March 20, 2017

Dude, Where’s My Job?

Photo of an unidentified woman shaking hands at a CGU career fair

Back from Spring Break and it’s time to approach reality: Your CV is five pages long. You have experience in your field. You have a graduate degree (for Pete’s sake!). So why can’t you get a job?

Blame the economy. Blame hiring biases. Blame a surplus of people with your skill set combined with a shortage of jobs. While all these may be true, there may also be other factors—interviewing faux pas, an unfocused resume, even applying for the wrong types of jobs—that are standing between you and a paycheck. We met up with the former Career Development Office advisor Paul Hardister to find out where conventional job-hunting wisdom has failed, what most people don’t know about the market, and the most common pitfalls plaguing graduate students on the job hunt.

Networking

“Spend as much time offline as you spend online,” said Hardister. “While many students are pros at marketing themselves on things like LinkedIn, Twitter, Academia.edu, and the like, they can overlook the importance of face-to-face interaction with people in their fields.”

For many, hobnobbing at a wine and cheese meet-up of professionals in their field sounds like a fun Friday night out. For others, it is their vision of the seventh circle of hell. But the value of creating an authentic connection with someone is immeasurable: Sometimes shaking someone’s hand is enough for them to open a door for you.

Hardister suggests joining one—or several—professional associations in your field and going to some of their local events. While some people have no problem working a room of 50, you can even benefit from this type of contact if by setting a modest goal of meeting two to three people (this may even work favorably for you, as professional “hob-nobbers” can risk looking disingenuous).

But equal to the networking advantages gained from participating in professional associations is the knowledge acquired from taking part in the conversation. Whether you’re still a student or have already made your entrée into the professional world, these meetings are full of individuals in your field discussing the most current topics (whether research, management strategies, or gossip) that can ensure you are always up to date.

Professionalization

The process of “professionalization” is two pronged: On one hand, professionalization means gaining experience in your field; on the other, it means looking and acting the part of a professional, experience or not.

“One of the most common pitfalls I see is people taking a ‘trick-or-treat’ approach to the job hunt, in terms of both their cover letters and their actions at career fairs,” said Hardister. “In terms of the former, it is essential to take the time to tailor the letter for each job you are applying for, otherwise it reads to potential employers like junk mail. If you’re applying to 30 jobs and don’t have the time to devote to 30 personalized cover letters, then budget more time to the jobs you really want.”

The same idea holds true for career fairs: Rather than going from table to table asking recruiters if they’re hiring before snagging a free pencil and skipping off to the next table (Ooh! highlighters!), prepare in advance and spend quality time with those companies you are most interested in working for. “By finding out which companies will be at the fair ahead of time and finding out what they’re looking for, you can avoid looking not only unfocused, but avoid having the air of a telemarketer, asking anyone and everyone, ‘Got any jobs?’” said Hardister. And don’t wear flip-flops.

Just because you’re still in school doesn’t mean you have to put off adding experience to your resume.

“If you can’t work in your field, volunteer or intern,” said Hardister. “But you can also find more creative ways to show experience and know-how. For instance, the Graduate Student Council and your school governance are great places to exercise your skills: pitch and oversee a project idea, highlighting marketable skills like ‘project management’ and ‘publicity’ on your resume. If you have a blog with 300 followers, don’t write that off as a hobby, use it to show your finesse with social media.”

Reality Check

There is little doubt that the economy is in a period of extended stagnation, and as such, job hunters need to adjust their expectations to reflect that reality. Still, Hardister noted some patterns that graduate students on the job hunt fall into.

“Often, people get masters degrees as a way to enter their career field at a higher level. But the truth of the matter, especially in this economy, is that you can no longer assume that an MA entitles you to bypass entry-level positions,” said Hardister. “But the good news—and this is backed by studies—is that while you may still have to start at the bottom, that degree will help you advance more quickly.”

Essentially, a fancy degree from a fantastic school such as CGU isn’t enough on its own to land graduates six-figure jobs (alas!). Constantly augment your classroom learning with skills useful in your field, such as technology, second (and third) languages, and leadership experience.

Nuts and Bolts

Long gone are the days of filling out job applications in the Barnes and Noble café. As highly educated individuals striving to build life-long careers, getting the right job can require months of planning.

“One of the first steps in developing a plan is to talk to individuals in your field to get a feel for the types of jobs out there and the type of skills they are looking for,” said Hardister, who encourages students to come to him for help in developing a plan. “Not only can we help you brainstorm a plan of action, but we can help you with your resume (currently our most utilized service) and can even set up a mock interview (our least utilized but perhaps most beneficial service).”

With student loans looming (and let’s face it: We’re not getting any younger), getting the perfect job right away can seem like the only thing standing between you and the American Dream. But with a skewed job-opening-to-qualified-candidate ratio, coupled with a bad economy, the only thing to do is to keep your finger to the pulse of your field, plan ahead, and remain flexible.

“The average person changes careers at least three times in their life,” said Hardister. “So don’t worry about getting ‘stuck’ in the wrong job: It may just be the one you’ve been looking for.”

This article appeared originally in the Pedant in November 2012.