Ways to Handle the Gap Between Completing Your Education and Starting Your New Job

Photo by  Denys Argyriou  on  Unsplash

A university career counselor emailed me some time back with a question for one of her Ph.D. candidates.

For anyone who might be facing the lull between finishing their education and beginning a new job, here's an edited version of our email exchange. Names and several details have been edited.

The Inquiry:

Hi Jared,

I hope you've been well since the training. Can you help me advise a student in an unusual situation? He graduated in June and is starting a government job in D.C. that he’s very excited about. He's awaiting final clearance. His Ph.D. is in [Study Area] and he also has an MA in [Degree Focus]. He is also fluent in [Language]. He needs something temporary and probably part-time to help make it through financially until he’s called to D.C.

He’s getting a bit stressed. Afraid he’s going to have to work at Starbucks. I suggested looking for [omitted] work or contract-style consulting but he’s been unable to find anything along those lines. In other words, he needs something that will be worthwhile to do but short-term/part-time.

Many thanks,

Jane

My Reply:

Hi Jane,

You've already given him sound advice. The fact that nothing is materializing isn't surprising, though. Here's a run-down of what immediately comes to mind based on what I've observed over the years. I'll leave international travel off the table since it sounds like he needs to work.

He needs a survival job.

He should find a job with that in mind. He's working toward—and shouldn't lose sight of—an end goal that is already in hand. That said, he's not the first to have that lag between hire and approval when it comes to a government role, so he just needs to find something that flexible that will pay the bills between now and then. And that's not necessarily easy to do unless he takes a step back a bit from his internal expectations. 

He needs something he can easily leave when D.C. calls.

Actors and performers face this challenge all the time—how to pay the bills while being able to respond immediately to an audition or a role.

The solution can be temping. Yep, temping. As unglamorous as temping sounds, it's there for a reason. Yes, he may have to cloak himself with a bit of humility, but while he's there, perhaps he can look at it as research for some future area of interest. There may come a time when he references his "time as a temp" for a publication or article or some other "real world impact" piece.

Maybe he could approach it like the guy who ate McDonald's hamburgers for 31 days, or the writer who goes undercover as a homeless person for a year. You get my drift. If he can think of the experience as something larger, which might be interesting to "report on" later, it may make the time less frustrating. 

He'll probably never want to highlight it, but it will stand in the gap between now and D.C. Who knows, it might inform his government work, now or later, depending on where he ultimately focuses. 

The best way to approach temping is to submit materials to at least three agencies. One will never use him, one might use him occasionally, and the third will likely use him regularly. It may be that the companies (who are hiring through the temp agency) might need a bilingual [job title], which could turn into a part-time gig or maybe a long-term relationship that bears fruit twenty years from now. He won't know until he goes that route.

He doesn't have to include it on his resume. 

As for the resume, it isn't essential to include anything he does between now and D.C., except perhaps in the short-term resumes that he'll use with the temp agencies. For this reason, he shouldn't add any of that "work experience" to LinkedIn. 

Temping can be akin to contracting, but the work will likely fall outside of his areas of interest. On the resume—in the unlikely event he ever has to include this gap period—he can still frame it as "contracting" and isolate the parts of the assignments that relate to the bigger picture of his career. Less is more in that case. In that case, he can truncate the time period under the temp agency's name, treating it as a single job with multiple assignments.

He will likely still need to include those temp jobs when filling out a formal application, which he may have to do as a government employee. In that case, it won't likely ding him because many have some sort of gap between college and career. (Travel, gap year, etc.)

His should be financially prudent

The alternative would be taking a loan to live (I've heard the long-term effects and it's generally a less-than-ideal approach), borrowing from friends or family (possible in some instances, also not a great idea), or couch surfing with friends (but that still doesn't pay the bills).

He might look into deferring student loans, or at the very least income-adjusted repayment plans until he gets on his feet in D.C. Check with the loan provider, however, because interest can mount up quickly, so he should make an educated decision rather than simply putting loans into deferment without understanding the ramifications. 

He should look at his expenses and cut every non-essential purchase. He might have already done this, but even a cup of coffee a day can range $90 to $120 per month, which would be $450-$600 between now and January.

He needs to be his own advocate.

Sometimes that means facing reality, knuckling down, knowing that something better is just around the corner. As a recent student, this is probably not unfamiliar territory for him. Just knuckle down a little longer.

He should celebrate the achievement of this new role.

And while waiting, he may want to find and commiserate with others who have endured the gap between graduation and the start of a new job. How did they do it? What are their stories? 

He should be purposeful, not entertaining thoughts of stagnation.

This is temporary and he'll look back on this one day and laugh/be grateful/who really knows. Bottom line, it will be a blip in his overall career. He should avoid being defensive of anyone asks about what he's doing. Make light of it in some sort of fun way and move on.

Hope that helps!

Jared

Your Star-shaped Peg Isn't Meant to Fit in that Square-shaped Hole

As infants, we learn that star-shaped pegs fit only in the star-shaped holes.

So why do we backslide as adults and start thinking our star-shaped pegs should suddenly fit into square holes?

The analogy illustrates a challenge faced by many successful people.

I work with stealth job seekers. People who are ostensibly happy in their jobs, but open to change. Yet even sitting solidly in their leadership positions, they say things like:

  • A recruiter called and didn't like X about my background. 
  • My friend told me my résumé was missing Y.

To which I say, "You might be missing the point. Your background and future career interests don't have to fit a recruiter's spec just because s/he called you."

In fact, thinking back to the thousands of people I called as a recruiter, odds were exceptionally low that the background of my prospect would be a fit. I had a long list of possibilities, but it was my job to find the right person. Only a handful on my list of 300-500 names would even make the first cut. 

Even purple squirrels become purple squirrels when the right, oddly-precise opportunity comes along. 

A needle in a haystack has more guarantee of being found! Recruiting didn't earn the headhunter nickname for nothing.

And as for what's missing on your résumé, how on earth can your friend know which parts of your background matter with respect to where you want to go in your career? YOU might not even know the answer to that question, so how can even the dearest, most trusted friend advise you about what should and should not appear on your résumé?

Here are some simple ways to start thinking about a shift in your career:

  • Be honest about where you'd be willing to go in your career. 
  • Create a realistic list of things you require to make a move. While you're at, include your deal breakers. 
  • Get real about what's feasible, and if you find technical gaps between your experience to date and where you want to go, decide if it makes sense (time-wise, economically) to fill those gaps.
  • Stop twisting yourself into a pretzel to meet the spec of every recruiter who comes along. Be grateful they came along in the first place, have a short and pleasant chat, and sit tight for the right opportunity when it surfaces.

Be your own personknow and be your brand. You'll attract the right opportunities. Opportunities that value the pieces of you and the skills that light you up. Opportunities that make you happy. 

The more I do this work, the more I realize how many people grow in terms of skill, expertise, and seniority, but never move beyond the "Pick me! Pick me!" mentality that we all adopt as we leave college and head into the real world. If you're 15-25 years into your career, you're being sought and paid for how your leadership will impact a company, not the other way around. 

Pithy blog posts and rant-filled articlesthis one included, perhapsdo not, alone, represent the Holy Grail for your future, so stop trying to fit your star-shaped peg into square-shaped holes. Instead, start the hard work, decision-making, and preparationhell, do a Job Description Analysisnecessary to architecting the right next step in your own career.   

Why the Writing Process is a Great Tool for Decision-making

A CTO client of mine recently referenced another writer with whom he was working on a twenty-page RFP. 

"Of course I have to rewrite about half of it, like always," he lamented. My client is a good writer himself, so my immediate reaction was, "Oh, that other writer must suck. Too bad for them." 

Then I took a beat and realized the odds were high that if my client—a leader in a well-respected company—was hiring a writer, the other writer was likely vetted. And hence, a good writer. 

Whether my client realized it, he wasn't referring to grammar, punctuation, and order; rather his remarks pointed to the tough decisions inherent to arranging words on a page. 

Staking and explaining a position so others will join your vision ... be convinced ... believe in you ... is hard work, and seeing words come back "wrong" is often the very exercise needed to make corrections so you can get the message right.  

Words spoken slip by like vapor. They can range from hyperbolic to self-conscious, and during conversation a listener can roll their eyes, stop listening, or ignore what is said. The listener can even unwittingly embrace words that seem substantial but aren't. 

But words written—at least with lasting authority—must be defensible and balanced. 

That's what I mean when I tell people that I view the writing process as a tool for professional discovery. Not to mention a tool for interview or public speaking prep. Writing can even help resolve internal questions or conflicts around career choices.  

When you're forced to answer questions under the bright light of reality, you face yourself warts and all. Ninety eight percent of the people with whom I've worked over the years have had self-confronting, a-ha moments on the road to presenting clear and coherent stories.

Perhaps that's why some later report that the writing process was like therapy. The work isn't based on therapeutic principles and I'm not a therapist. But the work required to get clarity seems to force the subject (client) to confront themselves in a clearer way than talking along. Writing is decision-making, forward-facing self-reflection, and "deciding what one stands for" all at once. 

If you write for, or on behalf of, others, embrace this tricky space. Don't take offense when your subject doesn't instantly love your work. Be ready to guide them through your reasoning, or better yet, include them in the entire process. It's their story, after all, and they will someday need to defend it. If you find that you need to improve as a writer, push yourself to grow. Using the writing process as a tool for decision-making inherently sets us up to be both teacher and student. 

If you're working with a writer, get comfortable with the ambiguity and uncertainty that precedes good, clear, and unobscured writing. Every decision in the writing process—major or minor—is essential to turning your word soup story into a clearly-branded message. 

Are You a Multipotentialite? TedX Challenges Us Again

A colleague and dear friend emailed Emilie Wapnick's recent TedX Talk to me yesterday.

At age 65, my friend is an executive résumé writer and career coach with a more-than-interesting professional history.

Indeed, she began her résumé writing practice after at age 50 after stumbling into contingency recruiting three years earlier. 

Prior to that she earned a PhD and an MBA in unrelated fields, ostensibly for the joy of it, and before that, she grew up studying the organ! We bonded over J.S. Bach, love him or hate him, as I studied the piano for many years myself.

Like so many who spend their 75 to 90ish years on the this planet smearing together the humanities and the sciences, this TedX talk resonated with my dear friend. 

It's worth the 15 minutes you'll spend watching it and challenging yourself. 

Are you a multipotentialite? If so, what the hell are you doing about it? If not, are you giving room to those who are?

CTOs, CIOs, and CMOs - This One's for You

A European client who's frequently at the cutting edge of technology and marketing yesterday forwarded HBR's The Rise of the Chief Marketing Technologist article by Scott Brinker (CTO at Ion Interactive) and Laura McLellan (research vice president at Gartner). 

It's a must read for my senior technology and marketing clients (CTOs, CIOs, CMOs, etc.), as we've all seen the same blur between the disciplines in recent years. Just think about the tightly woven job descriptions for so many program or product managers. So why wouldn't be think about the top roles integrating just as tightly? 

Important read for my clients.  

The MBA: Overrated?

A July 2015 BusinessInsider.com article recycled through my Twitter feed last week, and I almost didn't catch it, but I'm glad I did. 

I work with MBAs all the time. Newly minted. Mid-career. Senior MBAs. They're all smart people, and pretty great to boot. But probably half struggle in the same ways the rest of us struggle, asking, "What's my value in the world?" and "What do I want to do next?" (It's not lost on me that this is partly because of the nature of my work. I will naturally meet people who are questioning.)

A big part of discovering an answer to those questions, though, involves stepping out from behind the numbers and being human, which is why "6 career moves that are worth more than an MBA" by BusinessInsider.com struck a chord with me. Really interesting, and seemingly random insights (all six of them) are all tied into a single article that actually makes a lot of sense. The "become a master storyteller" resonated with me, as you might imagine.

Above is a sneak peek. Click the photo to read the entire article.  

 

More News for Humanities Graduates Exploring Tech

Hot on the heels of yesterday's news that Silicon Valley might be welcoming to humanities graduates comes this earlier published Forbes article: The 'Useless' Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech's Hottest Ticket. 

As a musician, myself, this would have been awesome news fifteen years ago. For today's humanities graduates, especially those with advanced degrees, it's a watershed moment. 

If you're a recent or about to graduate humanities student, read the whole article, top to bottom. Then, if you're interested, start doing the research and the networking to make it happen. The way you think is valuable. 

Screenshot of Stewart Butterfield, Slack's CEO, in George Anders' recent Forbes.com article. Photo credit: Carlo Ricci.

Screenshot of Stewart Butterfield, Slack's CEO, in George Anders' recent Forbes.com article. Photo credit: Carlo Ricci.