By CityTownInfo.com Staff
July 9, 2009
The following is the transcript of an interview with David Robertson, Director of Career Services for the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California at San Diego. David has been with IR/PS since 2005. His focus is marketing the expertise of IR/PS students and developing relationships with targeted employers. He also provides career development and counseling services for students pursuing international careers in the private sector. His services include one-on-one counseling, resume reviews, workshop presentations, and program development. David has a Master's Degree in Counseling from San Diego State University and has been working in Higher Education for over 20 years.
The School of International Relations and Pacific Studies (IR/PS) is the University of California's only professional school of international relations as well as the only such program in the U.S. focused on the Pacific region - Asia and the Americas. Only 20 years old, it was recently ranked in the top ten for foreign affairs by Foreign Policy magazine.
CityTownInfo: What resources do you recommend students use to help themselves in their job search?
David Robertson: There is not any one thing specifically that students need to use, but they should use a variety of resources. Certainly web resources are great, but that's just one part of it. Another part of their search needs to be in-person or over-the-phone informational interviews so they can get information from someone who works in the student's field of interest and knows the culture of the organization. One of the resources we recommend is the online site Vault.com. There is a lot of good information about employers - everything from the size of the organization to what types of interview questions they ask. Again, I don't want anyone to rely on any one thing, so I'm really cautious about making pointed recommendations. I like the Wall Street Journal's website just in terms of the general career resources. We also have our own internal website, IR/PS , where students can access 1,700 employers including alumni and HR contacts.
CityTownInfo: Do you have any resources offering career or job-hunting advice that are available to the public?
David Robertson: Our main career services website has many industry resources available to the public.
We tell students that networking is also very important, in hopes that students stay in touch with people who may be able to help them in their careers. Keeping in touch with people goes back to being organized. We tell students that they can't just meet someone and then add them to their network, they have to keep in touch. Students should not only contact people when they need something; it's important that networking relationships be reciprocal. Any relationship has to be about giving and receiving, it can't just work one way. I tell students that sometimes it's just as simple as sending a contact a link to an article that you recently read online that you thought they might enjoy reading. It's nice to be thought of that way and it's an easy way to stay in touch with people. Those little things are very important. Some people have very negative feelings about networking because they don't like the feeling of bothering someone by having to ask them for help, but the fact of the matter is that this is how it is done and most people have benefitted from networking themselves and are willing to return the favor.
One other online resource that I want to mention is LinkedIn. We use it multiple times everyday and I am constantly talking to students about it, because it's such a useful tool. It is basically a networking site like Myspace and Facebook, except it is professional networking instead of social networking. We have over 700 members in our IR/PS Alumni LinkedIn group, and I find that's one of best ways to keep in touch with alumni. The first thing that people do is update their Facebook and their LinkedIn when they change their career, so I find it has very accurate information.
CityTownInfo: I think it's a good way to network into a company as well, because a student might have a third degree connection where a lot of different opportunities are as well. LinkedIn is really good at highlighting different professional organizations that some people maybe aren't aware of. It's a great way to keep in touch with people in professional virtual organizations, real organizations and alumni associations, and it's a great way for people to get their foot in the door where they otherwise might not have had a connection.
David Robertson: Yes, you are absolutely right.
CityTownInfo: For networking or interviewing, what do you think about and e-thank you versus a handwritten note?
David Robertson: I actually have some pretty strong feelings about that. I think an email thank you suffices in many cases, but if someone has really been of significant help or if they really went out of their way to help, I think a hardcopy thank you note is more appropriate. I think it makes a big difference and we are all inundated and overwhelmed with emails anyway. People don't often get a hand-addressed card in the mail very often outside of a holiday.
I just conducted a mock interview with a student and she gave me a handwritten thank you just for the work that we have done together over these last couple of years. Even though it's just piece of paper, the fact that she took the time to do that tells me that she really appreciated our relationship, so I think handwritten cards are a very nice gesture.
CityTownInfo: We were talking about the importance of professional demeanor and communication, so is the importance of EQ or emotional intelligence something you address in terms of the difference of a behavioral interview versus a strictly technical one?
David Robertson: I am constantly working with our students on their interview skills. I was just doing a mock interview with a student and some of the questions that I asked him were ones I had heard from an alumna who interviewed with the same organization. For the most part, organizations are still asking some of the same basic interview questions, and things haven't changed that much. Questions like "tell me about yourself?" and "what are your strengths and weaknesses?" are still asked in almost every interview. There has, however, certainly been a growing movement in the frequency of scenario type questions, so we prepare our students to answer them regardless of how they are asked. We have focused on working with our students and helping them answer those questions in a very specific, behavioral and results-oriented way. For example, if a student is asked, "How would your former supervisors and coworkers describe you?" That's not a behavioral question, but we recommend that they answer them in a behavioral way. We want students to be answering questions in a more proactive, results-oriented way. There are probably slightly more scenario questions being asked, where students have to give examples of ways they have handled certain problems and things like that.
CityTownInfo: What are the most common errors you believe students make during an interview?
David Robertson: Being unprepared. They don't know themselves, what the job entails, what the organization is about, or enough about the industry as a whole. Instead, students need to relate their interview answers to these topics and make them STAR-related: situation, task, action, result or PAR: problem, action, result. They need to participate in mock interviews and ask well thought out questions to ensure a good fit for both parties.
CityTownInfo: Do you have any specific tools that you recommend to help students be more resourceful and think out of the box in terms of terms of getting a job in their desired field?
David Robertson: What we do with our students in terms of helping them with those types of resources is a series of assessments, a series of orientations and a series of professional development courses, which help them look at their interests, skills and values. They are basically designed to help students figure out a specific career path to pursue. The number one tool for fine-tuning that direction is networking and informational interviewing. Just sitting down and talking to someone can be very helpful. We connect our students with alumni and employers so they can talk for 15 or 30 minutes with someone in their desired profession and ask specific questions about how they chose their career, why they chose the degrees that they earned, which professional associations they belong to and what trends they are seeing in the field.
CityTownInfo: What do you think are the three most important things students can do to prepare to find a job?
David Robertson: Number one, but not necessarily the most important thing, is an internship, whether they are an undergrad or a graduate student. Perhaps even multiple internships would help, just so students can make sure that that is what they really want to do. Finding out what they don't like and what they don't want to include as a possible career option is almost as important as finding out what they do like. Obviously, if the internship goes well, they can put that experience on their resume and make connections from networking and possibly turn that into a job when they graduate.
Number two would be networking. Students have got to get out there and network. In addition to informational interviews, we advise students to have a real professional demeanor as well. If they are out there and they don't have good professional and social skills, it's going to be worse than if they had not gone out at all. Having a professional demeanor includes everything from email communication and sending thank you emails to people who interviewed them, while networking includes joining professional associations, making connections and developing relationships with people.
CityTownInfo: Do you offer seminars and tips on how to be more professional? If a student has a scheduled dinner interview, for example, would you explain to them the proper utensils to use?
David Robertson: Our students are older and they already have a few years of work experience under their belt as they are graduate students, so that's less of a concern to us, so we don't offer specific information on which fork to use and that kind of thing. However, we do talk about lots of things regarding professional etiquette. We focus more on communications, how to communicate with alumni and how to communicate with employers. Those things really make a difference, and sometimes the very little things are what make the biggest difference. We are constantly working on improving the students' social networking skills. I had a student recently who had a job offer rescinded because of information that was seen on Facebook, so we are trying to make students aware that anything that is online about them can be viewed and used by potential employers.
Number three, which may actually be the most important thing to help students prepare to find a job, is to be organized. This is one of the areas with which I think students need the most help. Those who get jobs more quickly are usually pretty good about being organized with their job research. Doing the hard work and researching to come up with a target list and the follow through with the jobs a student applied for and the people they connected with is very important. I encourage our students to have a spreadsheet of their target list, including headings such as HR and alumni contacts, follow-up notes, etc.. They need to find out if each organization has any employees or interns who are alumni at this school. I think it was Woody Allen who said, "Ninety percent of life is just showing up." I would say 90% of overall success is being organized, and 50% of job search success is based on if the students are organized about it or not. They need to be strategic and structured with their search.
CityTownInfo: Do you have any particular books that you recommend to students to help them with their job search?
David Robertson: We have some books in our library for students based on the careers they are interested in. We have books on international development, books on microfinance, books on management consulting. "What Color is Your Parachute", by Richard Boles, it's still considered to be a classic. It is updated every couple of years and it is still very popular, one of the most published books ever. We also use book guides for our students interested in management consulting. There are a lot of useful guides, but we also have an online document library in our internal system that students use a lot.
CityTownInfo: What kind of a career advice would you give to someone entering college today?
David Robertson: I tell students not to worry about what their major will be right away, because so many things can happen. It is also important that students get involved in something, whether it is a club, activity, research with professors or study abroad programs. Knowing a second language is also important in terms of the job search. Unfortunately, many students do the minimum to complete their foreign language requirement, but really the opposite should be happening. So we recommend that students do internships in the countries where they are going to be required to speak another language, because that makes them so much more marketable. Being immersed in the language, the culture and the region really helps with understanding. One of things employers tell me is that they hire our students over others because they have more experience, including soft skills that make our students more marketable.
I also tell students to find mentors and talk to lots of people in order to get feedback about the world, themselves and about possible jobs. We recommend that students see advisors regularly and use career services early on as freshmen. So many of them just come in their senior year when they are about to graduate, and it is too late by then. They need to find out what their interests and passions are as soon as possible, because the most successful students that I see are ones that really follow their hearts. They can't follow their parents' wishes, what's currently trendy or what's going to pay the most, because they are most likely not going to be happy that way.
CityTownInfo: What kinds of differences are you seeing between students today versus years past?
David Robertson: Overall, students are the same developmentally. In general, students today are more technologically savvy, but they need to be professional in their social networking postings.
CityTownInfo: How has the recession affected student enrollment?
David Robertson: The net impact has increased applications for admission by 7%. Additionally, 50% of our students are hired or go on for additional education upon graduation.
CityTownInfo: What kinds of suggestions do you recommend to students so that they stand out from other applicants?
David Robertson: I don't recommend using gimmicks, because it makes students look under-qualified. The best way to stand out is to be close to perfect.
Students' cover letters and resumes should be concise, professional, and targeted. As far as networking and interviewing, I also recommend students use the "three Ps": be polite, persistent, and ping or remind employers that they are still interested in the position. Interviewees should be enthusiastic and in this tough job market offer to work on a contractual basis or for free for a limited period of time, if a position they're interested in is on hold. That way, additional experience can be added to the student's resume.