Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Professionalism- areas of improvement

The other morning, as I was running around my house trying to decide which of my frumpy sweaters looks most professional and wondering what combination of make-up I should wear that would appear professional and not childish, it occurred to me that these are things I thought I would have figured out before I turned 28.  I learned many important lessons in graduate school besides science: how to effectively answer questions, how to keep a cool head during tense moments, how to convey complex ideas.  But being on the job market, there are some really basic things I wish I had managed to master before I made it this far, or perhaps will need to master before I move on to the next step.  In no particular order, professional skills I wish I had mastered already to help me in the novel job hunter situations I find myself in these days.
  • Professional dress.  A quick survey of my closet suggests that my clothes go from bleached bench clothes to annual seminar with no middle ground.  What about attending a networking event, or meeting a colleague at their place of work?  I want to convey "put together-ness" rather than "trying too hard," with my wardrobe, so this needs some help.  And if I had to dress like a pro 5 days a week, I would be doing laundry every day.
  • Professional hair and make-up.  For the first half of graduate school, I didn't own a hairbrush.  I've made some strides since then, but I am haunted by the feeling that there is some unspoken rule like "mascara is never work place appropriate." Years of college at a hippy school mean I never really mastered the art of wearing a "natural" level. Pasty blemish face, or clown?
  • Taking notes in person.  I know better than to think I am going to remember every nugget of information that comes from a personal meeting.  Years of attending seminars means I have a wealth of beat up notebooks and swag-pads to take these notes in (is that appropriate?).  I usually tuck one under my arm, and resist the urge to write every detail like a stenographer, since I have found this makes people nervous.  Should I be writing at all?  Should I have a nice notebook for this?  Carried in a briefcase bag, instead of my childish purse or tucked into my coat with last fall's pumpkin spice latte spilled down the front?
  • Making small talk. Everytime I move to a new city, I wish I were better at this.  But I cannot really take in my surroundings and talk at the same time.  Networking event somewhere unfamiliar?  I clam up.  I'm getting better at learning a couple easy questions where I don't really have to remember the response (How are you? Have you been here before? etc) which gives my under-practiced social skills a grace period to catch up, and I try to ask questions rather than provide answers right off (I'm embarrassed by how often I hear my own voice trail off mid-sentence while my mind has been rerouted by other thoughts like, "am I the worst dressed person at this event??") but I know I come off as a robot when meeting new people.
  • Sending short follow up emails. I have gotten much better about sending emails that make sense, including context, subject matter and clear decision points.  But sometimes you just need to convey "Yeah, I got that, Thx."  Why is that a 200 word email? There are several others of these types of emails I find myself sending these days (introducing myself, requesting a meeting or info from someone who might not provide either etc.), and I still wondering if I am doing it right.
I know much of this seems superfiscial, but I am trying to present myself well.  As a job hunter with no golden ladder connections, I need to appear polished enough to earn myself the opportunity to share how bright and motivated I am, rather then just eliciting a negative response that wastes my chances. Any tips out there on becoming a polished professional for a lifelong dork?

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