Things We Wish We Had Known

November 23, 2009

The positive growth turned in by the American economy in the third quarter of this year suggests that maybe, just maybe this Great Recession is now in our rear view mirror. As it fades away, of course, the tales will begin about what we did during this terrible time. While recounting those legends is surely important, so too is sharing the insights we’ve acquired from our experience.

Cataclysmic events often alter our perceptions of the world around us. That was true during the Great Depression, and it will be true as we emerge from this Great Recession, as well. Some of these new views are opinions about what happened and why, but others are actually lessons that we’ve learned about how best to survive and prosper. They’re the things we wish we had known before the event occurred because that knowledge would have undoubtedly enabled us to fare better than we did.

I think the sharing of this wisdom is good for us—it’s cathartic to acknowledge that we’ve earned an advanced degree in the school of hard knocks—but it’s even more helpful for our kids and grandkids. In a very real sense, we are giving them a gift, a roadmap for the future that may help them avoid the dead ends and dangerous potholes they are sure to encounter.

Each of us has our own view of the lessons we should pass along. For me, the following four insights are among the most important. They are realizations everyone must have in order to chart a successful and fulfilling career in the 21st Century world of work.

Seeking job security makes you vulnerable.  In today’s turbulent economy, employers have no idea what will happen tomorrow or the day after. They may promise you job security, but they can’t deliver it. So, counting on it is likely to put you out for the count. A far better objective is career security—the ability to stay employed in a job of your choosing regardless of the condition of any single employer or the economy as a whole. Unlike job security, career security is a state you create for yourself. You don’t have to rely on the good will of some employer. You anticipate the changes in your career—the timing of a move from one boss or organization to another, the refocusing or reskilling that’s necessary to accommodate shifts in your industry or profession—and then you plan and execute those changes so they benefit you.

Recognition is something you give yourself.  Most managers and supervisors mean well, but if you wait for them to recognize your accomplishments at work, you’re likely to be disappointed. Some have the social skills of a brick and others are too worried about their own security to take care of yours. That’s why it’s important for you to keep track of your own “career victories.” Sure, it takes a little effort to maintain a contemporaneous record of what you’ve done and how well you’ve done it, but that account will give you more satisfaction than most managers ever will. Don’t just write it out, however; also review it regularly. Take the time to remember what you’ve done and pat yourself on the back when you deserve it or give yourself a little counseling if you’ve let yourself down.

Working tirelessly is a sure way to get tired.  Sadly, many people in today’s world of work find themselves wired up with no place to go. They’ve learned the hard way that staying continuously in contact with the office doesn’t protect you. It exhausts you. We’re all worried about the H1N1 flu becoming a pandemic, but workaholism already is. If you have any doubt about that, look left and right the next time you’re lying on the beach. Every other person will be glued to their Blackberry or iPhone checking their email. The impact of such behavior on both individual performance and wellbeing is already acute and likely to get worse. In a knowledgebased economy, your worth is measured not by your connectivity, but by your contribution. And, your contribution suffers when you don’t give your mind and body a chance to rest.

Taking care of your career is the best way to take care of you.  The conventional approach to career self-management has been to get an annual checkup and leave it at that. Historically, we paid attention to our career just once each year—during our performance appraisal and salary review. That approach was dangerous then; today, it’s a sure-fire way to induce career cardiac arrest or what most of us call unemployment. The only safe course in a workplace as turbulent as the one we now have is to develop career fitness the same way you develop physical fitness. You have to commit yourself to building up the strength, endurance and reach of your career every single day. Yes, that’s a lot of work, but it’s also a smart investment. You spend one-third or more of your day in your profession, craft or trade, and you deserve an experience during that time that is every bit as good as the rest of your life.

We have acquired many insights from our experience over the past two years, but these four maxims are the key lessons we have learned. They are the things we wish we had known so they are now the things we want others to know.

Thanks for reading,

Peter

Visit me at Weddles.com

Peter Weddle is the author of over two dozen employment-related books, including Recognizing Richard Rabbit, a fable of self-discovery for working adults, and Work Strong, Your Personal Career Fitness System.

© Copyright 2009 WEDDLE’s LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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The Job Market Version of Catch 22

November 16, 2009

Billions of words have been written about job search tools and tactics in this job market of our discontent. Job board dos and don’ts. Twitter. Facebook. Building a personal brand. Improving your “findability.” It’s all good advice, but none of it will work if your career is sick.

To put it in another and admittedly blunter way, don’t bother looking for a job if you have a wimpy career. You see, that’s what’s different about today’s job market. Come as you are has been replaced by come as you need to be. The good old days of searching for employment with stand pat qualifications are gone. If you’re out of work, your career needs resuscitation.

It doesn’t matter that you got superior ratings on performance appraisals in your last job. It takes no difference that you have a track record of being loyal, dependable, and hard working. And, it is totally irrelevant that your employer went out of business, was acquired or for whatever other reason was the cause of your unemployment. The plain, hard truth is that employers view people in transition as damaged goods. It’s not fair.

It’s certainly not true. And it stinks. But it is reality. You won’t find many recruiters who will admit it. And in most cases, they work hard to avoid the appearance of such a bias. But deep down inside, it’s there. An everyday event confirms it: when presented with a choice between two equally qualified candidates, one employed and the other not, the offer will almost always go to the person who already has a job. It’s the job market version of Catch 22.

So, what can you do?

Reinvent yourself. It doesn’t matter how well educated, trained or senior you are in your field, change your image in the job market. How? By fixing your career. By building up its strength, its fitness. There are many techniques involved in doing that, but perhaps the most important is pumping up its cardiovascular health. The heart of your career is your professional expertise, so go back to school. Right now. Even as you are looking for a job.

Build Career Fitness

Revitalizing your career in the middle of a job search involves two important steps:

· Step 1: Begin acquiring a new skill or refreshing one you already have. You might, for example, take a course in a second language at a local community college or attend a new certification program offered by your professional or trade association. You can choose almost any topic just as long as it will clearly and meaningfully enhance your ability to contribute on-the-job. and
· Step 2: Add the fact that you’re back in school to your resume. Note it in the Summary at the beginning of that document and, in its Education section, provide the name of the course you’re taking, the institution or organization that’s offering it, the formal outcome if there will be one (e.g., the certificate or degree you will earn) and the term “On-going.” Those two simple steps will instantaneously transform you into a new person. First, they will enhance your skill set, making you a potentially more valuable employee. Second, taking a course of instruction or training program even as you are searching for a job demonstrates attributes all employers want but find it hard to identify in a candidate: resolve, fortitude, and determination.

Most importantly, this course of action will set you apart from other candidates by demonstrating that you have two very special attributes: you understand that in today’s rapidly evolving world of work, staying competent in your field is an ever-moving target AND you take personal responsibility for keeping yourself at the state-of-the-art. You recognize the responsibility and accept it.

Become that person, make that transformation, and the playing field will level. You may be in transition, but you will no longer be at a disadvantage when compared to employed candidates. You will have reinvented yourself as a career activist, a person who is committed to continuous self-improvement no matter how senior or experienced they may be. An individual who has the right stuff—the skills and the attributes to be a champion at work.

Thanks for reading,

Peter

Visit me at Weddles.com
Peter Weddle is the author of over two dozen employment-related books, including Recognizing Richard Rabbit, a fable of self-discovery for working adults, and Work Strong, Your Personal Career Fitness System.
© Copyright 2009 WEDDLE’s LLC. All Rights Reserved.


Introduction Etiquette

November 11, 2009

Recently, over the course of one day, I received 3 separate requests to make connections between people to whom I am connected on LinkedIn. I was struck by the different approaches they took, and by my reactions to each message. I’ve changed all the names, but other than that they appear below exactly as I received them.

1.  The first request came from Tim, who was re-locating to my city following his wife’s new job.  He earned his PhD at the same school I did, and had contacted me several weeks ago to ask about my city, where to live, and do on.  After exchanging a few emails, I spoke with him and his wife on the phone, and was able to tell them something about the city to which they were moving, local schools, industry, and so on. A couple weeks after that conversation, he sent the following message through LinkedIn:

“Could you please refer me to Mr. Jones at BigChemicalCompany?  I have applied today online to a Manager, Technology Transfer position with that company. I would greatly appreciate the chance to briefly discuss with him this opportunity and learn more about the work environment at this prestigious company.”

Mr. Jones was a client of mine from several years go, and I was happy to pass along the professional connection. This actually gave me the opportunity to talk to Mr Jones again, which I had not done in a while, and find out how things were going with him.  Tim got his referral, Mr Jones got a lead on a good candidate, and I strengthened one of my professional connections.

2.  The second request came from George, someone I’ve run into at a couple of local meetings. I had added a new connection to my LinkedIn account, and George noticed the new name in one of the automatic updates that LinkedIn sends out. He noticed that that NewPerson’s background was similar to his own, and asked me to forward a message to NewPerson, who was currently between jobs.

The note George wanted me to forward read as follows:

NewPerson,  I am looking to network with business development and sales professionals in the St. Louis area related to pharma R&D and device industries. Would like to try and meet sometime and see how we could help each other advance our careers,  George”

While George had recently gone through a painful job transition, I know he’s now happy with his new position. I suspect he’s setting himself up for the future, building his professional network and helping others now that he can. Since I am a huge proponent of networking and getting to know as many people as possible, I was happy to help George and NewPerson connect and talk about their common professional interests. Hopefully something good will come of it, and I will get the credit.

3.  The third and final request came from another colleague, one I had met briefly several years ago, but have not heard from since since. He is a consultant, and recently re-surfaced looking for more work. After a brief email conversation about an upcoming meeting that I was organizing, he sent me the following message on LinkedIn:

“May I introduce myself to any of your 232 LinkedIn contacts about my services?  If so, whom?  Let me know at your convenience.”

Not only did he want me to put my reputation on the line by recommending him to my contacts, but he wants me to do the work of figuring out which people might be interested in his particular expertise!  Needless to say, I declined this one.

While making new contacts and professional relationships is an admirable goal, you need to make sure not to abuse your existing relationships in the process. When you ask someone for a favor or introduction, make sure to make it as easy as possible for them to comply. And most of all, be on the lookout for ways you can help others out. The more you are able to help others out, the more willing they will be to help you, when you do need to ask for an introduction.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants. Lisa is a scientific communication consultant and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007).


What Have You Learned Lately?

November 9, 2009

I’m currently sitting in a coffee shop, spending the day working on my laptop.  I’m here waiting for several boy scouts who are attending a Merit Badge University, and learning about Leatherwork, Public Speaking, and Reptile and Amphibian Study, among other things.  As I watched them head off to their respective  classes, it occurred to me how eager they were to learn new things, and explore the world around them.  In their case, if they are successful, they will come back with a completed merit badge to prove they now understand and can execute a whole new set of skills.  More than just a piece of cloth on their uniform, they have confidence in their ability to do and share their new knowledge.

For those of us who a are just a little bit older, it’s not quite so easy.  There are lot of things we want to learn about, but the effort and time commitment to sign up for a formal class is often more than we are willing to expend.

Fortunately, we often acquire new skills and knowledge without formal training, and sometimes without fully realizing what we have learned.  I recently taught a workshop to a group of graduate students, and in talking about resumes was asking them about their professional experience and significant accomplishments.  Several of them told me they didn’t have any work experience  – a statement I hope their graduate advisor would take exception to!

When I started probing, they were almost all able to tell me about something they had done of which they were very proud.  Maybe it was a compound they had synthesized, a particularly difficult analysis they had completed, or in some cases a class they had taught where they felt they really made a difference in the life of a particular student.  In every case, once they started talking about the event, they became animated and their excitement and pride was palpable.  As I asked questions about what they did and what they had learned, they started to realize just how much this particular event had meant to them, and how much they had learned in the process.

Sometimes, we need to step back and think about what we’re done lately, and reflect on what we have accomplished, and/or  learned.  New analytical instruments or tools are usually easy to recognize, but new non-technical skills are sometimes harder to spot.

Take a few minutes over your coffee today to think about what you’ve done lately, and what you’ve learned from it.  Have you given a talk, or written a report?  What did you learn, not only about the subject matter, but about the process and perhaps a better way to prepare for the next time?  Did you recently get through a difficult situation with a co-worker, and what did you learn about how you might handle a similar situation the next time?

Think also about what you haven’t learned, that might make your career better.  Is there some new technique or method that you’ve been meaning to learn, but just haven’t gotten to?  Maybe your last performance review pointed out oral presentation skills as an area in which you could improve.  Set aside a few minutes to read a few journal articles, or find and attend a Toastmaster’s meeting.

Too often we wait for a crisis to force us to take action, when we know we should have done it long ago.  Identifying gaps in your knowledge and addressing them is one of the best things you can do for your professional future.  Exploring new areas on your own prepares you for the future, and lets you move your career in the direction of your choosing, not into areas that others select for you.  You may not earn a merit badge (like both of my scouts did), but you will gain the satisfaction of knowing that your career is moving forward, and you are the one directing it.

This article was written by freelance scientific communication consultant Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007). She blogs on Career Development for Scientists.


Too Many Scientists?

November 2, 2009

A recent report has been causing a lot of controversy in the blogosphere.  “Steady as She Goes?  Three Generations of Students through the Science and Engineering Pipeline” looked at three issues – the attrition of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) students from high school to career, how this attention rate has changed over time, and changes in quality in the students who remain in the STEM pathways.  They evaluated several longitudinal data sets, and determined that retention rates have been constant (or even increasing) from the 1970s through the late 1990s overall, but retention of the highest performing students declined steeply starting in the late 1990s.  The authors suggest the reason for this is that high-performing students are “being recruited into non-STEM jobs that pay better, offer more a more stable professional career, and/or are perceived as less exposed to competition from low-wage economies”. They argue that encouraging more students to go into STEM disciplines may end up hurting the US, since more potential employees mean lower wages, which drives the best students into other fields.

This report is generating some discussion on ScienceCareers.org, in the thread entitled Study Agues US Needs Fewer, Not More, Science Students .  This thread also points back to the  National Academies’ publication Rising Above the Gathering Storm report (2006) which said the nation should “enlarge the pipeline of students who are prepared to enter college and graduate with a degree in science, engineering, or mathematics” in order to remain competitive. Many others have echoed this idea, and the idea of expanding the science pipeline has been guiding policy for awhile – just the opposite of what the newer study suggests.

Part of the reasons these two reports seem to oppose each other is that it is difficult to get actual numbers and hard data on why people choose the career paths they do.  I can think of a number of things that influenced my personal career choices…..a family background in science and engineering, a great high school chemistry teacher who made science interesting and fun, a new class that I just happened to be in the right place to take, personal and family circumstances, and a whole lot of luck.  While I may have considered (briefly) law or business for the financial rewards, I was always encouraged to do something I loved, and not worry about the money (within reason).

In my own travels, I think lately I’m meeting more people who want to do something they are passionate about, and care more about that than making as much money as possible.  They want to make a difference in the world, and as long as they can make a reasonable living they are fine.  Some of them are even choosing to work for less money, if it means more flexible work time and more time with their family, or taking extended time off to be with their families, and planning to go back to work at some point in the future.  I’m hoping this means people are realizing that they can be happy with fewer “things”, as long as they spend their days doing things that interest, excite and engage them.  Hopefully for many of us, that includes STEM careers.

This article was written by freelance scientific communication consultant Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists,” published by Oxford University Press (2007). She blogs on Career Development for Scientists.