Offering professional advice is a delicate game of balance: what tidbits might be useful yet universal? If you wanted advice on a career in in the law, I could hold forth at length; ask me about mechanical engineering and you would get a blank stare. Still, I’ve had the opportunity to make some observations: I took a fellowship at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission at the end of my undergraduate years at Columbia; interned with a federal judge while in law school at Fordham; have been employed as an attorney focusing on antitrust law in major New York full-service law firms (so-called “BigLaw”) for the last decade; and am regularly published in academic law reviews and journals. Throughout it all, my brothers in Zeta Psi have been a source of constant advice, support, and camaraderie. In the spirit of returning a small measure of these many good turns, following are a few nuggets from those various appointments that seem more generally applicable:
- Generalize to get in; specialize to move up. When you’re interviewing for positions early in your career, you don’t have a surfeit of proven skills. A college degree, even in an applied science or engineering, is a credential, not experience. So your net needs to be cast wide, and you need to express familiarity with a broader range of competencies—writing, Excel, basic accounting, programming ability, and so forth. (All the better if you have a broad range.) But generalities run their course swiftly. Clients and supervisors look for “go-to” people as seniority increases: someone who has unique expertise in a narrower subject area, justifying higher pay and responsibility. Being the one with the most knowledge in that area renders you valuable, and ideally, indispensable. But beware becoming overspecialized and inflexible: expertise is good; being “niched” can be a cul-de-sac if shifting priorities don’t favor your niche.
- Beware the greener grass. Much has been said of how frequently modern workers change jobs as compared to prior generations. Certainly you have more leverage when companies are offering open arms to lateral employee moves, and taking a seemingly better offer may well be a wise choice. But you have powerful resources invested in any workplace you’ve spent considerable time: personal relationships, institutional knowledge, and familiarity with the work. Be prudent in jumping ship even if a greener pasture seems to beckon; whatever issues you may have with your current job, the new one will have new issues you don’t even know about yet. Of course, if your current ship is sinking, reaching its final destination, or pointing the way to the plank, do like the rodents do and hurry to disembark.
- Don’t undervalue prestige points. Few employers will be swayed by your personal interests and hobbies, notwithstanding the ubiquitous interests section of résumés. “Prestige points” related to your field, such as speaking engagements, published writings, relevant philanthropic work, and unpaid appointments, can be compelling—though generally only when you have a recognizable institution to hitch your wagon to. Securing such opportunities is not as hard as it seems: even well-known charities are always looking for volunteers, and reputable trade and academic journals are always looking for content.
These are undoubtedly general to the point of platitude in some sense, but hopefully provide some directional guidance. And, of course, if you’re interested in hearing an attorney hold forth about a career in big law firms, there’s little we like more than going on about our profession. Some of it might even be helpful—feel free to track me down online or at the next Zeta Psi Convention or event.