Job Seekers Must Fill in These Two Blanks

I’m at a dinner party with my husband. The other dinner guests are friends of ours, neuroscientists who conduct research at the university. They’re telling a story about how one of their students did just a speck of work but made some serious cash.

During a recent conference, this graduate student had gone into a pawn shop and come out ten minutes later but $350 richer. He had used his knowledge of antique watches and his negotiating skill to make an advantageous trade. The way the scientists talked, you’d think their student had performed a minor miracle.

dinner party of job seekers

I may have been the only person at the table who was underwhelmed. Of course it was impressive that the graduate student could make hundreds of dollars in a few minutes. But to my way of thinking, he simply did what we all do to earn an income: He used his knowledge (in this case, of antique watches) and skill (negotiating with the shop owner) to line his pockets.

Donald Asher, the author of Cracking the Hidden Job Market, explains it nicely. He says that two critical components of self-knowledge are required of job seekers. Before your child can claim paid employment, she must know two things: first, her field; and second, her function.

Job seekers must figure out and fill in both blanks. Field and function.

In the following job titles, you’ll find the field listed first and the function second:

  • Neuroscience researcher
  • Property manager
  • IT consultant
  • Speech therapist
  • Tax accountant
  • Film critic
  • Career counselor
  • Forestry technician
  • Healthcare administrator

Field is your student’s main area of interest and knowledge, whereas function is her primary ability or major skill. Function names what she actually does on the job, such as research, manage, or consult in the first three job titles above. Henceforward, I’ll use my preferred terms, interest (for field) and ability (for function).

I’ll be focusing more on abilities in my posts, because it’s more common for students to identify their interests, declare a major, and then assume they’re done. But wait! It’s not yet time to toast their career planning success.

When I worked at university counseling centers, students would often come in feeling distraught and confused. My clients couldn’t understand why they had no career direction. They could usually tell me their primary interest area—namely, their college major or graduate program—but not their primary ability.

Once students have chosen a major, the question remains: What are they going to do with that knowledge?

It’s what they do with their book learning that makes it possible for them to earn a living. In other words, along with a body of knowledge, they need problem-solving abilities, specific skills they learn and practice. This problem-solving aspect is often the missing piece of the career-planning puzzle. And not just for college students, but for job seekers everywhere.

In the case of the neuroscientists sitting around the table with me that night, they earned their keep by researching brain and behavior in painstaking scientific studies. To them, perhaps, their skills with research design and histology and magnetic resonance spectroscopy and so forth were second nature. Maybe even unremarkable. But to me, their research talents were more miraculous than negotiating up for an antique watch.

It was because they employed both their neuroscience knowledge and their laboratory research skills that they were able, day in and day out, to make enough of an income to buy a house and put food on the table—as well as throw the occasional dinner party.

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