When the Changing Professional Culture Is Challenging

katie smith at duke universityKatie Smith, Assistant Director, Duke University Career Center,
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ksmith258/
Twitter: @ksmith258

Checking the morning e-mail flood, there’s one from Alanthebanisher@email.com*, the alias of a student that I met with recently. He asked how to network appropriately with an alumna who had just sent out a job opportunity.

His question is typical. His e-mail address, not so much. It made me smile, but gave me pause. Is it professionally appropriate?

I have a “bad” resume example that I use when teaching students about resumes, and the group usually giggles over the hotcar2@email.com address. We can agree that it’s not a very professional address, and we all know it’s a pretty tame example.
If this student was looking for an opportunity as a programmer at a small, funky tech company, the gaming reference might be appreciated and I might have let it go. However, since he’s looking into a more conservative field, I decide to bring the e-mail address to his attention, reminding him that some people may not see it as professional. It turns out that the student is surprised I can see his e-mail alias at all—he thought he was communicating through his school-sanctioned account, which is linked to his personal account.

What’s “professional” seems to be an increasingly challenging question for students to navigate. When it comes to communication, traditional advice has retained traction; employers and alumni visiting Duke’s campus consistently share anecdotes about the importance of writing skills, professional e-mail communication, and appropriate uses of social media to represent oneself and one’s company.

We think we know how to advise on writing professional application materials, until a student asks which “Game of Thrones” character she should feature in her short essay, or when another student asks for feedback on the poem he wrote in place of a cover letter—two examples of students responding to company prompts.
A recent job description that came through my e-mail recommended, for example, that students submit: “A resume (if you have one), your year in school, a list of relevant coursework, your favorite movie, a city/country you’ve never been to but want to see, your favorite programming language, and your favorite breakfast. Get into it, I love breakfast.”

It is fun, yes, but it’s confusing. Should a non-breakfast-eating student be honest about his preference? How will that be perceived? What would a student who doesn’t watch “Game of Thrones” say?

As advisers providing feedback on these type of questions, conversations regarding organizational culture and authenticity are often invoked. Students walk a fine line between demonstrating personality and maintaining professionalism.

Gone are the days when we can turn students around at the door of an open career fair because they aren’t dressed professionally. The employers themselves often tend to show up in branded T-shirts, jeans, and even goofy hamburger-shaped hats, and many are seeking students whose casual dress reflects their own organizational culture.
I’ve seen students conduct successful in-person interviews with the top tech companies in the world…while wearing sweatpants. Traditional advice suggests dressing one step above what you expect your employer to be wearing, but what does one wear to a career fair when one target company is wearing T-shirts, and another is wearing a formal business suit? How does one introduce herself when one company is expecting jokes and magic tricks, and another a traditional elevator pitch?

They’re tricky questions.

Students will benefit by knowing that there is never a single “right” answer, and that they can help themselves each step of the way by preparing and conducting research into culture and expectations prior to contact or communication. Career professionals can, and should, do the same. While not everyone is ready to ditch professionalism as it was once known, we do need to be prepared to help students navigate new environments effectively. Having an understanding and appreciation for burgeoning creative, casual, and open cultures will help us all prepare students for the jobs of the future.

*E-mail address has been changed to protect student privacy.

Small Talk Can Lead to Good Connections

katie smith at duke universityKatie Smith, Assistant Director, Duke University Career Center,
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ksmith258/
Twitter: @ksmith258

 

“Small talk” is a concept that comes up a lot in career services work. Defined by Google, small talk is “polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters, especially as engaged in on social occasions.”

The first time I thought critically about small talk was when a student expressed that he struggled with it and didn’t see the point. His perspective was evident in our interactions—the student always showed up ready to talk business. He had burned a few bridges with alumni by asking about opportunities before building a relationship and he had received feedback from peers that his e-mails were too direct. He wanted tips on how to gain the “small-talk skill.”

As a fellow introvert, small talk isn’t always comfortable for me either, so the two of us struggled to maintain friendly conversation by asking and answering small talk appropriate questions. At the end of our meeting, I referred the student to others across the university to help him continue to practice with people of different personalities from a variety of backgrounds and levels of experience. (I separately let my colleagues know the purpose of the exercise.)

After the student and I talked, I found myself analyzing interactions, noticing when I made a good connection and when I did not and factors that led to each scenario. Some passing interactions had become so mechanical that I had produced an assumed socially correct answer to a question I had not even listened to: I cringe when I think of how I mixed up the answers to those questions, saying, “Nothing.” to “How are you?” or, “Good.” when someone asked, “What’s up?”

The student’s question was valid: Why do we even bother?

I’ve since encountered many students asking about how to improve their small talk skills—a concept that career advisers may refer to as networking. Really, they’re one in the same: Small talk builds relationships and establishes common ground.

I recently served as a panelist as part of a student-led event that explored the ethics of small talk. A range of challenging questions were asked:

  • Do certain personality types have an advantage in the professional world based on their ability to small talk?
  • Do we need small talk?
  • Is it productive?
  • Is there an alternative?
  • Are we most inclined to conduct small talk with people who appear like us?
  • Is it possible to build a strong relationship without small talk? Is the lack of small talk indicative of a deeper relationship?
  • And, perhaps most difficult of all, is it ethical to use relationships to lead to opportunities? Is there an alternative?

People who are natural relationship-builders have an advantage in the professional world due to the network that they can easily construct. However, I’ve seen many students who are not natural conversationalists excel in their areas of interest through small talk, proving their skills and abilities while showing examples of their work.

One size does not fit all, and in some fields, at some companies, and for many positions, small talk skills and networking savvy are not of highest priority. Better yet, there may be an appreciation and acknowledgement that positive and strong work relationships can be built outside of well-executed small talk.

Is there an alternative? Can we jump right into deep and meaningful conversation? Can small talk be deep and meaningful? Is the alternative to small talk deep talk, or is it simply silence? Would silence be better?

We each have unique perspectives and experiences—some people may prefer jumping immediately into meaningful conversation, some would rather have silence, and some may love small talk. Regardless of your preference, small talk is a fascinating cultural phenomenon. We build relationships and rapport by asking expected questions, hearing expected answers, and sharing ideas about the situations we have in common (e.g. weather, current events, our surroundings) before moving on to a greater purpose.

I have a difficult time imagining personal and professional interactions without small talk, but that’s simply my cultural lens. For those with another perspective, the presence of small talk may seem just as strange.

 

Helping Students Navigate Familial Pressure

katie smith at duke university

Katie Smith, assistant director, Duke University Career Center,
LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/ksmith258/
Twitter: @ksmith258

 

“The most important job of the adviser…is to help students understand themselves, to face and take responsibility for their decisions, and to support and to free them to make choices that are at odds with the expectations other have for them. Students look to mentors—figures ‘more attuned to their rising hopes’—to give them what their parents won’t or can’t: the permission to go their own way and the reassurance that their path is valid,” William Deresiewicz quotes Harvard faculty member Harry R. Lewis comments in his recent book, Excellent Sheep.

The quote is one that many career professionals can identify with, as we often pride ourselves in providing a safe space for students to explore and articulate their interests while helping them to identify a career to fitting to their skills, talents, and needs. If only it was that easy!

Most people who work with college students have encountered a student who is torn between what she wants and what her parents or family members want. This is an incredibly challenging situation for students, mentally and emotionally taxing, often without an easy solution.

As college tuition continues to rise, so does the discussion on ROI. Parents are, understandably, especially attuned to this issue. What will my child study, and what will he be able to do with that? Is it a competitive field? Can she get the “right” experience in classes or internships? How much money will he make?

In short, is it worth it?

For some students, there’s a lot at stake in academic and career decision making. This decision could compromise the financial support of their education, narrow options (particularly in the case of international students), or could injure, or even sever, a relationship between student and their parents or other family members. In many cases, it’s also a decision that could affect a student’s success in school, as well as their well-being throughout college and beyond.

In recent weeks, I’ve worked with a student who studied engineering due his parents’ refusal to assist with his tuition if he pursued another major. Additionally, another student passionate about education is receiving pressure to commit to a more lucrative field, as her family is depending on her for financial support. Both of these students are navigating a challenging path balancing familial pressures, both real and perceived, and their own goals and aspirations.

As counselors, coaches, advisers, and mentors, working with these students can be difficult. Generally, we encourage students to follow their interests, and to choose a field that they get excited about. However, when the field they want to choose doesn’t align with others’ expectations, we carefully venture into new territory. “Is it possible to find the best of both worlds?” We might find ourselves asking. Where do fields such as art history and medicine or computer science and philosophy converge? If the student recognizes that his family’s opinion has a major stake in his decision, is it possible for him to pursue both his interests, and theirs?

For some students, this compromise is a possibility, but for others, this may not be the case. As career professionals, it is our role to help students identify their priorities, and to find a path that maximizes opportunity and fit given the present constraints.

As Deresiewicz quotes an observant student commenting on her mother, “she wanted me to have everything instead of wanting me to have what I wanted.”

The question is, where is the line?