When opportunities are scarce, as they have been over the past several years, many recent grads and young professionals feel they need to take any job, just to have a job. As a result, some may feel “stuck” or that they are headed in the wrong career direction but have little choice.
We sat down with Alexandra Arrington, former intern turned freelance Career Adviser and Developer. We learned how she turned her passions into a successful career, and she gave some advice for current students and recent grads in creating their early career in a job market not long on choices.
1. Tell us a little about you… When did you graduate, what are you doing now and what are your long-term career goals?
AA: I have worked at North Carolina public universities in Student and Academic Affairs for the majority of my early career. As an undergraduate student, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, but I knew helping people learn and helping to increase awareness of resources and information for achieving educational and career goals were among my passions.
I finished my Master of Arts (MA) degree last month in Career Counseling and now I enjoy my freelance work in career advising and development. Obtaining licensure as a Professional Counselor to practice privately and starting a boutique staffing agency are my longer term goals.
2. Your internships were with a few different organizations. Tell us how many you had and a bit about how you approached gaining the internships?
AA: I had four internships while pursuing my MA: a local University Career Center, a Community Mental Health organization called Mecklenburg’s PROMISE, one at Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont’s Career Development Center and another at a local branch of a State Government Agency.
I would not have had any of those opportunities if it were not for a strong work ethic, amazingly helpful colleagues with whom I have good relationships, the confidence to get out and meet new people and the drive to meet a goal!
I did not have any solid connection to the first internship in my network, so I approached it like I would any job search and was able to get in the door. I researched what the Career Center valued and focused on, crafted a tailored resume and cover letter and contacted the organization to see to whom I should direct internship inquiries. I was invited for an interview shortly after. I intentionally focused on skill development, on gaining experience and knowledge of resources, and on developing genuine relationships during the internship. The rest of my internships resulted from direct referrals from my work at the career center.
3. What aspects of your internships had the largest impact on your career development?
AA: All of my internships were career development focused, but they were all very different experiences in terms of size, environment, client base and operational philosophy. It sounds really simple, but understanding a variety of ways that issues can be approached has expanded my repertoire of problem solving methods – and my ability to decipher the most helpful approach for a client.
My internship experiences also helped me to better determine or solidify my list of career desires, needs and values. This has critical impact on knowing how and where I am willing to put my talents to use (and where I am unwilling to spend any time).
4. As a career advisor, what have you found are the biggest career challenges many young professionals face today? What are those who are successful doing to overcome them?
AA: Several young professionals with whom I have worked have struggled with feeling pigeon-holed; out of college, they took the first position they could find rather than leverage their talents as well as they’d like. The slow economy has been the biggest factor in their decisions, not to mention the mounting debt many of them have accrued through college.
Those who are successful at overcoming their challenges do a couple things really well: they pursue ways to incorporate responsibilities of value to the company and of personal interest into their current job – and they learn as much as they can where they are while strategically seeking opportunities that may be a better fit (via networking, volunteer work, local professional association meetings, social media branding, etc.). The latter definitely includes actively becoming better job seekers by consulting career professionals, gathering information and streamlining search methods.
5. What are a few of the pieces of advice you offer clients that you wish you had been given when deciding on your career?
AA: Unfortunately, as an undergraduate I did not do any internships. As a graduate student, though, I came to understand the value of and the need for experience to become employable in a specific area. For me it was better late than never, but probably could have been much easier if I had done it earlier (especially considering I worked full time and juggled course work and the internships). On that same note, the balancing act later in life can be done and is worth it! Seeking opportunities to gain experience is something that I often encourage my clients to do when looking to break into a field.
Undoubtedly, I will have a client tell me they are not getting anywhere with the hundreds of resumes they have submitted online… but will also disclose that they have not yet tapped into their network. There is no way someone can be successful in a job search without help and strategy. Many times it is about getting the proper help to create your strategy.
6. What are the top lessons you’ve learned from internships that you didn’t learn in school?
AA: First: Lessons in workplace politics are part of the learning experience, even though they are not explicitly laid out in the employee/intern handbook, so pay attention! Every work place has spoken and unspoken systems of how things work and learning that will help in better navigating the environment.
Second: You don’t have to wait until the internship experience is over, or until you get a job in the field, to start using what you’ve learned in order to build your professional brand!
7. For your peers and colleagues, please answer our trademark question: What is your “never-fail” piece of career advice?
AA: When pursuing any type of employment opportunity, or assessing your current employment, take time to consider your work needs and values.
Mismatches can lead to despair and burnout, neither of which are part of the recipe for work productivity and satisfaction. People and work environments change; with that it is important for your own health and success, as well as your employer’s, to know what you need – and determine whether you can get what you need where you are, or whether it is time to look for your next opportunity.
Great advice, Alexandra! The job market is tough, but keeping one’s goals and needs in mind is still important for both happiness and success. With a direction in mind, it’s easier to stay focused and positive in a job search and early career. That’s sometimes easy to forget, but is so necessary. Thank you for taking time for our interview!