Why Career?: Things I Wish I Knew the First Time Around

Serving as a diversity program coordinator & drop-in career counselor during my graduate program schooled me in innumerable ways. I learned how the search process worked, tools for career discernment, and had important conversations about identity & professionalism. I read & edited so many resumes, cover letters, and personal statements that I could probably write a few in my sleep. After completing my graduate program, it was time to put all of that into practice in my own search. I knew a lot of the formal information, but I was going into the field with both professional experience and my identities as a woman, a person of color, holistic educator, etc.

Navigating through these identities in the career development / job search process was also something that I had the joy of walking my students through. And what I found to be true, over and over again, is that:

“The career development of all women occurs in a specific cultural context… The larger culture operating as a macrosystem perpetuates career myths and stereotypes related to race and gender and, in fact, institutionalizes forms of race/gender discrimination. This macrosystem embodies such values as White male privilege, Eurocentric worldviews, race-/gender-appropriate ideologies, or race/gender typing of occupational choices. Macrosystem values may be internalized by the individual (e.g., internalized oppression) and, on the microsystem level, influence how others treat a woman because of her gender or ethnicity (Cook et al., 2005, p. 167).”

So, while I had done the work externally with my students to challenge hegemonic career myths, it was time for me to apply this (again) within my own life. Although I was entering a career field where women were well-represented, I had to be aware that the ideals and norms were still centered around a framework that catered to what Patricia Hill Collins (1999) calls the “mythical norm”: White, able-bodied, male, etc.

I knew I would have to apply the knowledge that I gave to my students on a range of questions: “What do I do with my natural hair?” How do I negotiate? As a woman, will they think that I am negotiating too fiercely? Does this interview outfit accentuate too many of my ‘assets’? As a new professional, woman of color, what do I value? Do I just need a job and need it right now? What does that mean for my search? What does that mean for my socioeconomic status & identity? Should I apply for a lower position and attempt to work my way up from there? And so on, and so forth.

And surprisingly, that was the easy part. The HARD part, the BIG question that I did not even know I was asking, was “Do I trust my own voice, professional & lived experience enough to make the best choice for myself?”
In the face of hegemony.
In the face of the “advice” I received that called for me to apply and function beneath my level of expertise.
In the face of systems that were not inherently and foundationally set up for the success of all people; systems that favored a mythical norm, accessed benefits & pay differences based on gender, allowed some a clear path in, and others a clear path out to the margins.

I wish I could say that I trusted my own voice expertly in my first search. I did all of the formal things with little trouble. But the “gut-level” stuff… working through my own journey of self-authorship and empowerment as a professional woman of color was entirely up to me… and was not always easy. I am grateful to the mentors, from various points in gender expression & spectrum, who walked me through it. Yet though things worked out for me on my first search, I knew that there were subtle ways in which I conceded to macro-level norms, myths, and culture. I straightened my naturally curly, voluminous hair. I took out my nose ring. I barely negotiated. I did not seek further information on the lack of representation of people of color. Though it worked out to some degree, it never quite “sat right” inside (as my Gramma says).

So, my second search post M. Ed looked drastically different from the first. I knew that I would have to re-imagine my answer to the question, “Do I trust my own voice, professional & lived experience enough to make the best choice for myself?”

The second time around (*cue the music) I learned to give myself the pep-talks I needed to show up in a culturally authentic way, regardless of the setting. I learned to embrace the unknown that is inevitable in any job search process. I got REALLY good at giving myself pep-talks, that would later help my students. And here is what I tell them:

Show up with your authentic self.

Organizations are not just assessing your qualifications and skills. Employers are also looking for “fit”: the ways in which you will be able to transition into the norms, values, and practices of the office space. When you don’t show up as your authentic self, your employer can’t fully discern whether that opportunity is for you, and you can’t discern whether you will be fully accepted within that space. It’s a lose / lose. My authentic self includes my naturally curly hair. It includes my bent toward social justice, educational access, equity, and inclusion. It includes my background in the creative arts, and how that informs my educational practice. Reflect on your professional identity: what is important to you? What has shaped your views on professionalism? What do you value in a workspace? Bring those things with you into the interview process, and you just might be surprised at the type of opportunities that open up for you.

Ask about organizational structure in specific ways.

This is a lesson worth learning. At the start of my process, I knew that I needed to do some research on the organization structure (i.e. who was in leadership, what was their background, etc). However, I did not know that I needed to ask questions about the overall health and functionality of that organizational structure. This cost me dearly in the past.

I learned that you should never wait until after receiving an employment opportunity, to be privy to the health of the organization structure. Ask questions about how the organizational structure promotes growth for the staff. Ask about how it might limit the work of the staff, if at all. Ask what they would change about the organizational structure, if anything. Ask about the history of the position. All of these things will help you to take the temperature of the health of an organizational structure, and allow you the chance to see if you can picture yourself in that structure.

Go with your gut. If it feels wrong, get more information so that you can access the site of the intuitive feeling.

I remember arriving on site to my institution & thinking, “This is it!” The mission, the colleagues, the timing… my gut (or intuition, if you prefer that term) was clear on it. Different factors go into creating that “gut feeling” in the career process. These factors have a lot to do with what you value as a professional. Personally, I value inclusion, professional development, and supportive relationships with colleagues to name a few. Throughout an interview process, your gut processes cues that create your understanding or intuition about a place.

For example, I still remember particular cues from various interview sites: being asked my preferred gender pronouns, speaking with leadership who openly described the nature of their leadership style, hospitality in the process, opportunities to speak with student leaders, etc. These things helped me in the career discernment process in regards to where I should land.

Career searching is NOT just about having the perfect resume, cover letter, application materials, interview suits. Although this is a part of it, there is much more. The process requires you to think through your identities and the values that you hold, in regard to those identities. It is understanding that the career search process is both external AND internal. The career search process requires being wise enough to notice hegemony even when you see it in the workplace (which many believe is a neutral space). It is making decisions that are healthy for you as a professional, which allow you to contribute even more to your field. And perhaps, most of all, it is choosing to be brave.

Image credit:

Cook, Ellen P. Heppner, M.J., O’Brien, K. M. (2005). “Multicultural and Gender Influences in Women’s Career Development: An Ecological Perspective”. Journal of multicultural counseling and development (0883-8534), 33 (3), p. 165.

Collins, P. H. (1999). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment. Routledge.

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