Saturday, July 10, 2010

Career advice from the WSJ

The WSJ offers some career advice, some of which strikes me as wise and other bits of which seem either comical or scary.

The administrative assistant who spends her time listening at the rest room door to be sure that job candidates wash their hands is the scariest. This also sounds like a potential liability issue for the firm.

Perhaps most comical is the suggestion to network via your hair stylist.

More generally, the article seems to encourage a focus on trivialities of form rather than on substance. For example, consider the suggestion that firms should reject applicants who make minor errors on their cover letters. This issue is a bit personal as my friends at one particular economics consulting firm took a pass on one of our very best undergraduates over just this issue. I am leaving the firm anonymous because I am embarrassed for them for making interview decisions in this way.

I cannot say how ridiculous this seems to me, particularly because the norm in academia is not even to read cover letters. Certainly when I have done graduate admissions or junior hiring, I have ignored them completely as they never contain any useful information. My sense is that this is what everyone else does as well.

The serious, and broader, point from this example is that context matters. Some of the suggestions in the WSJ article might well work just fine in sectors like banking but would have exactly the opposite of the intended effect in an academic context, where too much attention to form is taken a signal that substance is lacking. By all means, shower, wear clean clothes to interviews and try and be organized in dealing with potential employers. But looking and acting like an MBA on stimulants will probably turn more people off than it turns on.

I do like the article's advice to "pay it forward", which I interpret as simply being a nice person, even when you do not have to. Being a nice person has a surprisingly high payoff in academia. Having a reputation as a jerk, on the other hand, can close doors.

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