The sub-title for this post should be “Don’t Make the Same Mistake I Made!”
My biggest career mistake was when I was leaving my job at Harvard. It was my second real job, and after working there for 5 years, I was tired of it, even though it truly was a great place to work. I wanted to see if I could do (survive!) a job in the “real world” – the business world, not academia and not the Federal Government where I had already worked. Time to try something new, I decided – something more “normal” than the USMC or Harvard University.
But, in my haste to leave my old job, I didn’t pay close attention to where I was going. I accepted the first job offer I received without much thought, but with great relief. It was not a bad job – the people were nice and I learned new things, but accepting that job was not my smartest career move.
So what should I have done instead?
I should have been focused on where I was going – looking forward to what I wanted to do next. How would I make that career change today?
Explore Options with Informational Interviews.
My friend Dick Bolles, author of “What Color Is Your Parachute?” created the concept of “informational interview.” (If you haven’t read the book yet, or read it many years ago, get a current copy and read it!)
Informational interviews are a wonderful idea for career exploring. They also are wonderful for expanding a personal network and also, naturally, for job search.
If I could do that post-Harvard search over again, the first thing I would do is spend time figuring out what I wanted to do next. My goal then was generic (leave Harvard). The non-academia, non-government “sector” is enormous! I just jumped into it, without paying much attention to what I was doing. In addition to many excellent colleges and universities, the Boston area also has some of the best hospitals in the world. I never considered them, even though, amazingly, a former Harvard co-worker had moved on to Mass General Hospital (the biggest name). It never occurred to me to talk with her about what was available at MGH or to ask her to connect me with other people at MGH who could have discussed with me the Boston healthcare job market and the opportunities in it. Rats!
I could/should have asked questions like these -
- What is the job or field (whatever it is) like? How are things organized? Who does what, when?
- Who are the key players (employers and people)?
- How are people hired (networking, internships, volunteering, job postings, etc.)?
- Do employees have career paths to better jobs? How are people promoted? What is a typical career path?
- Who (employer, division, department, etc.) is doing the most hiring? Is that a good place to work?
- Which employers or fields are best avoided (sensitive question)?
- How did you get started in this field?
- If you were starting in this field now, where would you start – position and/or employer?
- What mistakes do people new to this field typically make? How could those mistakes be best avoided?
- What are the requirements for someone moving into this field (or this employer)?
- What are the most important skills for this job (or this employer)? What is the best way to acquire those skills?
- Do you recommend this field (or this employer) now? Or, is there a sub-set that you would recommend? Developments that you see becoming more important in the future?
- What is typical compensation and how is it delivered (salary, base salary plus bonus, all bonus, or what?)?
- Which employers are growing fastest?
- Which employers are the best?
- Which employers are doing the most interesting/leading edge work?
- Which employers are losing ground?
- Who else should I talk with? (Do you have contact information or could you introduce me?)
The questions you ask depend, of course, on how well you know the person and what kind of rapport you have with them. Since my friend knew me pretty well, I could have asked what she enjoyed most about her job – and what she enjoyed least. How she got the job? Did she enjoy the job? Did she think I would enjoy working there? How it compared to the culture we experienced at Harvard?
Pick a field, and start exploring. Connect with your college or grad school to see which alums have indicated that they are willing to speak with other alums about their employer and/or field. Check LinkedIn connections to see if anyone is in the “right” field or working for a target employer. This is why we belong to LinkedIn, Facebook, et al. It helps us expand our visibility in the world and to the world.
Of course, be sure to send thank you’s and show proper appreciation for the time someone spends answering your questions, and offer reciprocity if they ever need any assistance. Networking is definitely the proverbial two-way street, when it is done well.
What do you think?
Share your ideas and your questions with us here.