This is part of The Recession is Bullhonkey series, where I share stories of those who have gotten hired and/or started their own businesses (or sometimes both!) since 2008. This is Kate‘s Story, where she talks about her “crazy” career transition and how she secured the job of her dreams not once, but twice!
I’m glad I started architecture school in 2007, before the economy tanked, because frankly, I don’t know if I would have had the guts to do it otherwise. I was already traveling down a stable, well-worn career path in accounting. Four years of hard work, licensing exams, and promotions were behind me; I’d be crazy to throw that away, right?
Many people used the word “crazy” to describe my career change, but to me it felt the exact opposite. I had always wanted to be an architect and to never even pursue that passion would be the craziest of all. How I got so sidetracked into preparing tax returns instead of designing buildings is a whole other story. The point is that I made my decision to quit my job to attend architecture school amidst lots of questions about my sanity. If I there had been an added layer of uncertainty due to a recession, maybe I wouldn’t have done it. I can only be grateful for this timing that was beyond my control.
My good timing continued as I finished grad school in 2010, in the midst of a recession and two year free-fall in the architecture industry. I hear you calling me crazy again, but I truly believe that it forced to learn skills and lessons that I would have never signed up for voluntarily. As I moved myself back into my parents’ house, I was definitely not feeling the “good timing” vibe. Over one third of designer positions had been eliminated nationwide, which meant that any job application I sent would be joined by hundreds of others, from people who were most likely more experienced than I. Why would any one choose me? How could I possibly compete? Why even bother trying? Why didn’t I just return to accounting? All of these were questions posed to me by others and by my own brain, as I lay awake at night.
I started my job search with stubbornness and sheer determination that I would make it work out. I researched countless firms and created a color-coded spreadsheet to track those to which I applied. No one was posting job openings, but I sent emails to whatever address I could find on their websites. I got a lot of computer-generated and anonymous “No, sorry.” email responses, and a lot of no responses at all. I was sad and cried to my ever-patient boyfriend. I was angry and snapped at my ever-helpful parents and friends. I mention my initial reactions mostly to point out that I didn’t get it right the first time, which seems to be a pattern for me, but I’m hoping my hindsight can help you get it right faster.
So here are some things that helped me eventually get hired:
- I found a routine that worked for me and then stuck to it. Three was the magic number of hours that I could work on my cover letters, resume or portfolio in a row without a long break. After that, I’d take breaks for exercise, food or let’s be honest, mostly naps. Some times I had to schedule something, like a phone call with a friend, just to make sure I stepped away from the laptop.
- I said yes to every networking event, industry happy hour, lecture etc. As an introvert, this was not my cup of tea. But I made a conscious decision that every time a person said, “Hey, I know an architect, do you want to talk to her/him?” I would say, “Yes!” Some of the events seemed fruitless, but there were a handful that were extremely inspiring, with people who were very encouraging. I was terrible at predicting which event would be one way or the other, so my strategy of saying yes to everything was all I had. Soon I began to see the same helpful faces at the events, and although they still weren’t hiring, I learned nuances about the firms that couldn’t be picked up from their websites.
- I wrote down a list of positive things I did have, to counteract my hyper-focus on what I was lacking, a job. I was grateful for a free place to stay and home-cooked food. The suburbs provided lots of greenery, running trails, and peace and quiet. I had the freedom to do things on my time, like take that 10am kickboxing class that wouldn’t be possible on an average workday in an office.
- I also kept two lists of advice: one to which I choose to listen from all of the supportive people and one that I choose to reject from all of the pessimistic people. I recommend writing it all down, reading the first one often and tucking the other one respectfully away.
- Although constant forward motion, even on the days I didn’t feel like it, seemed to be most helpful, sometimes the best thing was just be still. There were some days I allowed myself to be fed up and do nothing. Job searching had become my full-time job, and mental health days are important for everyone who is working whether they are getting paid or not.
Six months after moving home, which in unemployment time feels like six years, I received a job offer! It was the result of one of the informational interviews I had done three months earlier. The architect had no work at the time I first contacted him, but he remembered and pulled my resume back out when work began to pick up. The job was actually a hybrid of architecture and accounting work. It worked out great for a few months, but slowly the architecture jobs came to a halt. The accounting work was still there, while there are always bank statements to be reconciled and bills to be paid. I began to hear the phrase, “You should be happy you have a job. So many people don’t.” But I had come way too far to settle now.
I started reaching out to contacts I had made during my months at home, and found a temporary position at a larger architecture firm. Again they had received my resume months ago, and noted in my interview that they were impressed I had stayed involved in the design community, even while no one was hiring. I was given no guarantee that I would become permanent, while the industry was still holding its breath waiting for projects to be built.
In the past, the idea of giving up a stable job with benefits during a recession in pursuit of a temporary hourly position would have given me pause. Luckily I felt confident that I could use some of the same tactics I used while job searching to pursue the full-time position I desired. I kept moving forward and tried to think positively about what I did have- this time the list included a job! I talked to as many people as possible, not just the ones I worked with every day. I joined the firm’s softball team and volunteered for pro-bono projects.
After four months, I was offered a full-time position with the firm. Friends and family’s reactions included, “You made it!” and “Finally, you can relax!” While I am very happy to be a permanent employee, I also know there’s no such thing, and am realistic that I could be in a similar position again where I need to remember the lessons I learned. Better than a job, I’ve gained the knowledge that I would be okay if I suddenly didn’t have one again. I would figure it out. I wouldn’t settle, but I would find a way to stay afloat until I found another opportunity. Any timing, good or seemingly bad, that has brought me that confidence is worth it.
Kate is a designer at an architecture firm, resident of Philadelphia, and sporadic tweeter .