Josh Boldt

Technology Director at University of Kentucky

What to Do When Hard Work Isn’t Enough

Full tuileries garden cain statue

Image: statue of Cain, by Henri Vidal

Call me jaded but I’ve always been skeptical of the “hard work pays off” philosophy. I assumed it was the product of naïve reflection by people who weren’t critically examining the process by which they achieved success. Instead of recognizing favors or serendipity, they were unfairly chalking up career advancements to their own willpower or personal drive.

But lately I’ve been rethinking my position. For the record, I still believe hard work does not always result in financial or career success. We can work hard all our lives and never be recognized or promoted for it. Many people do. And on the flip side, there are people who manipulate the system so effectively that hard work isn’t even in their vocabulary, yet they continually rise in the ranks and pay scales.

So what’s the difference between people who work hard and advance and those who work hard but their career remains stagnant? Why are some people rewarded for sacrifice and others exploited for it? That question comes up often in the ongoing discussion of academic labor. Why does one Ph.D. land a tenure-track position while another is relegated to a lifetime of adjunct pay?

Well, for starters, no one should be foolish enough to claim that the outcome is entirely the result of personal behavior. If you earn a doctorate, you are obviously no stranger to hard work. But yet, some succeed and others don’t. I have to wonder what accounts for the difference. Although my experience is hardly universal, I can speak as one who failed to obtain a long-term teaching career at a university. Looking back, I can see some of the mistakes I made that led me to eventually abandon the pursuit of an academic teaching career.

I think if I had done a few things differently, I could have created a better opportunity for myself and increased my likelihood of getting a job. After changing career paths to the field of web design, I made a conscious effort to correct the mistakes of my previous job search and so far it’s working.

I’ve identified three key mistakes I made as a job seeker that hurt my chances of obtaining a full-time position. Correcting them in my most recent job search helped me land an alt-ac gig. Mileage may vary for professorial employment, a topic for which I will always defer to Karen Kelsky. But here are what I perceive to be my three crucial job-search mistakes.

I didn’t understand the power of a well-crafted CV and cover letter. Cover letters suck. Everyone hates writing them. Just get the thing over with as quickly as possible, right? Wrong.

There is so much bad advice on the Internet about cover letters. Google will give you 1,000 sample cover letters and basically every one of them looks the same. So naturally we assume that’s how a cover letter is supposed to look. Don’t fall for it. The more interesting your cover letter, the better. Show your personality. Be witty (but not snarky). Even humor is perfectly acceptable. I actually got an interview with a cover letter that contained profanity. There’s no reason a cover letter should be boring and formulaic, despite what the Internet tells you.

And as for the CV/résumé, if you’re still sending out the same script to multiple audiences, you might as well be dropping them in the garbage. I was terrible about that. I had a résumé I thought was fine and I sent it to dozens of search committees a day. Why weren’t those jerks calling me back?! In my classroom, I taught students to be mindful of the intended audience in their writing, but I wasn’t practicing what I preached.

Tailoring your résumé to a specific job can mean heavily editing the language of your work experience and even removing and adding specific positions that are more relevant to the one for which you’re applying. Once I started honing my résumé with the eye of an editor, I actually started getting some phone calls.

I didn't effectively manage the value of my labor. This is a tricky one. You don’t want to allow yourself to be exploited but you also don’t want to appear to be an inflexible and egotistical ass. You have to learn when it’s OK to give your labor freely (or cheaply) and when you must stand up for yourself and negotiate a better deal.

This might sound crazy coming from a guy who spent several years exposing a system that exploited its workers, but there are legitimate times when being willing to work without pay can help your career.

I’ve read many smart articles on this issue of working for free, written by people I respect, and I mostly agree. Sarah Kendzior, for example, has covered the topic extensively. If you are commissioned to create something by a company that has the money to pay you, then you should insist on payment. But sometimes we have to be willing to trade our labor for leverage.

The challenge here is to understand when your labor awards a competitive advantage and then make sure to leverage that advantage before delivering. A contract is a good way to maintain power when your labor is all you have to offer. Another way is to perform work in exchange for future business. You might be willing to design a company’s logo for little or no pay with the idea that you could then be hired to build its website once the company is ready to open. Or maybe you’ll edit the first chapter of a book gratis, but the rest of the job will be paid.

My experience in the creative industry has taught me this valuable lesson: Sometimes we have to work without pay, and we just need to be careful about how we deliver our labor so we don’t surrender all leverage to the other party.

Translating this lesson to the realm of academic teaching — where a labor glut and a shifting employment model have largely stripped employee leverage — is admittedly difficult. Maybe the answer is to simply pass on a job that undervalues your labor. We’ve all heard the stories about “once an adjunct, always an adjunct.” Intelligent people get caught in that trap because they surrender their leverage and lose their negotiating power.

I didn’t focus on building strategic relationships. As a proud introvert, networking does not come naturally to me. I could (and often do) go entire days without talking to another person, and I’m fine with that. But the tendency proved detrimental to my job quest once I went on the market.

Without any strategic connections, I had no one to vouch for me — no one internally to call on when a position opened. As a result, I had to do it all myself. It’s no secret that our current employment climate basically requires a recommendation or a connection to get hired. Some form of professional networking is essential these days.

When I shifted careers, I started going out of my way to attend social functions in town where I could meet people. To this day, I don't always enjoy it, but I go anyway. I always take a notepad and jot down everyone’s name and what they do. Being able to repeat someone’s name the next time you see them goes a long way.

That strategy helped me get plugged in to the local community and get to know people who knew people, so to speak. And those connections have proven invaluable in both my work at the University of Kentucky and also as a freelance web designer in town.

Being mindful of these three missteps has helped me better position myself for career success in my second pass at the job market. In no way am I suggesting here that people who don’t get jobs are somehow not working hard enough. Contrary to the old adage, sometimes hard work simply does not pay off. The real key is not so much hard work as it is smart work. Carefully manage your time and labor to maximize your chances of getting hired, and hone your negotiating skills to ensure your labor is always taken seriously.

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