Where I mix career information and career decision making in a test tube and see what happens

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Writers Need to Do More Than Just Write

I have written about many occupations in this blog, but never before about my own: writer. I recently was reading the memoir of Paul Auster, Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure, in which he describes his struggle to start his writing career. He writes, “Becoming a writer is not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don't choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you're not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.”

What Auster (one of my favorite authors) says about writers applies equally well to any career in the arts. In some of the informal assessments I've worked on, I've made special exceptions for people who are determined to work in the arts, saying, in effect, “Understanding the risks, you may choose to ignore what this assessment is telling you.”

Although Auster seems to be talking mainly about fiction writers, his sentiments also apply to many, perhaps most, nonfiction writers. I know that in my case I have tried other careers but seem to be fated to work in this one. I first thought of writing as a career in the fourth grade, when the children’s writer Beman Lord came to my class and talked about his novel The Trouble With Francis. But I aspired to several other career goals in subsequent years before ending up doing what I do now.

Because I write and because I work for a publisher, people sometimes tell me they have an idea for a book (or are actually writing one) and ask for my advice about how to get published. One important piece of advice I impart is that writing the book is only half, or maybe less than half, of the author’s work. The other crucial task is promoting the book.

You might not realize the importance of promotion for writers if you were to go by the O*NET database’s listing of work tasks for the occupation Poets, Lyricists and Creative Writers. Only one of the 11 core tasks listed for this occupation refers to promotion: “Attend book launches and publicity events, or conduct public readings.”

For a more realistic understanding of the importance of promotion, I suggest you look at the guidelines that any book publisher offers for book proposals. They all ask prominently “What are you prepared to do to promote the book?”

This is also the reason why publishers are so fond of acquiring authors who are retired presidents, former first ladies, superannuated actors, or over-the-hill athletes. These authors have great name recognition but also a lot of time on their hands, so they are not just desirable but also available guests for talk shows and other media events. If you lack stellar name recognition, you may have a very good professional network that will help you get your name and work out there.

If you’re still not convinced of the importance of self-promotion, I suggest you read the experiences of Jonathan Papernick, a writer who thought that his success was assured after his first collection of short stories was greeted by glowing reviews. He writes, “Nobody ever told me that the real work begins once a book is finished and that you need to spend a good six months to a year getting out there and promoting your own work, otherwise it risks dying on the vine.”

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Entrepreneur or Self-Unemployed?

According to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, last year was a golden one for entrepreneurs; more new businesses were created than in any year since 1995. It’s a matter of historical fact that many of today’s highly successful businesses, including Microsoft, Hyatt, Burger King, FedEx, General Electric, and Hewlett Packard, were started during recessions.

But was last year’s boom in start-ups really good news?

A hint at what really happened may be found in the age of these budding small-business leaders. The largest group was in the 35-to-44 age bracket, followed by people 55 to 64. As Robert Reich pointed out in a recent op ed piece in The New York Times, most of these entrepreneurs are not young Internet tech whizzes starting up the next great app factory. Instead, they are people who have lost their jobs and have become self-employed.

I was in this same position at the beginning of 1999, having been downsized from a job in which I managed the development of career information for a computer-based system. I set up a limited liability company, Verbal Media, LLC, and continued to do the exact same managerial work as before, for the same employer, except that now I was an independent contractor.

Because so many workers are now in this entrepreneurial situation, let’s look at its advantages and disadvantages.

The main advantage of self-employment is that you gain a lot of flexibility. You set your own hours and choose which kinds of projects you want to work on--provided, of course that you can find enough business to have a choice! In some ways, you and your clients are on a more equal footing than you would be if you were an employee. For example, while I was on staff at that former employer, I was required to sign a noncompetition agreement that tied my hands for a full year after leaving. But when I negotiated the terms of my work as an independent contractor, I was able to get them to strike any such noncompetition terms from my contract. (With another client, I was able to obtain highly limited terms.)

In the late 1990s, some futurists were arguing that this work arrangement would become increasingly common and was a positive step. It was called the Hollywood model, the idea being that much work in the future would be done as movies are made: as discrete projects, bringing together a team of highly skilled, independent workers who would stay together only for the life of the project.

This work arrangement is a bit easier than it was in the late 1990s. Thanks to health-insurance reform, lack of a company plan is not as scary as it used to be. At least in New Jersey, unemployment insurance is no longer rigidly based on the model that any paid work is equivalent to full-time employment and triggers an end to unemployment benefits.

But now let’s consider the downside of this model. Besides health insurance, workers who are contractors miss out on several other fringe benefits. They pay their own Social Security taxes, pay their own vacation and sick time, and don’t get matching payments into their retirement funds.

They also have to spend a large amount of energy marketing their services (unless they are willing to pay a consulting service a large chunk of their earnings in return for finding clients). Even while they are busy with one project, they must be engaged in finding clients for future projects. These efforts can drain a lot of psychic energy. Self-employed workers often find that the division between work time and leisure time disintegrates. Any time that they are not working at boosting the business costs them future earnings.

Finally, the same bad economic times that caused these workers to lose their full-time employment may create a bad climate for finding clients. They may find themselves self-unemployed. (I first heard this splendid term from Tom and Ray Magliozzi of NPR’s “Car Talk.”)

I’m no longer an independent contractor, but I can understand that this arrangement may suit some workers--including someone in my family who just returned to work that way. And my experience of a decade of working that way has taught me some useful work habits that I apply to my present job as a full-time employee of JIST Publishing. I’m especially glad that I learned the importance of creating a brand and achieving professional visibility. That’s a habit that all workers should cultivate for the sake of job security, with or without their present employer.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Why Do Women Leave Careers in Science and Engineering?

Recently I was intrigued to come upon an article in which an economist explained why women drop out of careers in science and engineering. The topic is of special interest to me because it’s only a month since, working with Dave Anderson of JIST, I finished a manuscript about careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) and another manuscript about nontraditional careers for men and women.

Discussion of the lack of women in STEM careers usually focuses on how girls tend to lose interest in the STEM subjects sometime around high school. Much less attention has been paid to the women who went as far as to get a college degree in a scientific or engineering subject and then walked away from the field. And this economist, Jennifer Hunt of McGill University, unlike almost everyone else studying this problem, decided to use samples that compared scientists and engineers to people in other skilled occupations. Her reasoning was as follows: If the problem with science and engineering is long work hours (as some researchers have concluded), then are women similarly abandoning other careers with long work hours? Or if the problem instead is a heavily male workforce, are women baling out other male-dominated careers at the same rate? In short, what characteristics across various careers cause women to flee?

For her research sample, Hunt looked to the 1993 and 2003 National Surveys of College Graduates, which indicates what students majored in. Those students who reported they were not working in the field of their major (or not working at all) are those she considered as having left their field. These respondents were asked why they left their field, and all workers were asked about the importance they placed on various work conditions and rewards.

She found that science and engineering--and particularly the latter--lose more women than other fields, and that most of these career drop-outs go to work in other fields rather than leave the workforce.

The main reason the women left the field: dissatisfaction over opportunities for pay and promotion. This phenomenon has not been noticed previously because almost the same proportion of men drop out of science and engineering for this reason. But when she looked at other fields, she found women were much less likely than men to drop out for this reason. In other words, for women there’s something about science and engineering that makes perceived lack of opportunities especially discouraging.

She found the opposite phenomenon when she looked at family-related issues as a reason why women left. This factor caused many more women than men to leave science and engineering, but the gender gap was just as wide in other fields. So it was not a discouraging factor for women in science and engineering per se.

The key relationship Hunt found was between the female career drop-out rate and the proportion of men who studied the field. That is to say, fields other than science and engineering with a high proportion of male students also experienced a high rate of losing women after graduation. This finding implied that the male dominance of science and engineering is what caused the women’s dissatisfaction over opportunities for pay and promotion.

Hunt concluded that the way to keep more women in science and engineering is to focus on the immediate effects of gender imbalance and the perception of limited opportunities for earnings and advancement. Specifically, offer women in these careers better mentoring and networking opportunities; commit to a visible campaign against discrimination by male supervisors and co-workers. And extend these reforms to all other male-dominated fields.