Finding a Career Path: Helpful Advice from Author Ellen Gordon Reeves

If you have questions about finding a job, preparing for a career, or getting your professional life in order, Ellen Gordon Reeves has answers for you. Reeves is a noteworthy author and career advisor. Her book, Can I Wear My Nose Ring to the Interview?, offers all the benefits of good advice; it’s profoundly effective and surprisingly simple.

I recently talked to Reeves about colleges, careers, and professional purpose. Check out some of her job-hunting tips in our interview below. While the American workforce is changing in some pretty drastic ways, Reeves’ insights prove that (with thoughtful planning) there’s still plenty of room to chase your dreams.

LO: I recently read a statistic that says the average American changes jobs 11 times before age 44. Do you think this is a good thing, as it puts less pressure on young professionals and recent college grads to “get it right” the first time? Or do you think this is a bad sign, perhaps that students aren’t doing enough career research before they choose a major? 

EGR: It used to be that you took a job with one company, worked your way up, and stayed there your whole life. Transportation and technology have changed all that. I think it’s exciting to have options—we are constantly evolving and we should take advantage of this unprecedented opportunity not to stay in one place forever. But purposeless job-hopping will not serve you well.

LO: Is it really possible to know your ideal career path at age 18, 22, 25?

EGR: I don’t think you can know your ideal path that young but you can have an idea, test it out, and create short-term goals for acquiring skills and experience. Find out what you want to do and what you are suited and qualified to do. As it says in the Talmud: “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

LO: Right now there’s a lot of talk about the need for more college graduates. President Obama wants to increase America’s college attainment rate to 60 percent. Other experts say we’ll need another 20 million college grads within the next decade to keep pace with tomorrow’s jobs and the evolving knowledge economy. In your experience, how important is advanced education?  With enough poise and vigor, is it still possible to sneak through the back door of an industry, or ascend from the mailroom?

EGR: I think advanced education is important and great—again, if you have a goal and purpose for it. It’s not about sneaking in a back door. The internship is today’s equivalent of the mailroom. It’s also a lot about who you know—my mantra in the book is, “stop looking for a job and start looking for a person.” The right person will lead you to the right job.

LO: A lot of people are stuck in a situation where they need more education to improve their job prospects, but they also need a job to support their families. Can you offer any advice on combining work and school? Can part-time jobs be resume builders? If not, how should adult students go about explaining gaps or inconsistencies in a resume (e.g. three years of waitressing to accommodate a college schedule)?

EGR: Community colleges and online learning make this a non-issue. Any job is a resume builder if it’s the service of a goal. If you’re not learning from an experience, that’s your fault—even if what you’re learning is that you don’t want to do this job again.

You should try to find part-time jobs that help you work toward a goal: either a job that gets your foot in the door (i.e. look for temp jobs but request that you be placed only in the companies/industries that align with your studies) or take a job with a company that will pay for your education, perhaps in return for several years of service after you complete the training.

Waitressing, by the way, shows me as an employer that you can multi-task, juggle, work with demanding clients, etc. I always see people removing waitress jobs from their resumes, as well as childcare and pet care positions. I think that’s a mistake. If someone trusts you with their most precious possessions and you keep them safe, that says a lot about how trustworthy and responsible you are.

LO: Do employers take much notice of where you went to school?  If it’s not Harvard or Yale, do they know the difference between a second or fourth-tier school? How are today’s employers viewing online degrees?

EGR: I can’t fully answer this question, but I know that the most important thing is hands-on experience. Having an Ivy League degree means you have a brand, but many people steer away from that brand because of some negative stereotypes—so it’s 50/50. Get into the best school you can, and do as well as you can. Meanwhile, get the best internships, shadowing, and mentoring experiences you can find while you’re in school.

LO: Do employers care about your college GPA? Do they ever ask to see actual transcripts? If so, are they looking to see specific courses? Are there any especially in-demand subjects that all students should be considering, regardless of major?

Some employers and grad schools do care about your GPA, particularly in academia, science, medicine, and finance. Personally, I would never want to work for someone who cared what my GPA was because some GPAs are so meaningless… If you took 4 years of courses you’d already taken in high school and got A’s, you’d have a perfect GPA. But what would that tell me about you?

If you know what you want to do after college, then it makes sense to take specific courses in that area. Barring that, I would take courses that make you a well-rounded global citizen in addition to courses from your major. Try a language, economics, basic math and computing skills, international relations, courses in the arts and literature, the environment—so you have at least a passing acquaintance with the forces shaping your life. You need to know how to think, write, and express yourself.

LO: Are references from professors and college instructors acceptable in the working world? Are there ways students can start building professional references and contacts even before graduation?

EGR: Current references from people who know you well are always valuable, but you have to prep your references, particularly if they are your college professors. They need to be able to talk about how the work and skills you demonstrated in their courses—thinking, synthesizing, analyzing, research, writing and presentation, teamwork, etc—are translatable to the work place. So keep in touch with your instructors. Remind them of the work you did with them. Let them know exactly what you are applying for and how you think the coursework is related (i.e. do the work for them and draft something they can adapt.)

LO: Your book includes advice for cleaning up online profiles.  How cautious should job seekers be in this regard? Should all photos, posts, and messages be strictly G-rated? Does it depend on your career field? 

Highly cautious. Employers are always looking. Absolutely G-rated. A professional LinkedIn profile is a good idea. And even though FB and other social sites may seem like personal territory, people are looking. So keep them clean and set your privacy settings as tightly as you can. That being said, social media is a great way to find contacts for informational and exploratory interviews, job leads, etc.

LO: Your book title mentions a nose ring, which is maybe an extreme example of unprofessional dress. Do you think personal style should ever impact a person’s career choice? Or are there ways to look and feel like “yourself” in any industry? In other words, if I’m a sneakers-and-jeans girl, should I push myself to adapt to blouses and blazers?

EGR: A nose ring can be a cultural or religious symbol, so I’m not talking about that kind of nose ring—but certain workplaces have certain dress codes, and you have to respect them.  I always err on the side of being conservative. There are a lot of options beyond blouses and blazers if you’re a sneakers and jeans type; and that’s what weekends and vacations are for!

You can certainly express yourself and your personal style within the boundaries of your industry and company’s professional dress code. It’s different for everyone. Even if you’re interviewing to be a lifeguard, you don’t show up at the interview in a bathing suit. It’s all about the situation. 

Ask the person who sets up the interview if you’re in doubt. And remember: what is the point of how you look when you’re job hunting? As Mark Twain says, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. This is your only chance to look professional with advance notice. Your interview appearance says: this is the best professional me I can be.  Everything is an act of self-presentation and everything signals the employer about what kind of work you will do for him or her. A loose button, string hanging off, sweaty palms, bad breath means you haven’t taken care of things you could have taken care of, that you aren’t meticulous. 

Author of Can I Wear My Nose Ring to the Interview?, career and workplace advisor Ellen Gordon Reeves is the creator of Do-It-Yourself Professional Development and Extreme Professional Makeover boot camps.

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