Career Q&A: Can a lack of specialization hurt your career?

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I have been (thankfully) gainfully employed in international human rights work for the past ten years. The organization I have worked for is closing down over the next year and I am finding it challenging to think about where to start my job search. I have thoroughly enjoyed the work I have done but I now find myself at a career path crossroads where I realize I have become a jack of all trades but master of none in terms of accruing dedicated time and experience in one of the many areas I have worked in.

I am concerned that this lack of specialization could hurt my chances when applying for more senior, mid-career positions. Where should I start my job search?

First of all, take heart – there are increasingly many types of combined positions in the nonprofit sector that require more than one skill set or specialization (e.g. campaigning and communications or research and advocacy positions, etc.) and this trend will likely only continue. However, in order for you to be effective in your job search, you have some important preparatory work to do before you even start thinking about applying.

1. Take an honest inventory of what you have done. We suggest everyone keeps a “master” CV document that is a for-your-eyes-only, rolling record of all your paid and unpaid experience, skill development, responsibilities and achievements. It can be in whatever format that works for you and can be as messy and typo-ridden as you want! We suggest you schedule time (e.g. every quarter or six months) to review and update it in as much detail as possible. We ask clients to do this because as we reach the mid-career point and beyond, we are likely to forget some of our experiences and achievements – and, often, the hardest part of crafting a job application is trying to figure out what concrete examples of experience we have that are the most relevant to the criteria in the posting.

Make sure you note the scope, scale, level of responsibility and impacts of your examples as specifically as possible. For example, if you have provided trainings, what types of audiences did you engage? What was the size range? Topics covered? Any outcomes as result of the training? Were you responsible for developing the curriculum or implementing curriculum produced by someone else? Did you have a budget to manage for training events and, if so, how much? If you were a researcher, did you work independently, as part of a team or as the leader of the team? Did you have a role in the designing the research methodology or just implementing the protocols? How was the research used? Are there any tangible impacts you can attribute, in part, to the production of the research?

If you don’t have an updated master CV already, this can seem like an overwhelming and tedious task – and it is. However, once you muscle through creating your first draft of a master CV, the hardest part is done and it is only a matter of investing in light maintenance on the document a few times a year. What you will have then is a resource to cherry pick tangible examples from when creating your next job applications vs. working from a blank page and your memory.

2. Reflect on the highs and lows of each position. Once your master CV is complete, reflect on and rate on a scale of 1 (low) to 10 (high) how you felt about the various aspects of the different paid and unpaid positons you have had including your: 1) level of passion for the type of role you were in; 2) level of passion for the issue you were working on; 3) level of passion for the type of organization you worked for. Patterns should emerge regarding what type of work has excited you the most and which aspects of the work did not and this should help you narrow the types of postings you are looking for in your job search.

3. Browse the job ads, see what attracts you and why. Even if you are not ready to start applying for jobs, start looking at job postings with the new knowledge you have about what you are really bringing to the table and what excites you. Ask yourselves the same questions as above for each posting that catches your eye. Go through the criteria with your master CV and see which criteria you are consistently strong on and where there are gaps. Use that information to further inform your job search.

4. Brush up on your skills and training. If you start to see consistent “gaps” in skills or experience of jobs that are otherwise attracting you, this year of transition would also be a great time to invest in some professional development that will address these gaps and make you more competitive for the types of jobs that most excite you.

This year of transition from your current organization may seem unduly stressful – but the time is a gift! Do you preparatory work thoroughly and your job search should become streamlined and clear. Good luck!

Nancy Ingram is a co-founder and Principal Consultant at Foot in the Door Consulting, which specializes in helping nonprofit professionals build sustainable, satisfying and values-driven careers. Nancy and Foot in the Door Consulting’s team of expert associates have over 45 years of collective experience on both sides of the hiring and management process in the nonprofit sector in variety of sectors including human rights, social justice, environmental justice and animal rights. They can be reached through www.footinthedoorconsulting.com.

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