When I was (somewhat) fresh out of graduate school The New Social Worker invited me to write a piece for them about finding your first job. I have since started using that piece which I titled "The Search: Obtaining the Right Job, Finding Your Self, and Crafting a Career" in the class I teach for Lake Forest College - Loop 202: Professional Development in the 21st Century. There are a number of places in this piece that I can, and do, in class anyway, go more in depth, and I plan to revisit some of the ideas herein down the road, but for now, and with this piece not being available online, I decided to share it in its original form here. It still speaks to me, and I hope it speaks to you. I also look forward to your thoughts. Thanks.
The Search: Obtaining the Right Job, Finding Your Self, and Crafting a Career
The successful job search is about more than focusing on whether or not we can obtain a job. It is also about focusing on oneself, our story, exploring what it is we need from work, and who it is we want to be as we craft a career.
Field of Choice vs. Skill Development
When searching for a job, many try to find any opportunity they can in their field of choice. While this is important, it is equally important to identify the types of skills and experience you are interested in acquiring, whether the job you ultimately land is in your field or not. I say this for two reasons. First, when you do this you dramatically expand the opportunities you can choose from at a time when the last thing you want to do is limit such opportunities. And second, for work to be satisfying, it must be stimulating, and if you cannot identify what it is about work that will stimulate you, it really does not matter whether you land a job in your field of interest or not.
Do not assume that a job is unobtainable merely because you do not fulfill all the requirements and experiences listed in a job description. Job descriptions are written with the ideal candidate in mind, but that does not mean that (a) that person is going to apply, (b) the employer expects him or her to, and (c) they are even out there. If anything, assume that you are the best candidate your prospective employer is going to meet. While you risk nothing by submitting your resume, you will never know what you risked by failing to do so.
Developing Your Story
You need to get your story together early and then be sure to weave it into and throughout every interview. We tend to spend a lot of valuable time in informational and job interviews trying to figure out who we are and what we want to do with our careers. Engaging in this process during an interview however, not only wastes precious time and opportunities, but does little to enhance your chances at being hired. What makes an interview successful is your ability to sell yourself, and you cannot sell yourself if you have not taken the time to figure out who you are, where you came from, your influences, and who you want to be.
While there are many things to touch on when it comes to interviews, as an interviewer and as an interviewee, I have found the following two things to be particularly important: First, do your homework and learn something, if not everything, about the organization. While this has always been important, when every organization now has a website, you have no reason why you cannot do so. And second, prior to the interview, develop questions of your own about the job and the organization. Prospective employers may or may not expect you to know much about their department, much less their organization. They may not even expect you to ask questions. However, they are certainly thrilled when you do, and when every organization has a website, and most do on LinkedIn, you have no excuse not to look proactive.
The Job Search, The Job Wait
When it comes to job offers, I recommend waiting, if you can, as long as you can, before accepting your first job, because the temptation to take a job, any job, during this time of desperation tends to outweigh your common sense and better judgment. Human nature tells you to take the first job offered just in case it is the only one that ever comes your way. But if it doesn’t seem like a good match for you, don’t do it. Wait for the right one if you can, because it will come, and you will know it when it does. Long-term job happiness will always be more important than a short-term sense of calm.
The (not exactly what you want) Job Offer
Not all jobs you are offered offer all that you are looking for, but you may still feel conflicted about taking them, either because you feel you have to – see above – or because they truly offer things you are looking for in a position or organization – mission, office culture, what have you. When you find yourself in such a position, I suggest that instead of settling for what you are being told the job’s roles and responsibilities are, question just how flexible the job description is and whether there are ways you can make the job more interesting and challenging. Do not forget that jobs are not fixed objects, and interviews are meant to be interactive. That said, when a job is being treated as immutable, or an interviewer will not discuss it in a flexible manner, it is worth asking yourself whether this is the kind of job you want and the kind of environment you want to work in.
Supervision (and mentoring)
It is very important that with any first job, one factors in whether supervision (and mentoring, if possible) is available and embraced. If it is not clear whether your prospective boss does in fact embrace supervision be sure to ask whether he or she will build it into their weekly calendar. It may be cliché, but you don’t know what you don’t know when it comes to starting your first job out of school. There is no replacement for experience, much less guidance, and you can only hope to gain and learn when there is someone available to support your growth and decisions.
When it comes to salary negotiations, I have two primary pieces of advice: First, always assume that your potential employer has more money to give you than their initial offer. Do not forget that the phrase is salary negotiation, and a negotiation means all involved are trying to walk with the best deal, including your future boss. There are exceptions to this of course, but you have to ask, rarely is anything lost by asking, but sometimes, often, something is gained. This brings me to my second point. Always try to ensure that the person you are negotiating with makes the first offer. Negotiations are all about coming from a place of power. And whoever names their price first relinquishes that power, because they must respond to counter offers the rest of the way. The approach I’m suggesting here is one centered on yourself and your needs and not on your prospective employer’s demands and requirements. You must ask yourself what it is you need to feel good about accepting the job being offered and it is only when you are clear about this with yourself and the person you’re negotiating with, that you can start a job with a clear mind and a focus on the work itself.
Who Will You Meet, What Will You Produce
When considering that first job offer you are interested in, there are two questions you should always consider: (a) Who will you meet internally and externally and (b) What will you be able to author (reports, articles, papers, etc.)? While I am not trying to imply that you should be thinking about your next job even as you take your first, it is likely that at some point you will decide to, or have to, look for one again. Who you have met, or not met, along the way, and that which you have authored can only serve to expedite and enhance your job search the next time around. In one sense, you are looking at one job as a building block to the one that will follow, and when you do, you begin to build a career.
The Bad Job Choice
You may well choose a job and then may find shortly, or not so shortly, thereafter that you are unhappy with your choice and my advice it to leave as soon as you can. This does not mean that you should not try to make it work or spend time assessing why the position has not worked out. However, you are trying to build a career and develop skills, and the amount of energy you will expend on being unhappy is a waste of time. Your first job is not likely to be your last, but it should provide you with both the foundation and catalyst for your career. If it doesn’t, why wouldn’t you get out? I would add two things here. First, rarely does a good interview lead to a bad job choice. There is a good chance that you had a bad vibe during the interview about the job, the organization, or the interviewer. When you have such a vibe, ask yourself why? If you do not like the answer, do not take the job. And second, jobs go bad long before we finally leave them. If you are resistant to leaving, ask yourself why and whether you are repeating a pattern of bad choices and bad habits.
A key to searching for that first job, and any job that follows, is not just retaining, but nurturing the network of contacts you made while in school and working on internships. People not only rely on word of mouth to spread the word about jobs, but look to their peers and staff for “so who do you know” recommendations when looking to fill a position. Given this, the relationships you form in school, and in internships, represent valuable connections for not just your initial search, but your career path. Who knows where they will end-up, who they will know, or what they will hear? Regular networking with them is key and whether you do so by phone, email, or lunch, just be sure you do it.
This may involve reading, going to conferences and seminars, volunteer opportunities, second jobs, or meeting with peers to talk about work. Whatever appeals to you, do it, whether the organization you work for encourages it or not, because work alone does not professional development make. The crafting of a career entails lifelong learning and an insatiable curiosity. To accomplish this, you must expose yourself to a steady flow of new information and new possibilities. Doing so will not only make you more marketable, but more interested in what you’re doing. While the former is so very important, there may be nothing more important than the latter. Crafting a career means constantly being excited about the challenges before you and constantly seeking to learn more. When you stop finding yourself excited about your work, and when you stop wanting to learn, you generally stop crafting a career as well.
What I am asking you to do then is focus on yourself and not just the demands and expectations of the market and your prospective employer. The job search must be conscious and thoughtful. When it is not, we not only fail to find work we like, we fail to take care of our work-related needs. While your first job is not likely to be your last, you do want to find one that is satisfying and stimulating. While you do not necessarily know where you are heading, you always need to be thoughtful about what you think you will need whenever you get there. The tips and strategies discussed here will help you with this process. Use them as a scorecard and use them as needed.