MyCareer@PND — New to the Job Market? Control Yourself
The days surrounding the completion of a degree can be as exciting as they are daunting. Every mention of finishing a thesis or exam has as its counterweight the pressure of starting a job and finding ways to convert the knowledge learned in the classroom into a career. If the internal pressure on students and recent graduates isn't troubling enough, it is made worse by the constant stream of family, friends, relatives, neighbors, and others asking, "So what's next?" – or the even more audacious "A degree in ______? What does one even do with that?" Those seeking work in the nonprofit sector may become frustrated by an employment landscape that is highly specialized and, at its entry levels, highly competitive. During the lowest moments, the whole job search process can begin to feel out of control as one waits for new positions to be posted and interview requests to be granted.
As a career counselor practicing at a liberal arts college, I frequently work with individuals who find themselves in this transitional space between school and work. During our sessions we spend time reviewing resumes, cover letters, interview techniques and networking. However, at its core, what I am really trying to do is help them gain more familiarity with those elements of the job search within their control and develop strategies to engage in specific tasks.
My goal in writing this article is to present several concepts and resources that may assist new graduates with the transition from school to work in the nonprofit sector. Additionally, I hope to provide those working with these individuals a point of departure for initiating conversations on elements within this seemingly chaotic process over which the job seeker actually has a large degree of control.
Leave "Job Search Island"
As you commence a job search in the nonprofit world after completing a degree, you may begin to feel like you live on a private island. On the island you have your computer, wi-fi, your folder of documents (labeled "JOB SEARCH" naturally), your favorite job boards bookmarked, e-mail alerts coming in daily, and a host of other digital tools at the ready to construct the perfect bridge between school and work. However, after a few weeks, something doesn't feel right. It is starting to get lonely on the island. The only jobs you seem to be hearing from are not the ones you want; the perfect opportunities feel miles away. At this point in your search (ideally before you embark on the proverbial three-hour tour), it is time to leave the island for the mainland.
As a guiding principle: You do not want to be the only person searching for your job. How do you do this? Begin by utilizing the many resources you have at your disposal.
"I have resources?" you ask.
You do. Let's start with those connected to your school/alma mater.
Career services offices. If you are a current student about to graduate, the best time to visit your institution's career services office is right now. Well — first finish reading this article, because there is some more useful information to come. But then at least make an appointment to meet a career counselor. Many career offices also speak with recent alumni, too, so have no fear if you haven't checked in with your alma mater since graduation.
While these offices can certainly help you prepare job search documents (e.g., a correctly formatted resume, targeted cover letter, etc.), they also may be able to acquaint you with contacts in the professional sphere they have established through career fairs, employer relations visits, and professional development workshops. These offices also frequently host events, such as panels of individuals who work at nonprofit organizations, and are more than glad to help you maximize your attendance.
Alumni networks. Alumni can be reached in a variety of ways — through the school's alumni office, through associations in cities and states, through LinkedIn (we'll discuss this more in the next section) — and are usually more than happy to help. Yes, when you initially chat there may be some discussion of the good old days, specific classes, and how the "scene" used to be so much better. But after that, the conversation can move straight on to a discussion of their career trajectory, your career ambitions, and how the alumni network may be able to provide assistance in your nonprofit employment search.
When reaching out to alumni and other new contacts in your field, remember to follow the golden rule of informational interviewing: ask the person for his/her time and information, not directly for a job. Time and information are more or less within their control; giving you a job likely isn't.
Faculty. Faculty members frequently possess professional knowledge that they may not share during course time. Outside the classroom, faculty can be great resources as you make the transition between school and work. In programs that prepare you to enter a specific corner of the nonprofit sector, faculty usually know practitioners in the field through research collaborations, conferences, and work done prior to their academic careers. In less specific fields of study, faculty can provide information on how to best translate your academic experiences into a professional context, where to look for work in your chosen field, and additional resources (remember those alumni?) that can further aid in your job search.
Peers: Look around your classroom and campus. You know these people. Some only in passing, others far too well. Whether they are acquaintances, friends, or even frienemies, they are all members of your network now. In the short term, these are individuals with whom you can discuss job search strategies, share postings, practice interview skills, talk salaries, and generally discuss the ebbs and flows of your transition into the workplace. In the long term, as you all settle into different positions, they can be great discussion partners with respect to industry trends (or complaints) as well as partners in professional development opportunities. They also may share information about future openings within their organizations — useful if you decide to move around within your industry.
There are additional resources available to you off-campus. Again, these resources are entirely within your control to utilize, whether you are currently finishing a program or have recently graduated.
LinkedIn. A common misconception about LinkedIn is that "it's just Facebook for professionals." At the most basic level, LinkedIn is indeed a social network similar to Facebook, Twitter, and others. However, unlike every other platform, LinkedIn was specifically designed to help both job seekers and current professionals build, sustain, and maintain their professional networks. If you do not already have a profile, it is very easy to start one here: www.linkedin.com. If you have a profile, make sure you use it to its fullest extent by having a professional photo (not professionally taken, just not one of you on '80s night), providing descriptions of your work experiences and highlighting the skills you have developed. In addition, be certain to join LinkedIn groups. These groups usually consist of potential contacts (read: people with jobs!) in your target industry. Connect with them. Ask for small amounts of their time and information. Add them to the list of people searching for your job on the mainland.
Professional Associations. Whatever your area of interest in the nonprofit sector may be, I assure you it has its own professional association. In many cases, more than one — particularly if there are national, regional, or even local affiliates of a larger parent association. Professional associations provide fantastic avenues for meeting colleagues (read: more people with jobs!) in your target professional area. Perhaps the best opportunity to interact with these individuals is at conferences. While national conferences may require expensive travel, organizations frequently host regional gatherings where professionals in your area can share knowledge, discuss industry trends, and network. And don't forget to join their LinkedIn group!
Volunteer. If you have the desire and availability to volunteer, these experiences can be an excellent way to help others while also gaining professional experience and meeting new people in your industry. Many volunteer opportunities are facilitated by nonprofit organizations and frequently focus on working with a specific population (children, elderly individuals, etc.) and/or toward a specific goal such as advocacy or education. If you participate in long-term volunteer experiences, feel free to add these to your resume and LinkedIn profile — rarely if ever will anyone ask if you got paid for your work or volunteered your time. In fact, in certain corners of the nonprofit world, voluntarism is a great way to get your start.
Know Before You Go
A final piece of the job search process within your immediate control is the research you perform on companies and positions within the nonprofit sector. A few points to keep in mind whether you are beginning a search, sending out cover letters, interviewing, or even deciding between offers:
Know the organization. It is assumed that at every point in the job search process you are familiar with the organization. That is to say, you have a general understanding of its mission, its size, the kinds of events it stages, and how to correctly spell its name. While certainly some organizations play their organizational culture close to the vest, many have established a Web presence in order to increase the visibility of their organization and its goals. No matter how big or small the organization, it is incumbent upon you to research what separates one nonprofit from its peers.
Know the field. As you begin a job search process in the nonprofit sector, it is vitally important that you understand how subsectors within the field are structured and what job titles actually represent. For example, "development officers" don't construct buildings; they raise money to fund building construction and many other projects. The more you read position descriptions on Web job boards like Idealist and PND's own job board, the better you'll understand the nonprofit sector.
Know the market...and yourself. Coming to know the market means researching the opportunities that are currently available to you, as well as those that may become available in the future. As you move further into your nonprofit job search, asking questions about the job market may quickly lead to asking questions of yourself. These may include:
- Is the job I want located in my city or region? If not, am I willing to relocate to pursue the opportunity?
- Does my ideal job require non-traditional hours (i.e., lots of nights or weekends) and/or travel? Am I willing to accept a position with such requirements?
- Does my ideal job require additional education? Am I willing to pursue that now or should I put it off?
- What are my salary requirements? Am I willing to be flexible on salary in order to obtain the position I want?
Your answers to these questions will change over time and will be unique to you. However, it may be helpful to initially consider some or all of these questions as you transition into the workforce.
You Live in the "Real World"
What I have tried to do here is focus on those elements of the nonprofit job search that are within your control. While many individuals have obtained a good job by sending out lots of resumes and following up on any responses, it is important to remember that that method is only one of several available to you.
As you start to pursue these and other avenues, keep in mind that the wall between school and "the real world" is only as high as you choose to build it. By staying engaged in your own professional development, and by resisting the temptation to retreat to "job search island," you will steadily improve your chances of obtaining employment in the nonprofit sector and move closer to finding work that translates your idealism and educational experience into a meaningful career.
Ben Selznick is a career counselor at Marymount Manhattan College who also privately advises individuals seeking to make the college-to-career transition.