The following is a guest post by Elizabeth Newkirk. Elizabeth has a career.
I have a friend who is a recent college graduate, works a minimum wage job, and lives with his parents. Let’s call him Bob.
Bob has talked about more get-rich-quick schemes in the past two years than I care to count. Bob initially wanted to be a teacher, but he decided the salary was too low and quit the accelerated degree program he was enrolled in. He also talked about traveling the world, but declined my offer to send him information about ESL (English as a Second Language) jobs abroad. In between stories about hypothetical businesses he’s going to launch overnight, Bob complains about working six days a week and living at home.
You know what I’d love to say to Bob? Shut up and find a career.
If you’re unemployed, stuck in a dead-end job, or simply hate the profession that’s steadily crushing your soul, this post is for you. Careers aren’t born overnight, but there are three things you should be doing to set yourself up for success. For starters:
1. Get Entry-Level Experience
Most people sit around trying to think themselves into a new career when you should be out there trying them out for yourself. Firsthand experience is the best way to know if a particular career is a good fit for you. More importantly, experience also establishes your credibility to future employers.
Like most people, I learned this the hard way. My post-graduation plan was to join the Peace Corps. Shortly after I submitted my application, I went to Peru for two months and taught English at an elementary school. When I returned, I realized that was definitely not what I wanted to do and immediately withdrew my candidacy.
Don’t get me wrong; I had some great times in Peru. But the overall experience was a gut-wrenching reality check about what life would be like as a Peace Corps volunteer. I no longer felt comfortable committing 27 months of service in a location I had no say in choosing. I later decided that I still wanted to teach English abroad, but I wanted to do it on my own terms.
So before you quit your day job or take out more student loans to pay for graduate school, I strongly recommend you try on a career for size. Fortunately there are a number of ways to do this.
Internships and volunteering are excellent ways to develop professional experience. Non-profit organizations are the best places to look for opportunities, as they tend to be understaffed and underfunded. Many non-profits have opportunities in grant writing, fundraising, program development, marketing, and web design.
If an organization doesn’t offer a specific internship or volunteer program, then go directly to the staff and ask how you can get involved. Yes, offer your services for free. This is what the world has come to, but if you want experience and want a foot in the door, you have to be willing to do anything for it.
Explain why you want to be part of their particular organization, and mention the skills and experience you hope to gain. Since compensation is usually not available, non-profits are typically more flexible working around your schedule and are often more than happy to help you reach your professional goals.
Finally, if you don’t have time or money to spare, try an externship. Externships are similar to internships, but are typically much shorter in length (anywhere from a day to a few weeks).
If you need to learn a particular skill, you can always attend workshops or enroll in a certificate programs. However, don’t spend a lot of money on classes unless it’s absolutely necessary. For example, you don’t need to take a creative writing seminar to become a writer. You just need to start writing. If you want to start your own company, draft a business plan. If you want to save the whales, join Greenpeace. No matter how you do it, the key here is to take action. Remember, gaining experience is about more than having a solid resume; it’s about finding out whether a career is right for you.
2. Build your network
If you use Monster or CareerBuilder to look for jobs, before you continue reading I need you to complete the following steps:
- Raise your hand to about eye level.
- Put your hand in front of your face (palm facing you).
- Facepalm (the palm of your hand should make a loud smacking sound when it makes contact with your forehead).
About 80% of job openings aren’t advertised to the public, and for good reason. Most employers are legally required to keep a record of every application they receive for up to 1-2 years after a hiring period has ended. Factor a shitty job market, in which there is a highly disproportionate ratio of job seekers to available positions and unsurprisingly, companies who do post job openings online are inundated with thousands of applications from unqualified candidates. It’s a nightmare for HR departments everywhere.
When a job opens up most companies just go directly to their employees and ask them if they know anyone who is qualified and interested in applying for the position. So, how do you find the career opportunities if you can’t see them?
The answer is networking. Networking is building relationships with people who know your professional interests, skills, and goals. Your network can potentially include family members, friends, professors, coaches, colleagues, bosses, mentors, or anyone who hands you a business card. From there, it’s a ripple effect; the individuals in your network can connect you to the people in their network, and so on.
There are plenty of ways to build your network. If you want to expand your connections in a particular field, you can join a professional association or attend business networking events. If you don’t want to commit to membership fees or meetings, contact your school’s alumni association or check to see if it has an online directory. Alumni are a great way to expand your professional circle because you already have something in common.
Networking doesn’t have to be a formal process. Participating in clubs, volunteering in your community, and going to your professors’ office hours are all opportunities to network with others.
That being said, don’t network for the sake of networking. Let’s say you’re interested in a woman, but she only makes an effort to see you when her other plans fall through. She never initiates contact unless she needs you to do something for her (e.g. to move her couch into her new apartment). Clearly she doesn’t appreciate you and has no shame in using you. Feels pretty crappy, doesn’t it?
It’s no different with networking. It’s tacky to only contact someone when you need a letter of recommendation or help finding a job. No matter how busy you may be, you should occasionally call, email, or get coffee with the people in your professional circle for no reason other than to catch up.
Furthermore, networking should be mutually beneficial. People are generally willing to help you for nothing in return, but you should look for ways to help them out when the opportunity presents itself.
Even if you have the career of your dreams, you should still be networking. Job security is a luxury that few of us have, and the time to start building connections isn’t when you’re out on the streets. As the saying goes, “Build your network before you need it, and your ‘net’ will ‘work’ for you.”
For more on networking, check out Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi.
3. Track your professional development
We often don’t realize our own progress unless we take a step back and think about it.
Every job is a learning experience, no matter how loathsome it is. It’s important to take the time to reflect on your professional development so that you can see how far you’ve come, and evaluate how you can continue to grow.
One of the easiest ways to track your professional development is to regularly update your resume. Your resume should not merely summarize your roles and responsibilities, but emphasize your accomplishments.
For example, if you were involved in a research project, what was the purpose? If you worked on a fundraising campaign, how much money did you raise? Along with results-oriented descriptions of your professional experiences, your resume should include any promotions or honors you’ve received, as well as leadership experience.
Ask your friends or colleagues to critique your resume. In addition to having an extra set of eyes to catch mistakes, an objective reviewer will let you know if your job descriptions are too confusing, wordy, or vague. Make sure you ask people who are brutally honest, have an eye for detail, and know how to spell.
Another great way to track your progress is to keep an archive of your work in a portfolio. Portfolios are great tools for job interviews because they provide tangible proof of your expertise. The artifacts you include in your portfolio are entirely up to you, but may include: writing samples, letters of recommendation, photos, charts, flyers, proposals- literally anything that visually documents the projects, activities, and experiences you have been involved in.
LinkedIn is another great way to track your accomplishments. In addition to providing your work history, you can also ask your network connections to publicly endorse you or include a list of projects you have completed. Make sure your profile is 100% complete and your network connections are genuine professional contacts. This isn’t Facebook; LinkedIn monitors connection “rejections” in order to track spammers threatening the site’s legitimacy. So don’t go around requesting connections from everyone you ever met so that your look popular. For more thorough guide on how to make yourself stand out on LinkedIn, check out Michael Park’s guest post.
Tracking your professional development will give you a good idea of where you are and where you need to be. If you are consistently revising your portfolio to incorporate new projects and accomplishments, you’re on the right track. If your resume barely fills a page or lists your summer job from 10 years ago, you’ve got work to do.
Remember my friend Bob from earlier? I have another friend in a remarkably similar situation; she’s an underemployed college graduate living at home. Let’s call her Marley (I’m not clever with pseudonyms).
After deciding not to go to law school, Marley identified marketing as one of her professional interests. She asked me to review her resume, and then applied to several entry-level positions in marketing that she heard about through her professional network.
Within a few weeks Marley was invited to interview with several companies. She did everything that I just told you to do… and she’s still underemployed and living at home.
Experience, networking, and a shining track record don’t automatically grant you a Golden Ticket to the Wonka Factory of Dream Careers. Finding a career involves both hard work and luck. Sometimes there are zero positions available when you need one. Sometimes your competition is more qualified than you. There are a million reasons why you may not get an opportunity to shine, and you don’t have any control over those circumstances.
You do, however, have control over the “hard work” aspect. Stop complaining about the shitty job market. Don’t dwell on missed opportunities; find new ones. Take responsibility for your failures. Ask for help when you need it.
Above all, shut up and do something about it.
Elizabeth Newkirk has a career. You can follow her on Twitter here: @ENewks.
Did you like this article?
Every couple weeks I send out a newsletter with new articles and exclusive content for readers. It's basically my way of keeping in touch with you and letting you know what's going on. Your information is protected and I never spam.
Subscribe below to stay connected.