I went to graduate school back in August of 2012. My career focus to that point had primarily been content (writing, editing, social), but what had begun to interest me was the idea of organizations and how they develop. At the point I went back to school, I had been working for eight years or so, and been under probably 14-15 managers and in 8-11 different team structures. All had pros and cons. I figured, hey, I’m probably going to work into my 70s, so if I’ve got another 40 years of this, I should at least try to understand it. So I went to business school with a focus on organizational development (and a bit on marketing/operations); basically I wasn’t really interested in the more-traditional “finance” piece. I’m not amazing at math and I grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, so I already had some context around that world — and it wasn’t something I wanted to live in or work in for another four decades.
I had a lot more confidence in August 2012 than I have now (more on that in a second), but I looked at the roster of companies for my program at University of Minnesota (i.e. those that recruit) and I felt like it could be an interesting journey. Maybe I’d end up at Microsoft, or maybe Ford! This is hopelessly naive, and I cringe even writing it down — but the bigger idea is that my wife (who is a saint in this process) and I left the east coast for the Midwest and a new adventure, and the idea — at the time — was to come out of it with a better situation and more opportunity.
Now, there have been some great things that have happened since we’ve been doing this — for example, we had our church wedding — but I just cleared April 1, 2014 and I don’t have anything yet lined up for post-graduation. I run into people all the time — casually, at bars, at (well, obviously) job-seeker events, at conferences — who are rolling off graduate school this year or next year and have no idea what they’re doing. Maybe that’s really the American way at this point and I’m about to outline five points of nothingness. My goal here isn’t to make this a bitch-fest; there have been good aspects of this process, and I still believe it will end up somewhere positive. My goal here is to try and paint a picture of what it’s like out there (and maybe give myself some catharsis in the process, as writing tends to do that for me).
So what you need to know before we begin: I’m in graduate school. I’m essentially done (one paper left to write, which I could turn in from anywhere), but I “officially” finish in five weeks. I have nothing lined up. If you want a little more background on what I’m like and how I interview and some challenges there, read this other post I wrote a few months back. I wouldn’t call myself “100 percent polished,” but I would call myself “intelligent,” and perhaps more importantly, I would call myself “intellectually curious” and “passionate,” which sound like huge buzzwords but — once you really get in a company and start working there — isn’t that ultimately what you need? (Fingers crossed.)
Lessons I’ve learned:
It will be depressing, and at times, you will feel like no one is listening. If you stumble across this post and have felt the same way, relax. It is OK. I’ve been actually looking for a job for maybe 3-4 months — not that long — although it can feel like 6-7 years at points. I’ve had days where I feel really positive, and I’ve had days where I feel like the CEO of a company could hand-walk me to Human Resources and I’d still fumble the ball at the goal line.
This is natural. It’s a tough process because the way we hire isn’t exactly the most polished thing in the universe either, and you will feel defeated. As for other people: remember this one thing in context. To ask a person to help you with a job search, unless they’re a person who is directly hiring or a recruiter, involves two favors: you’re basically asking a person to (a) vouch for you, which should be the easier part and (b) actually know of something. Stop and take inventory of your life right now. Do you know of any jobs open? Maybe you do if you’re a hiring manager or some such. Broadly, you probably don’t. When’s the last time you asked a person for two favors in one e-mail/phone call and it went over well? It’s tough. Take three deep breaths a day and deal with it.
The real thing you’re looking for isn’t “networking” per se; it’s the context of the hand-off. If I ever wanted to become an academic, I’d try to do research around this area. Here’s what I mean, and this might be specific to me and how I’ve networked, etc. I actually think the most important aspect of networking is explaining — briefly but in detail — to the connector (the person you know who knows somebody) what exactly your background and context is. I actually started this blog and wanted to tie it back to the idea of “context” in part because of my frustration around this. I can’t tell you how many times (it’s north of 60) that I’ve connected with someone and they’ve come back to me and said, “Hey, I may know of something!” (Heart flutters) You say, “That would be great. What should we do from here?” They say, “Well, let me connect you with Mr. X over at Company Y.” You say, “Sure. I’ll send you over a resume and a paragraph about my background.” They say, “Great.” You do that, and two days later, suddenly the e-mail intro says you’re an expert in international finance (which I am clearly not) or “looking to stay in Minneapolis forever” (also not). Sadly, I’ve had this happen with friends/family (“framily!”) and random networking connections. It’s a thing. It’s frustrating, but again, deep breaths and move on.
Only have those days where you apply to all the “Easy Apply” jobs on Indeed when you’re really depressed. It’s so easy, but if you’re thinking that, think what other people are thinking too. Those jobs can average 200+ applications, and likely more for some. Standing out in that crowd, especially if the first screen is a low-level HR person, is next to impossible. I do it some days when I feel down and want to be able to tell myself at 5pm, “Hey, I applied to 100 things today.” There’s a chance maybe 1-2 of those will become a phone screen, and doing something 100 times and expecting success 1 time is pretty much ridiculous, but … hey, little victories.
It’s all a game, and games are ultimately designed to be won. This has been harder for me to learn/realize/grasp/understand/prod myself with a stick about, because I try and have this attitude overall that things happen for a right/contextual reason. They really don’t that often; look at the hiring of managers, for example. But just like promotions, hiring is a game. It can be won. If you study guys like Belichick or Popovich, what do they always say in interviews court-side or field-side? It’s literally all about controlling the little things. That’s what you need to do. It’s quite possible no one reads cover letters, yes; but you can still tweak them to the jobs you’re really interested in, and that could be an advantage. You can attend the networking social. You can troll LinkedIn (in a polite way). You can buy nice new shoes. You can take a coding class at the local school. None of these things are going to make you assuredly the guy (or girl), but they can help. It’s all about gaming a system: you need to clear the initial hurdle (HR/phone screen), then the next hurdle (hiring manager/team), and the final hurdle (group interview/more hiring manager). At each level, different things will be important. You control what you can control and try to figure out what those other important bits are, and go from there.
It will work out. I’ll be totally transparent here: I get depressed about this a lot. My wife and I are from the east coast (New York/Miami, respectively) and we’re out here in the Midwest grinding on this graduate school thing (and her working), and we don’t know what’s next, and on my worst days, I feel terribly guilty about even doing all this. I wouldn’t change it, though. It’s been a good adventure and I have learned things and I will finish with a Master’s Degree. That’s all great. But I worry about the broader context sometimes: we had a good life in NYC, and made enough, and could travel … and maybe didn’t love our jobs always, but who does, right? Anyway, point is, some days are tough. Hell, some weeks are. But I do believe it’s going to work out. You have to as well. Even when it literally hits rock bottom — I had a day maybe 4-5 weeks ago where six or seven jobs e-mailed me in an hour to dump out, including two or three I was interested in — just keep going. Something is out there and you can make something out of it. Honestly, the simple idea of faith — maybe even SBNR faith — has gotten me through a lot of this. Hopefully it can for you too.
Obviously a lot of the above is contextually specific to my situation right now; it may not apply to you whatsoever. But if you’re looking for a job and stumble across this, just trust: it can be done. It’s not easy and it is frustrating as hell at points, but it can be done. Now, I need to excuse myself and go try some more on that front.