How to Avoid a Dead End Job: Laying the Groundwork for a Fulfilling Career

In a time of uncertainty with a faltering economy and rising unemployment, you might think it’s best to nail down a job, any job, no matter how demeaning answering phones or passing out mail seems. You sir, are wrong. Any time you go looking for a job, you know that thing you’ll be doing every day for years to come, you need to go in with your head on straight, your mind prepared, and goals determined. Check out the rest of your prep list in our complete guide to finding, scoring, and advancing in the career you’ve been waiting for.

Finding a job in this market is somewhat akin to spotting a female homo sapiens in the arcade*. In both scenarios, men are apt to totally lose their cool and scramble desperately and oafishly to snag it/her at all costs. We’ll put on a show, sell out our friends, suck up shamelessly and settle for way, way less than we deserve just for the chance to get our foot in the door. But that’s no way to close a deal. You must finesse the poor frightened doe – approach it with a measured step and a calm tone of voice. Otherwise, you risk spooking her and sending her flitting off irretrievably into the woods.  Before engaging the recently endangered and increasingly elusive job opportunity in the wild, be sure to take some of these important measures to ensure you don’t blow your chances at the career of your dreams.

* I know, I know. Girls play video games now. Just pretend that first line was written in the 90s. The rest, though, is current.

Before you toss your hat in the ring, make sure it’s adorned with some fetching feathers. The proper preparation – emotionally, physically and academically – will give you the confidence and poise you need to make a lasting impression on prospective employers.

Educate Yourself Passionately

Guess what? Nobody cares about your undergraduate major. As a bachelor of whatever, be it corporate finance or post-modern sculpture, you are, by definition, not married to your subject. Smart employers and aspiring employees both know this. Just ask Barton Biggs (B.A. English and Creative Writing, Yale), billionaire hedge fund honcho of Traxis Partners or model-turned-actor Ashton Kutcher (studied biochemical engineering at University of Iowa).

In an interview with Primer, Alexandra Levitt, author of “They Don’t Teach Corporate in College,” said:

The truth is undergraduate majors are carrying less and less importance. So if you’re really interested in your major then by all means approach job opportunities that are associated with it, but don’t completely limit yourself. There’s no way anyone expects you to know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life when you’re 21 or 22 years old.

What matter more are passion and a track record for excellence – both of which are far more achievable if you are personally and emotionally invested in your field of study. Don’t half-ass an accounting degree just because you think it’ll lead to steady work. Don’t switch majors when the market turns. Don’t go back to school for an M.B.A. just because your novel tanked or you failed as a chef. If you love movies or marine biology, by all means become a film or zoology major. Delve in to your heart’s desire. Meet and impress people. Get involved and show your enthusiasm. The personal connections and confidence that you’ll forge will be far more valuable in the long run. Being the head of the photography club, the organizer for a Green Peace initiative or a runner-up for a national poetry contest are far more laudable than a C+ in Business Valuation 101. If you’re still nervous about putting all your eggs in one basket, then pick up a dual major or a minor. Go for a foreign language – such as Mandarin, Spanish or Japanese – to make yourself marketable and flexible while still pursuing what you love.

Define Your Expectations

When looking for jobs, don’t think only in terms of what you want to make in salary, but also what you want to do with your life. Where do you want to live? What hours do you want to keep? Will you want to go back to school? Do you want to work with people? Do you want to be in the field or at a desk? Do you want to be with a big company, a small company or no company? What kind of values should drive your work?

Write these things down and rank them.

Why? Because, unless you get incredibly lucky, you are going to have to make some compromises. You are either not going to get paid what you want, not live in the city you want, not be in the industry that you want, or not have the flexibility and internal or lateral opportunities you want. So, what’s it going to be? If you think only in terms of salary, you’ll put what’s really important to you on the chopping block for any price.

Instead, think carefully about what’s more attractive to you: Taking a pay cut of $2,000 a year or adding 35 minutes to your commute? Moving to Gary, Indiana or working for an evil corporation? Working in a windowless cubicle for 9 hours a day or getting crappy medical coverage? If you sign up for a job that you’re going to hate or is going to take you further away from your desired career path, you only have yourself to blame.

Google-proof Your Good Name

If an employer is impressed by your resume, they’ll likely try to find out more about you before they call you for an interview. In some cases, this means calling your references. But most of the time, it means Googling you. Make sure you’ve done the following to Google-proof your good name:

  • Establish a web presence by setting up a LinkedIn, Google Profile and possibly your own domain name. Do this to differentiate yourself from those with similar names.
  • Delete all shameful content from social networks. Nix your MySpace and Facebook (or make them private) and un-tag any photos of your drunken self. Google yourself for anything from your deep, dark past and attempt to remove it.
  • Depending on your industry, you may want to position yourself as an active member or expert in your field. Start a blog, comment on other people’s blogs and be helpful on forums.

Once you have the cards stacked in your favor, it’s time to start playing your hand. But before you begin handing out your resumes to every passerby as if they were Orange Julius coupons, take time to think about the job you’ll want five or ten years down the road, not just the job you want right now (which, if you’re unemployed, is any job). In order to get the right job that fits into your career scheme, you have to apply correctly.

Customize Your Resume

Resumes are not one-size-fits-all. Just like you wouldn’t send out a cover letter to one employer that’s addressed to another, you shouldn’t fire off a resume for a job at a magazine publisher that touts your skills as a screen writer. Here are a few quick tips to ensure that your resume fits the bill:

  • Create a master resume. This one will be broad and include all of your achievements and qualifications. Start with this one and pare it down to order.
  • Ditch the objective. It’s just something that you’ll have to rewrite for each position you apply for (besides, why would a commercial real estate firm hire someone whose objective was to be a stock broker?). By applying for the job, your objective should be implicitly clear. If you must, write a succinct “profile” that highlights some of your best qualities and achievements.
  • Highlight quantifiable achievements particular to the position. If you’re applying for an Internet marketing position, don’t write “Experience in driving traffic to websites,” write “Devised a social media campaign that garnered 1 million monthly hits” or “Composed content that reached the front page of Digg.com on a monthly basis.”
  • Don’t list job duties. If you say that you were an administrative assistant for a landlord, this may difficult for an employer to understand why you’d be a good fit for a paralegal position. Instead, say that you interfaced with attorneys, drafted contracts and leases and briefed your superiors on state landlord tenant law. Or, if you are applying for a managerial position, say that you fielded requests and complaints from tenants and directed the workflow and handled the scheduling of groundskeepers and maintenance workers.
  • Limit your personal interests to things that are truly pertinent to the job. A marketing firm won’t be impressed with your knowledge of fine wines. A publication about local restaurants may find that tidbit interesting, though.
  • Keep it to one page. This will help you trim the fat. Save everything else for the interview.

Go Straight to the Top

Like stock tips, by the time job openings hit the public sphere (i.e. Craigslist, printed classifieds, job fairs), they are likely old news. To cut back on the competition, look for jobs that aren’t exactly listed. This can be difficult if you are unemployed or an industry outsider. In her book, Levitt outlines three tips for getting an insider edge:

  • Read through business sources and  publications such as Hoover’s and Forbes to find companies in your area, as well as the names of individuals in the department you’d like to work in.
  • Apply for internships that will help you meet the right people and get the right hands-on experience to build your skill portfolio.
  • Get referrals from anyone you know in your field. Ask professors, family members, colleagues and classmates.

When seeking out a job, directing the right requests to the right people is key. For instance, if you are looking to work in the research department at an investment bank, try e-mailing some of the lower level employees to see if they know of any job openings and who the best person to contact would be. Then send your resume directly to the supervisor who is looking to hire before they get a chance to advertise the position.  Of course, don’t ask for referrals unsolicited. Take time to find common ground with your contacts before asking them for the inside scoop – perhaps you belong to the same association, came from the same program or have a friend in common. Forging useful networks can take time, but it will pay off much more than blindly applying to the same jobs that thousands of other, perhaps more qualified applicants are already aggressively pursuing. If it still doesn’t seem worth it to you to read industry blogs, mingle at conventions and interface with people already working in the field, then you may also want to ask yourself if you are truly interested in this line of work.

So, you’ve been offered a job. Don’t take it… yet. You may feel compelled to jump on the opportunity as soon as it’s extended to you, resist that urge. A respectable employer won’t offer you a job lightly and they won’t retract it capriciously either. Take time to look out for your best interest by doing a bit of homework and negotiation.

Get the Scoop

Remember how you talked with Jeff in editorials to find out about the sweet columnist position opening up? Now that you have a job offer, send Jeff a quick thank you for his help and then pump him for some more information. Ask him how much others in the department get paid, what kind of work arrangements they have and what kind of opportunities for advancements there are. Also, do a bit of research into the average salary of your prospective position in your area. This will help you avoid the mistake of asking for too little or too much in negotiations.

Ask For More

In our interview, Levitt stressed the importance of asking for more money upfront, no matter how crumby the economy is or how bleak the job market seems.

If you don’t ask you won’t get. And in this economy raises are very few and far between once you’re in the company. So, ask for the money and be prepared to accept something that is somewhere in the neighborhood of the in-between point from what you’ve asked for and what the company has initially offered. If you find your company saying: “You know what, we have to pay you the starting salary – we can’t go up,” then, at that point, you have to sit and think about it and say: “Is the experience I’m going to gain at this company worth taking the lower salary?” And if it is, then you take the lower salary. Remember: it can’t hurt to ask even if they call your bluff. You always have the option of accepting the lower offer. They’re not going to think less of you for asking for more up front unless it’s an outrageously high number. [And it won’t be, if you’ve taken the previous step and done your homework!]

Try your hardest to avoid being the first to bring up the question of money, and when prompted, respond in vague, open-ended terms that highlight (a) your value to the company and (b) your eagerness to work with them. When you have to ask for more than they are offering, be sure to reiterate that you can’t accept less than X amount of dollars, and that you’ve had several other job offers that are willing to pay that much but X employer is your top choice. Ask if there is any way that you can work this out and you make some headway with benefits, vacation pay, bonuses and guaranteed raises.

Get it in Writing

Get everything in writing. A handshake is not a contract and the details may be fudged or forgotten when the interviewer runs your conversation by his or her superior. You may feel mistrusting and paranoid when you ask to get the agreement in writing but don’t. If anything, it will show that you are diligent and professional. Don’t demand to have a signed and witnessed contract before leaving the conference room, but do send a quick e-mail after your interview telling them how great it was to learn more about the position and confirming the details of your conversation. All they have to do is reply with, “Yep, that’s right” and it’s on the record.

Unless you want to toil for the rest of your days in an entry-level position, the road to a satisfying career doesn’t stop after you worm your way onto the payroll. Follow these best practices once you’re on board to help you rise through the ranks, build the experience you need and land that job you’ve always wanted.

Develop a Corporate Persona

First impressions mean a lot, especially on the job. Not only will your attitude during your first week set the tone for your own work ethic, but it will also let colleagues and superiors know what to expect from you. Carefully separate your personal life from your professional life and only be your professional self whenever you are in the eyes of professional contacts. You can still be a party animal among your close friends, but whenever you are around colleagues, be mature, responsible and tactful. Don’t gossip, don’t get sloshed at the holiday mixer and don’t talk about divisive issues such as politics, religion or sex. In a perfect world, all that matters is your performance and how hard you work. But in reality, the powers that be are subject to the same biases and personal grudges as any human. If an awkward remark or off-color joke offends them, they may hesitate when it comes time to think about your promotion, or worse, have guys like you top of mind when it comes to downsizing.

Notice and Be Noticed

On the other side of the coin, don’t be an insufferable kiss ass or a phony yes man. True, finding common ground and giving compliments when due will help you get noticed. But make sure that all of your flattery and encouragement is genuine. Don’t hesitate to give someone props on a project that you truly think your coworker or superior pulled off with style. Do refrain from gushing about how excited you are about the new cover sheets for TPS reports when you could care less – you’ll come off as sarcastic or like a brown-noser. But by noticing and commenting on the things you really do like around the workplace, you’ll keep yourself in a positive mindset and let others know that you have constructive opinions.

Also, don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back every now and then. You can toot your own horn without sounding like a showoff by disguising it as a compliment to someone else who helped. Send out a department wide e-mail saying something like, “I wanted to thank Julia for her help with the new charts for the media kit – they really helped our team land the biggest contract we’ve had to date from Advertiser Co.!”

Make sure the path towards your eventual rise to bigger and better things is always clear. Block off all diversions and dead ends and stay focused on your goal. The distractions and interruptions are numerous, but sidestepping them will be easier if you know where you are going. This can be difficult when you are just starting out at an entry-level position. As a newcomer to the company, you’ll likely be eager to please and hesitant to say “no,” even if the request is out-of-line or a waste of time. But if you aren’t careful, you’ll find yourself exploited, hindered or otherwise off the track.

To keep yourself on the straight and narrow, start by setting goals for yourself. Where do you want to be in five years? How about ten? What do you want to learn about your company or your position? How much do you want to be getting paid? What responsibilities do you want? At parties, when people ask you what you do for a living, how do you wish you could respond?

Next, after you’ve established yourself as a star employee, take time to sit down with your supervisor and discuss your goals. This is best done during your quarterly or annual review. Say to your boss, firmly:

“I think I’ve proven myself as a responsible and productive employee and, judging by your comments just now, it seems that you agree. I’d like to see myself in a managerial role sometime in the near future. As an employee, what do you want to see from me in order to consider me for more responsibilities?”

By doing this, you can establish a loose covenant that will usher in your promotion. Otherwise, you are stuck waiting and hoping for your lucky break. By talking over things with your supervisor, you can gauge which initiatives you need to be taking to get noticed or whether or not a promotion is even feasible in the near future (if it isn’t, it may be time to start looking for another job). It also plants the notion in your manager’s that you are being groomed for another position, rather than just filling your niche on the bottom of the totem pole.

The opposite scenario is one where you’ve taken on so many peripheral tasks and responsibilities that aren’t essential to your job function that you are struggling just to maintain your current position. At this point, you need to have a talk with your supervisor about what makes you valuable to the company and what your priorities should be. This should help steer your responsibilities away from menial time-wasters and more towards fulfilling tasks that can help you build a career. If you find out that you really are there just to alphabetize files and scan documents, then it’s time to move on.

Driving your livelihood towards a fulfilling career and away from a dead end job is all about keeping your eyes on the prize. Define your values, your expectations and your goals and don’t’ settle. Climb the corporate ladder on your own terms or hop off at your discretion. The key is to keep a cool head, stay confident and avoid the scramble of desperation that inevitably leads to compromise.

Jack Busch is a Pittsburgh resident, freelance writer and a crummy dancer. You can find him on Twitter and at JackBusch.com.