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What’s Next?

I’ve Never Met With a Career Counselor

By Ian Ybarra

Staff Writer

Doesn’t this week’s title sound absurd? I write “What’s Next?” to expose the factors influencing our career decisions and to inspire you to find and pursue work that is personally rewarding and just plain fun.

For more than two years I have worked for UPOP (the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program), whose headquarters are about ten feet from the MIT Careers Office. Yet I had my first meeting with a career development counselor on March 4, 2004. And it wasn’t even supposed to be about my career development.

I went to Building 12-170 to interview two people for my column: John Nonnamaker, Manager for Graduate Student Career Development, and Marilyn Wilson, Senior Career Development Counselor. I was planning a story on how career development services were under-utilized and under-appreciated despite being perhaps the most valuable of all MIT Careers Office functions. I found part of what I sought, but I also, unexpectedly, found my place in the story and benefited in several ways.

Ask anyone on campus to quickly tell you why you should go to the Careers Office and you’ll probably hear something like, “They’ll help you with your resume and stuff.” Truth be told, that doesn’t even begin to do the Careers Office justice.

What’s the problem? Enter 12-170 and to the left, copies of the Career Development Workbook are being advertised with the promise, “Has sample resumes, cover letters, and more.” Huh? Resumes and cover letters were about the last things Nonnamaker and Wilson mentioned when explaining what comprises the handbook, the Careers Office Web site, and their services.

Still, the Careers Office staff probably feels forced to market their handbooks with such shallow benefits. Why? I suspect the shallow ones are what we students pay most attention to, that we ignore everything else the Careers Office has to offer.

In the 2002-2003 academic year, the office recorded 1,738 visits by undergraduates. Those weren’t even by distinct individuals. Assuming they were, though, we can be sure that less than 50 percent of undergraduates met with career development counselors last year.

What about the rest of us? We all have our excuses. Mine is that I’m too self-reliant. I do career development on my own. I read, think, and dream about what I want to do with my life. I meet people in careers that intrigue me. I create projects of my own and do various internships. Even so, it would help me to regularly visit a career development counselor just the same as it would help me to consistently meet with my primary care physician even if I eat nutritious foods, exercise, and don’t smoke. There’s always something flying under your radar.

Your excuse might be that you’re too young or too old. Nonnamaker insists that is nonsense.

“You could have PhD students who for their whole lives thought they wanted to be professors. Then after they pass their quals, there’s this moment, this epiphany, when they realize, ‘Whoa, I don’t really want to do that, but I don’t know what else to do.’ “

Perhaps you feel like a career development counselor can’t relate to you. Besides being bona fide experts in their field, MIT’s career development counselors are quite understanding of issues specific to MIT and college in general.

I’m sure there is someone in the Careers Office that understands your unique perspective, whether you are an undergraduate or graduate student, an alumna (employed or unemployed, take your pick), a professor, or a professor’s 53-year-old administrative assistant.

If we were honest with ourselves, the real reason we don’t seek help from Wilson, Nonnamaker, and their colleagues is that we just don’t make time. They know we’re busy, though.

“It’s not about preaching to them that they should have started earlier, it’s about meeting them where they are,” Nonnamaker said.

If you’re like my friend Jack Williard ’04 was when he was an underclassman -- you only come up for air every few weeks to avoid drowning by the MIT firehose -- you can meet with them once a month. It’s still better than nothing. Or if you’re like Jack now, a final-term senior who is busier having fun than doing problem sets, you can accelerate the process and meet with them once or twice per week. Either way, they’ll be glad to see you. Trust me; they’re always ready to help.

When I met with Nonnamaker, I instinctively said, “No, thanks,” to his invitations to discuss my own career development. Despite that, he politely extended an open-ended offer in case I reconsidered.

Reconsider, I have. And I urge you to do the same, especially if you think, like I did, that you don’t need to meet with a career development counselor. I met with two and, despite my desire to not talk about my career development, I still made valuable additions to my network and learned a fundamental lesson for my journalism career.

Within seconds of meeting Wilson, I found out that she used to be a freelance writer and that her husband spent several years working for the magazine I’ll be working for this summer. When talking with Nonnamaker, I noticed a plaque on his wall with a saying I wanted to use in this column. Later, I learned a journalism lesson the hard way. I couldn’t remember the saying because I didn’t write it down, and my cassette recorder certainly didn’t pick it up.

Now I’ll have to meet with Nonnamaker again, if only to revisit the quote on his wall. After having so many excuses against going, it’s good to finally have an excuse to go.