Last night, I dreamed a woman who might have been interviewing me or might have been my boss was looking at a spreadsheet I created. After studying it closely, she handed it back to me and said, “Is this the best you can do?” I guess I’ve been worried about my Excel skills lately. I guess I’ve been worried about all my skills.
I had two conversations early last week that gave me an awful lot to think about; these conversations made me feel like it would be foolhardy to continue on in my job hunt without doing some serious reflection and exploration first. So, other than my 2 informational interviews (sort of), I did not make any forward progress on my job search.
Up to this point, my job search goals have been somewhat (read: extremely) fractured. I’m interested in different industries and types of work, so I’ve been trying to give equal time and attention to each. To keep things simple, I’ll say that I’ve been casting a wide net, applying for nearly any job that a) I believe I’m capable of doing and b) is with a company or organization whose mission I don’t abhor. As a result, one week I’m totally stoked about Social Media strategies in the non-profit sector and the next week I’m thinking about how universities can best leverage e-learning. In between, I’m writing cover letters trying to convince random people that I can do random administrative tasks with equal vigor. THIS IS NOT GOING TO WORK. Not for me, not for the people on the receiving end of my cover letters and resumes.
On Monday night, I conducted my first informational interview–except it wasn’t. A friend’s husband (henceforth FH) works for a non-profit arts organization and has had a couple of really interesting jobs in the last few years, and I thought I’d talk to him about those briefly after work. At the last moment, though, FH invited me over for dinner with his family. Of course I said yes. Over the course of 2.5 hours, we talked about his background and my job search, Harry Potter and online dating, internships and volunteering, and so on. Like many other people I’ve talked to in the non-profit sector, FH said the best way to find a job is to volunteer. This is becoming my least favorite piece of advice. I understand that it’s easier for organizations/hiring managers to offer a position to someone they’ve worked with and know they can trust. And I understand that non-profits largely survive on volunteer time and supporter donations. But it’s difficult to give my time and skills away for free when what I need is a job. It hurts my brain to do it. After a very rewarding long-term volunteer experience that did not lead to a job (or even any leads), I’m reluctant to start that process again. This is where FH’s insight came in really handy. He suggested targeting specific organizations, finding things that they need (a stronger social media presence, web content, editing services, etc.), and writing a targeted letter offering exactly that thing–and setting limits to the time and scope of what I can do. This way, I’d make contacts within the organizations I’m most interested in at the same time that I’m developing the skills (and a portfolio to support them) that the jobs I want demand. This is the kind of volunteering I can get behind.
My second (and first formal) informational interview came on Tuesday afternoon. I met with the Director of [Academic Center] (henceforth Director) at UIC where I’m working on my PhD. Director has an MFA (in a field I’ve got no background in) and a background in nonprofits. She’s been in her current position for about two years and seems to be one of the happiest, most satisfied professionals I’ve ever met. She was enthusiastic about talking to me and instantly supportive and encouraging. When she took a look at my resume toward the end of our conversation, she told me it was impressive and that I was well positioned for a job like hers. That felt good. I told her about my background and my decision not to pursue a teaching career; I told her that I was collecting information about a career as an Academic Professional; I asked her about her career path and a typical day in her role. Her job is a lot like what I imagined–she does much of what a professor does (minus the teaching and the (perceived) prestige of tenure): she does research and gives presentations, works directly with students, conducts workshops and evaluates the results, recommends programming, collaborates with faculty in other departments. A lot of what Director said about her work appealed to me. What resonated most, though, is the way she talked about finding her current job. She spoke of doing a lot of reflection, determining her strengths and her interests, and she didn’t try to mold herself or her application materials to a particular job. She believed that this allowed her to be herself in interviews, and also made it easier for her to experience the interview process as an opportunity to decide if the role was what she wanted.
In both of these conversations, I did one thing “wrong” (according to the advice I’ve found by searching “Informational Interviews” on Google): I did not ask either FH or Director to introduce me to any of their colleagues. FH mentioned a couple of people that I might want to talk to, and I’ll follow up with him this week to request those introductions, but it didn’t seem right to ask for this from Director. Our conversation was so much more about reflection, about figuring out what I wanted from my career, that it seemed almost premature to ask for contacts. A missed opportunity? Perhaps.
This week, I’m going to take FH’s advice and start looking for volunteer opportunities to create. I’m also going to get in touch with a former supervisor and ask her to put me in touch with some of her contacts (she lives in Ohio but has colleagues in Chicago) so that I can start to figure out if Training and Development (my pre-grad school career path) is one I want to get back on. I will likely not put out any new applications. There’s no sense in rushing, right? I’d just as likely end up on another path that isn’t right for me.
How did you know your job was right for you?