After spending 3 years and 4 months in the Peace Corps in Mexico, I joined Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in August this year. CRS is a non-profit NGO that works in emergency response and relief, agricultural livelihoods and health (including water supply and water, sanitation and hygiene-WASH) in the poorest countries in the world. I am currently working in CRS Tanzania.
Looking for the source of my bread and butter after the Peace Corps was a long process. This post is to share experiences of my job search to help others in their’s. Talking to people, getting tips, and researching how to job search made a difference for me, and hopefully this information can be useful to someone.
Disclaimer: This is not professional advice. Different things will work for different people and across professional sectors. I would love to hear how the job search was different for you.
Tip #1: Go general, but then prioritise.
Some people told me to go for whatever I could, while others told me to narrow the search. Both were good advice. I started off going for anything related to environmental/community development. There were tons of opportunities. This approach helped me to get an idea of the job market, what applications looked like, and to practice applying. Eventually, I realised that I needed to reflect on what I really wanted and narrow the search. Applying is time consuming, so once you have an understanding of what you really want, it’s best to focus your energy on a limited number of opportunities rather than spread yourself thin. Job hunting is like a job in itself, so you have to prioritise your time, especially if you are already at a full-time job like I was.
Tip #2: Understand that political and economic factors will affect your job search.
This is obvious, but it’s important not to get bogged down by things that are out of your control. As a returned Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), we get priority for government jobs. Similar to army vets. I was planning to use my non-competitive-eligibility status to land a US government job with the Environmental Protection Agency, National Park Service or USAID. I was supposed to finish Peace Corps service in 2016 (right before the presidential elections), but I extended a third year. All my PCV friends who did end their service in 2016, and applied for government jobs, got the job. But since I extended my time in Mexico a third year, I finished in the summer of 2017. In January 2017, Donald Trump became president, and the jobs that I wanted were suddenly not available due to hiring freezes and budget cuts. I had to shift my focus to the non-government sectors. The non-profit sector, and CRS, was NOT my plan A. Some people have asked me if I regret extending a third year. To be honest, I did. But, if I had the opportunity to go back and do things differently, I would NOT do things differently. Now that I lived that third year in the Peace Corps, I can’t imagine my life without it.
Tip #3: Read What Color is your Parachute? by Richard Bolles and refer to chapters as needed throughout the job search.
This book helped me to think about what I wanted in a job and identify what made me stand out as an applicant. It helped me to refine my resume, highlight important skills, knowledge and attitudes, and give an effective interview. It was recommended to me by a friend and colleague and is a great resource.
Tip #4: Estimate that it will take at least 1 year to get the job you want.
Apply for the job 1 year in advance, because it could really take that long. Especially when it involves an overseas post, there are administrative things that have to be done like processing VISAs, medical clearances and security background checks. I submitted an electronic application to CRS in July of 2016 while I was still in Mexico. I was invited for a video interview in October 2016 and a language test in November (applicants have to be fluent in either Spanish, French or Arabic). In February 2017, I interviewed face-to-face at CRS headquarters in Baltimore. I was officially notified that I’d gotten the job in March 2017, but the actual start date was in August 2017. So you can see, it literally took a year from the date applied to actually start the job. Also, it was a relief to have a job already lined up after service.
Tip #5: Apply for the job you care about even if you think you are not completely qualified for it.
Like many people, if I read a job description that I felt I wasn’t 100% qualified for, I wouldn’t apply. My dad encouraged me to go for it and assured me that I was good enough, but I brushed off his comments, thinking he was just being a dad. He is also the kind of dad that tells his kids when they’re 5, 7 and 11 years old that they should publish their books and sell their artwork. A couple of years ago I talked to a guy from USAID who advised me to read a book by Sheryl Sandberg (chief operating officer of Facebook) called Lean In, and basically told me the same thing my dad was trying to tell me. He said, “Don’t hold yourself back because of perceptions you have about your abilities. Accept the challenge, and you’ll get more offers than you can handle and discover you can do more than you give yourself credit for.” I read Lean In. Sheryl pointed out that as women, we often hold ourselves back from opportunities because of things that haven’t even happened yet (personal life goals such as marriage, raising a family, fear of not being able to balance etc) or lack of confidence in our abilities. One statistic she reported really stuck with me. She said that women apply for jobs they think they are 100% qualified for, while men apply to jobs they think they are 60% qualified for. So, I took her lead and started applying for jobs I felt I was 70-80% qualified for, including CRS. Long story short, if I hadn’t been confident enough to go for it, I wouldn’t have the job I do now. And by the way, I am kicking ass.
Tip #6: Be patient and don’t give up.
Finally learning to listen to my dad, he told me something that helped me during times of frustration during the job search. He said this, “Good people will always find work. If one opportunity doesn’t work out there will be another. Think of all the people in this world who haven’t had the same quality education as you, life experiences and network. If YOU can’t get a job, where is the hope for the rest of the people? So just relax and don’t let that stress cloud your focus.”