  And you may well already have a full-time job or its equivalent.  Planning can help you squeeze more out of the few hours per week that you have to devote to your job search.  And a lot of advice that applies to planning your research works for the job search, too.

One tip comes from Paul J. Silvia’s How to Write a Lot.  Silvia points to the crux of planning when he says we should forget about finding time, and focus on allotting it, regularly.  He suggests getting started by scheduling four hours a week for your work, and to putting that time right in your calendar.  You devote that time only to the task at hand: you use absolutely none of it to make coffee, tidy your desk, put rice on the stove, or answer the phone when it rings.

Go further and break that job search time into distinct activities in your plan: researching employers, contacting employers and other people who could be useful in your job search, writing or editing applications, or whatever else is important in your job search right now.  Because searching online postings can eat up time like no other job search activity (and it has a dismal success rate to boot), make it the last thing you do in your allocated job search time.

Finally, plan for things not to go as smoothly as you’d like.  For example, Joan Bolker, in Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day, suggests using “messy writing” to unstick blocks.  Messy writing isn’t supposed to be high quality; it’s supposed to be ugly.  You will never show it to anyone.  Instead, its purpose is to turn the struggle to find the right words into a chance to capture your ideas, however badly they’re phrased.  You can then distill those ideas from your messy writing, and worry about wordsmithing after you’re satisfied that you’ve gotten down the salient points. Some dedicated messy time would be a great way to start a block of time dedicated to writing job search documents or working through what you’re going to say when you call up a networking contact.

And heck, while you’re working on the job search, you might end up finding a few tricks to increase your research output.

Requesting accommodations at work

Posted on 14 January 2013 by Liz Koblyk

When it comes to requesting accommodations at work, I’m going to make a plug, along the lines of my shameless plug for The plug in this case is for Mental Health Works.

I’m not claiming the site tackles all disability-related topics. It doesn’t. Its focus is clearly mental health. And it has a bunch o’ resources.

This blog walks through a few of parts of this site, starting with questions to consider if you’re trying to figure out whether a disclosure discussion will go smoothly or not. Pick and choose from the questions – questions like, “If your manager were to change, what are the chances the relationship with your new manager would also be supportive and respectful?” are difficult to answer, even if you have a fairly good idea of who’s being groomed for management roles.  And the questions do miss out on activism as a reason to disclose. That said, they do a good job of helping you suss out not just your relationship with your manager, but also the culture of your workplace.

If your discussion about accommodations comes as you’re returning from leave, the site offers suggestions for handling some of the less-than-sensitive comments you might encounter. Your manager can be an ally by smoothing the way for your return. If you think this is something your manager would take to willingly but not naturally, you might provide some guidance in advance. Let your manager know that you’d find it helpful if your team received a reminder before your return that you were away for valid reasons and that you were working hard during that time to be able to return to work. Your manager might also remind your coworkers that, while they may be tempted to express their concerns for you by asking questions about your time away, they can better express their support for you by letting you choose when and what you say about your leave and by recognizing that ramping back up to a full workload may be gradual.

You may also have multiple resources to draw on in your workplace. One that doesn’t appear on Mental Health Works’ list, if you work at a university, is whichever office provides services to students with disabilities. Even if you’re not a student, you may find that the office works with staff and faculty (perhaps even as managers and not just as employees). Don’t rely on their website to tell you whether or not they have something to offer you; some offices don’t advertise their services to people who fall outside their main client group.

As with any conversation that might be challenging, preparation helps. Know how much you want to disclose or keep private. Know what accommodations you’d prefer and which would be helpful but aren’t your top choice. You may even want to think about how you’ll follow up afterwards (page 15 and following of the MS Society’s “Guide to Employment and Income Support” offer some suggestions). Resources like Mental Health Works, other online resources, and people right in your own workplace can offer some good starting points for that planning.

Planned disclosure

Posted on 10 December 2012 by Liz Koblyk

In my last post, I talked about the issues around disclosing disabilities in the pre-interview stages of the  job search. This week, I want to consider disclosure in interviews.

There is no one approach that works for everyone. Nor is there an approach that eliminates the risk of employer prejudice.  That said, considering if and when an employer is likely to become aware of your disability, as well as common misconceptions associated with your disability, can help you decide what will work for you.

If you have a visible disability, it can be useful to disclose your disability during the interview, particularly if:

  • People often come to mistaken conclusions that you can easily dispel; and/or
  • Your disability doesn’t commonly carry stigma.

Maybe you have a noticeable tremor (beyond what one might experience from interview nerves), or slurred speech due to a physical disability or prescribed medication.  You could address that from the very start of the interview.  If you’re open to questions, you might even say so – just make sure you are prepared to handle whatever questions the interviewers might ask.

So, you might start the interview with a brief explanation like, “Before we start the interview questions, I want to mention that you might notice that I have a tremor. It’s due to X, and it won’t impact my performance on the job.  If you have any questions or concerns, I’d be happy to address them, so please raise them. I’m also happy to begin the interview – this role seems like a great fit, and I’m excited to have this chance to discuss my skills.”  If that seems awkward, change it and make it yours.  Practice it.  Get feedback from friends.  Ask them to throw questions at you, including ones that people have no real business asking, just so you’re prepared to respond.

If you have a disability that’s invisible (like a learning disability) or that often carries stigma (like a mental health concern), and you can do your skills justice in an interview without disclosing your disability, it may be in your best interests to hold off on disclosure.  If you do decide to discuss your disability in an interview, make sure it’s the right interview. Sometimes, first interviews are conducted by a human resources professional, while the hiring manager – the person you’ll end up reporting to – interviews candidates later.  It might be wise to save disclosure for an interview with the hiring manager.  The hiring manager knows what the work is really like and will be better positioned to answer questions you may have about the work.  The hiring manager may also have concerns that you can dispel directly (rather than relying on the HR professional to dispel them for you).

There’s still much more to say about disclosure in the job search.  For the time being, I’m relying on others to say it for me.  Mental Health Works has resources primarily for (surprise!) people with mental health concerns, but many of their resources have broader applicability. Their online workbook on “Steps to Employment” has a chapter on disclosure that offers guidelines on planning conversations, as well as some things to consider when deciding whether disclosure will advance your job search or on-the-job success. No amount of planning will make the job search stress-free, but you can help employers understand the true extent of your capabilities through a well-planned disclosure conversation that brings your skills to light.

Disclosing disabilities

Posted on 19 November 2012 by Liz Koblyk

I was reviewing some of my previous blog posts and realized just how much I focus on the stress of searching for a job.  Well, apparently I’m continuing the trend.  If the job search is inherently stressful, it gets more complicated when you’re trying to determine whether or how to disclose a disability or disabilities to a potential employer.

There is a range of options in terms of timing and degree of disclosure.  You can disclose a disability right in your application, when contacted for an interview, during the interview, once you have a job offer, at any point during your job, or never at all.  You can provide a significant level of detail, just enough to meet your purposes, or somewhere in between.  You can disclose to a supervisor, specific coworkers, your organization in general, and other people your job brings you into contact with.

Every option has pros and cons, and planning can help reduce—but not eliminate—the risk that your abilities will be misinterpreted.  This blog doesn’t provide hard and fast rules.  These are suggestions to get you thinking about what will work best for you.  And, because disclosing disabilities is a complex topic, I’m not even going to try to squish everything into one post.

So, let’s start with situations in which you think you’d benefit from an accommodation.  The when and how of your request may vary.  I would argue that it’s rarely to your advantage to disclose a disability in your application, because you have no opportunity to immediately counter false assumptions.

When you’re contacted for an interview, it’s worthwhile asking a few questions about the nature of the interview.  Is it a panel interview?  Who are the interviewers?  Will there be a practical component?  The answers can help you better prepare and, if there is a practical component, you’ll have the opportunity to ask more questions, particularly if you typically use adaptive technology when completing your work.  If you think using adaptive technology would give the interviewer a more accurate picture of the work you could do for them, consider saying that you use technology X for the type of work the practical component assesses, and checking to make sure you can use your preferred technology for the interview.  Again, there are risks either way, so choose your course based on your research into the organization and your own stance regarding disclosure.

Next time (in about three weeks), I’ll look at disclosure in interviews and on the job.  In the meantime, though, you might find it useful to look through your provincial human rights code, or the Canadian Human Rights Commission’s webpages on the duty to accommodate, employees’ rights and responsibilities, and employers’ rights and responsibilities.