Considering a career move can be both exhilarating and anxiety-inducing. Career transitions are exciting because they signal a new beginning and new opportunities. They can also stir up nerves because deciding on a move could drastically impact your future. In early March 2020 I left my former role to explore new opportunities just before the world went into lockdown. The caveat was that I didn’t have a new role secured when I decided to leave. All the interviews and potential positions I had lined up disappeared in an instant. I was very worried. What can a professional do when faced with a career transition in the middle of a once-in-a-century crisis?
I was even more fearful of my employment prospects given my knowledge of the postsecondary education industry. Universities and colleges immediately implemented hiring freezes and most recruitment processes came to a halt. Having been a career development professional myself working in a large university, I took a step back and asked myself: what would I say to a client confronted with the same situation? This moment of reflection and grounding – with the support of some fantastic mentors and confidants – allowed me to take the plunge into an uncertain, complex and ambiguous future.
Looking for work (pandemic-style)
First, I took time to meaningfully reflect and think about my next career step. I made lists and reflected on the what, why and how. This was quite hard at first, but taking the time to do this reflection helped. More than anything else, I needed to know my “why.” What emerged through this process was my purpose. Finding one’s purpose is powerful, and my purpose gave me the energy and drive to power through the job search as the pandemic dragged on.
With this purpose in hand, I engaged. I put my name forward to volunteer for several projects with professional associations closely related to postsecondary education and student affairs. This allowed me to stay connected to what was happening in the Canadian higher-ed landscape as it related to COVID-19. I connected with my colleagues and built authentic relationships. I was also developing new skills and knowledge. Each of these steps brought me closer to opportunities that I was interested in exploring further. Before the summer came to an end, I was fully immersed in writing resumes and cover letters for several roles across Canada. Surprisingly, an unprecedented summer felt personally productive from my home office.
The three “Ps” of pandemic interviews
Patience, practice, and preparation. These became the three “Ps” of my pandemic interview mantra. After submitting dozens of job applications and exercising patience, I finally got some interviews. Many of the roles I applied for had multiple steps in the interviewing process, which became a massive undertaking. In six weeks, I did close to 20 interviews. Each successive interview became more and more intensive, involving presentations, writing statements, informal conversation and a lot of waiting. In other words, a lot of practice. Finally, each interview took a tremendous amount of energy and preparation. I believe this was key to building my value proposition for each position.
The pandemic, for obvious reasons, had a massive impact on the interviewing process. Everything was done online. I had to sustain myself through one Zoom call after another. One might think that as a career development practitioner, I wouldn’t have to sweat about the hiring process, but nothing could be more wrong. My first practice rounds were a complete bust. But with practice, I progressed and got better, and I was making it to the final rounds of interviews for a few positions. Then came the waiting. Patience became a virtue. Hearing “No’s” and having to move on became commonplace.
Offers and pandemic onboarding
After several weeks of interviewing, I was lucky enough that I had some exciting offers on the table. Deciding where to go next was not easy, but again I grounded myself in my purpose. What, why, and how became the guide. I dissected and evaluated each offer through this lens and found the place I wanted to be next.
Online onboarding was an overwhelming crazy whirlwind. I started my position at a new university in September, but I hardly remember my first two weeks. Working in student affairs now means you are right in the middle of the new reality: work, school, students, and everything else is now all online. It was far from a perfect transition. However, I slowly built relationships, spent time learning and got used to new technologies. All the patience I developed in the summer was paying off. I learned how to let go of wanting to be perfect and how to be kind to myself.
Dinuka Gunaratne is the career education strategy and communications specialist at the Centre for Career Action at the University of Waterloo.