There are some things I remember from my college graduation.
That it sure was hard to pay attention to the ceremony when seated in the very last row. That I had to repeatedly readjust my cap because the two bobby pins I brought along were not sufficient. That my mom nearly fell off her second tier seat trying to get my attention as we proceeded in.
I also remember the final prayer. One of the university’s chaplains, in addition to thanking God for the gift of our education and our generous parents who delayed retirement to finance it, asked that the Lord grant us just one more gift: employment.
The crowd started to laugh, but the laughter was tinged with a hint of nervousness. And why not? The fear of unemployment is a real one. The job search can be scary, too. My best foot must always be put forward. One misstep could cost me a job. The chances are I’ll be rejected at least once. I’ve heard the longer the job hunt drags on, the harder it becomes to land a position.
That perilous period of job searching is not always fruitless, though. I’ve been a member of the professional journalism job market for only a few months, and I’ve already picked up some important lessons.
If you don’t know what you want, at least know what’s important to you.
It’s common knowledge that a necessary tactic of the job interview is to ingratiate oneself to one’s potential employer. But rules are meant to be broken, and who better to break them but me?
An editor at a major newspaper emailed me in the fall of my senior year to ask if I had time to meet with him. He was looking for interns for the following summer—interns who might become staffers—and had seen my work the year before and wanted to talk.
Instead of falling over myself trying to please him, I took the road less traveled. I talked about how I wasn’t sure I was interested in the internship.
I was gracious for his generosity in taking the time to meet with me. I recited all the things I admired about the newspaper. But I also mentioned how I was born in New Orleans and raised in its suburbs, how this was less than six weeks after Hurricane Katrina, how my parents, brother and sister had fled. How the storm made me miss home. How I wanted to be back.
“So,” he said when I finished my monologue, “I guess you’re not a rabid careerist.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that statement, so I went with honesty.
“Frankly,” he said, “that’s refreshing.”
The Vice-Versa Axiom, or the Rule of Reciprocity.
I think it was when the sweat started to form on my neck that I knew the job wasn’t for me.
A month before my graduation, there was a job opening at a local weekly newspaper. It was no New York Times, but I was worried that I would graduate unemployed and I knew it was only necessary to stay there for a year or so before I could move on. It wasn’t the kind of position where one would want to spend her career, but don’t tell that to the hiring editors.
The interview lasted three hours, a fact of which I was not informed until I arrived. During those 180 minutes, I was asked the exact same questions by every employee in the building, except perhaps the janitor. The air conditioning didn’t work. Finally, after I had presented the editors my meticulously compiled portfolio of clips, I was informed that if I really wanted to be considered for the job, I would need to do a month worth of freelance work sans compensation.
It was, in short, a perfect illustration of a piece of advice my parents had offered me repeatedly: I was interviewing them as much as they were interviewing me. They didn’t get the job. It wasn’t so much that the position they were offering was not ideal, as the fact that they showed a complete lack of respect for my time and my other commitments.
The final lesson is not accompanied by an amusing anecdote, but it is perhaps the most difficult and necessary one to learn.
Someone will always be smarter than me. Someone will always work harder than me. Someone will always interview better than me. Someone will always have more connections than me.
As proud as my parents are of me, as high as my college G.P.A. was, as highly recommended as I come, I still have to climb the career ladder. My first job is unlikely to be my dream job. All work has an inherent dignity—even work that I’m not crazy about.