Tomorrow (Thursday, 3/1), I am going to be speaking at a panel discussion at Hampshire College, How to Be Div Free: Building a Career as Unique as Your Education. This panel will focus on perspectives and advice for the transition between college and professional life. Since I was thinking about what advice I am going to give to these college students, I thought I would go ahead and write a blog post.
The motto of Hampshire College is Non Satis Scire, which means “To know is not enough.” The whole concept of the school is that the process of pursuing knowledge is just as important as attaining the knowledge itself. The leaders of tomorrow aren’t made by memorizing multiplication tables; the leaders of tomorrow ask the difficult questions and dedicate themselves to finding answers.
My first and most important piece of advice is to push yourself to continue learning. Read blogs, twitter feeds, magazines, books – read a lot, especially on subjects related to your field. Just keep reading. Fluency in your domain is crucial to nailing a job interview, a happy hour with colleagues, or being able to string together a coherent memo.
Just as important, perhaps even moreso early in your career, is to continue learning the crunchy technical skills that are valued in your field. After I graduated from Hampshire, I took time to learn several computer skills which are relevant to the planning profession (Excel, Word, GIS, Adobe Acrobat Pro) and then some which are less common in planning but still useful to know (R Statistical Software, python, SQL, Adobe Illustrator and InDesign).
Periodically I’ve had down time at work to dedicate to this type of learning. More often, I’m squeezing these online classes into my nights and weekends. Even though it’s not the most exciting use of a Wednesday evening, I’ve found it essential to making myself professionally competitive.
The second piece of advice is to sell yourself. My dad once told me, all of life is buying and selling. When you’re at a job interview, you’re selling your skill set, your knowledge, your dependability, your affability. When you make a pitch for a promotion or raise, you are selling why you are an essential part of your company and why they should work to keep you on board. If you are an entrepreneur or free-lancer, then the need to sell yourself is even more obvious.
To that end, a few notes on how to sell yourself:
- Don’t be bashful – In your resume, cover letter, and job interview you need to be assertive about why you are the best candidate for the job. Because humility is a virtue that is drilled into us from a young age, doing this is really uncomfortable, so I suggest practice interviews.
- Be specific – Reference specific work products, projects, or programs you’ve worked on. Start a personal blog or volunteer for programs related to your job. Whatever you reference should demonstrate the great work you could be doing for that firm. Specific stories about these experiences are even better.
- Look the part – The first interview I ever had, a housemate thankfully told me that I should wear a tie and slacks. Thank God she did, because I would have looked like a total schmuck otherwise in my flannel and cargo pants. Presentation and first impressions are important.
A key skill in selling anything is haggling. If you get to the point that they offer you a job and salary, you should always try to negotiate up. I remember one time I got the call after an interview, “We would like to offer you the job, at a salary of $XXXXX.” I remember writing on my notepad, “OMG $XXXXX!!!!” and, at the exact same moment, saying, “This is great, but is there any wiggle room on the salary?” Just by asking the question, I was able to negotiate the pay up by almost 5% more than what they originally offered.
Salary negotiations are uncomfortable, especially when you’re just starting a career. Again, this is something you should practice if you’re worried about it. A good place to do that is at a flea market, where you can do actual haggling. Just like in salary negotiations, a market seller expects to go back and forth on a price. I usually get 10% – 15% off my flea market finds just by asking the question, “Is there any wiggle room on this price?” Remember – whether on the phone with a potential employer or at the flea market, the worst they can ever say is, “No, final offer.”