Blog

This blog is a space for discussions about topics relevant to starting your career. Over time, I will provide information that supplements the material found in the book, but I will also occasionally remind you which Steps and Tips in my book discuss the topic. The posts on the blog will include additional suggestions about how to search for a job, develop interview skills, become more professional, make the most of your college years, take advantage of internships, and think about what’s important for success and happiness. If there are topics you would like to see covered in the blog, please use the Contact Me page to send me your ideas.

Preparing to network

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In my past few posts I’ve been writing about networking, and today I want to take a step back and suggest that there are some things you need to do before you go to any type of networking event.

  • Analyze the event in terms of what you hope to accomplish. There are lots of reasons to network, and your approach is going to be different depending on your purpose. Are you hoping to talk with prospective employers? Do you want to learn about a particular business or industry? Are you looking for investors (or partners) for a business venture? Do you need to learn more about the specifics of a particular career? Or are you just hoping to meet more people and expand your network more generally (which is a totally legitimate reason for going to a networking event!)
  • Prepare an elevator speech relevant to your purpose. My book’s Tip 22. Create and practice your elevator speech can help you get started. You can also find lots of advice online about how to write an elevator speech. One of the best sources I’ve found comes from an article by Katherine Arline writing for Business News Daily. The key points are: keep it short (30 seconds or less), keep it clear, keep it casual, and find a way to capture your listeners attention. What you really want to do is open the door for your listener to ask questions about you and your goals or ideas.
  • Create a business card. This may seem counter-intuitive if you don’t yet have a job, but you want to be sure you leave each contact with a tangible way to remember you. Although it’s a good idea to take copies of your resume to a Career Fair, for other types of networking events, a business card is more appropriate. If you want to save time and money, there are online templates that you can use to create your own business card, and you can buy paper specifically for printing business cards at any office supply store. However, there are also lots of outlets that produce business cards at a very low cost. My book’s Tip 23. Produce a personal business card gives you suggestions for what to include if you’re still a student or a recent graduate.

Networking Frogs

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I recently ran across an article with a really catchy title, “Don’t be a Networking Frog.” It took me a minute to realize that this was a reference to the fairy tale of the Princess and the Frog and the idea that you have to “kiss a lot of frogs” before you meet your prince. The article is intended to help you discriminate between people who can really help you and those who are just “frogs” (but I’m not recommending you kiss any of them!).

If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I think networking is one of the most important things that you can do to start (or improve) your career. In fact, in my book, Step 4: Create a Network has 14 tips to help you build your network, making it one of the longest sections in the book!

The lessons in the “Don’t be a Networking Frog” article are valid: they’re all about give and take, listening to others to see if you can help them in addition to telling your story and trying to get their help. The author gives you 12 tips for figuring out how to recognize a frog, but you can also use that list to make sure that you don’t turn into a frog.

I’m going to focus on a few of those tips to help you enhance your networking skills:

  • When you meet someone at a networking event, you want to be sure to tell them about your own plans and goals, but you should also ask them questions about themselves. The more you learn about them, the more likely it is that you’ll find areas that you have in common, and the more you have in common, the more memorable you become. When you’re memorable, networking is more likely to have better results. And while you’re talking and listening, be sure to make eye contact.
  • If someone hands you a business card, read it; don’t just stick it in your pocket. Demonstrate your interest in them by using it as a basis for asking questions about their business, their profession, or even their location. Make notes about your conversation on the back of the card to help you remember them better.
  • Ask if there’s anything you can do to help them. Perhaps you can introduce them to other contacts, provide information about your own experiences that can help them in their career or job search, or tell them about other networking events, workshops, or groups that you have found beneficial.
  • If you meet someone who seems like a good contact, someone you want to stay in touch with, make a point to contact them again the next day. Send an email message or a text or make a phone call to tell them how much you enjoyed talking with them. If there’s a legitimate reason to spend more time together, ask to meet for lunch or after work—or perhaps request an information interview if they’re in a field you’re interested in learning more about. (See by book’s Tip 7. Conduct information interviews for advice about how to ask for and manage information interviews.)

Overcoming your fear of networking

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According to the National Institute of Public Health, 74% of all Americans suffer from “speech anxiety,” which helps explain why so many of us aren’t very good at networking. Today I’m going to provide some suggestions to help you get more comfortable with talking to strangers at networking events.

  • The first thing to realize is that those strangers are at the event for the same reason you are: to meet new people and make new connections. And, statistically speaking, 74% of them are going to be as intimidated by you as you are by them. What this means is that if you make the first move—go up to a stranger and introduce yourself—the most likely response is going to be relief. This works especially well if you look around the room and find someone who is standing alone and/or looking overwhelmed or lost.
  • You’re going to feel a lot more confident if you have thought carefully about what it is you are trying to achieve at the event and have prepared some “opening remarks.” Are you trying to get a job? Have a brief introduction that lets others know what it is you’re hoping for as a career. Are you looking for suggestions of good companies to work at? Again, be prepared with a few observations about the type of place you’d like to work. Are you looking for someone to partner with for a new business idea? If so, have your 30-second elevator speech about that new business ready to deliver at any moment. The trick to this is practice—you don’t want your comments to sound rehearsed, but you need to rehearse a lot to get them to sound like they’re off-the-cuff remarks.
  • Ask questions, and listen to what people say. Most people are more at ease when they are talking about things they know about, and the thing we all know best (or at least I like to think it is) is who we are and what we want out of life. Ask them about their current jobs—what they like and don’t like about them. Ask them about where they went to school, what they studied, how it has helped them. Ask them how they knew about this event, if they’ve been to similar events, if they would recommend particular events as good networking opportunities. Ask them how they use social media, such as LinkedIn. Avoid questions that can be answered “Yes” or “No.” And once they start talking, listen to what they say and respond appropriately.
  • Make eye contact. When you introduce yourself, when you’re talking or listening. Throughout the exchange, make regular eye contact to demonstrate that you are interested in talking with them.
  • Really, it’s that simple. A smile makes you look friendly and will actually put you more at ease. It also makes you more approachable, so you may not have to initiate every conversation!
  • If food and drink are available at the event, don’t load up your plate and take a drink at the same time. In fact, you may want to forego the food altogether. First of all, if your hands are full, you (1) won’t be able to eat the food and (2) more importantly, won’t be able to shake hands. Also, if you’re eating, you run the risk of (1) talking with food in your mouth (YUCK!), (2) awkward pauses while you chew and swallow, (3) getting food stuck in your teeth (YUCK!), and/or (4) sending little flecks of food onto the person you’re talking with (YUCKIEST!). Holding a drink in your hand is fine, but if it’s an alcoholic beverage, pace yourself! You want to make an impression, but you want it to be a good one!
  • Be optimistic and enthusiastic about yourself, your ambitions, and your prospects. Don’t talk about how much trouble you’ve had finding a good job, or how much you hate your current job. Find ways to demonstrate professionalism and experience without sounding like you’re bragging about yourself. Learn to walk the fine line between confidence and arrogance.

Networking Advice

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I’ve been thinking a lot about networking lately and wondering what other people think it means to “network.” There are so many different ways to network that I thought it might be a good idea to spend a little time considering some of the different options. Over the next few posts, I’m going to talk about networking skills in more detail, but for today I’ll give an overview of what I see as some of the basic ways to network, starting with a couple of the most obvious:

  • Attend events specifically designed to create or foster networking opportunities. These include career fairs, meet ups, and meetings of professional organizations.
  • Build your connections on LinkedIn by adding new contacts and asking for introductions.
  • Connect through your family—parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins can all be sources for new contacts in your career field.
  • Connect through your friends, and through their families!
  • Connect through your neighbors, and through their families!
  • Do volunteer work, and make friends with other volunteers.
  • Join your alumni association.
  • Go to public talks given by local business people hosted by organizations such as the Better Business Bureau or the Chamber of Commerce.
  • Join a service organization such as Rotary Club (or Rotoract, for younger professionals) or Lions Club.
  • Join a group of like-minded hobbyists (e.g., model railroaders, poets, bridge players, gardeners, cooks) or athletes (e.g., cyclists, tennis players, runners).
  • Stay in touch with college professors.
  • Join a support group for your local museum, orchestra, ballet, or theater company.
  • Take classes—and I’m not necessarily talking about college classes. I mean take a class to learn a new skill such as cooking, origami, home brewing, quilting, drawing, or carpentry.
  • Affiliate with a religious organization, and be an active member.

I’m sure that as soon as I post this, I’ll think of more possibilities! If you want to share additional ideas, send them to me at info.5.steps@gmail.com, and I’ll include them in a future blog.

A True Story

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A few months ago, TaylorGrace O’Quinn, a senior majoring in English at North Carolina State University with a desire to have a career in marketing, discovered that she had a problem. Her boyfriend, also a senior, had just been offered a really great job after graduation—in Atlanta! TaylorGrace had no qualms about moving to Atlanta, but she didn’t know anyone who lived there and realized that blindly applying for jobs would not be the most effective way to try to start a career.

Fortunately, shortly after she realized that she needed to focus her job search, she was able to attend a Career Expo that I produce each spring (along with colleagues in the NCSU Communication Department) where representatives from local organizations come to campus to talk with students about careers in a variety of fields. Although TaylorGrace knew that she didn’t want to look for work in Raleigh, she took advantage of the event to do some networking: she spoke to each participant, asking them two questions: Does your company have an office in Atlanta? Do you know anyone who works in marketing in Atlanta?

By the end of the event, she had the names of three contacts in Atlanta. She quickly followed up with all of them, each time mentioning the name of the person who had referred her and asking if they would be willing to talk with her in an information interview. (For more about how to conduct an information interview, see my book’s Tip 6. Conduct Information Interviews.)

One of those information interviews was with a Vice President at the second largest global advertising agency in the world! That conversation went very well, with the interviewer going so far as to ask her to describe her “dream job” and saying that she was exactly the type of person they wanted for their organization. He told her that she should stay in touch, and that they would get back to her if they had any openings.

Fast forward a month: Recognizing that she shouldn’t just sit and wait for a job to fall into her lap, TaylorGrace had applied for a number of jobs, both locally and in other cities. Last Wednesday, one of those applications resulted in a job offer from a small local company—but it was here in Raleigh, and they wanted an answer in just two days. TaylorGrace contacted both a corporate mentor and me to ask for advice on how to handle this situation. The offer seemed like a good one, but she would still prefer to work in Atlanta, and she especially wanted a job with the major advertising agency that had responded so positively to her information interview.

What we suggested, and what she did, was to call the local company and ask if she could have a few more days to make her decision (they agreed). Then she emailed the VP in Atlanta, explained that she had an offer in hand, and asked if there were anything he could do for her.

By Friday afternoon, the VP got back to her with a job offer based on what she had presented during her information interview: THEY HAD CREATED HER DREAM JOB FOR HER!

So what do we learn from this true story of TaylorGrace O’Quinn?

  1. Take initiative. Figure out what you need to do to get where you want to go.
  2. Network! It’s not just the people you meet, or the people you seek out, it’s also the people that those people know.
  3. Pursue your dream, and KNOW WHAT THAT DREAM IS! TaylorGrace’s ability to succinctly describe the type of work she wanted to do, and to demonstrate its relevance to the advertising agency during her information interview, made it that much easier for them to create a job for her.
  4. Never hesitate to ask. TaylorGrace asked local individuals to help her; she asked the local employer for more time to make a decision; and, once she had a job offer in hand, she asked the company in Atlanta if they might be able to find a job for her in their organization.

There are certainly no guarantees that this scenario will work for everyone, but it sure beats posting your resume on Monster.com and hoping for the best!

Get ready for that interview. . .in an unusual way

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My yoga instructor told me about a Ted Talk by social psychologist Amy Cuddy that focuses on how your body language can shape your mind. . .and I was intrigued, so I watched it. If you’re going to be interviewing for a job, you really should watch this! It gives a piece of advice so simple, and yet so powerful, that it could change your life. Seriously.

Fraternity membership and your resume

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The surveys conducting each year by the National Association of Colleges and Employers to identify important skills and characteristics of job applicants who have just graduated from college routinely report that students who have been involved in extracurricular activities are favored over those who have not. And for many years, involvement in Greek life (fraternities and sororities) has been one of the activities that have helped many students make their way in the world. However, recent reports call that involvement into question. The opening paragraph of a Huffington Post article posted on April 7th sums up the concern:

Thirty fraternities have been shut down by either their university or national headquarters since the beginning of March due to hazing, alcohol-related problems, criminal investigations and other student conduct infractions.

So if you’re a student who is about to graduate, and you’ve been counting on your fraternity involvement to help you fill the “extracurricular” requirement that employers are looking for, what do you do?

The answer is not an easy one, but I think you have to use some judgment about how to present your experience, and the following may help you decide what to do.

  • If you were a member of a fraternity that has been shut down, leave it off your resume unless you are using that resume to connect with alumni of your fraternity.
  • If you were a member of a fraternity with an untarnished reputation, but you come from a college where there have been fraternity-related problems, you may want to leave it off your resume unless you know the employer well enough to be confident that they will recognize that your fraternity is not one of the ones that had problems.
  • If everything on your campus has been fine with regard to fraternities, you still may want to leave your fraternity involvement off your resume. Many people are likely to review your resume before it hits the desk of a hiring manager, and there’s no guarantee that those reviewers will have been involved in fraternities. (Some of them will be women, plus only about 2% of all American men were members of a fraternity.) Individuals who were not fraternity members themselves may assume all fraternities are alike, so any mention of membership may cause one or more of the reviewers to think twice about your application—and it may never even make it to a hiring manager (who also may or may not have been a fraternity member).

If you do choose to include information about your fraternity members, I would recommend that you do so by emphasizing specific accomplishments within the fraternity framework: chairing a committee that raised money for a nonprofit organization, volunteering in a community organization, filling a leadership role such as treasurer. Be sure that the type of activity you described cannot be misconstrued as in any way contributing to misconduct.

One final thought: According to a report published on Workforce.com this past January, roughly 70% of all human resources positions are filled by women. Given the nature of many of the charges of misconduct on the part of fraternity members, women may currently be inclined to look less favorably on fraternities then men—a generalization, but one that I think should be taken into consideration.

Networking is better than NOT working

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I recognize that networking is difficult for some people, but it truly is the best way to find a job. In my book, one of the 5 STEPS is “Create a Network,” and it’s the second longest section of the book, with 14 tips to help you build your network. (The longest section is “Prepare for the Application Process,” with 16 tips.) In this post I want to provide some advice on how to overcome any reticence about networking.

But first, perhaps it would make sense to try to think about that reticence—why are some people hesitant about networking? An article by Barbara Sofani from Career Solvers lists ten common reasons people give for not networking:

  1. They see it as asking for a favor.
  2. They’re afraid of rejection.
  3. They don’t think it’s effective.
  4. They aren’t comfortable talking to people they don’t know.
  5. They want to do it on their own.
  6. They’re uncomfortable talking about themselves.
  7. They don’t want other people to know their business.
  8. They don’t know how.
  9. They want instant results.
  10. They think it’s too much work to keep at it.

When we look closely at this list, the reasons break down into two categories: a lack of confidence (1, 2, 4, 6, & 7) and a lack of awareness (3, 5, 8, 9, & 10). So let’s tackle those categories one at a time.

If you aren’t networking because you lack confidence, try some of the following strategies:

  • Start with online networking—LinkedIn is important in today’s job market, so start there. Build your online network by connecting with people who have similar interests , who are alumni of your college, who have jobs you think you would enjoy, who work for companies where you might want to work, or who live in cities where you want to live. When you ask to connect with them, tell them the reason why you want to connect—don’t just send a standard “I want to add you to my network” message. Briefly describe your career goals and ask to connect. Once you have some connections, look to see what groups your contacts belong to and join those groups. Learn to use all the tools available to job seekers on LinkedIn!
  • Practice your elevator speech until you can comfortably describe yourself and your career goals orally in about 30 seconds. (See Tip 22. Create and practice your elevator speech.)
  • For face-to-face networking, start with family, friends, neighbors, and part-time job/internship/co-op supervisors and co-workers. Be clear about what you’re looking for as your first (or next) job. Ask them to share your resume with any contacts they may have .
  • Use the resources provided by your college or university. This could include doing practice interviews/elevator speeches at a career center, attending networking workshops, joining student or alumni organizations, asking professors for references, or joining student chapters of professional organizations.

Once you’ve followed these suggestions, you should feel more prepared to start talking to strangers at job fairs or meet ups, or when given other opportunities to talk with people who can help you build your network. See the 14 tips in my book’s >Step 4. Create a Network for more ideas.

If you’re not networking because you’re not aware of the value or process for networking—GET OVER IT! Networking is the single most important thing you can do to find that job once you have the degree in hand that leads to the career you want. Just recently I have heard about students who got jobs through (1) the friend of a friend of a parent, (2) a regular customer at a coffee shop, (3) the salesman at a used car lot, (4) an internship supervisor, (5) an alumnus, and (6) a representative at a career fair. Seriously, that’s just this past week! In fact, I haven’t recently heard a story about a student getting a job that DIDN’T involve networking.

For a very small investment (under $10), the tips in my book can give you more advice about how to network!

Getting help from your parents

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I truly believe that people who are searching for a job need to use every resource available to them. It’s not enough to post your resume on your college career center’s website or on one (or even all) of the many job search sites and then just wait for the offers to come in. If you’re serious about starting a career with a good job, you’ll have to put in a lot of effort (for more about this, see my book’s Tip 49. Treat your job search like a job.) One of the most important things that job seekers need to do is build a network (see the 14 tips in Step 4. Create a Network), and in this post I want to talk about one crucial networking resource that many students are ignoring: their parents.

Mark Twain said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” Your parents may, similarly be able to astonish you as you work toward finding your way into your first job after college:

  • They may have friends, clients, or co-workers who can help you;
  • they may know people who work at a company where you would like to work;
  • they may be able to connect you with people who are doing the type of work you want to do so you can conduct information interviews;
  • they may belong to civic, social, religious, or political organizations with chapters for young adults that you can join to expand your network;
  • they may be able to help you decipher job ads to determine if you meet a sufficient number of requirements to apply; and
  • they may be able to help keep you from getting discouraged.

However, you may want to think carefully about asking one of your parents to review your resume, cover letter, or application materials. I am not suggesting that your parents will intentionally steer you wrong, but there are two reasons why I think that asking for that type of help is not a good idea:

  1. Your parents my be too close to you, and care too much about you, to give you an honest critique. They may be more concerned with your feelings than with ensuring that your work is appropriate and acceptable. I’ve heard stories about students who argued with their writing instructors or career counselors when given advice about revising their resume because “My mom said it was really good!”
  2. Your parents may not be aware of the different requirements for application materials in different disciplines. If your father is a doctor and your mother is a lawyer, and you want to get a job as a civil engineer, they may not be familiar with the kind of content and experience you need to emphasize. If your father is a butcher and your mother is a day-care worker, and you want a professional career, they may have even less experience with the requirements of the field you want to enter.

My advice about this has nothing to do with your parents’ intelligence, intentions, or concern. It has to do with experience, and they just may not have the type of experience that is going to allow them to provide you with the best advice about revising written application materials. When it comes to ensuring that your application materials are appropriate for the job you want to apply for, trust someone with expertise in the field of human resources, career counseling, business writing, or any of your professors who required you to write a resume as a course assignment. (You can also get advice about this from several tips and appendices in my book!)

Your parents can be extremely valuable resources, but it’s up to you to distinguish between the areas where their help can benefit you and the areas where you can be thankful for their encouragement while seeking professional assistance.

Gaining experience

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One piece of advice that comes up again and again, and that I don’t completely agree with, is the idea that you should “follow your bliss.” Advocates of this position suggest that all you have to do is “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life” (Confucius) and that if you “Follow your bliss . . .the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls” (Joseph Campbell).

In theory, those are great suggestions. The problem, as I see it, is at least two fold: (1) You may not know exactly what it is that you want to do and (2) that job may not be immediately available to you. The solution to those problems is to gain experience, which brings up the conundrum of how to get experience when most jobs require that you already have experience.

Luckily, there are several good ways to gain experience, and you should take advantage of all of them unless you’re one of those fortunate few who do know exactly what it is they want to do in their career. And even then, the more experience you gain, the better your resume looks, and the more employable you become.

  • While you’re in college (or soon after you graduate), participate in internships. Try to do at least three or four internships. If you love the first one, try to find another in the same area. If you hate the first one, move on to something different. (See my book’s Tip 5 Before you graduate, try to complete at least one, and ideally several, internships relevant to careers that interest you for more advice on finding internships.
  • Do volunteer work. Nonprofit organizations need volunteers in many different areas, and it’s likely that you can find an organization that needs a volunteer in an area that is relevant to your career goals. At the very least, volunteering helps add skills to your resume, build your network, and demonstrate motivation and commitment.
  • Take a temporary job. “Temp” companies provide workers in a wide variety of fields to all different kinds of organizations. Temp jobs are short term, lasting a few days, weeks, or, in some cases, months, covering for employees who are on vacation or on some type of personal leave or providing service while a job search is being conducted for a permanent employee. Temp jobs give you the same opportunities as interning and volunteering (to add skills, build your network, and demonstrate your positive professional attributes), but you’ll also be getting paid.
  • What all of these methods for getting experience have in common is that they will help you figure out what you enjoy doing and, perhaps more importantly, what you really hate doing! When I was in graduate school, I did an internship as a technical writer. I learned two important things from that experience: I’m really good at technical writing, and I hate working in a nine-to-five office environment! My experience as an intern helped me make the decision to stay in graduate school to complete a PhD after finishing my master’s degree so that I could find a job in the academic world. . .which HAS allowed me to “follow my bliss.”