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The keys to career control

It’s always surprising to find out how much control some people will give up over their career. A graduate student allows an adviser to choose the research topic and direction, or a postdoc falls under the spell of a terrible principal investigator (PI) and allows her or him to run rampant over them. In industry, others take the human resources department literally when they are told that there’s a career development plan in store for them. (No, the company doesn't take care of your career development for you; you need to actively pursue professional growth.) And, some people trust a headhunter who says, “Hey, just leave your job search to me.”

It’s far easier to leave your career in the hands of others than it is to sit down and logically determine your next steps. But that approach is also likely to lead to disappointment and frustration down the line. A lesson that everyone eventually learns is that you are the only one who cares enough about your career to make the right choices. And in order to make the right choices, you need to take control.

The locus of career control

It’s easy to expect good stuff to fall into your lap after you graduate. You’re smart. You worked hard to get that advanced degree. You deserve a good job that pays well and offers intellectual satisfaction! But careers don’t blossom because of things that happen to you. They blossom when you exert control over your actions, guided by a set of career goals. Think about that diploma as a license to hunt big game; you’ve still got to head into the bush and land that moose.

If you want as much control as possible as you head out to bag a new job with a top employer, you’re going to need what is called an internal locus of control. In psychology, locus of control refers to what factors people believe control their lives. At one end of the spectrum are people with an external locus of control, who believe their lives are driven by outside forces. That’s generally an unhealthy view of things. Far better is an internal locus, where one believes that what they get out of life is due to forces within them, and that they can influence events and outcomes. Cultivating an internal locus will help you in the job search, and it will put you in a good position to succeed throughout your career.

My advice is to look within yourself at every stage of your career, and at every important career decision. Are you making the decision based on something inside you that tells you it is the right move? Or are you being driven by the winds of fate (or an overly aggressive PI)? If you realize you’re not the one in control, maybe you should reconsider.

Three areas of career control

I can’t give you an entire list of the ways that you can control your career in one column, but I can point you to three of the main areas where exerting control on a daily basis is bound to put you on the right road. The first one is time. No one who learns to manage the clock will ever come out short on career opportunities. It is a vital aspect of success. And you are ultimately the only one who will decide how much time you are going to commit to each of your activities. The clock is completely yours.

The best way to make the clock work for your career is to learn to focus your efforts on what is truly important, not just on those urgent tasks in front of you. As President Dwight Eisenhower said, “I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.” (He attributed this principle to an unnamed “former college president.”) Learning to discriminate between these two is a great skill that you should make a point to develop.

Secondly, we control our communication. The words that come out of your mouth, the way you look, and the clues you give off as you communicate—it’s all a package deal to the person receiving your communication. It’s such a vital aspect of career success that it has become the number one thing you’ll find that job ads have in common. We’ve all seen those lines about “must have good communication skills, both written and oral.” That’s for real. I turned my early career around by being involved in Toastmasters International, an organization that helps members develop their public speaking skills. You can work on your communication to take charge of your career too.  

Finally, we control our commitments. When you are just starting out in your graduate education, you may be floundering a bit, and that’s OK. But when you make a commitment, to your adviser or to a fellow student, live to fulfill that commitment. Exert the control necessary to make commitments carefully, and once made, strive with all the passion and effort you can muster to get it done. There’s nothing more important to a hiring manager than hearing a reference tell her, “John was the kind of person I could count on. Not every one of my graduate students had that distinction, but I could always count on John.”

Never leave your job search to someone else

Controlling your time, communication, and commitments are good general principles. But if you’re dealing with the immediate task of getting a job, you need to think about how your locus of control applies there directly. After earning that diploma, some people would like nothing more than to outsource their job search to someone else. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could have an agent to represent you, just like movie stars in Hollywood? But that’s not how it works.

There’s frequently an impression that, when you’re ready, your grad school adviser will turn you on to her great network of colleagues in industry. But I often hear from newly graduated Ph.D.s who were disappointed when they didn’t get the support from their mentor that they expected during their job hunt. I believe that this disappointment stems not from misstatements by the mentor, but from a false expectation on the part of the student. Your adviser should be a resource during your job hunt, but don’t expect them to do all the heavy lifting. They can help best if you make specific requests—which requires that you’ve already done some work to figure out for yourself what you’re looking for and what opportunities are out there. In short, it’s another example that no one is better prepared to help you than you.

The same principle is true when it comes to working with headhunters—despite what they tell you! During my first big job search, a couple of headhunters told me, “Hey, don’t worry. We’ve got a great network in your area of interest, and you can leave that résumé with us and we’ll get you lined up for interviews.” As a result of those conversations, I sat on my hands waiting for the phone to ring. It never did. Lesson learned: No one will ever care as much about your situation as you will.

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