Adapted from So What Are You Going to Do With That?: A Guide for M.A.’s and Ph.D’s Seeking Careers Outside the Academy by Susan Basalla and Maggie Debelius.
I recommend trying these out with friends, relatives, or colleagues: sharing your responses and hearing other perspectives can help you articulate aspects of your own career experiences and hopes.
List the pros and cons of your last job, or perhaps your last few jobs.
A no-brainer, but the trick is to get into great detail. What made you feel happy, competent, and stimulated? What made you feel small, uncertain, or angry? What can you look forward to by staying (if staying is an option)? Alternately, what wouldn’t you miss if you left tomorrow? In the day-to-day, what kind of supervision did you have? How were tasks allocated to you? Did you have the opportunity to work with others? What was the physical space like and how did you get there? How was your day structured? In the long term, how was your work assessed and how was that assessment conveyed to you? Was there a visible product or goal? Was there “crunch time” or was the work steady year-round? For any of the above, how did you feel about it and how much does it matter to you?
The goal of this exercise is manifold. For one, you’ll get a richer picture of what you are looking for in a job at this point in your life. Even—especially!—if you are casting a wide net and applying to many different kinds of jobs, your search can be purposefully narrowed with concrete information about your ideal working environment. For another, the side effect of this kind of thinking is that you’ll store up a repertoire of practical, realistic statements about yourself as a worker that may be included in your cover letter and interview. Rather than present yourself as a blank slate upon which a company can write, you’ll present as a specific interesting individual with specific career needs and goals who specifically fits with a company or department. You’ll be able to ask sharp questions about the company’s organization and workflow. You’ll stand out.
You’ll also be equipped, when the time comes, to make requests. If you dislike receiving instructions over email or if you need more feedback from your supervisor, you may need to articulate your needs to create a more productive and comfortable working environment.
My example: When I wrote my pros and cons about being a grad student and teaching assistant, grading papers was at the top of my list of dislikes. But as my peers and I went around the table and shared our lists, not all of the TAs present said that they disliked grading. When I thought about it, neither did I. I actually liked reading student work when it was built on skills that I taught them; I liked sizing a paper up according to my rubric, working out how it could be made sharper, leaving very specific notes for the student to apply for future papers. What I didn’t like were grades or GPA, and the pressure of having an enormous interminable pile of papers that must be graded at once. This exercise steered me toward seeking out jobs that included editing and thinking diagnostically about writing. In the interim, it helped me defend my decision to stagger paper deadlines in a way that didn’t create intense crunch times for me.
List seven tasks, anecdotes, or accomplishments that you take great pride in.
Your seven stories can be from work or your studies, but they can also be from your hobbies or personal life. They can be from any point in time. You may find, for example, that you don’t feel especially proud of your straight As (even though that is indeed an accomplishment) or your conference presentation, but you are suffused with a warm glow of good feelings when you think about volunteer work you’ve done, or a particular time you took a leadership role, a moment when you taught someone something, or an occasion when you solved a tricky problem. If you can’t think of seven stories, ask your friends and relatives what they view as your accomplishments–a little outside perspective can help.
The goal of this exercise is to name your skills and interests beyond resume platitudes or the expectations associated with your academic field. Perhaps you’re a fine proofreader but you really love tutoring. Perhaps you write beautiful poetry but you are also super speedy to learn new software. Perhaps this knowledge will lead you toward a different career path.
Resume-wise, everyone puts things like “hard worker,” “detail-oriented,” and “problem solver” on their application; you’ll need to support or replace these claims with stories about yourself that demonstrate these qualities. You needn’t include all seven (or more) in your cover letter, but you should know them about yourself and mention them when appropriate.
My example: Despite my many years of schooling, one of my proudest accomplishments was assisting the Red Cross disaster relief center in Baton Rouge over Christmas break after Hurricane Katrina. Volunteering has a high turnover–intentionally, because they don’t want people to burn out–so although I assisted the supervisor of the trucks division in my first week, I became the supervisor in my second week. During my third week, I trained a new supervisor and created how-to documents for later successors. I also reorganized the transportation division’s files and “found” a number of “lost” vehicles whose paperwork had simply gone astray. What I learned from this exercise is that my highly specialized degree did not make me unsuited for work outside academia; rather, I am a very useful person equipped with generally applicable skills. I was able to use my Red Cross experience to make this point in interviews, especially when I was new to job searching and didn’t have my experience outside of academia.
Last updated: July 2020
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