By Marty Nemko PhD
Psychology Today, March 31, 2018 —
We career counselors and coaches are too often guilty of puffing our clients. We feel it’s wiser, or at least more comfortable, to err on the side of optimism. No doubt, that feels good to both counselor and client . . . at least in the short term.
But here, based on my three-decade-long experience with 5,400 clients, are what I believe to be inconvenient career truths for the average job seeker.
Here’s straight talk, not career counselor puffery.
CHOOSING A CAREER
1. Choosing needn’t be complicated. For example, there’s no need for the Strong Interest Inventory — Interests map insufficiently with skills and with job availability. Nor need one take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. It has shockingly poor predictive validity given its popularity. Nor need you harangue people until they give you an informational interview. It’s usually enough to spend an hour browsing the 250 careers profiled in the Occupational Outlook Handbook(link is external) or the 350 in my book, Careers for Dummies(link is external). Filter them based on whether they use your core attribute or two: words, people, science/technology/engineering/math (STEM), entrepreneurialism, or office detail. Supplement that with a Google search, including videos, on prospective careers — for example, “counseling careers” — and you’ve more wisely chosen a career than do the vast majority of people.
2. Following your passion is usually unwise. Most people are passionate about one or more of just a few things: sports, nonprofit work, entertainment, media, fashion. Pursuing jobs in those niches usually means great competition and, in turn, low pay and poor job security. Unless you’re unusually capable, driven, and ideally connected, it’s wise to make such passions your avocation. Focus rather on what ends up being more central to most people’s career happiness: moderate work difficulty, job stability, short commute, good boss and co-workers, and reasonable compensation.
3. Status is the enemy of contentment. Many people’s career choices are driven more by status than by passion. Many of them choose to be doctors, lawyers, or executives. Because status is deemed important by so many people, the competition is great, and the education requirements have been ratcheted up. After all that effort and delayed gratification, there are many unhappy doctors, lawyers, and executives. Indeed my client pool consists more of those three professions than any other. It’s often wise to pursue careers in which competition isn’t so fierce, perhaps under-the-radar options such as optometry, program evaluation, higher-education student affairs administration, or many jobs in government.
4. Government jobs are underrated. Even if you believe that the government is inefficient, slow, and has too many employees who keep their job only because the government rarely fires people, many career seekers will find a government job, particularly a federal one, to be the best option, especially as we look ahead to a future in which the private sector will likely continue its trend to automating, part-timing, and offshoring as much as possible. The government will do that less, because it’s politically unpalatable. Government pay and benefits are good, and of course, job security is nonpareil. Plus, older workers and minorities may find it easier to get a government job than one in the private sector.
5. Nonprofits are particularly likely to treat workers poorly. At least that’s been the consensus among my clients. That’s ironic, since nonprofits often proclaim to care about workers, yet liberally use volunteer and low-pay workers and expect them to work long hours for “The Cause.”
6. Happiness comes mainly from within. Of course, National Geographic photographers are more likely to love their career than are iron workers in a clanging factory. But there are plenty of unhappy people in cool careers and plenty of happy people in mundane ones. Focusing on a cool or a particularly remunerative job is often not worth the price — perhaps forgoing a more ethical or creative career. Better to choose a career that has the keys to career contentment listed above. And those are easier to find and succeed at in a not-cool career, because there’s less competition.
7. Getting into technology is risky. For example, while software engineering is in-demand, it’s not easy to get and stay competent. Employers often reject graduates of even prestigious coding bootcamps as having insufficient skills. Those employers often prefer to hire software engineers in the U.S. who are experienced and those in Asia, despite the language and cultural challenges. Indeed, any job in which the work product can be sent over the internet will, over the arc of your career, be subject to offshoring. It may be wiser to focus on high-satisfaction careers that are offshore-resistant: from network administrator to robot technician, dentist to haircutter, to, yes, counselor.
8. Changing careers is harder than many career counselors and books imply. Unless you are brilliant and/or prepossessing and well-connected, it is tough to convince an employer to hire you for a decent job over someone with significant experience. And these days, with employers easily getting dozens if not hundreds of applicants merely by placing an online ad, the would-be career changer’s chances are very small indeed. That’s true even if would-be career changers follow the standard advice to tout transferable skills to employers and to potential referrers. The most likely prescription for career malaise is to make peace with the career choice, then tweak it rather than change it, plus to grow incrementally in your skills or your attitude.
9. Running your own business is harder than gurus intimate. Regulations are both complex and costly, and unless you have deep pockets and can afford to outsource most tasks, you have to be competent at many things, for example, sourcing products, sourcing customers, selling, governmental compliance, even IT and bookkeeping. You also must be a self-starter. No one’s going to push you to work, but the meter is always running, the cash always burning, and then there’s the opportunity cost of what you could have been earning had you been working for someone else.
LANDING THE JOB
10. There aren’t enough good jobs, and there will be fewer. Don’t buy the argument that technology has always created more jobs, and so it will again. In a tech-centric age, it takes just one team to build a product, and then, with the push of a button, millions of copies can be made. And you’re competing not just with people in your locale, but also worldwide. In short, it’s a war over limited jobs. Unless you’re a star, you must fight like hell to survive, let alone thrive. That means networking your butt off if you’re good at networking, or creating ahead-of-the-pack applications if you’re not. What does ahead-of-the-pack mean? It means applying only to jobs for which you can make a case that you’re excellent. And your resume/LinkedIn profile and cover letter must make that crystal clear. That also usually means adding a work sample that convinces the employer you indeed would be excellent at that job.
11. Degrees are overrated. Especially if you’ve had difficulty landing a good job, it’s tempting to invest in a degree or another degree. And sometimes the learning and networking are worth it. But the cost in money and time (what you could have been earning had you not been in school) argues for doing some just-in-time learning for jobs you’d love: reading key articles found through a Google search, taking highly rated courses locally or online via Lynda, Udemy, Udacity, Coursera, or EdX, and quite potent: getting a tutor or mentor.
12. A Ph.D is an overrated degree. Universities’ websites may cite an “expected” time to completion of four or five years, but the average time to a Ph.D. is usually six to ten years, depending on the school and field. And because a Ph.D. is prestigious, there’s an oversupply. My career’s most vivid memory is of when I was invited to give a session on career advice for neuroscience Ph.D.s at the conference of the Society for Neuroscience. Because my session was a concurrent one, I expected just 25 or 30 attendees. I had 500, and afterwards, 300 lined up to ask me for help. Nearly all of them, despite a neuroscience Ph.D., were having trouble landing a good job.
13. Resumes written by a resume writer are both unethical and ineffective. Employers use resumes not just as a recitation of work history but as an index of candidates’ ability to write, reason, and organize. As a result, many employers view resumes written by a resume writer as negatively as a college admissions officer views an application essay written by a parent or hired gun. Employers review hundreds of resumes and have a sense of which have been written by the applicant and which by a pro. Even if they don’t, when they interview a candidate, if there’s a big difference between the language and thinking skills in the resume and the interviewee, the candidate is usually rejected, although the stated reason is usually less accusatory than “You had someone write your resume for you.” I’ve asked resume writers, “If you feel it’s ethical to write someone’s resume, how come you don’t sign it, ‘Written by Jane Jones, Resume Writer’?” Not one resume writer has ever offered an even marginally reasonable answer.
14. Be realistic. You start a job search with a full tank of emotional gas, and every rejection or no response burns some. You don’t want to run out of gas before landing a job. Google gets 4,000 resumes weekly and hires 1/1,000 from that strong pool. Unless you’re a star or hold a rare in-demand skill set plus have a strong “in,” it’s a better use of time to focus on less designer-label employers.
15. Networking is not for everyone. Dawn Marie Graham in her forthcoming book, Switchers, writes, “For Switchers, networking is absolutely necessary.” But most people who buy a career guide, let alone hire a career counselor, usually have tried networking a lot to no avail. They may also have worked to improve their networking, but still lack sufficient je ne sais quoi to get someone with clout to go to bat for them so strongly that it yields a decent job in a new function or field. If such job-seekers follow the standard advice to “network, network, network,” too many would end up joining the millions of un- and underemployed people who have given up on looking for decent-paying work, who, by the way, are not counted in the government-reported unemployment rate. Answering ads is underrated, especially for poor networkers. For them, quality applications trump additional networking.
16. Persistence is overrated. After 20, 30, or 50 no-responses and interviews that don’t yield a decent job, it’s bad advice to urge further persistence, as, for example, Graham does. She writes that successful career switchers “persist and never waver. They never slow down. And they don’t heed the naysayers or take criticism personally. As you embark on your career switch, let this be you?” But If you’ve gotten 20 rejections and no responses, rather than doing the same thing and expecting a different result, recognize the wisdom in Emerson’s admonition that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds and Kenny Rogers’ more folksy version: “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, and know when to walk away.” After ten or more rejections or no-responses, the right question is, “Would my next set of efforts most likely yield results by persisting with the same goal and approach, making minor changes, or by pursuing a new direction?”
17. Ageism is less of an impediment than some activists assert. Lack of competence and drive hurt a job seeker much more.
18. It ain’t easy for long-term stay-at-home parents. They have a tough time getting hired over someone with current experience, expertise, and Rolodex. I’ve seen such people get hired mainly when the person has a very powerful “in,” for example, their spouse or BFF is a power player in an organization.
19. Thank-you letters don’t help enough. You must write an influencing letter. That’s an email that reminds the employer of the things the interviewers seemed to particularly like in the interview, in which you take a second shot at a question you flubbed, and perhaps includes a work sample that proves you can do the job well.
20. We’re less malleable than many counselors tell us. It’s usually wise to accept your basic self and limit your change efforts to finding a well-suited job, tweaking it to fit, and making incremental changes in your skill set or attitude.
This week, a review of the literature on intelligence by Harvard’s David Reich in the New York Times (link is external)underscores the limitations of our malleability. That article asserts the criticality of intelligence and that it has a significant genetic component.
Alas, eager to give readers hope for great improvement, many career counselors and guides grasp at the conjectural or even at the disproven. For example, that forthcoming book, Switchers, tries to persuade that major change is possible by citing pop psych premises even when they’ve been debunked.
It’s generally wise, as I said, to accept your core strengths and weaknesses, place yourself appropriately, and then fine-tune to maximize your career satisfaction.
21. Not everyone should try to become an expert. Many career guides urge becoming an expert at something. True, if you’re smart, with a knack and interest in that specialty, and have the time, becoming expert can be worth it, but lacking those, it may be smarter to focus your career branding on being just solid: reliable and reasonably competent. Of course, because many people have those attributes, you’ll then need to try to curry favor with bosses, coworkers, and people outside your workplace, whether or not you’ll later need to look for another job.
22. Working smart may not be enough. More than moderate success usually requires not just working smart, but working long.
23. Be elitist. We all grow from being with people who are moderately better than we are: brighter, more skilled, with a better attitude. When there’s a choice, opt to be with superior people, even if that makes you feel insecure. The benefit is usually worth it.
24. Microbreak, don’t meditate or vacay. Stress builds. Frequent two-minute walk breaks (link is external)are thus more helpful than cramming all your de-stressing into 20-minute meditations or a week-long vacation, after which you return to the stress-increasing work that piled up while you were on vacation.
25. Manage procrastination with a single decision, not a rationalization. Procrastination’s roots are less often the result of fear of failure and rejection than some psychologists and counselors would have us believe. Often more foundational is the person’s unconscious insistence on avoiding pain, combined with a belief that productivity isn’t worth the pain, even if it promises long-term gain.
26. Quick-mine your past. Whatever lessons can be mined from reviewing your past’s iniquities usually can be learned from just a bit of journaling. From that point, it’s wiser to focus on suppressing those miring thoughts and ever taking the next step forward. Additional rumination is more likely to mire you in resentment or sadness than to help you move forward.
27. Suck up. Many career counselors and books assert that good bosses respect disagreement. But in the real world, most bosses would rather be agreed with most of the time, indeed sucked up to. Per research by UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Chatman(link is external), flattery works.
28. Bosses have very few meetings. Meetings are resource-intensive and often result in more posturing than progress. Get input by email, phone, or walking to a person’s desk. Except perhaps for a brief weekly standing meeting to build esprit de corp, reserve meetings mainly for when you need a dynamic exchange in real time about a difficult issue, one in which reading body language is important.
29. Instill a bit of fear of you. What?! Yes, instilling a measure of fear can actually make you better liked and respected. If you’re too easy, too many people take you for granted or feel they can get away with poor performance or treat you unfairly. No, you shouldn’t be Hannibal Lecter (Silence of the Lambs) but a too-easy laugh and too-easy forgiveness for bad behavior can come back to bite you.
30. Fire fast. Per the classic leadership book, Good to Great, and from my clients’ experience, after even a few days with a new employee, if you get the strong sense you were wrong in hiring the person, it’s usually a wiser use of your time to cut your losses and recruit a better person than to take the time to wait or attempt to remediate.
31. Basically, it’s all on you. The “It takes a village” mindset is often unhelpful: You can’t count on others enough, plus that mindset can be disempowering, making you too dependent. Often, you really can count mainly on yourself.