A New Year’s Reflection

source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/spatterd/

source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/spatterd/

This article was written by Megan Fernandes, a 4th year international affairs student at NU as a guest blogger for The Works.

With the New Year upon us, it’s natural to find yourself reflecting back on the year’s events and some of the life lessons you’ve learned. They say that understanding your history helps you plan for your future, and I think the start of the New Year is a good time to revisit and learn from the personal journey you’ve been on over the year—what have you gained this past year? What contributions have you made? What were your successes and your failures? New Year’s isn’t simply about new beginnings; it’s also about looking back in order to better determine what new beginnings lie ahead. In personal and professional terms, it’s also important to reflect on how past work experiences shape who you are today and who you want to be in 2014.

Co-op is an opportunity to gain experience and learn about the workforce. I’ve been very deliberate in my attempt to find and gather “takeaways” from each co-op to help me make better work-related decisions in the future. For example, after several rounds of interviews, I’ve noticed that one of the qualities most appreciated by employers when they first meet you is genuine thoughtfulness. This doesn’t simply mean preparing thoughtful questions for an interview, but being able to explain why and how a particular company/position fits into your overall career goals. Employers appreciate when you go into an interview knowing what skills and industry knowledge you want to gain from working at that particular organization and in turn, how the job will make you a more qualified future candidate. A compelling way to articulate this isn’t by rattling off the benefits and superior qualities a particular company or position has, but by providing the interviewer with solid examples of how you’ve leveraged past experiences to get closer to your ultimate career goals. Being insightful and thoughtful about these aspects of your past experiences is a meaningful way to create a story about yourself for interviewers.

Additionally, relaying to employers that you understand how your previous experiences have built upon each other allows them to trust you more easily. While not all work experiences seem to relate to each other (like going from a weightlifting nonprofit working with gang youth in Boston to an agriculture start up in Cameroon in my case), making simple and meaningful connections between experiences is always possible. These connections can exist on many levels. For example, I worked with very flexible bosses who didn’t have the time to micro manage me in both positions. That similarity taught me to take initiative when I saw problems or inefficiencies in different types of situations. Another example is that due to organizational, physical, and cultural differences, I developed stronger interpersonal skills with people from various cultural and socio-economic backgrounds, and I learned how to be more thorough and concise in my communication as face time with my supervisors at each co-op was rare. A large takeaway from both work experiences was a more solid understanding of what I like and need in a work environment in order to be successful; such as a lively office culture and structured time commitments. You can always find connections, and while it may be difficult at first, this is precisely the first step in cultivating the sort of thoughtfulness that really resonates with people, especially employers. Eventually I’ve also found that I’ve been able to make decisions about my work experiences with a greater level of deliberateness and confidence because I’ve taken the time to draw these parallels and connections from past experiences.

So take this New Years to do a little brainwork in tying all of your past work experiences together into a thoughtful and compelling personal story. Remember, telling this story will help you to make those connections between experiences, show people your ability to process and grow from each experience, and give people insight into you as a person.  And this does not work well as a one-time process right before an interview; it should be a constant undertaking that helps make those yearly new beginnings and resolutions all the more meaningful each time. So give yourself a new beginning career-wise this coming year, one that starts with a more thoughtful version of yourself.

Megan Fernandes is an international affairs student in her fourth year at Northeastern with academic interests revolving around global poverty alleviation. Megan is originally from Houston, but went to high school in Bangkok, Thailand before moving to Boston. She loves learning about other cultures and would be happy to show new people around Boston! 

Swimming Against the Tide: Alternative Careers after the PhD

source: wisciblog.com

source: wisciblog.com

Sometimes we find ourselves caught in a current, headed toward a known, but undesired destination. It takes a little effort to reset our course, a few strong side strokes to pull us out of the momentum of the moving water until we are picked up by another stream.  For the last six years, I have been training to be a professor.  The English PhD program at Northeastern has taught me to be an astute reader of culture, a critic of discriminatory ideologies, an observer of systems, a writer skilled in argument, and a teacher ready to pass on these skills to a new generation of learners. As I moved along the stages of coursework, exams, and dissertation writing, the tenure track carrot dangled before me. But, half way through, disillusion set in.  I’m not here to share the doom and gloom that clouds today’s academic job market (you can find plenty of that here).  While I enjoy teaching, I wanted to engage with a wider community beyond the university boundaries. Finding an alternative career path takes some effort, but can lead you to promising horizons.  Here’s what I learned along the way.

Search Your Soul, Then Do Your Research

After many years pursuing a PhD, it felt like defeat to turn away from the professor Holy Grail.  But, I could no longer ignore my feelings of disconnection.  Coming from rural Maine, I want to mediate the gap that divides the world of academics and the working class in which I grew up. I brainstormed careers that would serve my goals of public engagement in the arts, community building and cultural education.  After some research, I realized my skills could find a home at cultural centers, publishing houses, museums, historical societies, nonprofits, research and philanthropic foundations. Be open to alternatives if you want your career prospects to widen.

Tap Your Network

When I initially approached my dissertation committee with my career doubts, I feared I would be ostracized for ‘dropping out’ of academia.  My announcement was met with some caring resistance. Trained as professors themselves, my advisors worried they would be unable to give me the alternative career advice I sought.  As my career goals solidified, they helpfully suggested colleagues working in publishing and nonprofits that I could contact for informational interviews.  I also discovered a burgeoning online community of PhDs like me seeking alternative academic (alt-ac) careers. Following the #altac community and tapping my network gave me the language to articulate my growing interests. 

Create Opportunities for Growth

To learn more about arts administration, I began to seek opportunities to test those waters.  I volunteered with the English Graduate Student Association’s (EGSA)  annual conference doing administrative tasks like booking rooms, creating marketing materials, and setting up receptions.  Finding I had a knack for organization, I proposed the EGSA add an art exhibit to the conference.  The first exhibit was a modest two day show featuring local artists, yet, in my mind it was a success as I watched an idea come to fruition.   The next year I dreamed bigger and secured a space in Gallery 360.

Photograph by Genie Giaimo

Photograph by Genie Giaimo

That same year, I dabbled further in arts development by creating an online journal, The OrrisThe Orris was a collective of graduate students, writers and artists who sought an outlet for our creative work.  Eventually, The Orris team disbanded as dissertations, families and careers took precedence, but during our time, we created a media brand, crafted mission statements and editorial policies, developed work flows, strategized marketing plans and hosted community events with a volunteer team, little funds and few resources.  With a little extra effort, you can create your own opportunities to learn new skills and make career connections.

Seek Out Mentors

The Orris experience solidified my desire to work in the arts and culture industry, but it also showed me where I need further training.  Entrepreneurship is a much touted value in today’s world, but to be an idea maker, we must first learn the logistical intricacies of putting ideas into action.  Mentors play an essential role in providing leadership guidance for young professionals. Though I am blessed with a supportive academic committee, in the year ahead I look forward to gaining a new set of mentors to teach me how to be an effective manager and leader.

As I begin my final semester and finalize my dissertation, I am eager to see where this new current will carry me. In this blog series, I’ll share my experiences on the alt-ac job market as I count down to graduation. From now until May, join me on the First Thursday of each month for resources on turning CVs into resumes, identifying transferrable skills, the value of networking, and developing your professional persona online.

Lana Cook - HeadshotLana Cook is a PhD candidate in the English department at Northeastern University. Her dissertation traces the development of the psychedelic aesthetic in mid-twentieth century American literature and film. Lana is a 2013-2014 graduate fellow at the Humanities Center.  She received her bachelors of arts at University of New Hampshire.  You can follow her on Twitter @lanacook or Linkedin