Selling myself

When January comes, the blogosphere is awash with self-reflection: “What did the past year bring? What does the new year promise? How do I plan to do things differently from now on? How will things develop in the continuing story that is me, me, me?”

And much like everybody else, I have been reflecting on many of those issues. But (probably) unlike most others, I’ve been thinking about these things more or less continually since I graduated back in August. Having achieved the goal which I have been working towards for seven years, this autumn has been remarkably different from earlier years. Especially since I no longer have reading lists, exams, and clear ideas about what I’m supposed to be learning.

Since mid-November, I’ve been wanting to write about the “courses” that I’ve been taking this now-past “semester.” Not only to sum up what I’ve been doing this autumn, but also to give myself an idea of what I have learned (or sought to teach myself). I ended up with the following:

? Selling Myself
? Project Management
? Design Anthropology and User-driven innovation
? Design for Democracy

The main course (har har) is my on-going project of learning to sell myself (or rather, my labour) on the job market. The other three courses extend from that. The Project Management course was the only a proper course with exam, essay and reading list. And it gave me some useful tools and an understanding of how projects are handled within larger organisations, as well as an idea of the dynamics of corporate culture. The other two have been defined in a slightly more hazy fashion, as I’ve been trying to position myself to get a job within these fields.

The goal with all of this has been and still is to get a job that has some relevance and depth to my education. But since anthropologists are not the most sought-after human resource on the market, I have been learning a lot about how to sell myself as an anthropologist with relevant and useful skills and knowledge. Following my work with interaction design at the IT University of Copenhagen, and my focus on userdriven innovation in the Ubuntu community, I’ve sought to position myself as a design anthropologist. I’ve been talking to friends already employed or with academic experience within the field, and sought to soak up some of their ideas and experiences, and following their advice, I’ve made a neat portfolio explaining what I’ve worked with and what design anthropology is, which I’ve been sending out with my unsolicited applications.

The job application is a new genre for me, so it has taken some time to get used to. Human Resource people often refer to the cover letter as a “sales letter” for yourself, while the résumé or CV is a more factual “declaration of contents” – i.e. what credentials do you actually have? A fun way of presenting this would be to design a job application as a box of cereal – with fancy graphics and glorious promises of well-being and nutritious insight on the front, fun details for reading while eating on the back, and the raw facts of grades and job experiences tucked away on the side.

But I have yet to go so far in my attempt to win the attention of prospective employers. Instead, I’ve been trying to compile a list of advice about the do’s and don’ts of writing job applications, and about what qualifications, interests and traits of personality which it is relevant to focus, as well as how best to do so:

  • Show it, don’t tell it! Show who you are, not just what you can do. You need to “break through with who you are”
  • Describe yourself: How charmingly social, intellectual, creative, innovative, analytical and cross-disciplinary you are.
  • Describe your skills – with support in the activities listed in your CV.
  • Describe what kind of work would you like to do. Support this through references to your résumé.
  • Visualize yourself in a work situation at the prospective company: How would you fit into their current organization? What kind of work is it that you can do that others cannot?
  • Position yourself! Write about your own ambitions and ideas and how these ambitions can benefit yourself and your prospective employer both!
  • Look ahead! Don’t write about what you’ve done so far, but about where you want to go.
  • Make sure that every formal detail of the job application is in order. Take that extra bit of time to hint a bit of perfectionism and greater-than-average interest.
  • It feels kind of strange writing my “tips on writing a job application” when I still haven’t landed a job myself, but it goes to show that these are very general and not all that easy to fulfill anyway. Besides, writing an unsolicited job application is one thing, writing an application for a specific job ad is something rather different, as you aren’t so much defining your own project as you are matching your ambitions and ideas with the needs of an organisation with pre-defined ideas of what they need. This matching is an interesting challenge, since I get imagine myself in lots of different roles, doing lots of different work, and working out how I can go about shaping them to make them my own.

    And it is often a lot easier to imagine myself in projects or jobs defined by other people, rather than having to define my own job from scratch. Several people have suggested that I apply for a Ph.D, but I don’t really feel ready for a return to academia, nor do I have a project that I consider sufficiently well-defined to build a Ph.D application on. Actually, I was going to apply for Ph.D in Public Sector Innovation at the new Mind Lab innovation unit initiated by the Danish government, which promised to give me practical hands-on project experience as well as the actual research work. That was one of the main reasons behind the “Design for Democracy” course mentioned above. But in the end, I didn’t go through with it, as I didn’t feel that I have the “academic maturity” required for such a position.

    Maybe it was a bad decision, I don’t know. I’m still deeply interested in the matters of design of services and policy, and how qualitative research and user-involvement can improve such decision-making processes. And I feel that my background with open source governance and sociality over the Internet has given my some excellent insights to use in that regard. But what I want to do at the moment is not research. It is practical hands-on, making-things-happen ethnography (if there is such a thing).

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