The Power of Personal Experience
By Mary A. Fitzgerald
As a community college-based career development professional, I often struggle to convince my clients to try some of the most effective career exploration and job search tools. When discussing the potential benefits of networking, informational interviewing, volunteering, and mentoring with the college students and community members who come to Career Services, I sense their skepticism. They express doubt that the time and effort needed to engage in these activities will be worth it.
My greatest successes in getting clients to use a new approach have come when I shared my own recent personal experiences as a career changer and job seeker. Clients become more enthusiastic about seeing how the techniques I recommend might work for them when my counsel sounds less like “This is what you could do to find out more about this career field” and more like “This is what I have done to find out more about a career field – and it worked!” Sharing my career journey helps demystify the process by providing real-life examples of how to identify and implement various career development strategies productively.
Why Not Try Networking and Informational Interviewing?
Clients seem to prefer to avoid “asking for favors,” “talking to strangers,” or “letting people know my personal business.” I commiserate with them that it can be uncomfortable and share how nervous I was when I began telling others that I might want to change careers. My career exploration research had led me to “career counseling” as a possible new path, but I needed to meet some career counselors to learn what it was really like to work as one and how I could transition into the field. Confiding in others finally paid off when a trusted co-worker had her husband introduce me to a career counselor he had worked with in law school and one of my healthcare providers connected me with the director of a university career center in my area. The information, advice and additional connections I got from networking and a subsequent series of informational interviews with various career development professionals were invaluable in launching my new career. Taking clients step-by-step through my process and then helping them brainstorm their own potential connections and questions to ask, empowers them to reach out to individuals in their network. Reframing informational interviewing from “asking for favors” to “giving people a rare chance to help someone else by talking about what they love doing for a living” seems to be encouraging for my clients.
Volunteering is a Stepping Stone
Clients often express an interest in learning more about or transitioning into a given career, but lament that they “don’t know enough about it” or “don’t have any experience in that area.” That was my exact position when I decided to pursue a career development role. All my networking and informational interviewing revealed one big impediment to moving into my newly chosen field – a lack of any actual experience providing career-related assistance. At the time, I was working full-time in an unrelated field (cancer center research study manager) and could not imagine how I could get the necessary experience. Several networking contacts suggested I consider volunteering with nonprofit employment assistance programs. I had not even been aware such programs existed! The training, experience and references I got from volunteering at two different nonprofit programs established my commitment to the field and enabled me to demonstrate to employers that I had the skills needed to assist a diverse population of career development clients. Most of my own current clients have never considered volunteering as a stepping stone to a new career or as a means of exploring one further. Hearing about the multiple ways in which volunteering concretely benefitted me and can do so for them – knowledge about and exposure to a specific professional environment, skills development, networking contacts, recommendations/references/endorsements, and possible “inside access” to job opportunities – tends to create quite a bit of excitement among my clients for giving volunteering a try. Together we generate a list of possible volunteer options to explore.
The Value of Mentoring Relationships
Having regular access to a few seasoned career development professionals as sounding boards meant I had the practical assistance and inspiration I needed to successfully navigate my career transition. I now teach clients how to choose and approach likely mentors from their network as well as how to develop and maintain constructive mentoring relationships. When clients learn the pivotal role one mentor played in my landing my current “dream” position, they recognize the value of investing in a mentoring relationship.
Being Empathetic and Effective
In some ways, many of the steps to successful career development are almost as new to me as they are to my clients. I believe that sharing my own recent concerns, questions and fears about the sometimes invigorating, sometimes anxiety-provoking process of choosing a career and getting a job in my chosen field allows me to more empathically and effectively assist my clients in negotiating their own career journeys.
Mary A. Fitzgerald, MA, GCDF is a Career Counselor and Assistant Professor at Lone Star College-CyFair near Houston, TX. She has worked with diverse client populations in academic, nonprofit and outplacement settings. She holds a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from the University of Cincinnati and can be reached at email@example.com.