Mid Atlantic Folk Arts Forum

Essay: Finding Alternate Careers by Joseph P. Goodwin

Posted by midatlanticfolkarts on March 30, 2010

Essayist Joseph Goodwin offered a professional development workshop at the 2009 American Folklore Society Annual Meeting entitled “Job Search Skills and Alternative Careers for Folklorists.”  Here, he offers advice from that workshop and his former “Careers” column from the AFS newsletter.

Finding Alternative Careers

Author’s Note:  Portions are this article are duplicated and revised from the “Careers” column that I wrote for AFSNews in the 1990s. The information is still applicable.  Throughout this article, I use employment and similar words to include consulting, contract work, and other sources of income.

Many of us chose to study folklore with the intent of teaching at the college level. There will never be enough teaching positions for all folklorists. Fortunately, there are other opportunities in the public sector in which one can work as a folklorist. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough of those jobs, either. What to do, what to do?

Focus on our skills more than on our degrees or titles. The skills that folklorists share are not merely marketable; they are in demand!

What do employers look for in job candidates? National surveys conducted over the last twenty years or so reveal that aside from expertise in one’s field of study, the skills and traits most valued by employers are oral and written communication, teamwork, interpersonal relations, motivation and initiative, analytical skills, flexibility, computer skills, organization, creativity, leadership skills, time management, problem solving, familiarity with diversity issues, strong work ethic, and honesty and integrity.

Our own research at Ball State University supports the survey’s findings. Employers tell us that they want employees who can communicate well orally and in writing and who have good listening skills. They want people who work well in teams to solve problems and who can see more than one side of an issue. And they want people who can conduct research; analyze and synthesize the information they gather; present it clearly and concisely, tailored for the appropriate audience; offer supporting arguments; and draw conclusions based on their data.

Could these employers have come any closer to listing the skills needed to become a folklorist? Our work in the field requires excellent communication and interpersonal skills. If we fail to listen carefully to the people we are interviewing, we can’t conduct field work. We often work with colleagues in the field and on other projects. We have to be flexible to adjust to the many kinds of environments in which we may find ourselves. And we summarize our research by analyzing the information we collect and presenting it to our colleagues at meetings or writing it for publication.

When you are being interviewed for a job or are pitching your services for consulting or contract work, be prepared to describe how you have used each of these skills (as well as other skills you should stress for the position). Think of several examples for each skill. Ask yourself the standard journalist’s questions: who, what, when, where, why, and how? Who was involved? What was the situation? What had to be accomplished? When did it happen? Where? Why had this situation arisen? How did I resolve the matter? What did I do? What results did I achieve?

The underlying questions (or overriding concerns) of all employers in conducting interviews are, Why should I hire you? What do you have to offer my organization that makes you a better choice than all other candidates? To make yourself stand out, you need to present clear, vivid examples of how you have used your skills. To employers, past performance is a predictor of future performance.

How do you get the word out about your skills and accomplishments?

I got my job through networking. Actually, I was not seeking job leads. Rather, my future boss was using her network to gather information. She called me for advice on advertising the position. I was working as an editor, and she wanted to reach candidates with editorial skills. As we discussed the position, I realized that I should apply: she was also seeking public speaking skills and library experience (which I had) and I was seeking to change jobs.

Most of us probably grew up hearing, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” In today’s job market, the phrase might be expressed, “It’s not only what you know and who you know, but also who knows you.” Networking is one of the most important aspects of the job search today—estimates are that only 20 percent of jobs are ever advertised. You need to develop many contacts as you seek employment to help you find those opportunities.

If you are looking for work, you should use a variety of job-search strategies, but networking should perhaps be the foremost. You can begin by listing people you know. These contacts can be professional or personal. You should also join and become active in professional associations. (The annual AFS meeting is a great place to network!) Service providers–insurance agents, bankers, librarians, and others–are also good contacts. In networking, one asks contacts for information and advice, not for jobs. The point of this process is that someone will know someone who knows someone who has a job vacancy. As a networker, you are seeking to get to that person.

What sorts of questions should you ask? “Do you know anyone who hires people with skills like mine?” “What do you think a person with my skills and background should do to begin a job search?” “How can I best present my skills and abilities to potential employers?” “Can you recommend other people for me to talk to? May I tell those people that you suggested that I contact them?”

Remember that networking is a reciprocal arrangement. You should write thank-you notes to people who help you and share information with them when appropriate: you may come across opportunities that aren’t right for you, but some of your contacts might find them appealing.

A great networking resource is LinkedIn—a professional online “community” with 60 million members worldwide.

Creating a LinkedIn account is easy. On the LinkedIn home page enter your first and last names and your e-mail address in the boxes provided. Select a password of six or more characters and enter it in the box provided. Click the green Join Now button.

Create as complete a profile as possible. A complete profile turns up in search results 40 times more often than profile that is 90 percent complete. In your “headline” and “specialties” sections, be descriptive and specific. Use synonyms. I list as my specialties career development, job-search training, folklorist, folklore, cultural research, gay studies, ethnology, ethnologist, editing, editor, writing, and writer. Be careful with the word consultant. Don’t avoid it, but keep in mind that for some employers consider it code for unemployed.

Once your profile is set up, begin to invite people to connect with you. There are several folklorists on LinkedIn. (Feel free to invite me to connect with you.) Search by the names of people you know, or go to Advanced Search and search for folklore, folklorist, and other terms.

People use LinkedIn to look for jobs, job candidates, and service providers. Again use Advanced Search to help you connect with people who might need your services.

Remember that LinkedIn is a professional network, not a social site like Facebook.

Having said all that, what are some possible alternative careers for folklorists? I’ve known folklorists working in publishing and technical writing, diversity consulting, international agencies, libraries and archives, business consulting, among others. Greeting-card companies have been known to hire anthropologists to help create culturally appropriate cards for various populations. Corporations have hired anthropologists to study how people use their products. Folklorists could do those jobs. Market research is a related field for which we are well suited. Use your imagination; try not to get discouraged—the future is yours!

Joseph P. Goodwin

March 2010

Joseph P. Goodwin is a folklorist and the Assistant Director of Ball State University Career Center.

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