The New Rules for Getting Ahead at Work

Career expert Lindsey Pollak explains why your Twitter profile is as important as your resume.

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When Lindsey Pollak’s popular book, Getting from College to Career, first came out five years ago, social media barely existed. Now, Pollak considers Twitter an essential tool for job seekers, along with LinkedIn, Skype, Facebook, and Google Apps. (She serves as a spokeswoman for LinkedIn.) The job market was also bustling five years ago; now, it’s harder to find full-time employment. That’s why in the latest edition of her book, Pollak delves into alternatives that can boost one’s pay while on the job hunt, including freelancing, interning, and project-based work.

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We spoke with Pollak about what’s changed in the world of work and how recent grads in particular can get ahead. Excerpts:

What mistakes do people make when it comes to using social media for their careers?

The biggest mistake is not realizing that social media can and should be used in a professional way. First, go to any social media accounts you have—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube—and make sure that your privacy settings are tight and that there are no “red flags” that might concern a recruiter who checks out your profile. That includes inappropriate photos or status updates saying “I hate work.”

Next, add professional information—past employment, professional affiliations, career ambitions—to your profiles so your friends can be on the lookout for opportunities. Follow potential employers on Twitter and LinkedIn, “like” employer pages on Facebook, and interact with recruiters in discussions on these networks to show your interest. Don’t be afraid to engage—that’s why employers are on social networks in the first place!

Finally, avoid sending mass emails to your social networks. If you’d like to ask people for help, send each person in your network a personalized message explaining that you’re looking for a job and asking if they might be able to offer any advice or perhaps a referral.

In the book, you share your own story about how a serendipitous encounter led to your current role as a career expert. Do you think we all have a unique career path, sort of like a soul mate, that we just have to find?

While some people are completely certain of their career goals, for most people, a career path is not like a soul mate. I’ve met so many college students and recent grads who are looking for that one “perfect” first job if only they could figure out what it is. This is not just false, it’s a great way to stress yourself out, particularly in tough economic times.

I do think there are a lot of jobs that could make you actively unhappy, such as working in sales if you’re painfully shy, but I’m confident that many jobs and potential career paths can make a person happy. And, in this day and age when people change jobs so often and entire industries are transforming, your future career path may not even exist yet.

The best thing you can do is to pursue the path that feels right for now and trust that your career path will change and grow and adapt over time as you do.

Why does it seem harder to choose a career path today than it used to be, for our parents, for example?

I think it’s definitely harder to choose a career path these days because we have so many more options than ever before. It used to be that you were limited in your career options based on your geographic location, your gender, your ethnicity, and other factors. Although education and opportunity are still barriers for some people, many societal barriers—particularly for women—have broken down. Plus, technology has added entirely new career paths that allow people to work from anywhere in the world and start businesses with not much more than an Internet connection. While some recent grads have told me they feel paralyzed by the existence of so many choices, I like to believe that more options are always better than fewer.

How much is the recession hurting recent grads' long-term career prospects? Is there a way to overcome the tough job market?

Studies have shown that people who graduate in recessionary times face a lifetime of lower earning power. While I hope this is not the case for today’s graduates, it is definitely a significant challenge to graduate into a bad economy, particularly if you have student loans to pay.

The best way to overcome the tough job market is to open yourself up to “alternative” employment opportunities beyond a full-time job at a big company. The people who are succeeding in the job market right now are those who are thinking creatively about how to make a living—for example, combining two part-time jobs, working in a not-ideal job while pursuing a passion on the side, or starting a business.

While it’s disappointing for many people not to be able to land a “dream job” right now, you have to accept reality and move forward in a positive way. I do believe that the perseverance and innovation young professionals are learning right now will help them throughout their careers as the economy improves.

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You mention entrepreneurship, a hot topic in the career advice world right now. Do you think it's a smart move to become a free agent early in your career, in your 20s?

Absolutely. Entrepreneurship is not the right choice for everyone, but if you’re someone who has the desire to work for yourself, then I think it’s a great time to give entrepreneurship a shot. Even if you don’t become a lifelong entrepreneur, it’s smart to have a “side gig” that adds to your income while you work a full-time job as well. There is so much you can do to make money—tutoring, coding, graphic design, writing, social media consulting. You’d be amazed how many small business owners would love to hire a recent grad to tweet for them. Or if you’re creative, you can market your work on a site like 99designs or Etsy.

Given the fact that job changes are so frequent in one's career now, how can someone best prepare for a lifetime of different jobs?

There was a great article in Fast Company recently called “The Four-Year Career” and I think it’s the new reality. Even if you’re happily employed, you need to be prepared to change careers every few years, even inside a company, because the world changes so fast. Here are some ways to create a sense of stability and feeling that you are working toward something meaningful:

  • Make sure that you are always learning and always building your professional connections. Knowledge and relationships are the two biggest factors in career success, so make sure you are always moving forward in both areas. Take advantage of training opportunities, additional education, mentoring, and networking in every job you have and you’ll be in good shape for the future.
  • Next, set long-term goals and check in with them frequently. I once received the great advice to create a “List of 100 Dreams”—do this and make sure to include a lot of small and large professional ambitions. If you are working toward achieving any of the items on your list, you can feel good about your work.
  • Finally, always check in with your gut that you are doing work that is challenging you in some way. You might be working for a terrible boss who is challenging you to improve your ability to deal with difficult people, or you might be working a fascinating job that challenges you creatively. The good and bad experiences can all help you grow.
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