Are you a recent graduate? Here are four tips to stay sane while looking for a job

Tips to graduatesIt’s that time of the year when students walk up the stage, shake the hands of the dean with one hand and reach with the other for that much-coveted diploma. Gone are the late nights to finish a report or capstone project. It’s time to take a breather. I remember riding the thrill of the days leading up to my own graduation one hot April day, umm, more than a decade ago.

“What next?” The question looms large for many who haven’t figured out the next step as soon as the march ends. If taking a gap year is out of the picture for financial or another reason, then the most logical answer is “Find a job”. Thus starts the grueling job search: filling out online application forms (do those even work?), prepping for interviews, and waiting to hear back from the hiring manager, if at all.

The wait can be excruciatingly long, especially with the anticipation of that first job. In my case, it took six months to land that first job out of college. Looking back from this experience and the many times I’ve been in-between jobs (which stretched from two to seven months), the sudden lack of structure and freed up schedule can be a bit jarring. It made me think of the ways I stayed sane within this period, if not productive. So instead of sulking and on top of binge-watching, here are four ways to keep your mind and body busy, and silence that ticking internal clock:

  1. Take a break! Treat this down time as your vacation, because that’s what it is. After pulling all-nighters to wrap up papers and projects, you need and should take that well-deserved break. Besides, when you start working, you can only dream about the days that bleed into one another, without worrying about beating a deadline or pleasing a boss. Now is the time to live that dream.
  2. Form healthy habits. I went to university with a beautiful and definitely joggable campus, but I only started running right after college. It wasn’t much fun running while watching out for dog poop or dodging tricycles, but I’ve built in physical fitness into my routine since then. Whether it takes 21, 66, or 254 days to form a habit, and even if you’re bad at what you’re doing to start with, the key is to be just consistent.
  3. Learn a new skill. Take a short course you wish you had taken back in university, from writing, digital marketing or product management, these skills will always come in handy and maybe even give you a leg up and standout from a pool of applicants with homogenous skills. These days, there are tons of MOOCs to choose from.
  4. Launch a small project. I’m a big fan and advocate of personal projects. I’ve written how it helped me get a job at the World Bank. But passion projects don’t have to be directly related to work. This should be your fun project, and ideally should tie up with that new skill you just learned (see above). Think combining your hobby and learning a new skill, be it curating a Facebook page that features your favorite essays or growing and selling succulents in cutesy pots. The goal isn’t to make money, but to have fun and learn how things work along the way.

Before leaving for grad school to Germany, I met a former colleague whom I told I’d be quitting my government job, and felt worried about the uncertainty of not having any job prospects after finishing my Masters. My fears turned out to be true, when it took me a year and a half interning and later starting (and quitting) a Ph.D. before landing a job that I wanted. I’m neither saying to do the same nor those were a year and a half down the drain. I got to help in the logistics and attend an international climate conference where I honed my research skills along the way. This bode me well in my work that required experience in knowledge exchange and familiarity with the technical rigors of evaluation. I took comfort in my ex-colleague’s reply, that I’ll be armed with an advanced degree at the very least, and it can only get better.

So enjoy your carefree days yet plan to spend them wisely. There are ways to manage the anxiety by keeping busy, and sooner or later, you’ll be starting that job you’ve been waiting for.

Reaping the rewards of my gig with the government

I chose to work in the government 12 years ago. Looking back, I’m glad I did.

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“What’s that?” There was a split-second pause in our conversation as a friend tried to make sense of my response. “Ah, government… right?” he said. I nodded in confirmation, and wished we’d change the topic of our conversation right away. I could sense his surprise at least, or cynicism at worst, after I told him I was leaving my job, my first one out of college and less than three months into it.

Its less-than-stellar reputation and the meager salary that came with it are common knowledge. I could almost read their thought bubbles, “Why?” or “Are you out of your mind?” Or perhaps the more pitiful “Sorry to hear that.” As friends and classmates got a good head start in their careers in private firms and non-profits, my decision to work for the government seemed like backtracking right after I started.

Anyone who has changed jobs has done it one way or another. It’s like cheating, only in a professional way. You take a day off or show up late for work for that job interview. I must have done the latter, and brought a change of clothes as I was careful not to drop any hints of my transgression. I wore a short-sleeved maroon button-up shirt and khakis, which was already dressy compared with my daily ensemble of jeans and T-shirt in my first job at a non-profit organization.

My first job wasn’t necessarily my first choice. All along, even before graduation, I had set my sight on working in the government. Not just any government office though. I applied to a few others but the development planning agency was at the top of my list. How does one development-plan? I didn’t quite fully comprehend then what the job entailed, but “development planning” sounded too important to pass up. It had the reputation of accepting only the best and the brightest. Of course, I wanted to be a part of it.

I asked for tips from two people who were then connected with the office. I made acquaintance with one via an online forum for cellphone enthusiasts, who eventually switched careers to become a tech writer. The other was an alumnus of my college who went to work there for a couple of years, and later on left to pursue graduate studies on a scholarship in Brussels. Those didn’t seem to be terrible career paths. With limited knowledge of the possible entry-level jobs I could apply to, I thought I could forge something similar for myself.

I sent in my job application in a month after I graduated, in April of 2004, and got a call from HR for a written test a month or two later. The three-hour test consisted of management questions (!), economic concepts, basic algebra, and two essays. And again, like many of job applications then (and until now), there was silence. This was in 2004, an election year, and every time the Commission on Election issues a hiring freeze in the government. This dragged on until November when I finally got called in for an interview.

The panel didn’t bring up the test results during the interview, thankfully. I still doubt I passed the economics part of the test after only taking a basic economics course in my undergrad. I must have winged it on the essay, which asked the role of “sustainable development” in national development, a concept drilled down to us in college. It was the trending development jargon, the “inclusive development” of mid-2000. The panel consisted of four chiefs, each heading the four divisions of the Agriculture Staff, and two hiring committee representatives. I can’t exactly remember their questions. All I remember is that everything went smoothly. It was jovial, almost informal- encouraging if not reassuring signs.

There were three other applicants that day. We were corralled in a waiting lounge with blue walls the size of a big cubicle, which felt like being inside the dead-end of a maze when one looked around while seated down. Like the other interviewees, I was whisked back to the maze after the panel interview and told to wait our turn before the one-on-one interview with the director.

He was portly and in his late forties. I saw him a little earlier walk in with a swagger, and assumed that must be him. We talked about an upland agriculture project, a topic I should have known well, and wished I had, especially because I spent one month doing our practicum with the implementers of that very same project.

He probably caught my bluff. After all, it’s a project he knows too well, because his office reviewed the technical aspects of the project before it got the go signal for funding by a multilateral bank- one of the core tasks of the job. He asked probing questions. But really, what does a barely-out-of-college 21 year-old know about development planning? Until now, and several local and international development organizations later, I’m still looking for that definitive answer.

Albeit late, I still went to work that day, or at least tried to, mostly asking myself: “Will I be sitting on the same chair for a while? What could I have said differently? What now? I remember asking a friend about an interview he had once for an admin job. Only with a little enthusiasm, he told me that he “said all the things they (the interviewers) wanted to hear.” I wish I could have said the same after my interview. I wasn’t new at all to the professional world, already with two months of work experience then under my belt.

A few weeks after the interview, I got an email asking me to submit documents to kickstart the hiring process, before assuming my government post. On the last workday of 2004 I became an “Economic Development Specialist.” I reveled in my job title. I’ll be doing development planning.

The Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan or MTPDP was our bible. Jeffrey Sachs lauded that version of the plan as “one of the best, if not the best, he has ever seen.” Those words would have looked nice in its dust jacket if ever it had one. The Plan was an infallible scripture cited in memos, quoted in government meetings, and subscribed to as our superior belief system during donor meetings. We deferred to its wisdom. At least for the next six years until a new leader is elected. The plan coincides with the term of the president, after which its contents are revised or recycled, or rendered irrelevant.

Some days we argued over the technical merits of Jatropha curcas as a source biofuel, other days we’re building capacity to mainstream sustainable development before we moved on to the mainstream climate change in local development. Yes, I learned its jargons. I met many technocrats, competent and controversial ones.

Those two and a half years must have been my busiest: reviewing projects, attending technical working groups, facilitating workshops. My blog that I started in 2003 was inactive during those years. It’s also the longest I’ve held down a job.

I observed that my senior colleagues, including those who have left, have a predictable career progression: work for a couple of years, go on study leave to study abroad, and return to government. Our office was notorious for its high churn rate. Those who didn’t opt for a study leave resigned from their post because they didn’t want to be bound to a service contract.

I usually went to work at 7:00 in the morning so I can leave at 4:00 in the afternoon. One day I stayed later than usual, making sure many of my colleagues have left for the day. I sent my then chief who concurrently worked as the officer-in-charge a Sametime message, asking her if she had a minute to speak. She said yes so I went to her office, sat down, and talked about my plans, which unfortunately no longer included them. She understood and respected my decision. I was one of those who didn’t want to be tethered to a service contract. After two and a half years, I left my job to study on a scholarship in Freiburg in Germany.

I became good friends with many of my colleagues, and still keep in touch with many of them. It’s a unique professional relationship I haven’t been able to replicate in my other jobs, for better or worse. We have bumped into each other in international conferences in South Africa, or worked together again a few years down the road at the United Nations or Asian Development Bank in Manila.

My stint with the government prepared me well in understanding its machinations. This appreciation comes in handy even up to this day. I’ve established lifelong friendships and a sturdy network. I’ve been shaping an interesting through the years. That second job provided me a mental model of the so-called bureaucracy, including its potential and foibles. After making a decision twelve years hence, when I thought I was making a backtrack, I didn’t know it would propel me forward.

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This is the second of a series of blog posts where I will write about my previous jobs. Read the first post here. If you have other suggestions, let me know in the comments section! Don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter.

Adulting advice from a book author

Tips on how to get your act together from a writer who has been there and done that

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When I was in grade school, I envied my other classmates who were better off than my family. My brother and I studied in an exclusive school for boys in grade school, where many of my classmates came from well-off families. Our blue and white school uniform did not disguise the Game Boy and Nike Air Max other students brought to school. It was easy to be better off compared to our family. My parents only earned enough to meet our day-to-day needs. But there were even times they had to borrow and pool money to pay for our tuition so the school would allow us to take the quarterly periodic tests. I fantasized of being born into a different, well-off family (which reminds me of this meme). I imagined being chauffeured to and from school (we got our first family car when I was 23). During Christmas breaks, I also wanted to have travel plans, wore thick sweaters, and visit Disneyland. But the closest I got to my dreams was a visit to a local theme park with questionable safety standards and the cold AC of a shopping mall.

You’d think I would outgrow this feeling of envy as I got older, but my wants and wishes turned more elaborate yet more professional. My mom was a public school teacher, and I wished she had the right connections to set me up for any well-paying job. My father had left the country. What if they were doctors and lawyers, so choosing a career would have been as easy as taking over their practice? They let me take up a major in college that no one among us knew of the future career odds and options. I was an early version of a free-range kid out of necessity, because they didn’t have the means to put up that fence that could give me a sheltered life.

I didn’t have anyone to turn to, and neither knew the right questions much less have the gumption to ask. Unlike meals I’ve had with other families, eating on the dining table was an act of nutrition and not discussion.

When I went to grad school in my early 20’s, I realized all these fantasies and what-ifs were just that- unhealthy and irrelevant ruminations that stem from comparing my life with that of others. It’s a waste of time and energy, better harnessed for working with what my parents have been able to provide, and carving my own niche in life. We always had food on the table and a roof over my head. And I’m forever grateful for that. They’re easy for me to say now in hindsight. But who’s supposed to teach us these nuggets of wisdom when we’re young? From whom, and how can we learn them sooner rather than later?

Margaux Bergen in her first book “Navigating Life: Things I Wish My Mother Had Told Me” could be that person. She addresses these thorny life questions, and so much more. I met her in person during her book reading and signing last Tuesday at the Barnes & Noble in Brookland. She read excerpts from her book, which dishes out lessons on school, jobs, and relationships. The book is difficult to categorize given its breadth of topic. It’s self-help, parenting, career advice, and memoir all rolled into one. The book, written over a span of ten years, was originally addressed to her daughter when she went to college, which explains the crossover themes of the book, and the tender prose and intimate voice in which it is written.

I arrived early at the book event and got the chance to chat with the Margaux. We talked a bit about her book, our love for writing, and careers. I felt an affinity for her when I learned that at one point she also worked for the World Bank, where where I work now as a consultant. Showing motherly concern, she gave me unsolicited and simple advice on how to get a staff position.

I bought a copy of Margaux’s book that I picked up right off the display showcase beside her. I asked her to sign and address the book to a friend who has been asking me for career tips, and worrying about not finding a job once she finishes grad school next year. She comes from a humble background, has paved her own career path, and is now studying on a scholarship here in the US. Hopefully she benefits a lot from the book, beyond the advice I’ve been giving her born mainly out of my own experience and decisions, some of which have not necessarily been the best I have made. I plan to give it to her as a Christmas present, although I could use one for myself. I hope she won’t notice the creased spine and the broken-in look of its edges by the time she reads it.

My first job out of college

The first job holds a special place in every professional’s career.

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My ego took a blow right after finishing my undergrad back in 2004. I graduated at the top of my class at a top university and expected employers to come racing and tearing down my door with a contract, as if I were a first draft pick star athlete waiting for my multi-million dollar offer. But all I got after two months was a job I hustled to get via email, which I quit after working for two weeks without a contract. My boss was a lawyer by the way. I sent scores of job applications, worked my contacts, and got a couple of job interviews to various organizations: government agencies, NGOs, and an urban planning firm. The only thing they had in common were the rejections and unreturned email inquiries.

Six months later I managed to get a research assistant job for a UNDP-funded sustainable agriculture project, “Enhancing Capacities on Sustainable Agriculture for Poverty Reduction”. I got wind of the job posting from my university organization’s e-group, sent by an alumna who also happened to work for the NGO hosting the project. I was invited for an interview, and reported to work a week or two later.

My commute was more than an hour going to work in Quezon City north of Metro Manila (we lived in the south), which included taking a tricycle (like a tuk-tuk), bus, jeep, train, jeep, and another tricycle. Our office was located in the NGO hub of the country close to the University of the Philippines, not too far from what’s now a popular foodie destination. It took a half-hour longer to travel back home. It was also hotter and sweatier. But those didn’t matter. At last I was a productive part of society; I was employed.

As my title suggested, I was responsible for doing research on the sustainable agriculture in the Philippines. Our project helped train farmers to produce their own organic fertilizers, and eventually assist them shift to sustainable agriculture and link them to the national and even international market. It was challenging work not only because of the complexity of the sector, but more so as it was my first job and specialized in environmental planning, and not agriculture. It turned out to be the first of my many future jobs working on agriculture and agriculturists, from policy, markets, and later on directly with farmers.

When not doing online research, I tagged along with our project manager to attend meetings outside the office. We met with other NGOs to identify any common areas we can jointly work on, or complement each other’s activities. There were also the occasional donors’ meetings to report on progress and issues of our project, and writing news articles for our newsletter.

Perhaps the highlight of my stint with the NGO was flying down south, in Cotabato, where we organized a three-day training for farmers to help them shift to biodynamic farming. I remember eating a lean but just-as-good bacon, and visiting the demo-site where it came from- a pig pen that, believe it or not, doesn’t stink. On our last day I joined some farmers for a hike and took a dip at a hot spring.

I never got to see the end of the project, but surprisingly I found a publication about it online. I handed in my resignation letter after three months to work for the government. It was a short three-month gig. But it was my first job where I received my first salary. It was an exciting first taste of the real world, just like with life’s many firsts.

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This is the first of a series of blog posts where I will write about my previous jobs. If you have other suggestions, let me know in the comments section! Don’t forget to subscribe to my newsletter

Update: This blog post was featured in the online publication The Ascent.

Returning to live in Washington, D.C.

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The National Mall taken from the top of the steps of the Lincoln Memorial

I’m more than a month into juggling two jobs as a consultant, one at my old office doing some web and comms work, and another with the Climate Investment Funds on climate change and organizational learning. It’s amazing how things fell into place, how one lunch led to two coffee meetings, and then two contracts a couple of months later. I had an open plan when I came to the US- reconnect with family and friends, attend a writing workshop, and meet some old colleagues. If nothing came up in the work front, I was ready to pack and move on. But I only realized how much I missed the District as soon as I came back, and thought it would be nice to stay here for a while and find something to do.

“How long have you been in DC?” I often get asked when I reveal I’m not originally from the area, to which I have prepared a spiel of my DC 1.0 circa 20112013, and how I ended up again in the East Coast this time around. This bitemporal experience makes me appreciate this city all the more. I now look at the city with fresh eyes looking with delight at my old haunts, curiosity with new shops and buildings, and nostalgia with those that have closed down. Many of my fellow former JPAs have left, moving on to do their PhDs, or back home. People, just as with places, have come and gone.

Before I lived in Foggy Bottom steps from the World Bank and near the White House during DC 1.0, I’ve now moved farther to a friend’s house in the North East about half an hour’s commute downtown (that is, if the Metro is working- I’m looking at you, Red Line). But I get to work from home, or make that work from Brookland, where there are cafes and more dining options. I’ve established a daily routine: I wake up early and start working, walk to the hip neighborhood around 10 or 11 in the morning to grab an early lunch, spend the rest of the afternoon at a café at a bookstore, then try to be back home before it gets dark. Weekends are spent on more walking and exploring other nearby neighborhoods or towns.

I make it sound like I’ve got this adulting all sorted out. Yes and no, depending on how you define “sorted out”. My work is far from stable and cushy contrary to how others may perceive it. And that’s fine. With these social and professional changes also come personal ones, mostly on realizing what matters to me: going for long walks, exploring interesting neighborhoods, keeping in touch with family and friends, and defining and redefining personal values and lifestyles. Whereas I only used to treat Washington DC as the city where I lived to work, it has become a more meaningful place where I live to live.

Woah, that’s a lot of introspection. Something to get us back to reality: Donald Trump just got elected President of the United States of America.

Watch your language… and wallet

This was first published yesterday through my newsletter. To get first dibs on my writing and other updates, subscribe here.

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The past weeks I have been busy with work and some personal writing. And in the coming ones I will be, like some of you, job-hunting! Do you have some tips for me this time?

Here’s some reading to munch on over the weekend…


Remember when I wrote about learning and including the jargons in the area and sector in your statement of interest, which I termed bureaucratese. The New York Times recently featured a study on how the World Bank’s use of language has evolved, from using precise words to more amorphous language like cooperation and more recently, governance. Here’s an example:

“Countries in the region are emerging as key players on issues of global concern, and the Bank’s role has been to support their efforts by partnering through innovative platforms for an enlightened dialogue and action on the ground, as well as by supporting South–South cooperation.”

Now let me go back to mainstreaming the graduation model into the global development agenda. Moving forward…


On a related note, here’s 10 tricks to appear smart during meetings in your development organization.


One of the reasons people are attracted to working in development is the cushy compensation. Do you really know how much expats earn? My eyes went O_O the first time I heard about out some years back. A local aid worker asks whether this is justified given similar (or at times, better) skill set of the national staff than the international hire. Don’t forget to browse the comments section.


I consider myself mostly lucky when it comes to my career. What role does luck play in landing awesome jobs and getting ahead in life? A big one, apparently. Just something to keep in mind when the going gets tough and that dream job application falls through. And I’m saying this based on personal experience.


I had a good chat via Skype with one reader from Bangalore who’s now interning for a research institute. Among other topics we discussed, he asked me about my day to day tasks in my previous and current work, which I hope to write more about in the future.


Have a good weekend!

How to write a cover letter

Guide questions for each paragraph to help you write that kickass cover letter

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Photo by Alejandro Escamilla

This was first published yesterday through my newsletter. Edited for style and updating of timeline. To get first dibs on my writing and other updates, subscribe here

I got a flurry of email requests to review cover letters and CVs over the weekend. Apparently the deadline for submission of applications for the World Bank Analyst Program is coming up, as in today, 05 April. I try my best to respond to all requests but alas, I’m only human and unable to do so. So I muddled through my slush pile and plucked out this (draft) quick guide on how to write a cover letter. Or at least it’s the guide I’ve been using all these years which has lent me varying levels of success (and countless rejections, too). Like most advice and things you read online, take them with a grain of salt:

You should treat the cover or application or cover letter as precious real estate. Keep it to a page, if possible, and do yourself and the hiring manager a favor. I believe the application letter should try to illustrate three things: your language proficiency, thought process and how you structure concepts, and knowledge and skills.

Below I formulate guide questions, where your response can form each paragraph that can make up the cover letter. Feel free to add a paragraph or two if the letter warrants the introduction of other topics.

Introduction

Guide question 1: Why are you interested in and what makes you qualified for the position? 

Paragraph 1 is the opening paragraph where you introduce yourself, and try to grab the attention of the reader. It could be someone from the HR, the hiring manager, or even the head of the organization itself. What you want to convey is that you’re the right person they’re looking for to perform the job. Cramming that information in the shortest paragraph in a job application letter sounds like a tough job (no pun intended), yet at a closer look it isn’t. Here you just state the position to which we’re applying and how you learned of the job posting, although the latter is really optional. The second sentence encapsulates your areas of expertise and skill set which you deem are valuable for the job and to the organization, plain and simple. Here you set the tone of the letter, and introduce our reader to what you have up our sleeve in the succeeding paragraphs. In these three to four lines of text your aim is to prime and hook the HR guy, showcase your abilities, that you’re the the best candidate for the job.

Knowledge and Skills

Guide question 2: What knowledge and skills do you possess, and how do you show that I am the perfect candidate to the job?

Paragraph 2: Establish your expertise in support to the first paragraph. Here you drill down on work experience and skills you have gained through the years, while linking them to the job requirements all the time. It is easy to dump all the jargons and get lost in the writing. But you have limited real estate. In this case, limit it ideally to a page. So every word counts and has to be relevant to the job. This is important to not to loseyour  focus in what you’re writing. Here you should also show that you speak their language-bureaucratese. It may sound like a jumble of technocratic jargon to those outside the field of international development, but this is really how they speak. In the world of search, without the right keywords, you won’t be found. This is not to say that you could and should lie in your cover letter by including terms and phrases you don’t really know about. Once we had a talk wth a senior HR staff, and he said one of the few grounds of termination is false declaration and falsification of documents. So keep that in mind. Simply review the job description and pick out technical and action words, and show how you have performed them in your previous work.

Your selling point

Guide question 3: What other special skills have you acquired that will pique the interest of your employer and set you apart from other applicants?

Paragraph 3: Boast about your other valuable skills that could set you apart from other candidates. It could be skills you have been learning from a side project. If you are applying for a research post which requires data crunching and bending, have you made a couple of coding tweaks on Stata to smoothen your data or improve your workflow (no, not to influence the result)? Did you render any volunteer consulting service for a non-profit school to improve their operations? Or maybe you’ve started a blog, and give tips to freelancers on how to find clients. This would be a good time to highlight those, but make sure the skills you will feature are relevant to the job.

Summarize

Guide question 4: To summarize, how can you perform the tasks at hand, and be of value the team/department, and overall objectives of the organization?

Paragraph 4: Time to wrap things up. End your story with your educational background. I am putting this toward the end because a diploma from a pedigree school can only get you too far. While some hiring managers may still put a premium on the school one went to, I believe it’s only valid two or three years down the road, and its value diminishes thereafter. Moreover, most likely the best of the applicants will have more or less similar education, so this shouldn’t figure into and be a clincher in most hiring decisions, unless it’s a research-heavy job, where certain universities may have a tradition of quality researchers. I would hire someone from an OK university who has been doing interesting work and with a multi-faceted personality, than someone banking on the prestige of a top university. If you’re both, then you’re the golden unicorn your soon-to-be employer has been looking for. As I write this, I just realized maybe I should stop mentioning my education background altogether, and stick to my own advice and use the free space to summarize how my knowledge, skills, and previous work experience will be of value to the organization.


Got more tips on how to write a cover letter? Do let me know. Good luck to all applicants and keep me posted how your application goes.