Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Post-Interview Thank-You Note

The post-interview thank-you note (in scope, it should be more of a note than a letter) serves at least three purposes. First, it shows courtesy, thus adding to whatever rapport you accomplished in the interview. This is important, because a major question in the interviewer’s mind, entirely apart from your technical skills, is whether you’ll be a nice person to work with. You can reinforce this impression by handwriting the message on attractive note stationery, rather than on a sterile 8 by 11 sheet of paper. If your handwriting is truly atrocious, get someone else to pen the note; or perhaps you can figure out a way to feed the stationery into your printer and then hand-write your signature. Don’t use stationery that’s so flowery or cutesy that it’s inappropriate for a business setting.

The second purpose the note serves is to give you a chance to make comments that might reinforce the interviewer’s impression of your technical skills or that might dispel some negative information about you that came out during the interview. Every job-seeker comes out of an interview thinking, “I wish I had remembered to say x,” or “I wish I had answered that question better.” In the context of a note, you have limited space to correct these omissions or gaffes, so choose your words carefully and don’t overburden the note. The note can’t be an after-the-fact substitute for an inadequate resume or cover letter, although it may refer to what was written there.

The third purpose for the note is to indicate your interest in and enthusiasm for the job. Tone is important here. You have to project confidence in your qualifications and not come across as needy.

One other purpose this note sometimes serves is to mention any relevant information that has come out since the interview. For example, if you received another job offer or the Employee of the Month award, this is something you would want your interviewer to know.

Unless you know that the hiring decision will be made very quickly (and usually it takes longer than the interviewer says it will), you should wait a few days before sending the note, lest you appear to lack confidence in your performance at the interview.

These comments apply equally well no matter what your industry is or what level of job you were interviewed for. The only exception worth mentioning is the graphic arts industry, which would call for special attention to the visual appeal of the note.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Reducing Stress on the Job

Constant workplace stress can take a physical toll: high blood pressure, ulcers, and a weakened immune system, among other woes. One study found that health-care expenditures are nearly 50 percent greater for workers who report high levels of stress compared to workers who report low levels. Workplace stress also causes work output to suffer, which reinforces the stress. Home life also suffers. A survey by the Anxiety Disorders Association of America found that of workers who said that stress affects their work, 81 percent said it interferes with their relationship with their spouse or significant other and more than a third said it affects their relationship with their children.

What can you do about workplace stress? My main advice would be to identify what is most stressful about your present work situation and shape your career-development efforts to change that. The process of change will itself create some stresses, but your goal can be to achieve a lower level of stress.

First, set priorities: You probably can’t defuse every stressful aspect of your work--unless you quit, which creates new stresses. So focus on the most severe stressors that you have the greatest likelihood of being able to change. Avoid perfectionism, which is a self-imposed form of stress; accept the fact that you make mistakes and view them as opportunities for learning. Be realistic about the goals you set for yourself.

Speak up: Often, your boss or co-workers can make adjustments to your work situation that may reduce or eliminate stressors. The key is for you to avoid whining and make the case that reducing the stress will increase your productivity. Ask for the resources you need and show appreciation for the support you get.

Put up a fence between work and the rest of your life: Avoid letting a cell phone or e-mail chain you to the workplace. Working partly at home can remove you from some office pressures, but it can also blur the line between work and free time. Cultivate friendships with people who aren’t co-workers.

Get organized: Sticking tightly (but not obsessively) to a schedule can prevent you from procrastinating and help you limit the amount of time you let yourself think about stressors. Deal with them when they’re scheduled, and then put them out of your thoughts. If you don’t have a job description, ask your boss for one. It will help you set boundaries on what is expected of you.

Exercise regularly: Leave time in your busy schedule for a workout of some kind. You may feel that stress leaves you too tired to exercise, but most people who take up a regular schedule of exercise finds that it invigorates them. It also drains away stress-induced hormones and contributes to your long-term health.

Eat sensibly and get enough sleep: Junk food and sleep deprivation can compound stress-related health problems. For example, caffeine and high-carbohydrate foods can increase the rush in blood sugar that stress produces.

Practice relaxation: Meditation techniques—even something as simple as slow, rhythmic breathing in a quiet setting—can help you decompress. Some people get similar benefits from extended prayer or a midday nap. Many people believe that bringing a pet to work is helpful (if the employer allows it).

Build a social life: Many people find the most rewarding time of the week is the time they spend with family and friends. Try to maximize these times. Social contacts distract you from workplace pressures and can provide support when you’re feeling blue. Meet like-minded people through volunteer work, a night class, a book club, a faith community, or a sports league.

Maintain a sense of humor: Try to find the humor in your situation. You can’t be afraid of something while you’re laughing at it. If you can’t find any humor in your workplace, find it in your leisure time.

If all of these strategies fail, you may decide that your best course of action is to leave your present job and find a less stressful situation. You won’t be the only person who is doing this; one survey found that almost one in five respondents had quit a previous position because of job stress. Another estimate is that 40 percent of job turnover is caused by stress.

The clearer your understanding of what you find most stressful in your present job, the easier it will be for you to identify a new position that avoids these stressors. Try to find a way to ask about potential stressors in your interview for the new job and, if possible, speak about them to people working for your prospective employer.

Sometimes, it’s not enough simply to change employers. What’s stressing you may be something essential to the nature of your occupation. Perhaps you’ve been able to tolerate the stressor for several years but have reached the point where you’re ready to move on to a different occupation--a second career or a retirement job.

If so, you may be interested in the occupations that I include in 150 Best Low-Stress Jobs.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

How STEM Career Plans Get Derailed

Careers in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) are an interest of mine. I have blogged about them several times, have presented about them at conferences, and have written a book about them (Quick STEM Careers Guide). Next month, JIST will publish my STEM Careers Inventory.

The United States needs a steady supply of STEM-prepared college grads to fill the many technological jobs that our economy has created and will continue to create. In fact, if we fail to meet this need, our economy is threatened.

So I was intrigued to come upon a paper (PDF) by two economists, Todd and Ralph Stinebrickner (brothers?), “Math or Science? Using Longitudinal Expectations Data to Examine the Process of Choosing a College Major.” The researchers used data from a longitudinal study at Berea College to investigate how students go through the process of choosing a college major. They focused on large groups of majors, especially the group that they call “math/science.”

The usual assumption about how students choose a major is that students have a self-concept and a concept of the careers that the major leads to. Students are likely to change their planned major if they feel that one of these has changed so that what previously seemed like a good match now appears to be a bad fit. For example, students’ self-concept may change if they discover that they are no longer interested in the major or if they find that they lack the ability to do well in it. Their concept of the career outcomes may change if they learn that an industry associated with the major is not as promising as they previously thought it was or if an internship experience in a related career reveals work tasks or worksite conditions different from what they previously expected. The researchers sought to discover which of these changes were mainly responsible for students’ abandoning their plans to major in math/science.

The survey instrument at Berea College elicited four attitudes that students held toward their planned major: their percent chance of sticking with the major, their expected GPA, their expected income (in dollars) at age 28, and their interest in the major (on a five-point Likert scale). The research report notes that one unique advantage of this survey instrument as a window on the students’ career decision making was its frequency: “Each student was surveyed approximately 12 times each year while in school, with the first survey taking place immediately before the beginning of the student’s freshman year.”

A change in the first of the survey’s scales (chance of persistence) would indicate a change of heart toward the major. An accompanying change in the second scale (expected GPA) would indicate a change in self-concept, whereas if there were a better correlation with expected earnings or with interest in the major, this would indicate a change in students’ perception of the career.

The researchers found that expectations of persistence in the major changed differently for students planning to major in math/science: Expectations tended to decline precipitously in the freshman year (even though students did not have to formally declare their major that year), whereas students planning other majors, if they scaled back their expectations, did so more gradually over several years. And the decline in expectations for the math/science major showed a stronger correlation to anticipated GPA than to anticipated earnings or current interest. In other words, students’ experiences in their freshman year caused them to revise downward their estimates of their math/science abilities, and that’s why they expected to drift away from a math/science major.

I saw examples of this behavior in my own freshman year at a school with a large proportion of math/science majors (The Johns Hopkins University). Several friends of mine abandoned plans for math/science careers after experiencing the rigorous chemistry and calculus classes that freshman math/science majors at JHU are required to take.

The researchers conclude that we need “policies at younger ages that lead students to enter college better prepared to study math or science.” I agree. It’s not enough to get students interested in STEM careers. We need to be sure that in high school (and probably starting earlier than that) young people learn the skills they will need to succeed in a STEM college major.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Unhappy, Staying, but Not Stagnating

The consulting firm Accenture drew some attention recently with a survey of 3,400 business professionals in 29 countries that found that fewer than half of the respondents were satisfied with their current jobs. Men and women showed a similar level of discontent: only 42 and 43 percent reported job satisfaction.

The respondents showed a slightly greater gender divide when they identified the reasons for their frustration: being underpaid (cited by 47 percent of women versus 44 percent of men); a lack of opportunity for growth (36 percent versus 32 percent); no opportunity for career advancement (33 percent versus 34 percent); and feeling trapped (29 percent versus 32 percent).

For me, the most interesting finding was that nearly three-quarters (70 percent of women and 69 percent of men) plan to stay with their companies. The headline that many news services used for their coverage of the survey was something like “Unhappy Workers Do Little About It, Says Survey.”

But the research actually found the workers showing quite a bit of initiative. More than half of respondents (59 percent of women and 57 percent of men), say that, this year, in an effort to enhance their careers, they will work on developing their knowledge and/or a skill set to achieve their career objectives.

It’s no surprise that so many are planning to stay with their present employer. The economy is not offering a wealth of job openings in many, perhaps most of the countries surveyed. But another factor that is easily overlooked is the size of the companies that were surveyed: medium to large. Such employers may be expected to offer a modicum of opportunities for internal job movement, even in a slow economy. I expect that a survey of people at small companies would find more workers who are looking elsewhere for green grass.

Dissatisfied workers like the ones uncovered by this survey were some of the people I had in mind when I wrote 2011 Career Plan. My boss at JIST Publishing, Sue Pines, suggested that I model it on Suze Orman’s Action Plan, and I made a point of using a tone that is much more pushy (although I prefer the more positive and classier-sounding “hortative”) than I’ve ever used in my previous writing.

The idea is to goad readers into taking action. I want readers to commit to a specific career goal, whether it is achieving greater security in their present job (“Safeguarding”), seeking a promotion (“Climbing”), moving to another employer, but in the same occupation and industry (“Decamping”), moving to another employer and industry, but in the same occupation (“Revamping”), or switching to a new employer and a new occupation (“Reinventing”). For each goal, I suggest a strategy and specific action steps for pursuing that strategy.

For example, if acquiring better skills is part of the strategy (as it should be for the many Accenture-surveyed workers who want to climb the ladder at their present company), I identify ways to build skills, with tools that readers can use, such as the text of an e-mail that requests a skill-testing work assignment.

One of the premises of 2011 Career Plan is that this is a good year to take career-building action because job opportunities in the United States are finally starting to improve. When I wrote the book, in 2010, there was still a considerable amount of fear that a double-dip recession would reverse the few employment gains that had materialized by then. Since that time, however, my optimism is starting to look warranted. This month we are seeing much more encouraging news about job growth. The unemployment rate finally fell below 9 percent in February. The drop of almost one percent over the previous three-month period was the largest our economy has seen in nearly 28 years.

There are still some worries that rising oil prices will dampen economic growth (one more reason we need to shift to a green-energy economy!), but on balance 2011 looks like the time when dissatisfied workers--or anybody concerned about job security--should be making an action plan and taking steps to put it into effect.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Greatest Hits Collection

Like careers, music is an important part of my life. I rarely get a chance to combine the two, but I sometimes think of making a mixtape of songs about careers. Here’s what I would include:

“Get a Job” by the Silhouettes. This song came out in 1958, during a recession. The lyrics are slurred quite a bit and therefore hard to follow in places, but someone has compared them to the opening chapter of Native Son.

“Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys,” by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. This 1978 release by the two country outlaws is one of the few songs that deal specifically with career choice. It points out one career development issue that is often overlooked: the effect of career choice on one’s significant others.

“Dark as a Dungeon,” by Dolly Parton. This is from a whole album with careers as a theme: 1980’s “9 to 5 and Odd Jobs.” The song was written by Merle Travis, who was born and raised in Muhlenberg County, Kentucky, the heart of coal-mining country. He has said he was trying for a folkish sound with the opening, something like “Come all ye fine and tender maidens.”

“When I Grow Up (To Be a Man),” by The Beach Boys. This song from 1965 deals with some of the issues, including career choice, that adolescents face. The backup singers count off the years “18, 19, 20, 21” in a way that is a little bit ominous.

“Take This Job and Shove It,” by Johnny Paycheck. David Alan Coe wrote it and recorded it in 1978, which unsurprisingly was not during a recession. This was a brilliant idea for a song, because everybody has fantasized saying this at one time or another. I remember having this go through my head when I actually did quit a job.

“Working in the Coalmine,” by Lee Dorsey. This 1966 hit was written and produced by the New Orleans great Allen Toussaint. It’s a reminder of how soul-killing some work can be. I’ve always loved the spoken line, “Lord, I’m so tired! How long can this go on?”

“Detroit City,” by Bobby Bare. This 1963 song points out that the ability to move from place to place in pursuit of a career is a great asset but also can be the source of a lot of stress. “By day I make the cars,/By night I make the bars.”

“Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos),” by Joan Baez. This song, from her 1971 album “Blessed Are…,” was written by Woody Guthrie in response to an actual plane crash that killed several undocumented farmworkers who were being deported to Mexico after the harvest was over. It’s a reminder that, for all they are demonized by some politicians, border-crossing farmworkers are not only vital to our economy but are fellow humans with families and dreams of their own.

“Welcome to the Working Week,” by Elvis Costello. This song is remarkably brief, reflecting the aesthetic of Costello’s 1976 debut album, “My Aim Is True,” and also the fatalism that is its theme: “You gotta do it till you’re through it so you better get to it.”

“Don’t Talk to Me About Work,” by Lou Reed. This song was originally on his 1983 album “Legendary Hearts” and is a sardonic look at some of the stresses of the workday.

“Big Boss Man,” by Elvis Presley. This is a 1967 recording. Jimmy Reed originally popularized the song, but it was written by Al Smith and Luther Dixon. It highlights some of the tension between managers and the workers they supervise, who sometimes wonder why their boss is in a position of authority. Speaking of The Boss....

“Jersey Girl,” by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Tom Waits wrote this song, but Bruce made it one of the most famous B-sides of all time. This is the obvious choice for me to end this mixtape, partly because I’m a fellow native of the Jersey Shore, and partly because the song is about the joys of being finished with the workday. (“I know that job you’ve got leaves you so uninspired.”) I might have included The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” for a similar theme.

It’s significant that resentment of work is the overwhelming theme of these songs, and it would be difficult to find a collection that emphasized the more positive aspects of work. I think this may happen because popular songs are appreciated mostly as entertainment, as diversions from such practical matters as making a living.

I welcome any suggestions for additional career-related songs that deserve inclusion.