By: Karen Graziano, LCSW
Are you experiencing Transition Shock? Wondering what expectations a professional role in a new job will bring? What is it about a job that makes it great? How do I get to there from here? The transition from active student to productive employee may evoke a whirlwind of emotions as strategic tactics underscore this bold and brave new step. This two-part series will not only provide some practical advice on conducting a job search, including how to ace the interview, but will also offer thoughts on sculpting a successful career path.
Have you applied sound judgment in a career choice? According to Occupational Outlook (http://www.bls.gov/OCO/), choosing social work was a smart decision. The projection for the near future is optimistic, with job availability higher than average as compared to other professions, especially in the field of aging and employment in rural areas. As the year 2016 approaches, jobs for all social workers are expected to grow much faster than the average, especially those jobs involving substance abuse and schools. It is also projected that the current trend in the medical and public health arena will continue its growth rate by a phenomenal 22%. Licensure is essential to increased job options. With credentials in place, more diverse and higher salaried jobs will be within reach. Check with your state for licensure guidelines, and take the test without delay.
As your professional journey begins, an experiential perspective of dynamics provides direction on a winding path leading to an accomplished and gratifying destination. Roles are ever complex and changing, as we try on different hats. As a potential employee, it might be worthwhile to explore the other side of the desk.
What is the employer seeking in a candidate?
Certain personality characteristics seem to tip the scales in your favor in the workplace, so showcase them. Barrick and Mount have concluded that the following three traits of The Big Five Personality Model—conscientiousness (efficiency and organization), extroversion (outgoing and energetic), and openness (inventive/curious vs. cautious/conservative, sometimes referred to as intellect)—are good predictors for success.
Likeability is the ability to generate positive feelings in others. Research findings indicate that the affable person is readily hired and tends to have a long retention rate. Tim Sanders, a New York Times bestselling author, business coach, and former Yahoo executive, in his popular book, The Likeability Factor, outlines corresponding personality traits as: friendliness (a demeanor that is welcoming), relevance (do you connect on interests or needs?), empathy, and realness (authenticity or genuineness). He emphasizes that traits can be developed and refined. Try tapping into your sense of humor as laughter, while promoting bonding, also acts to reduce stress. Be a good listener, not only a critical skill in practice, but a likeability booster conveying respect for, and interest in, the other person. Be a good communicator, avoid interrupting speakers, and stay on topic, asking questions for the purposes of clarification or to demonstrate insight. Point out similarities in your views, and offer praise for agency kudos.
Competency encompasses a vast territory, as it not only symbolizes the cornerstone of respect in the workplace, but is mandatory in service delivery to a diverse population. In part, the act of follow-up helps to build competency, since it gives social workers a “second chance” at information and referral. Learning is elegantly built in to service delivery. As a new worker, you have no need to feel “stumped.” Competencies are enhanced through growth over the span of a career, as expected of a professional. They are, consequently, reflected in supervisory evaluations. Looking at the bigger picture, globalization is restructuring societal demographics, as represented in the workplace. In response, cultural competency has surfaced, setting standards for appropriate behaviors. As attitude, awareness, knowledge, and cross-cultural skills enhance communication, they are most effective when cradled in the lap of graciousness and kindness, a reference point for reciprocity with all. Diversity has great merit: it is a boon to the business world since it yields increased productivity. Differences encourage growth on all levels, in all realms.
To benefit from these traits and qualities, present them as within grasp, reachable, or palpable—in other words, accessible. Besides being open, the accessible person, who relates and communicates with ease, can be characterized by the phrase, “What you see is what you get.” When analyzed in a broader context, accessibility is endemic to allied professions ranging from art to technology. Professionally, it is as critical to service delivery and program design as it is pivotal to landing that job. Social workers are fortunate, since competencies parallel traits sought out by employers. Call upon your education with gratitude while displaying a winning, engaging, and accessible personality. These are your gifts—nurture them and grow them. (TIP: Keep your work area organized. Communicate clearly. Persevere.)
Develop a Plan of Action
Technology is at the forefront, so gather an array of job search engines, including SocialWorkJobBank.com, as seen in and sponsored by THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER. Experiment with different search terms: social worker, supervisor, direct service, case manager. Most new graduates begin in entry level positions engaged in direct service; this is where skills will be honed. Some will seek a multi-faceted position offering casework, groupwork, and community organization; and some will follow a more clinical course. A Naturally Occurring Retirement Community (NORC) illustrates an excellent generalist experience, whereas a mental health clinic is an ideal setting for psychodynamically-oriented work. Numerous opportunities exist for part-time evening employment in clinics, affording experience coupled with reliable supervision.
The corporate world has suddenly taken notice of social workers because of the value attributed to expertise in relationship building and management. In the recent past, the nonprofit world had been the standard venue, but now, there is more cross over from the corporate sector due to a melding of business practices. In the choice between corporate and nonprofit, there is still much controversy as to which sector is more advantageous. Both are driven by accountability. The corporate world is focused on quotas and numbers for profit-making purposes, and the nonprofit is focused on statistics to justify funding. To be successful in corporate social work, sources at Columbia University point out, it helps to be “thick skinned, as the supervision can be critical and direct.” Endurance might also be an issue, as hours are long, they add, but salaries are substantially higher.
Industrial psychology is driving innovation in business, touting the merits of the Mutual Investment Approach. According to Anne Tsui and colleagues in The Future of HR: 50 Thought Leaders Call for Change, the secret to best practices in companies such as SAS, the software giant cited as the best place to work in Fortune magazine since 1998, is the cultivation of long-term relationships with employees. If you are interested in corporate social work, positions in employee assistance programs, communications, marketing, development, management, and event planning are feasible. As you venture into a new position, a question you want to ask will be: Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? Some business people, and most social workers, posit that a meaningful mission is necessary for job satisfaction.
Everyone enjoys receiving a gift surrounded by impressive wrapping selected especially for the occasion, highlighted by an attractive bow. “Package” yourself for marketability, as you display your “gifts,” which you have diligently developed. Usually, the first contact with a potential employer is via résumé and cover letter, the purpose of which is to accomplish your immediate goal—an interview. A résumé should capture attention. The résumé format, continually a work in progress, is dependent upon experience. Develop various versions according to the need. A chronological résumé delineates a history of employment, whereas a combination résumé illustrates a career profile of relevant skills and accomplishments in addition to chronology. Either is suggested for entry level positions. Powerful, keywords are important to add the element of action and to capture interest. Spelling, grammar, and formatting must be impeccable and consistent. Have a colleague or friend read it over for final proofing. A reference that covers the subject in its entirety is The Targeted Résumé by Kate Wendleton.
The cover letter can be the deal breaker. Resist the stagnant, one-size-fits-all method. Show initiative by writing a letter specific to each application. Borrowing from systems theory, refer to the prospective job role as it relates to the larger context of agency mission and goals. Encompassing your engaging “traits,” construct a “genuine” snapshot of your skills, talents, and accomplishments, emphatically stating how you would benefit the organization. Promote yourself, but do so using your finest work as a vehicle while framing accolades through the eyes of others. Use a design set. Microsoft Office Online has some eye-catching cover letter template downloads. Simply copy and paste to create a résumé template, producing a matching set. (TIP: Many have a splash of color, rendering an attention-grabbing visual cue. Use high quality paper such as parchment in tasteful hues with matching envelopes. These can be purchased at any office superstore.)
Great! You clinched a face-to-face interview. Now let your appearance speak “potential,” as you prepare to present an image that communicates an enormity of nonverbal messages. Interpersonal perception, a new area of research in social psychology, is concerned with first impressions. Factors such as facial expression, stereotyping, appearance, and attractiveness contribute to “sizing you up.” “Rapid cognition,” a phrase used by Malcolm Gladwell in his controversial bestseller Blink, reiterates the power of a “gut feeling”—a powerful mainstay in the social worker’s toolkit. The intuitive two-second decision, based on conclusions drawn from capturing a “thin slice” of a person, relegate the “impression” to a classification, or a stereotype, for easier processing. The Halo Effect, a well established theory, accounts for the fact that attractive people are often judged as having a more desirable personality and more skills than someone of average appearance.
Facial expressions, according to Princeton University researchers, are read at a speed of one tenth of a second. Smile! It elicits a sense of cooperation and trust. Clothing choice also influences impressions, as Naumann, an assistant professor of psychology and researcher states, “Through symbols or slogans, clothing can reveal political and religious orientation, and the style can show a person’s level of self-esteem or conscientiousness.” In applying these insightful findings, you might be inspired to purchase a stylish suit, consult a salon or upscale department store for advice on achieving a defining look, or heed the teachings of a most generous benefactor, Mother Teresa: “Every time you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.”
Interviews can be unsettling. Become comfortable in discussing your strengths by writing an outline of your qualities as they correspond to your accomplishments, goals, and vision. Practice your presentation in front of a mirror. Ask a friend to help you role play, taking turns asking and responding to interview questions. Turn negatives into learning experiences, as you also focus on turning your weaknesses into strengths. Research the organization carefully, jotting down questions to ask the interviewer. Gather copies of your résumé and have your references lined up. Prepare, prepare, prepare.
Although transition theory forecasts that a change in roles may cause heightened feelings of minimization, buffer these with self-efficacy. Prior to the interview, read Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism. The proactive message of positive psychology will act to declutter inaccurate self-perceptions while affirming interview responses. The life altering message is two-fold. It is as meaningful on a personal level as it is on a professional level. As Helen Keller so poignantly proclaimed, “No pessimist ever discovered the secrets of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new heaven to the human spirit.”
During the pre-interview paperwork process, use the time to quell normal anxiety by practicing relaxation techniques. A few minutes of deep breathing is conducive to becoming “centered.” Guided imagery is also useful to secure confidence, a tool many athletes use before competition: In fact, as you focus on believing in yourself, see yourself as the Quintessential New Hire! This self-fulfilling prophecy will actualize achievement. For suggestions of playful imagery scenarios, flip through the 5 Good Minutes Series by Jeffrey Brantley. These are simple, yet surprisingly effective, techniques that can be done anywhere, anytime.
As you interact with the interviewer, you will also sense whether the position, the culture, and the supervisor are a good fit. Would this job meet your professional development needs? Are trainings, workshops, and conferences encouraged? Is there a budget allocated?
The interview aftermath is a time of uncertainty. Feedback is limited, which may give rise to feelings of vulnerability. Reflect on the experience, set inner goals, and move forward. Follow up with the interviewer by sending a thank-you note, either by e-mail or standard delivery. Your message of gratitude illustrating professional etiquette will be noticed and appreciated.
Keep the search active. Visit Web sites of organizations of interest. Call agencies; explore their services; request a tour. At an appropriate point, present a résumé. Volunteer at agencies, cementing an affiliation that might lead to employment. Network. Speak to professors, personal contacts, colleagues, and elected officials. Become a member of the social network for professionals, LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/ ). Pursue that dream job, perhaps writing a proposal specific to it, as you explore funding. Follow funding initiatives on the federal, state, and local levels. To identify funding, visit the Foundation Center, in person or online at http://foundationcenter.org/, or visit the Grants.gov Web site (http://www.grants.gov/).
The job search can be an intense experience, influenced by mega-variables. Your resolve may be challenged, but understand that job-related acceptances and rejections are not necessarily a measure of your professional or personal worth. Stay on course and, eventually, a match will materialize, sometimes unexpectedly. Your new job, filled with promise, will result in multiplicity. You, the clients, the agency, the community, and society at large will benefit. If your goal is to become successful, make it happen. Directly from the winner’s circle at the Indianapolis 500, renowned race car driver Mario Andretti sums it up so eloquently: “Desire is the key to motivation, but it’s the determination and commitment to an unrelenting pursuit of your goal—a commitment to excellence—that will enable you to attain the success you seek.”
Look for Part Two of this series, “Sculpting a Rewarding Career Path,” in an upcoming issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER.
Karen Graziano, LCSW, is affiliated with the Cornell Institute for Translational Research on Aging as a member of the Persistent Pain in Older Adults work group. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Adelphi University and is involved in post traumatic stress treatment of veterans.