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The Nature of the Job Search by Russell Bither-Terry

Posted on April 25, 2014


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We have a doctor in the house. Russell Bither-Terry, a newly minted Ph.D from UNC-Chapel, moved to Portland last year and immediately became active in ELGL and several other Portland organizations. Since ELGL is often asked for advice on finding a job in Portland, we enlisted Russell to take us through his search. He’s identified five lessons to integrate himself into Portlandia.

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December was a busy month: I defended my dissertation and got engaged. My fiancée is in her first year of her three-year residency in pediatrics at OHSU, so that’s what brought me to Portland, but I also did my undergrad at Willamette University in Salem, so I’m familiar with—and love—the region.

The nature of a job search, at least for me, is it’s messy and goes in several directions at once. Clear writing should be the opposite of that. So I’ve decided to organize this piece around five lessons and tell my story as I go. Plus numbered lists are all the rage.

Lesson #1: Learn the rules of the game.

download (5)My program prepared people for academic jobs. Most people in my program decided to get a PhD in political science because they want to be professors, so when people talk about “the job market” they mean the job market for tenure-track professors. The academic job market is its own thing, and, like any job market, has its own set of rules about what to do to (and not do) in order to increase the chance of getting a job.

I knew if I wanted to look for other kinds of jobs I’d be playing a different game with a different set of rules. That was fine; I was used to learning new things as I needed them—statistics, Portuguese, bread baking—but I knew that I didn’t know much about this other world yet and needed to get up to speed.

Fortunately, I found a good textbook for learning the rules of the job search game, What Color is Your Parachute? Hearing about it from my mom’s friend was probably the most helpful thing that happened in my job search. There’s no need to repeat all of the material online praising Parachute.

download (2)As an aside, I keep hearing stories about people who are looking for work getting this book as a gift and not reading it. I just don’t understand. Here’s a guy who has spent decades helping people look for work, why not see what can be learned from him, or people like him. I should add that one of my favorite people in the world doesn’t care for the book at all, but it seems worth giving it a try. I tend to see these kinds of books as buffets where readers can take what works for them, as opposed to combo platters. My confusion about people not making use of available help is a much longer topic, so maybe I’ll write about that later. Next lesson!

Lesson #2: Start where you are. Use what you have.

macgyver-1One of the key ideas in Parachute, which has spread all over, is the idea of an informational interview. You can find stuff about them all over the web, including this site. Mac Prichard has a good summary of them here.

For me, the basic information I needed to get out of my early informational interviews was

  • to figure out what kinds of jobs in public service might find me a competitive candidate and
  • what it is like working in those jobs, so I could aim for things I’d be likely to find fulfilling.

The information I wanted to convey was “Hey, I exist. I’m personable. I have these skills. I’m finishing grad school in December and will be looking for work after that.”

The Overworked Pediatrician started her residency in July of last year, so I helped her drive across the country and spent about six weeks in Portland. That’s when I read Parachute and made preliminary steps at informational interviewing.

3949ee0dd37683516fe90af077d2162bI knew almost no one in Portland, but I figured the Willamette alumni career network was a good place to start. It’s a clunky platform about to be replaced, but I poked around and found a couple people.

One of the most helpful things about informational interviewing is feeling like I’m not alone and knowing that there are people who want to help me when there’s something they can do for me.

The first interview was with Karen Girard at the Oregon Health Authority. I found it encouraging when she told me that a PhD in political science would qualify me for positions where most candidates would have Master’s degrees in public health. It was also helpful to talk about how to describe research experience in terms of specific tasks accomplished and skills used (i.e. like any other job).

download (4)Meeting with Ken Ray at Metro turned me on to a couple of the centers of public service in Portland: City Club and Mac’s List. Sure, I’m sure I could have stumbled across them with the right Google search, but I liked hearing from someone about why he had found them useful.  If you’re interested in public service in Portland you absolutely need to know about these two. City Club’s Friday Forum is a great place for me to get up to speed on important issues in Oregon (my dissertation was on anti-hunger programs in Brazil, which doesn’t seem to be a high demand area of expertise in the Portland job market).

Mac’s List has both a blog and events discussing some of the basics of getting a nonprofit job, many of which apply much more broadly. Oh, there’s also this list with jobs on it. An added advantage is that going to these events gets me out of the apartment, and keeps me accustomed to having conversations with new people, both of which make me a happier person.

The more general point is to find the groups that will offer what you need. For example, I’m not focusing on the business world—people who are should identifying groups in that area that will help them. Likewise, for groups focused on particular professions.

images (1)Again and again, I keep talking to people who recommend those two. As it happened, Ken was the one who introduced me to them, and I’m very grateful for that. But if he’d been abducted by aliens (I’m sick of having people get hit by buses in these examples, plus let’s keep things interesting for Ken. He deserves it.) I’m sure I would have learned of them eventually. But for that to happen I’d have to have kept reaching out to the people available in my initial network. Which brings us to…

Lesson #3: Keep Reaching Out

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It’s unlikely that meeting a couple people will be enough to lead to a job, especially in this market. At a Mac’s List panel on finding a job in at a nonprofit, people talked about “having to play the long game.” Of course, people also have to play a short-term game called Let’s Pay the Rent. I’m very fortunate to have (1) just sold my condo from when I was in grad school and (2) that The Overworked Pediatrician has a decent salary and is fine having me play Mr. Domestic for a little while.

http://youtu.be/x4o-TeMHys0

I think that the need for people to spend so much time getting experience and connections through unpaid internships and volunteer work probably undermines socioeconomic diversity in public service, but that’s a topic for another time. It’s the nature of the game as it stands. I just want to acknowledge that my situation is probably not yours and that we all need to take our own circumstances into account.

Another bias of the game is in favor of extroverts. Here I learned a lot by reading the book Quiet. The Overworked Pediatrician is an introvert and cringes at the very idea of going to these networking events and making small talk with strangers. One suggestion from Parachute is doing practice informational interviews with people you know. I’m sure the idea of having a networking wingman or wingwoman gets batted around various places, too.

The main thing, wherever one falls along the introvert-extrovert spectrum, is to set a sustainable pace, especially in terms of emotional energy. I learned a lot about this as I worked to become a more productive writer in grad school. Robert Boice did research on faculty and found that the ones who were most productive worked regularly and in moderation as opposed to a binge-and-crash cycle. They were also happier. I think this applies widely. Of course there are times when deadlines force a final push, but I strive to do things in a way that allows for constant moderation and this applies to networking as well: a pace of going to things and reaching out digitally that I can keep up over the course of the “long game.”

Lesson #4: Most things aren’t about me. Try not to take things personally

download (7)Of course, those are examples of networking going well. We all know there are frustrations along the way. A common one is writing a carefully worded email to someone following all the basic guidelines that makes it clear why you are interested in an area and what you have to offer and getting no reply. Also frustrating are replies that can be read as blowing you off. I’ve had that experience with several nonprofits in the area.

It made me mad. I’ve spent years doing research related to what they’re doing! Why wouldn’t they want me working in their area? Don’t they know what I have to offer?

Well, no, they don’t. No matter how carefully-crafted the short email, it doesn’t capture me as a person. This leads to plenty of stupid speculation about the exact wording of the response (and I thought that kind of fun ended now that I no longer have to worry about dating…). There’s no point going there: there’s no way to know, especially since I’m not a psychologist, but it’s still so easy to take it personally.

images (2)It helps to put myself in the other person’s shoes for a moment. They’re busy and my email is likely in an inbox full of all kinds of other demands on their time and energy, none of which I know about. There’s no short-term consequence for not committing time to having a conversation with me. There’s likely not even a medium or long-term consequence. Whatever the reason for the decision they make (which is, after all, their decision to make), it’s probably not about me personally since they don’t even know me. I don’t know what’s actually going on any more than I really know why someone cut me off in traffic.

Many emails won’t get responses, but some will. Many people won’t be willing to meet or help in another way, but some will. Some of those meetings won’t end up leading to anything, but some will. The point is to keep doing it.

Lesson #5: Focus on the things I can control.

Janet+Jackson+-+Control+-+7-+RECORD-135367I can’t control which people will be willing to help me. I can’t control what jobs open up. I can’t make people decide to put me on the short list for interviews. I could keep listing the things that aren’t in my power for some time.

download (8)This has been said before many different ways, but I’ll be much happier if I focus on things I can do. I’ll probably also have better results.  I can figure out how to present myself in a way that will make people more likely to want to help me and more likely to call me in for an interview (but won’t guarantee it). I can learn how to figure out which people to ask for help, and which jobs I should apply for. I can do things that will help me develop a reputation such that when someone says “We need someone who can do x” there’s a chance someone else will say, “I think Russell might be the guy for the job.”

So for now my choice is to do things that are worthwhile, teach me things worth knowing, and let me build relationships. For me, the key places I’ve been doing that have been Mac’s List, City Club and ELGL.


In January I went to City Club’s Civic Drinks. The theme was organizations working on homelessness. Poverty is the issue about which I’m most passionate, so this was a natural fit. I met the director of Clay Street Table . So I decided to volunteer there a little. Saturday morning while helping cook breakfast I got to talking with one of the other volunteers and when she learned about my time in Latin America and my interest in public health, she put me in touch with the folks at Familias en Accion, a group working on public health in the Latino/a community.

Of course, no one can know if this will be the thing that leads to me eventually getting a job, but I don’t think that’s the best way to think about things. For me, the point is that it opened up opportunities for service, learning, and networking. The point is also that none of that would have happened if I hadn’t decided to go to Civic Drinks on a cold January evening.

Supplemental Reading

Cuba Trip – Photos

Poverty in the U.S. is more rural than many imagine

Urban vs rural poverty: a simplified example

Zero Hunger: The Politics of anti-Hunger Policy in Brazil.”

Remember The Maine! Free Cuba!: An Analysis of Sheet Music from 1898 and its Contemporary Echoes.”

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