From Despair to Dream Job

By Jenny Chisnell - UX Designer - Cincinnati

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How I went from hopelessness to landing the perfect job—and how you can do the same.

I earned my Master’s Degree in Library & Information Science in 2009.  Two years later, I spent 18 months underemployed.  I worked up to 6 part time jobs simultaneously, as a petsitter, babysitter, tutor, housecleaner, Starbucks barista, and finally, a part-time Reference Librarian.

In NYC, unemployment and underemployment are all too common, and it’s one of the most financially challenging places to survive, to boot. There were so many days where I had less than a dollar in my bank account, which made it an overwhelming challenge to focus on applications.

Nonetheless, I made hundreds of attempts.  It was a process that typically involved lengthy, tedious online forms that always struck me superfluous by asking for information already on my resume.  Yet I landed maybe half a dozen interviews total.


The Steps I Followed

These are the “tried-and-true” tips that I followed, without success (though most of them are helpful, if you follow the formula I propose later in this article):

  • Maintaining a spreadsheet of job postings I gathered, tracking deadlines carefully.
     
  • Subscribing to every job-seeker listserv I could find.
     
  • Utilizing LinkedIn and other social networking tools to search.
     
  • Tailoring my cover letter to every application—I reused content sparingly, starting from scratch.
     
  • Keeping my cover letter short—well under a page.
     
  • Plugging keywords specific to the position announcement in my resume.
     
  • Being flexible geographically—applying to small towns in Kansas or Montana with quantifiably less competition.
     
  • Being flexible about the job categories I applied to, and applying anyway even if I didn’t quite meet the minimum requirements for experience.
     
  • Doing my best to stay active, social, and self-affirming rather than giving in to the very real and palpable undercurrent of despair I still couldn’t quite quell.


Today, I have landed my dream job, an opportunity that is a perfect fit for the things I do the best.  This guarantees success that will lead to longevity, to a career in an exploding field with a starting salary that’s twice what I’ve ever in 15 years of working.


What happened?

First, I finally relocated.  I did so for a relationship, taking the first job I could get, as a Secretary for a marketing firm.  I was overqualified for that too, yet they had an intensive interview process and extremely high expectations.  I sincerely believed in everything I said at the interview about being a great fit for the job.

I wasn’t.

Why?  It should have been so easy, right?  How hard is it to schedule meetings and order lunches?  I learned the answer thanks to the company’s forward-thinking policy of conducting frequent performance reviews, both formal and otherwise, where they weren’t afraid to be liberal with their constructive criticism. 

I worked harder at the job than I’ve ever worked before.  I was intensely loyal to the company, even though I knew there was no opportunity for advancement and that it wasn’t truly what I wanted to be doing long-term.  I deferred my dreams to maintain health insurance and—MUCH more importantly—to continue working for a boss whose character I deeply respected, in a friendly and positive environment.

It wasn’t enough.  After many “2nd chances” to improve my accuracy, I was let go.  Their last words to me were, “You’re just not the right fit.”

There were plenty of duties at which I excelled—#1 being my involvement in the Recruiting Committee.  We hired our coworkers as a team—which is, incidentally, a super cool approach. 

I had had enough experience as an applicant myself to recognize when a candidate hadn’t done their homework and didn’t even meet the basics of crafting a cover letter or resume.  I was inspired when I saw applicants try things that had never occurred to me— elegant new resume formats, succinct cover letters that successfully spoke to me as a person.

My two takeaways from my experience at this company were:

A) I learned what I was and wasn’t good at.  I was able to tailor my subsequent job search to jobs that were realistic for my skill set and save time and energy by ruling out opportunities for which I only WISHED I was the right candidate.

B) I got a more accurate understanding of what hiring managers are ACTUALLY seeking in a potential employee.  Plenty of resumes with basic punctuation inconsistencies, something I had always been told would send my app straight to File 13, made it through the cracks because their profile matched our standard template for new hires: a recent college grad with lots of extracurriculars, a decent but not stellar GPA, and THE RIGHT MAJOR.  Oh, the rare, stand-out application from someone with a different background career-wise occasionally got an interview—but I never saw them actually hired.

Last but not least, in my most recent job hunt I escaped from the trap in which I had formerly found myself.  I had reached the point that I was too far out of grad school to compete with recent grads for entry-level gigs, but I lacked the level of experience attained by my competitors for mid-level positions.  It was a consequence of the competitive job market for my field.  I was forced to take part-time, paraprofessional, and/or contract positions for years, with intermittent gaps outside the field.


The Importance of Thinking About What You Really Want To Do

I thought about what I really wanted to do—UX—bemoaning my amateur skill level as a web designer and lack of graphic design ability that I assumed, probably correctly, precluded eligibility for an internship.  And then I thought about something my last boss had said:

What’s your greatest skill?  Reading and writing.  Pursue them—I can’t tell you what context that should be in, I’m no expert, but use your strengths to your advantage, and you will be okay.

In the process of my desultory search for UX and/or web design internships, I stumbled onto something called a Content Specialist.  This is a category within the field of UX that focuses on writing as the primary skill. 

I had found my “in.”  I could still be a UX Designer someday, if I want to, and I’m already planning ahead for an intensive in the subject when my current apprenticeship ends.  Meanwhile, I love what I do on the job more than most of what I’ve ever done “for fun.”  I get to work remotely, make my own schedule, and I’m actually PAID to be creative and analytical.

I had never even considered myself creative, just because I can’t draw and I’m my own biggest critic of my writing, which had led me to neglect it for years.  Turns out creativity is something else I have to offer, after all—it was just another blind spot.

It only took me a month to find my current job, compared to the 18 months I had previously endured.


Here's What I Recommend You Do

So here’s what to do.  It will absolutely get you hired.  Because when recruiters recognize that you’re a good fit on paper, they’ll bring you in to see what you’re like in person.  At that point, you just have to follow the interview basics, which you’ll find in other articles on this site.

  • Listen to what others say about you.  They can see past your blind spots regarding who you are and what you’re good at.  Think about what your past employers have said; ask your friends how they would characterize you.  This will be useful in more ways than one.
     
  • Also pay attention to the situations where you have failed.  They may be indicative of areas where you unfortunately just don’t have talent. 
     
  • On the other hand, talent can be developed through practice.  While I personally found that there were many lifestyle obstacles to teaching myself new skills, I’ve seen this work for so many people who have the time and energy and inclination to truly dedicate themselves.   Experts say it takes 10,000 hours to master something, so create a timeline with measurable goals, and be patient.
     
  • Personal branding is a MUST.  Cultivate your online persona.  Be super, super careful not be negative on Facebook or Twitter.  Have a personal website that comes up on first-page search results, even if you already have LinkedIn and other online profiles that basically say the same thing.  Figure out how to distinguish yourself from other people out there who also happen to love books, cats, and social media. 
     
  • One that I find fascinating but haven’t let tried is the suggestion to keep an “energy log.” It tracks what you’re doing when you feel most energized and when you feel most drained.  You really, really want to steer towards the activities that give you oomph—you’ll need it to succeed at whatever path you are ultimately drawn into.
     
  • Stay playful.  Be serious about your job search—when you’re unemployed it’s your full-time job, and structure your day accordingly—but don’t take yourself too seriously.


Reach out to me for specific tips on how to approach cover letters, resumes, and interviews so I can pass on what I gleaned from extensive research, trial and error, and what I learned on the other side of the table:

@jenny_chisnell

Facebook.com/jenny.chisnell

LinkedIn: Jennifer Chisnell

About.me/Jennifer.chisnell

 

Image courtesy of artemisphoto / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

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