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Posts by Liz Koblyk

Disappointing Expectations

Posted on 4 December 2013 by Liz Koblyk

While the rewards of work can certainly outshine the challenges, sometimes the challenges take centre stage. This week, a normally calm, philosophical friend put a giant mock grin on her face and asked, in a game show host voice, “How many people am I disappointing right now?”

In her case, the real answer was probably that few people, if any, were disappointed. But her question is still a good one. Work/life balance is much talked and written about, but work/work balance ranks right up there in terms of difficulty. When my friend asked her question, the concern behind it felt so awfully familiar. But I wondered, in my own work life, how many times I’d taken the time to assess whether I could, in fact, cut back without letting anyone down.

When I started in a managerial job, I was desperate to be useful to the people who reported to me. In hindsight, some of the things I did were useful – but I bet that others were either neutral in terms of impact, or got in the way of people doing their work.

An extremely conscientious friend with an intimidating pile of marking is pondering whether to provide specific examples of how those research papers need to change or to just state, “the argument needs more evidence” beside the offending paragraphs. The latter feels to him like cutting corners. Some students might perceive it this way – others might not. It might even be useful to have the experience of struggling through without a ready-made solution.

It can feel strangely contrived to ask someone what their expectations are of you, and risky, because it might imply that their expectations should drive your behaviour. But at least the expectations will be out in the open, and can be discussed or negotiated.

Finally, I can’t help but think of advice a poet once offered me, between sips of whisky. After I grumbled about what I saw as someone’s unrealistic expectations, she paused and said, slowly, “If I were you, I’d establish myself early on as exactly the sort of person who disappoints expectations.”

How much do you owe your mentors?

Posted on 28 October 2013 by Liz Koblyk

If you’re lucky, you have mentors. They may have come into that role officially – as supervisors or dissertation committee members. They may be personal Yodas you’ve picked up unofficially – that grad student whose unflappability you’d like to cultivate, or the colleague who knows how to make meetings useful.

The balance of giving and receiving is pretty obviously tilted in mentor-mentee relationships. You get to bask in the sunny rays of your mentor’s time, energy and advice.  So, what do you owe your mentors in return?

Thanks. It may seem obvious, but thanking your mentors on a regular basis is a nice touch. Specific thanks go a long way to showing that your appreciation is genuine and that the time that your mentors spent with you has been meaningful to you.

Respect for their time. Accommodating your schedule to theirs, and acknowledging when requests are last minute are among the basics.

Well-thought out and reasonable requests. Knowing what you’re hoping for – what situation you’d like advice on, limiting how much time you’re asking for, and keeping requests in line with what each mentor has offered in the past help ensure that your mentor will be comfortable with your requests. If your mentor has offered to put in a good word for you, that’s great – go ahead and accept their offer. If someone has offered a smaller favour, such as meeting with you once to give you advice, you’d be crossing a boundary if you asked that person to attach his or her reputation to yours by putting in that good word.

What’s not on the table. What you don’t owe your mentors is control over your career direction. Your mentors may come to feel invested in your career direction. After all, they’re probably mentoring you because they’re excited by the potential they see in you, and they can’t wait to see you achieve it.

But your mentor will not be the one doing your job. Whatever you sign on for, you’re the one who will experience it each work day. Your mentor may well believe that the direction they’d like you to move in will bring you satisfaction. If you believe otherwise, don’t do both of you a disservice by pursuing a career path you don’t want.

Mentorship relationships are less transactional than you’d expect: mentors usually pursue mentorship because they find it inherently rewarding. Chances are that your mentors wouldn’t take the time to support your career unless they also had an interest in you as a person. If you continue to enjoy what you do, or if you take steps to get closer to what you enjoy, your mentors will likely support you, no matter how wistful they feel for the future they envisioned for you.

More forks in the road

Posted on 4 October 2013 by Liz Koblyk

Careers Café has recently had a fork-in-the-road theme, so – what the heck – I’m adding another fork and a personal post.

I recently had to ask myself the sorts of questions that I prefer asking clients: about what matters to me, what my definition of success is, how I’ll find meaning in work, and how I’ll shape my working life so that it allows me to make the impacts I want to make in other areas of my life. Nothing like a good health scare to prompt the bigger questions.

In the interim, life and my health have worked out very nicely. While I’m slowly transitioning out of a job I love, I’ve started another job I love – one that doesn’t involve a commute, does involve lots of direct work with clients, and lets me be a more involved parent.

Since there were a good seven months between the phone call from my GP and the happy resolution, I’ve had a fair bit of time to bite my fingernails into nubs remind myself of some common career issues:

  • Success: it’s a set of moving and moveable targets, not a goalpost anchored in concrete. For a time, for me, it was viable to think about career success as something discrete. I could move up the ladder, learn from a fantastic manager who’s more mentor than boss, and view my career as its own entity, separate from the rest of my life. The prospect of ill health reminded me that all the roles we play impact one another. Sometimes, achieving success in one role requires us to rethink – or even set aside – what counts as success in another.
  • Status: it felt great to be promoted, partly because of the work I got to do, and partly because it was recognized as success by others. If you’re downwardly mobile, it sure helps to have a clear idea about how the move lets you live out values that are dear to you, because you may encounter a few raised eyebrows along the way. (Happily for me, the well of parental guilt runs deep, and coworkers felt my pain in wanting to spend more time with my daughter before she develops an allergy to parents.)
  • We’re multi-potentialed: there is no “it” out there – there’s a whole bunch of things we can do, though it can take lots of effort and time to find them.

I’m looking forward to continuing to explore these topics with clients, in my own life and, of course, in Careers Café.

Embracing career chaos

Posted on 3 September 2013 by Liz Koblyk

Talking about career chaos usually doesn’t win you any points with people in the midst of career exploration. But thinking about how to make use of chaos is a smart idea.

You don’t need a robust, scholarly understanding of chaos theory in order to have a useful framework for thinking about careers. You just need the understanding that large events can have large impacts on your career – but so can small events. Those small events have the ability to shape your career and move it in new, unpredicted directions.

What does that mean for you? For one, it means that the activities that seem like they should have a big impact (like applying to 150 jobs in two months) might not end up being as important as activities that seem as though they ought to be less impactful. That includes activities like having coffee with an old mentor, writing a thank-you note after an interview, opting to use a business directory you never used before to find new organizations to apply to, taking a chance by telling that person you just met about your job search, or heading out to a professional association meeting even if you feel that you have nothing to contribute.

When I consider the activities that have shaped my career, luck and unpredictably large outcomes from small events do indeed play a role. The small activities that have reaped big rewards for me: having taken German in high school (really), taking on a low-paying and infrequent gig as a tutor for students with learning disabilities while wrapping up my PhD, and staying in touch with one person I did an informational interview with, who happens to be much more influential in the career advising field than I was initially aware of.

So, where’s the practicality for you? After all, you can’t plan a small event that will have an unpredictably large and positive impact. However, you can gain some form of control over your career. One way to control your career, to the degree that’s possible, is to actively seek out experiences that might pay off. Don’t seek out experiences tirelessly – you can exhaust yourself trying to create luck – but do seek them deliberately, knowing that activities that might seem fruitless to those around you are, at the very least, giving you useful information, and are quite possibly laying the groundwork for future opportunities.

Another way to maintain control of the game is to be aware of your options. In a non-chaotic world, being aware of only one career path that you want to pursue is fine. After all, if actions lead to predictable outcomes, planning works perfectly. In a chaotic world, things change quickly – Lehman Brothers goes under, people with MSW’s begin to replace registered psychologists in hospitals, and User Experience Librarian becomes a job title. Being aware of multiple options that appeal to you can help keep you from getting backed into a corner. (As an aside, if every profession you’re considering requires a unique degree that you don’t have, it’s worth becoming aware of even more options.)

Is it time to panic if you only have one option in mind right now?  Nope – just go ahead and book that coffee date, browse through Career Cruising while your university gives you access, look up some skills you like on a LinkedIn people search, ask someone in an interesting job to tell you more about it.  Start taking a few steps towards greater control of your future, knowing that perfect control isn’t needed to find something that makes you happy.

Fighting grad school backlash

Posted on 6 August 2013 by Liz Koblyk

Ah, it had to happen sooner or later. Brazen Careerist founder, Penelope Trunk, was eventually going to take grad school down a peg. Given her typically provocative style, she was unlikely to say that it’s a wise investment.

She’s challenged the wisdom of pursuing grad school in the past on her blog, but using more measured arguments. That blog post (written in 2005) posed good questions about testing career options before signing up for more education, exploring whether a grad degree is necessary for your anticipated career, and evaluating whether you were sufficiently keen on your research topic. That blog post might not be sexy reading, but it warned against going into grad school just because it’s there, and it assumed that, for some people, grad school is a good option.

More recently, Trunk has suggested that, if you’re in grad school, you haven’t thought out your reasons for being there, whether you’re aiming for non-existent teaching jobs or shiftwork behind a cash register. Humanities graduates are especially doomed.

So, do you need to worry about her claims?  By now, you’ve probably read through the endless parade of media claims that your degrees are useless (and hopefully Léo Charbonneau’s excellent rebuttals in Margin Notes). You can find information from Statistics Canada that does point to discrepancies in employment rates between PhD graduates from different faculties. Although such discrepancies exist, the situation is nowhere near as dire as Trunk claims.

Beyond the stats, there also simply isn’t a degree out there that can absolutely cement your success or your failure. There just isn’t. And, with any degree, at least part of what you get out of it will be the “extra” – perhaps even seemingly superfluous – stuff that you do. Heck, MBA programs typically haven’t hidden the fact that some of the degree’s value comes through the networking (PDF) opportunities it creates.

There’s no need to choose between Trunk’s cheerful scorn for grad degrees or the head-in-the-sand thinking she says emerges in response to her arguments.

  • Assess the costs and whether you need grad work for your career plans. Then, if graduate work still feels important for your development, do it. (And if it doesn’t, do something else.)
  • Deliberately choose how you’ll get the most out of it – which seems a relevant approach regardless of your educational path. Choose to think about what parts you like most and least. Choose to develop a plan B and a plan C.
  • Choose to do some things that are appealing but feel superfluous.
  • Choose to stay in contact with people who are doing things that seem interesting.

While you’re at it, choose to use your university’s career office to learn more about presenting your abilities to employers. Then, you can better disabuse any employers who might share in misconceptions about grad school.

The fine balance of following up

Posted on 15 July 2013 by Liz Koblyk

If you’ve read anything about job searching, you’ve heard the truisms about taking an assertive approach, selling yourself to employers, and treating the job search like a full-time job. The overall gist is that you need to be assertive.

And that’s true. You do need to be able and willing to express what you can do. And you’ll probably need to express it more than once. So, you’ll need to follow up with networking contacts, potential job leads and with employers to whom you’ve applied. But (at the risk of sounding like a Sex in the City segue) where is the line between assertive and creepy?

Of course, creepy is partly in the eye of the beholder. Job seekers often worry about being overbearing, but employers wonder why someone would call them once and expect all initiative for future contact to come from the employer.

Contacting people more than once if you want to network with or work for them is probably a good idea. It shows that you’re not expecting the other person to do the heavy lifting. So, go ahead and send an email asking for an informational interview and follow it up with a phone call (which the person will expect, if you noted in your email when you’d phone). And go ahead and call one more time if you haven’t heard back from them. If you’ve applied to an employer who’s not posting a vacancy, ask them if they’ve had a chance to review your application and if you can meet. And, of course, you can let them know in your letter when you’re going to follow up.

What’s too much? That’s tricky. It’s partly individual, and partly unique to the industry or even the organization. If you’re pursuing roles that require plenty of stick-to-itiveness when it comes to pursuing conversations with people, then you can expect to be more assertive when it comes to initiating meetings with potential employers. But a decent rule of thumb is that, once you’ve shown your enthusiasm, don’t say anything unless you have something new to say.

So, if you’ve interviewed for a role and discover something new about it afterwards, and that you’d like to address, by all means, follow up with the hiring manager. If you’ve already thanked them for the interview once and don’t have anything new to add, it might be better to concentrate on other parts of your job search while you wait to hear back. And if you’ve applied to a posting that specifically requests that you don’t follow up with the recruiter, then don’t follow up with the recruiter. Mind you, if you know someone else in the organization, they may be able to give you an idea of the pace of recruiting.

And know that it can take some time for employers to make hiring decisions, whether due to organizational recruiting processes, hiring committee workload, vacation time, or the slow process of budgetary approval. If an employer hasn’t contacted you, go about the rest of your job search, and know that you may hear from them long after you expected to.

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.