Curiosity is the Keyword
Molly Fuller Reynolds | January 2010
Whether you are entering the job market due to a recent graduation or a recession- induced layoff, if you find yourself embarking on the dreaded job search, do not despair. Though most recent news headlines about the economy and the job market veer toward gloom and doom, there is a small light at the end of the tunnel. I’m here to tell you that people are still getting hired and there are still jobs available. However, the jobs just might not be where you are looking.
Go to most online job sites and you will have the option to search by keyword. Back when I was a recent college graduate I had some vague notion of wanting to be a writer or maybe a teacher, but search those keywords and be confronted with job openings that require experience and credentials. I was overwhelmed by the long lists of qualifications: portfolio of work, licenses, 3+ years of experience, membership in national professional associations, committee experience, etc. I immediately started looking into the application process for graduate schools. Now, here was something I could understand: letters of recommendation from professors, a statement of goals, research interests, sample critical papers, transcripts; this was my language.
Though I do not regret my decision to attend graduate school, nor do I regret my circuitous journey to my current destination, there are a few things that I wish I had known. And while talking to many of my friends and most recently, my sister, who just graduated with an education degree, I realized that I was not alone in my newly degreed, yet deeply unhappy, confused, and downright frightened state at having to enter the real world with a flimsy piece of paper as my means of entry.
I have compiled here some job advice for people who hate job advice, as I would put myself firmly in that category. Many of the job articles I have read, and I must have read thousands in my ten odd years of trying to find a meaningful career, either centered on the esoteric (network!) or the idiotic (arrive on time!). Anyone who is slightly intelligent knows to show up to a job interview on time and not smelling like garbage. What I always sought from these lists of advice was some way IN to this REAL world. What was this place and how did I get there? Well, the real world is something that exists outside of academia and is a place where most people do not care that you have read Proust in French. They don’t know who Proust is and they want to know if you can transcribe this report for the meeting in fifteen minutes. Obviously, that is a little reductive, but my point is, that many of us who loved college and love learning for the sake of learning feel like aliens in this strange new world of memos, reports, and copy machines with twenty seven functions.
The first thing to remember is that skills as a student, teacher, writer, reader, and critical thinker are valuable skills. The second thing is, like a stock portfolio, you want to diversify yourself. And the third thing is to be curious. As a student, teacher, writer, reader, or critical thinker, you must be curious or you wouldn’t be any of these things. Rely on your innate curiosity to meet people, ask questions, and look at job openings from a fresh perspective.
Networking, an idea that used to confound me, is much easier to do when you think of it as getting to know people. Networking is something that most of us do unconsciously until we are told to do it by some job advice article and we possibly start conjuring up people in suits with monogrammed handkerchiefs stuffily standing around a table full of expensive cheeses. Networking is as easy as striking up a conversation with the people around you in any given situation, finding out what they do and how they do it. Obviously, there are certain scenarios where this is going to work out better for you, say, your significant other’s company Christmas party as opposed to standing in line for the bathroom at the local bar. But, you never know. The point is: be curious about the people around you; most of them are probably employed and some of them might have a job lead or know of someone else who is in your field of interest who might have a job lead.
Julie Stevenson, Associate Agent at Sobel Weber Associates, ended up with an internship at Tin House by striking up a conversation with the girl behind her in the drink line at the Tin House Summer Writer’s Workshop: “I was standing in line for a drink and the person behind me was from SLC (Sarah Lawrence College). We started talking and somehow we found out we had the SLC connection, and then she introduced me to Michelle Wildgen, Tin House senior editor, who is also an SLC grad.” As part of the Tin House conference, participants signed up to talk with an editor. Stevenson says, “I did this at the very beginning, picking Michelle out of the blue. During our meeting, I asked something like, "How does one get to be an intern?" I was a little scared to do this because I thought I was too old (31). But she said send me your resume and gave me her email address. So, I did, and voila! It was a little bit of luck, a little bit of having a social/school connection, and a little bit of a shy person being brave and asking a question.”
While chatting up everyone from your hairdresser to your mortgage broker, also be on the lookout for job openings that are interesting to you, but that might not fit into your comfort zone. Approach job postings with the idea that you might not be specifically trained or prepared for this specific job, but that you do have the ability and the knowledge to apply for it. For new graduates, Patrick Marton, Managing Editor, Springer Protocols, Springer Science+Business Media, says, “It all boils down to you having to admit that you really aren't qualified yet for any type of job. While the skills you learn from a good liberal arts education—critical thinking, writing and speaking abilities, reasoning, etc.—will help you in almost any type of office job, they are just that, skills, not experience.” On one hand this is a deeply discouraging reality check, on the other hand, it allows a creative thinker to look at any job posting and imagine that they could be good at this job, given the opportunity. Then, a job interview becomes more about proving that you are willing to learn, rather than trying to prove what you already know. Marton continues his advice to newly-minted graduates by saying, “The biggest mistake I've seen, both in trying to get jobs and now when I interview new college grads for entry level positions, is that these people mistake their education for experience. A lot of new hires come in and attempt to "impress" the interviewer or think that they can somehow convince me that a summer abroad in Milan somehow qualifies them to make copies and file documents. Instead, you want to see a candidate come in and admit that they have a lot to learn about a given industry and that they are hard worker who is willing to put in the time and energy to be successful at a new job.”
For those transitioning from one career to another, this is still good advice. In his article on http://www.facebook.com/l/e1972;higheredjobs.com, titled, “How to Deal With What Used to Be Failure,” Peter Weddle writes, “Historically, we had a "come as you are" job market. In other words, the skill set you had in your last job was sufficient to find a new job. All you had to do, therefore, was update your resume, send it out to a bunch of employers, do a little networking around the edges and bitta-bang, bitta-boom, you would land a job that was as good as or better than the one you had before. Today, the opposite is true. If you are in transition, the skills you had to be effective in your last job are not sufficient to find a new one.” Again, show the interviewer capabilities alongside of achievements. Weddle provides a list of things that a person can do in order to accomplish this: “Update your skill set or add a new skill that will enable you to apply what you can already do in a broader set of circumstances. Enroll in an academic or training program or take a course from your professional association, and then, add that fact to your resume. Such a notation demonstrates that (a) you understand the importance of always getting better in today's workplace and (b) you take personal responsibility for doing so. Those two attributes will help to set you apart in the job market and restart your career.” Put simply, continue to educate yourself, continue learning, continue to do what you do best: be curious about the world around you and find ways to showcase this knowledge on your resume.
Besides curiosity, diversity is another important keyword to remember during the job hunt. As a new college graduate, try not to pigeonhole yourself in a specific industry. Marton says, “In reality, college doesn't qualify us for any specific job—it's not a trade school.” This might be why it is so hard for us creative types to transition from college to the real world. Many of us don’t go to college with a concrete idea of what we want to do. “We don’t enter college with an A to B trajectory of say, someone who wants to be a doctor or a nurse, our goals are more fluid, we want to do something, but we just aren’t sure how to go about doing it,” says Shannon Minnich Young, an English Instructor. She continues, “I always knew I wanted to be a writer, that was what I wanted to do.” But as many of us writers have found, writing isn’t something that immediately sustains us financially. So, we find other things to do, things that might not necessarily inspire us, but things that allow us to live comfortably and some of us find ourselves doing jobs that we never would have imagined we had it in us to do.
Marton adds, “In order to be successful, armed with a college degree, you just have to be willing to accept an entry level position and toil at the bottom of the ladder while you learn.” I think this is the best advice I could give any college graduate looking for a job right now. Get an entry-level job, any job that you can live with, and be open to the opportunities it provides you.
For those job seekers who are in transition, don’t be afraid to branch away from your comfort zone. This isn’t foolproof advice as Rob Jenkins writes in his article, “How to Make Your Application Stand Out,” on the website of The Chronicle of Higher Education, “If an application doesn't contain all the materials we requested in the ad, I toss it. (OK, I don't literally throw it away, but I do relegate it to the "incomplete" pile, which means it won't be considered.) If an applicant isn't actually qualified for the position—doesn't hold the relevant degree, doesn't have enough credit hours teaching in the field, doesn't have the required experience—I toss that person's file, too.”
But this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be brave and try for new things. I would like to use my own experience here as an example of heading out into the unknown with positive results. I had been teaching six English courses as an adjunct at three different schools and tutoring ten hours a week in a tutoring center. To put it lightly, I was exhausted. I applied for a full-time job with benefits at a telecommunications company. Three of the things that were highlighted in the job ad were ability to teach others, ability to be creative, and the ability to be able to multi-task. I figured that my experience as an adjunct couldn’t be more helpful. Luckily, the person in charge of hiring was willing to look past my obvious lack of traditional office experience and called me in for an interview. In my interview I highlighted my abilities that seemed to translate directly into the job description. Ability to work under pressure and stay calm under pressure? Check. Ability to multi-task and find creative solutions to problems? Check. Ability to efficiently teach others? Check. I got the job as Systems Trainer for a Telecommunications company called Teletronics Communications. As I worked there, learning more about phone systems than I ever thought possible, I also offered up my skills as a writer and graphic designer, and my novice marketing skills. I am currently using all of my skills and learning new ones; what more could someone ask for as far as job fulfillment? But did I graduate from college and say: I want to work in the Telecommunications Industry? I didn’t even know such a thing existed.
As you begin the search to transition into a new career or begin the arduous task of finding a real job, remember to be flexible. Look for opportunity in unexpected places. Once you have found a job, look for ways that you can add to your experience and your skills. If you meet someone who has your dream job ask them as many questions as they will answer. Above all, always be open to ways to grow and change in your career journey: offer up your talents, be confident in your abilities as well as your achievements, and be openly curious about all the world around you has to offer.
Molly Fuller Reynolds is a graduate of Ohio University's MA program and Sarah Lawrence College's MFA program. She is currently at work on a novel.
- Jenkins, Rob. “How to Make Your Application Stand Out.” www.chronicle.com 23 Nov. 2009. The Chronicle of Higher Education. 12 Dec. 2009 http://chronicle.com/article/How-to-Make-Your-Application/49234/.
- Marton, Patrick. Personal Interview. 12 December 2009.
- Minnich-Young, Shannon. Personal Interview. 12 December 2009.
- Stevenson, Julie. Personal Interview. 12 December 2009.
- Weddle, Peter. “How to Deal With What Used to be Called Failure.” www.higheredjobs.com Oct. 2009. 12 Dec. 2009. http://www.higheredjobs.com/articles/articleDisplay.cfm?ID=128.