Posts 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This is the question that makes my soul say “argg!” because it typically comes from people with lots to offer, and because the prospect of taking on more training is often looming before them in the form of another degree—a completely different degree than the one(s) they have already completed. Usually, these job seekers feel that they would need to devote years to degree work they don’t anticipate enjoying in order to open up their career options.
The short answer about whether additional training is useful is: who the heck knows? It depends on what you want to do next and where you want to do it. While the training required for an academic career seems clear, the waters get murkier when you explore non-academic professions. When you’re contemplating your career options while you’re in a university setting, though, degrees can seem like the universal solvent that will dissolve career barriers. So, before you decide that you’ve chosen the wrong degree, consider this:
- Few careers require very specific degrees. Most of the careers that come to mind if you ask a person to name job titles do require a specific degree (doctor, teacher, lawyer…). But there are about 13 000 other job titles out there. You can find out whether a profession requires a specific degree by using resources available in your university’s career or student success centre (like Career Cruising). While you’re at it, you can also look for related careers that have more varied educational requirements.
- Getting an additional degree is not the only training option out there. It may not even be the best training option. The people hiring in your target profession may value college postgrad certificates, designations granted by professional organizations, or privately offered workshops above degrees. Your university may even offer some of the training you’re looking for through a student leadership certificate, a partnership with Mitacs, or the continuing education department.
- Formal training may not be your best option. It could be that you do need more expertise, but that you can fill in your knowledge gaps more efficiently through research (drawing on people in your target field, reading white papers published by professional organizations, lurking on LinkedIn profession group discussion boards, etc.).
- You may need no further training whatsoever to launch a career in your desired field.
- You may think that your qualifications on paper aren’t strong enough, but other parts of your job search may actually be what’s holding you back. To find out whether this is the case, have your resume critiqued, ask people in your desired field what types of jobs you’d be competitive for with your current experience and training, talk with a career adviser about effective job search strategies, and put together a networking strategy that plays to your strengths.
There is no one right answer when it comes to the further training question. An MBA may set you up for a frustrating job search. Two weeks of project management training may get you interviews with your dream employers. Before you commit (or despair of your job prospects!), find out what further training is—or isn’t—likely to do for you.
Finding work doesn’t necessarily require finding a job. Some academics turn to entrepreneurship to provide some or all of their work and income.
Dr. Kathryn Allan happens to be one such former academic. After completing her PhD in English Literature, she launched an editing business. While her degree was clearly relevant in terms of honing her facility with language, it also proved to be generally useful.
“In many ways, running your own business is like being a graduate student: there are multiple deadlines that need managing, it’s independent work with little (to no) supervision, and you choose the clients and projects you work on.” In short, grad school trained her to be “a self-sufficient worker with good time management skills.”
Of course, skills aren’t the only key to self-employment. If putting yourself out there on the job search is tough, putting yourself out there to potential clients can be even more intimidating (and is an ongoing part of running your own business).
Kathryn initially found it “difficult to translate academic skills into non-academic language and find the confidence to start out in a new field of work. It can be scary to start working outside of an institution where there are no longer clear guidelines on how to be a worker.”
She also needed to develop new skills—ones not necessarily taught in most graduate environments, like marketing, pricing services or products, and preparing estimates. If you’re contemplating starting your own business, Kathryn’s experience can save you heart- and wallet-ache. Like many entrepreneurs, she wishes that she had devoted more effort to researching pricing and to developing relationships with potential customers: “I simply undervalued myself and ended up doing a lot of work for which I should have been better compensated.”
John Aylen, of (the dreadfully named but comprehensive) Starting and Running a Small Business for Canadians for Dummies All-in-One, echoes Kathryn’s experience and highlights a few more potholes to avoid. He advises academics turning to entrepreneurship to know their market, because “education is not a substitute for market analysis and planning.” That said, a graduate education can lend credibility, so John recommends mentioning academic credentials in marketing and networking materials.
Along with knowing one’s market and having a business plan, John suggests being conservative when estimating how long it will take for your business to become profitable. That’s the bad news. The good news is that business owners don’t necessarily fit—or need to fit—the entrepreneur stereotype. John sums it up: “there is an entrepreneurial type, but most business owners aren’t that type.” You don’t have to be confident and skilled in business right off the bat. Your graduate education provides you with expertise that you can use to make your business successful while you develop your confidence over time, and while you outsource or work on your business skills. Just as you’d bring your unique characteristics to any job you do, no matter how many other people have that same job title, so would you bring that same mix to your own business venture.
As both Kathryn and John advise, though, draw on that most highly-developed academic skill and do your research first. And keep your eyes open for more people like Kathryn and John—people who can be mentors to help you hop over the potholes, find the good resources and learn from their successes.
So, you’ve got one page to persuade an employer to hire you—no, scratch that. You’ve got one page, along with your resume, to persuade an employer to interview you. Here’s what happens with that page:
- Some employers read it
- Some employers don’t
- Some employers who read it will only read it if they’ve shortlisted your resume
In an ideal world, you’d have plenty of relevant experience you can draw on to create a convincing portrait of why you’ll be excellent at the job you’re applying for. But we don’t always have that luxury. So, what do you do when you can’t just draw a straight line from past experience to future opportunity?
Say exactly why you think you’d be excellent. Thankfully, this doesn’t mean you need to add unsubstantiated adverbs to your letter (superlative! outstanding!). It does mean that, when you’ve told a story about your abilities to do the job, ask yourself what the key point is that the employer should understand about that paragraph. Then, write in that sentence, move it to the top of the paragraph, and see if you can trim what follows. Finally, ask yourself how the employer will know that you’re likely telling the truth, and put in that evidence. Trim again.
Have someone else check that your letter establishes that you can do the job you’re applying for. If your university offers cover letter critiques, take advantage of them. If not, ask a tell-it-like-it-is friend to tell you whether you have drawn clear, unambiguous connections between the skills you’ve demonstrated in the past and the requirements of the job. Worried that you’re making too obvious a point? You’re probably not.
If someone referred you, say so—if it makes sense to. If someone in your network has recommended that you apply for the job, ask whether you have their permission to say so in your letter (or other contact) with the hiring manager. If you get an enthusiastic “yes,” then mention that person right in the opening paragraph. If someone simply made you aware of a job opportunity, doesn’t feel that they’d be influential with the hiring manager, or hasn’t given you explicit permission to use their name, don’t include their name. Mentioning a mutual contact works because hiring managers will go to that trusted contact to find out more about you. Make sure that contact isn’t surprised that you’ve mentioned them.
Avoid some of the most common mistakes. It’s easier than it seems to introduce basic errors of fact into cover letters. Make sure you’ve addressed your letter correctly and name the right job title (LinkedIn can be a help with both). With other common mistakes, it helps to have a fresh pair of eyes on your letter, as errors like to hide from the writer. So, just like applicants to grad and professional schools sometimes name the wrong institution in their package, so do many job applicants name the wrong organization. If you tell organization X that you’re very excited about working for organization Y, organization X will gladly not stand in your way.
Like writing a strong resume, writing a strong cover letter requires knowing what the job is about and explicitly stating why you can do the job. An added bonus of the cover letter is that you may surprise yourself with how many of your past experiences will be useful in your next job.
Defining your areas of competence takes time. Luckily, the University of Victoria’s career office has spent a lot of time generating some ideas that they’re freely sharing on their website.
Competencies are closely related to your skills. A competency is a set of skills and knowledge needed to perform a task. At a conference last week, UVic presenters Norah McCrae and Stephanie Gayler described the painstaking process they and their colleagues went through to identify and verify 10 core competencies, four cultural competencies and a number of program-specific ones.
It can be tempting to focus on program-specific competencies, but a broader range of employers will be interested in your strength in the 10 core competencies UVic lists. While lists like this aren’t comprehensive, they’re a good starting point for assessing some of your most widely applicable transferable skills, and for coming up with examples you might draw on for resumes, letters and interviews.
So, painful though it can be to take on the seemingly navel-gazing activity of remarking on your own competencies, why not start small and tackle one or two items on the list? Once you’re on a roll, work through the rest. Or move onto areas of competence that aren’t covered on these lists—and there will be plenty of them.
There’s also no need to start thinking in terms of competencies right away; working on one of their component parts—skills—can serve just as well at helping you articulate where you are and determine what you want to further develop. Jo VanEvery’s recent post on skills takes a look at the skills you already have and those that you want to acquire.
As she usefully points out, not all of your skills will strike you immediately, and they may even relate to traits you see as disadvantageous. Often, the skills that are invisible to you are the ones in which you are strongest. Because they are your go-to skills, you might assume that “everyone” has those same skills. Whenever you’re puzzled that someone is impressed by something you’ve done, take the time to reflect. You’ve probably drawn on skills or competencies that are more unique than you’ve previously realized.