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Uncertainty amid Coronavirus

To say things are hard right now is an understatement. Amidst a global pandemic, we’re all struggling to adjust. To protect our health. To working offsite. To teaching online. To parenting while working at home. To schooling children and caregiving for others amidst all of that, too.

But higher ed, too, is uncertain. Things are about to get bad. Very, very bad, I think. Worse than the great recession.

Moody’s has downgraded the higher ed sector to a “negative” outlook for 2020. At the most severe end of the spectrum, analysts are predicting a 30% drop in enrollment. International students will fall off in droves as this goes on, and uncertainty over travel bans continue. Out of state students may well opt to stay put closer to home after being sent off campus for the duration of this semester. And, of course, even in-state students whose families have become unemployed will no longer be able to afford school.

In many recessions, higher ed enrollment goes up, as people scrape together ideas on re-skilling and re-credentialing for new opportunities. And there’s need based aid. Both true. But this time, it’s different. Admissions officers are warning of a huge drop in enrollment. This is a new and never-before-seen level of volatility.

Colleges have had to scrape together emergency funds for N-95 masks, tons more cleaning and sanitization, buy thousands more licenses to eLearning software, and hire additional medical personnel. None of which was budgeted for. So they have to dip into reserves to provide laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to students in need, HIPAA-compliant Zoom channels for counseling, additional security expenses to release otherwise-locked down external network access to data so that offsite researchers and employees can access it…higher ed is hemorrhaging money.

And that hemorrhaging of money is already hurting higher ed. Now. This year. Right this second. What it will do in the near future has yet to be seen, as higher ed tries to overcome the crisis we’re faced with today.

Public higher ed has been funding-starved for years, thanks to austerity measures, so it will face greater challenges in climbing out of a money hole. So far, I haven’t seen any bailout proposals that address the scale of what’s to come. But even private higher ed is hurting. Maybe not to the same degree, but endowments dropped 20-30% as the market dropped.

And, as families lose their incomes, they are going to be increasingly resistant to tuition increases to offset any losses. Right now, before the brunt of it has set in, parents are demanding refunds on housing, tuition & fees, graduation ceremony costs, dining, parking, and who knows what else because their children were suddenly sent home.

I’m worried I’m going to lose my job. I do organizational development, running professional development programs. Professional development is non-essential. Especially because my professional development programs are aimed at staff (not students or faculty, and so not directly tied to the educational mission of my employer). From an organizational development standpoint, training arms of organizations are among the first cut whenever orgs cut back, because it is optional, especially in times of crisis, and orgs can just bring training back from external consultants or hire trainers back once things stabilize.

It wouldn’t be the first time I get laid off. And I suppose this is one of the inherent risks of working in higher ed. I work in the higher ed because it supports people’s educational development. But since I’m not directly tied to the teaching & learning functions of students…my job can be framed as non-essential.

Since it’s out of my control, I just continue to do my work and wait, (and stress eat!) watching as market volatility continues and lists of hiring freezes and layoffs start to pour in. Among the organizations that have announced layoffs so far, I’ve seen community colleges, private elite R1s, SLACs, public R2s, and everything in between. I believe my time is coming.

Networking during a Career Change

We all know how important networking is for landing a job, and exploring other careers. But one big stumbling block is: how am I supposed to network as in: what do I say?? – when I’m trying to break into a new field or industry?

It’s a circuitous problem. Your purpose in going to a networking thing is to connect with people in a company or industry that you’d like to be in and learn more about. But since you don’t work in it yet, it’s awkward to know how to respond to questions like “what do you do?” or “how long have you worked in X?”

It is tricky, and awkward, to walk into an industry or networking event having no clue how to talk about yourself. You don’t want to sound too pushy (“I’m here looking for a job in this field” is too over-the-top for walking up to someone and introducing yourself!) but you also don’t want to stand in a corner and shrink into the walls or make small talk about the weather, either.

So rather than stewing over how to talk about yourself, my best advice is for you to take control of the conversation and come prepared to ask other people answer questions. That will ease up on your stress and nerves, because you’re not the one on the hot seat. It will demonstrate your confidence by being the one to walk up to a stranger and start a conversation. And by preparing smart questions in advance that you can ask anyone, at any event, you’ll be more ready to listen to their answers. Because you’re there to learn!

Here are 5 good conversation openers that are industry- and event-agnostic to help you get conversations going, rather than waiting for them to come up to you at your next networking event!

  1. Where did you grow up? This gets you learning about their background, and sets you up for a potential follow-up of how they got here and what they’re doing now.
  2. What do you do for fun? Again, a question that helps you get to know someone beyond their work role. Listen for ways to bridge a connection around something you share – a love of cold brew coffee, pop culture podcasts, hiking with the dog, whatever it is.
  3. What are you looking forward to this year? This open-ended question allows them to talk about work OR personal life, and it’s interesting to hear if they’ve set personal or professional goals.
  4. What’s the coolest thing you’ve learned for work recently? This gives them a chance to share a book, a technique, something that you may already know a bit about…or want to know more about! (Hint: ask follow-up questions for more detail!)
  5. What do you like best about your job? Listen attentively. Is it their specific role? The variety of their day-to-day work? Helping clients? Their boss? The company benefits? You can learn a lot about what you’re really there to learn about.

I’m sure there’s tons more examples out there (google it!).

One final note, though. You also have to figure out how to answer questions they’ll ask you. Especially the dreaded “Tell me about yourself.” or “How long have you worked in X?” Once you’ve got your generic questions in your head, think through how you will answer. Those are the go-to questions you should anticipate.

So how can you answer those? With confidence and reassurance. Rather than be “ashamed” of not having experience or dreading having to pitch someone on why you’re taking an “abrupt” career change, this is actually your time to shine. First, you’re ALREADY at the networking event, which puts you ahead of anyone else who chickened out. Pat yourself on the back for committing to going! Second, you can have answers prepared and ready to roll for this, too.

Have a 3-4 sentence explanation of the moment that led you to attend the event:

  • I was working in Y for a couple of years but
  • did this project or learned something that made me really curious about [THIS industry, THIS company] and
  • now I’m here to learn all that I can about [This industry, company].

Psst: you’re going to have to answer those kinds of questions anyway once you get job interviews, so this is a low-stakes way to practice what kinds of information you share that “lands” with others.

Precarity not limited to Adjuncts. Or Academia.

There’s a very vocal, and very loud contingent of folks in higher education who talk about nothing other than the precarity of adjuncts, and how unfair it is. As someone whose spouse could find nothing other than an adjunct role for 8 years, I COMPLETELY agree. And I will continue to support that we need more advocates for adjuncts, more positions that pay livable wages, positions that come with REAL benefits including sick leave, healthcare, professional development, and retirement, and alt-ac careers that can save adjuncts from a lifetime of worry about where their next paycheck is coming from, or how they’ll cobble together enough work for housing & food.

And yet. Unpopular take ahead.

Precarity is not limited to adjuncts. I’m sorry to say this, but it’s true. I’ll give you a couple obvious examples and then dive into some data that shows how the landscape of long-term employment is ever-more-precarious.

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Money Matters

This week I was a guest on the excellent Personal Finance for PhDs podcast with the excellent Emily Roberts. I shared how I was forced to get real with my budget, REAL fast when I was laid off from my museum job.

Did I mention I was 3 months pregnant when I got laid off?

Or that all that happened in the midst of the Great Recession?

Adulting was coming on full force, all at once.

It all turned out fine. Great, actually!
And no, I don’t mean that in the way of the “this is fine!” meme.

That’s all true. That’s what led to my first career change.

But it also led me to a really powerful change in how I viewed my relationship with my career, and my paycheck.

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You Need Career Plans A, B, & C

Many, if not most, grad students and academics have at least some type of Career Plan. I’m sure you had to make one in your personal statement for admissions, even if you kind of made it up. Remember that part where you said you wanted to pursue a graduate degree so that you could…? That’s what I’m talking about.

Many of you had Plan A mapped out. I’m going to be a professor! Even if that is your Plan A, you still need a Plan B. If nothing else, as a safety net if Plan A doesn’t work out. (Though my own journey points out there are lots of other reasons you need a Plan B).

But here’s the thing. You ALSO need Plan C. A third option.

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Resume & Cover Letter Tips for Alt-Acs and Other Career Changers

This is part of my Transferable Skills Talk: An ongoing series in which we identify and discuss your transferable skills as an alt-ac. Today’s edition: how to talk about your current work AND how to talk about what you’d like to do in your resume and cover letter.

When you are trying for a career change, as an alt-ac does, one thing that can hold you back is how you describe what you do.

When you change careers, one thing you have to do is clearly connect the dots between what you do now and what you want to do. Let’s look at some strategies for rebranding your already awesome self so that you don’t leave hiring managers scratching their heads on why you’re interested or a good fit.

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