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April 2, 2009

Books, Journals & More, a closer look: Shawn Graham

In Shawn Graham’s world, an attractive resume equates to the hot guy or girl who stands out in the crowd and cover letters are the pick-up lines.

Interviewing parallels with first-date jitters and a strong closing to a job interview is the equivalent of going for the good night kiss.

Job search books typically aren’t entertaining reading, but Graham’s book “Courting Your Career” sets the fundamentals in a framework familiar to young job seekers who are looking for the ideal relationship: a match with the perfect job.

“This is not your parents’ job search book,” said Graham, a Pitt alumnus who became assistant dean and director of MBA career services at the Katz Graduate School of Business in August.

For Graham, a Hermitage native who majored in business and economics at Pitt, returning home after more than eight years in North Carolina was an easy decision. “I always loved my experience at the University of Pittsburgh. It was a no-brainer when I had the opportunity to get the job,” he said.

Graham said the dating metaphor emerged while he was working as a career counselor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. The students sometimes couldn’t relate to existing job resources, but still needed to learn the fundamentals of a job search. “I tried different contexts, different frames of reference, but the dating metaphor is the one that stuck,” he said.

“Imagery is easier to remember and apply,” he said. “I think it resonates.”

Although 20-something job seekers are Graham’s primary audience, “Courting Your Career” is a comprehensive job search resource.

“It’s definitely something I think is transferable to job seekers at whatever point in your career,” he said. “A lot of job searching is common-sense stuff, like being able to relate to someone.”

For inexperienced job hunters, Graham provides detailed tips on what to do. Sending a post-interview thank-you note is like sending flowers after a date: It makes an impression.

He also spells out what not to do: Never send flowers to an interviewer.

Need to know what to wear and where to get it? Graham lists things that can be worn on a date, but not to a job interview: flip-flops, tank tops, ball caps or jeans — and provides a diagram showing how to tie a necktie and a list of online retailers that sell appropriate interview wear.

Beyond going over the most basic of basics, Graham addresses job hunting strategies, outlines typical interview formats and suggests questions interviewees should ask and points for negotiation if a job is offered. He provides sample cover letters, resumes and follow-up messages, including one for turning down a job offer without burning bridges. Reference materials include a list of action words to liven up resumes and a sampling of career-oriented online resources.

In today’s difficult job market, using every advantage to enhance a job search takes on even greater urgency, Graham said. Seekers may need to increase their flexibility by broadening their search both geographically and functionally — not just searching in one’s preferred location for a dream job, but also pursuing a multi-tiered search that also includes positions related to that ideal match.

As in dating, it’s important not to appear desperate, Graham said. “That’s something companies are not going to find attractive.” Instead, he advised, “Be confident in your abilities and skills.”

Given that more people are competing for fewer jobs, “It’s even more important to prepare” prior to an interview, Graham said. In addition, response time can be critical. “Often the first to reply are most successful,” he said.

Even those who are not seeking a new job would do well to pay attention to the condition of their career. Graham advises workers to make note of accomplishments as they happen. “A lot of people let it lapse until it’s too late,” he said. “Keep track — there will be a time you’re going to have to update your resume,” he said, adding that having a record, be it written or in electronic form, is helpful during performance reviews or when pursuing a promotion. “It’s better to go in with something prepared,” he said. “Capture it as it’s fresh in your mind.”

Networking is one aspect of job hunting that many people dread, Graham has found. “Fear leads to unwillingness to do it. People just don’t want to pick up that phone.” Potential dates often are found through mutual friends; in the same way, family, friends and professional contacts all can be among the most valuable sources for job leads.

Online social media can make networking easier, especially for people who are shy, Graham said. Rather than get tongue-tied, conversing on-screen allows time to better prepare responses.

Sites such as LinkedIn or Facebook, for instance, are helpful for making contacts and can be a good exercise in networking. “It’s a great avenue for all job seekers to connect with people who you wouldn’t normally connect with,” Graham said. In the same way, blogging and “twittering” can get people noticed by people who might not otherwise be in contact.

Social media are a two-edged sword, however.

On the flip side, there’s the risk of information overload. And it takes time to keep a resume current and one’s status updated, he said. Care also should be taken in what is posted online. “Think about the things you’re putting out there,” Graham said, adding that postings should be meaningful and crafted “to represent you and your personal brand.”

In his experience counseling thousands of students, Graham said he’s found that the question, “Why do you want to work for us?” seems simple, but it’s the one that interviewees most often struggle with. “Saying it’s because they’re the top company or because of their size or location all are very superficial characteristics, sort of like telling a date you’re interested in going out ‘because you’re hot,’ or ‘because you live in Pittsburgh,’” he said. “In dating that probably wouldn’t go too far.”

Research is the key to coming up with a more attractive answer. “Companies want to know you ‘get’ them — they’re unique,” he said. “Learn what’s unique; find out about their interests. See if you’re a good match. A lot of times job seekers don’t appreciate how much research goes into it — not only to interview well, but to find the company that’s right for you.”

Even candidates who are seeking to move within their own company should take care to do their homework. Internal candidates might think they don’t need to tweak their resume as much as outsiders, but they should approach a bid for a new position as seriously as if they were applying for an outside job, Graham advised.

Knowing your type is important, he said, advising seekers to consider carefully the work setting they prefer. “You don’t want to go from one bad relationship to another,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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