Getting past “career doubts”

We might think that students at elite institutions like Harvard and MIT have it easy when it comes to launching themselves into wonderful careers. And it’s true that recruiters come to such campuses in greater droves than we may see in our less rarefied environments – and it’s also true that elite institutions probably have more career services resources and connections than most of us do.

However, on (February 9/15) Jake Livengood writes that we fool ourselves if we think that students at high-ranking institutions don’t face career challenges too. He is Assistant Director of Graduate Student Career Services at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and has worked in career services since 2005 in a number of different kinds of institutions. He says that the reality is that students everywhere have what he calls “career doubts” and those at MIT and the like also “face difficult decisions along their career journey,” whether they are undergraduates or PhD candidates.

Here are four bits of advice he offers when asked to address career doubts:

  1. Become an expert about yourself. You need to clearly assess your interests, personality, values and skills, and your school’s career centre is likely to have much to offer in this regard – “from self-assessment inventories to networking events and individual meetings.”
  2. Be an active participant in the process. Jake recommends that you “conduct informational interviews, attend career events and meet with alumni.” He advises energetically hunting for careers information.
  3. Find a mentor who is a few steps ahead. Mentors are coaches and sounding boards who have your best interests at heart, and Jake suggests that we all need someone to fulfil this role.
  4. Take inventory of likes and dislikes. Jake likes to ask students to “go through past experiences. I divide a sheet of paper in two and ask what they enjoyed. Was it related to the work environment? A particular skill? When did time go by more quickly? Also, I explore areas of dislike, the ‘eh, not so much’ category.”

What I like about Jake’s approach is that he begins at the beginning. To commit to learning about career opportunities on the basis of who you know yourself to be is the start of the process. Know thyself, and then be true to who you are — just as Shakespeare said so long ago.

You can read Jake’s piece at

Putting the media in academia

Stewart Barker reminds us in a recent post on his WordPress site (February 20, 2015) of how far-reaching social media can be. His readers are drawn to his site through a variety of social media, such as “Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and so on” and there is no better way, he thinks, for early career researchers (or career seekers, I would add) to make their presence known to the world at large.

Putting media postHe first opened a Twitter account in order to be able to post about the London Olympics in 2012. But by January 2013, he was beginning to use it for connecting with others in his field of study, microbiology. At this point he was a third-year undergraduate, so, he says, “a ‘nobody’ in academic circles.” He was shy while attending his first conference and struggled with networking, but did notice during one of the early presentations that there was a hashtag for the conference, which he immediately accessed

There he found “brilliant academics” from the conference chatting about their conference experience, and began to feel that he was attending two conferences, the actual – and the virtual. He resolved to participate in the virtual. He tweeted his own thoughts about what was going on – and, guess what, the brilliant academics responded!

Stewart tracked his participation in future conference discussions via Twitter. He discovered that he could hold his own. I love the picture of Stewart in 2013, with his poster, which he posted online – while still only an undergraduate. Publishers noticed him. He won an award. (He notes that tweets with pictures receive 35% more retweets than those without.)

And he flashes forward to the present: “On Twitter: I have over 700 followers, and have tweeted over 11,000 times (since mid 2012). My most popular tweet was retweeted over 500 times!”

Stewart is now a first year PhD student at the University Sheffield. His enthusiasm is contagious and he has clear, on-the-ground advice to offer. Why should you use social media of all kinds in promoting your work and your skills? Well, for starters:

  • It can ease you into networking, as his story demonstrates.
  • Social media are brilliant for sharing your work.
  • Even more impressive, others in the field will respond to your posts and give you very useful leads about what you might want to read and analyze for yourself.
  • Collaborators can turn up in these conversations.
  • So can job opportunities.
  • Twitter is great for forcing you to be clear and concise in communicating — something academics may need practice in.
  • Things get even more interesting when you combine the use of several social media, exploiting the strengths of each – he mentions LinkedIn in particular and how effective it has been for him.
  • Blogs are also excellent, whatever your specialization. There are people out there who know different things than you do, and you can connect with them from your keyboard. Amazing.

He ends the post with these words of encouragement:

“Yes, using a new social media service can be tough to begin with, and building up your networks can be a grind, but do it right, and the opportunities are endless!”

You can read Stewart’s whole story at


Designer secrets for staying productive

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just can’t seem to switch into productivity mode. Today, for example, it is one of the coldest days of the year, and it’s all I can do to resist crawling back into bed and pulling the covers up over my head. And this is despite a full plate of things, including writing this blog post, that need doing.

Here is a piece reflecting ideas from a group of designers—really creative types – that makes a number of good suggestions about how to kick-start your motivation genes when they seem to be lying down on the job.Designer tips

The post from fastcodesign explains how Russia-based designer Yevgeny Yermakov has been asking designers a series of five questions — about work habits, favourite books, career challenges, and creativity — and publishing their answers on his website. His project, “5 Questions for 100 Designers,” is growing into a trove of wisdom from the industry’s leading minds.

One of his questions asks, “Are there any rules or habits that help you do your job more efficiently?” Fastco says that the designers’ diverse strategies include everything from setting timers to taking nature walks to listening to black metal, and show there’s no one formula for productivity — but keeping to-do lists might be the most popular practice.

The article offers tips from 15 of these prolific designers’ “secrets for getting stuff done.” Here’s a sampling:

  • 1.LISTS! 2. A paper calendar I write on with pencil (only). 3. Finish what I start before starting something new.”
  • “The obvious answer is to-do lists and apps (Evernote, Clear, Sparrow, Text Expander, iCal). ” Time management apps are extremely useful.
  • 30/30 has helped me enormously with structuring my day. Lists, lists, lists!”
  • “About 32 years ago I started carrying a small notebook with me and I’ve done it ever since. I jog three miles every morning and find that time useful for organizing the day in my head. Finally, I never go in to work on weekends.”
  • “Use a timer. Set it hourly. Seriously.”
  • “Listening while I design — to music, lectures, white noise — maximizes my efficiency.”
  • Making “sure to get out of the house every single day. It’s really unhealthy to wake up and work in the same place you sleep and never leave. You’ve got to give yourself breaks, whether it’s to go for a walk, get some exercise, go out for lunch, coffee, or even just going out for dinner at night.”
  • I always take a “nature break.” Sometimes it’s a walk around the neighborhood, on a busy day, it’s just a sit on my porch. I’ve learned that I’m most productive when I get fresh air.”
  • “… I’m actually pretty unorganized compared to others. I don’t keep to-do lists, I don’t have any notes and don’t use my calendar really. My habit is to just work & get things done. Getting things done is highly addictive ….”
  • “Taking care of the things in your life that matter, be it family, friends, exercise, meditation, things that make you happy, are vitally important….”

To see more, and discover who said what in response to this burning question, take a look at the fuill post at

For even more ideas, see all 44 full interviews in Yevgeny Yermakov‘s “5 Questions for 100 Designers.”


Sound advice about how to ask for a reference letter

Whether seeking a reference for an academic application or a job search of any kind, letters of recommendation, which is to say “references,” matter a great deal. In an article published in University Affairs in 2009, Adam Chapnick offers some “straightforward advice,” as he calls it, on the topic.

reference letterThe fact that this is listed on the UA website as one of its most read stories suggests the importance of the topic. The 50 or so comments that are posted online in response to Adam’s piece are testimony to how engaging his article is.

I can affirm the importance of letters of reference. I have served on many admission committees for graduate studies, for example, and can testify to:

a) the importance of strong letters of reference

b) how many letters of reference come in that don’t offer many specific details to support their recommendation of a student for admission.

It often makes me think that the referees may not have been furnished with an information package (see #2, below) – and have found themselves having to write out of a vague sense of a candidate’s academic record and strengths. After all, professors typically teach many students in any given year. We need to be reminded of all that you are in order to write soundly and specifically about you.

Adam notes that asking for a professor’s letter of reference is very stressful – and that students are often not aware of the etiquette surrounding the process. By etiquette, he seems to mean good manners, but much more: good manners mean making things as easy and pleasant as possible for those we engage with – or, in the case of references, rely on.

Considering that you may have to ask the same person for letters several times, both now and in the future, it seems to me that it would be worthwhile for you to check out what he and his respondents have to say.

Adam covers such topics as

1. Who to choose and when to approach them, asking yourself:

  • How well did you do in the professor’s course(s) / how well did you perform as a TA or RA?
  • How well does this professor know you and/or your work and how recent is that knowledge?
  • Will the professor’s reputation carry weight? Is this the right professor for this application?

 2. What to say and what to give them, ensuring that each professor:

  • knows who you are and understands that you are looking for a strong reference
  • knows why you would like a letter from them specifically
  • understands that you face a deadline
  • can be provided with an information package about you (and here he suggests what you might include – offering outstanding guidance in this crucial matter)

3. Saying Thank you:

  • always let your professor know whether the application has been successful
  • if you anticipate asking for additional letters, send yearly updates about your progress
  • no further signs of appreciation are necessary but, if you wish, a kind, detailed e-mail that your referee can include in his or her teaching dossier, is a good idea

My synopsis, as usual, doesn’t do nearly enough justice to the link I am sending you to – check things out for yourself at

And while you are there, sift through the comments from other students who’ve been through the process, and other profs who deal with these requests all the time – and Adam Chapnick himself. Really helpful nuggets here and there.


Recognizing the career path you are already on

Anna Trester writes on (January 12/15) that in speaking to students we often hear the metaphor of “the path” invoked to structure our thinking about the “career journey” and career exploration.

She says this is fine and useful in conceptualizing job searches, but “only if we recognize that you are ALREADY ON A PATH!! ”

career pathStudents don’t have to imagine that they are beginning their search with nothing or starting at zero.  You already have your feet on the ground and what you need to think about, then, is putting one step in front of the other as you move forward from here.

You will already have chosen a discipline or kind of training and that choice has set your path — you’ve worked hard and journeyed far already.

The question is, what paths (note plural) now lie ahead? You have already acquired tools and abilities:  school is work and school work is “conditioning” as with any other kind of training,” she says. The relationships cultivated along the way and the experiences gathered are like “signposts” for future guidance. What have you really enjoyed out of what you have done thus far, she asks.  And “what does that tell you?”

She sees this as trying to read a map.  You base future choices on all of the evidence on hand at a particular moment.  There is no need to feel lost if you realize that you have cognates and are simply mapping the next step.

I agree with Anna. You are already on a path. There are paths leading forward from there if you look for them.

Also, there are no perfect career decisions and few that are likely to be total disasters — as long as you are paying attention to what is to be learned from at each stage.

The important part, for me, is that students begin thinking — taking stock and figuring out what is working for them, and what opportunities are out there while they are still in school.

Advice on how to manage time and tackle projects of all sizes

In December, University Affairs posted a video featuring Rose Hastreiter, a senior consultant at Direct Corporate Solutions, talking about time management tips for graduate students tackling big and little projects.time management video

Hastreiter was filmed during Congress 2014, held last May at Brock University.

In a quick three-minute interview, she offers the following advice:

  • don’t re-invent the wheel — find out what tools others have used
  • build a plan — “backward engineer” the plan by first looking at your goals
  • break down the steps — in her words, “take that beautiful mountain of a vision … into what we call mole hills”
  • if it’s a long-term plan, identify the “mini-projects” to tackle one at time, a method called “Work Breakdown Structure”
  • estimate your duration – “take into account your physical start point, your physical end point for the activity,” says Hastreiter

You can watch the video on the University Affairs website under the Career Advice section at

The job search — re-configuring by “re-languaging” the task

Joseph Barber, associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, writes in a post for Inside Higher Ed (October 13/14) that it is easy for graduate students to frighten and disempower themselves with regard to the challenges of preparing for the job search – by falling into negative and unnecessarily daunting language habits.

One such term, for example, is “networking,” which amounts to deliberately setting out to meet people of relevance to one’s career interests and search for work. Yet for many graduate students it amounts to a “scary” word and a potential failure on their part. How do they possibly make the time, they may think, for something as formal and intricate as networking” during their pursuit of their degrees? Surely this absence will be seen as remiss at some point.

Use your word screen shotBut, in fact, networking simply means meeting people somewhat more strategically than in our normal random encounters with others. And most grad students will have, in the course of their studies, met and talked to some people connected with the line of work they hope to pursue. They will have networked in effect, whether at conferences or in other social settings, without having involved themselves in the complicated rituals they imagine that networking requires.

Another example is the phrase “alternative careers,” says Barber, which sends all sorts of wrong messages to ourselves and to potential employers. Seeking work in other settings than the academic amounts to looking for “additional” career opportunities, he says, or what I would call “parallel” or simply “different kinds of” careers. The word “alternative,” Barber says, suggests something other than one’s first choice and, worse, something other than what you have been trained to do. Avoid second-class citizen scenarios, he says, by finding other ways to express this concept.

“Transitioning” is another of these fraught words, according to Barber. It sounds as though you are regrettably moving away from something that is more desirable, when actually you are setting out to build upon or capitalize on the very hard-earned knowledge and skills that your degree has bestowed upon you wherever those opportunities may exist.   So “transitioning” is one of those words to avoid, he says.

I think that Barber’s piece offers much to think about. His emphasis is on thinking of yourself and your skill set in positive terms and expressing it to others in that way. He thinks that if you “use the right words,” you can reframe your experiences, what you have to offer, and what opportunities you might like to explore.

I think semantics matters too, and that it is always worth revisiting our habitual (and sometimes worn or flaccid) word choices.
You can read the article at


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