Life after Japanese Studies (Part 2): Reconnecting with Professional Networks and Seeking Jobs after JET

This guest series features Danielle Reed, who launched her own consulting practice PinPath, LLC in November 2019. Previously she worked as the Senior Program Director of S&R Foundation, a private family foundation with the mission of supporting talented individuals with high aspirations in the arts, sciences, and social entrepreneurship. She began her career as a diplomatic assistant in the Economics Section at the Embassy of Japan in Washington, DC from 2008-2011, then became an Assistant Language Teacher on the JET Program in Sendai-City from 2011-2014 before working in the nonprofit sector.

Part 1: Identifying, Maintaining, Contributing to and Building (non-academic) Professional Networks

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Photo by Lyncconf Games

In my last post on life after JET, I wrote about identifying your community and the people resources around you. I included two versions of my personal arena map from 2014 and 2019, but I did not provide much context for how I was able to expand my map. As you can imagine, it didn’t happen overnight. Those maps showed my progress over the past 5 years. My map from 2014 to 2015 would not have expanded that much. Relationship building can help you in many aspects of your life, but building professional relationships with intention and focus is what really makes a difference when you have specific career goals. I’ll include a personal example below regarding my job hunt to highlight how I used goal setting and the community around me to find a job. 

Similar to networking (or my preferred term, “relationship building,”), goal setting is an oft-promoted tool for a reason – it generally works. I write “generally” because it really only works if you are able to dedicate time and energy to fulfilling your goals. Those things can be a luxury not everyone has. Other factors such as random luck, health, bigotry, prejudice, gender, race, place of birth etc. can also greatly affect how much time and effort goes into achieving goals. Some goals are necessities (job, food, home) while others are what you want to experience in life. While I think it’s incredibly important to discuss those factors, in this post I’m going to focus on the most practical aspects of goal setting that a majority of people can exert some control over: visualizing and stating your goals.

Goal setting is connected to the arena map in two main areas, “Reason for going” or joining a certain org, and “Benefit to me.” If you can’t identify either of those things, then there may not be any actual purpose to you continuing certain activities. Identifying your goals can help you better prioritize your time and can highlight gaps you may have in your daily life. Actually stating these goals and using them as a guide greatly influenced where I am in 2019.

Before diving into the benefits of maintaining relationships and goal setting, I’ve provided some background information to give you the “just returned from Japan ” context. 

Background Context

You have to determine if you will recontract on JET in December or January for a typical August departure date. At the time I had to make this decision, two of my close family members were in failing health, so I decided 2013-14 would be my last contract year. Unfortunately, my aunt passed away in May 2014, and I experienced that devastating ex-patriot feeling of not being able to make it home for the funeral. I returned in August 2014 as planned, but I did not have a job lined-up. I moved in with my parents to save money and to support my still grieving family. Bad news kept coming when my uncle passed away in September from cancer and my mother came down with a very debilitating illness in October. We were all grieving and I was afraid of spending money so I avoided any gathering with friends that required it. I was already using my JET savings towards my daily expenses including my student loan payments of about $520 per month. I was privileged to have the option to move in rent-free with my parents – I know it’s not possible or desirable for everyone – and I was happy to provide and receive support during a fairly challenging time for me and my family. 

In spite of everything that was going on, I applied for jobs every week if not everyday and heard back from probably 10% of the orgs I applied to. I made it to the final interview stages of some jobs. In one memorable case, after agonizing over the decision, I decided not to take a position I was offered even though it was in a Japan-related field because the salary was low and the work was only “part-time” for 30 hours per week (a tactic you often see to avoid giving any full time employee benefits). This wound up being a great decision, since I was offered the job I eventually took at S&R about a week or two later. I was unemployed for three months. It was one of the most stressful periods of time I’ve experienced. I know for a fact that many JETs who return to the DC area face this issue for a lot longer than three months. It is one of the main issues JET alumni associations are trying to alleviate by hosting more professional development events and mentoring recently-returned JETS in their fields.

Reaching out – Maintaining and Building Relationships 

I wanted to work in U.S-Japan relations and/or international affairs, but in order to find those jobs, I had to do a lot of research and reach out to people in those fields. I mentioned above that I was not attending many events where I needed to spend money. This is where my location, friendships, and luck came into play. There are a lot of free events in Washington, DC. I took full advantage of these. 

For returning JETs, to start building relationships I highly advise attending any receptions or professional development events hosted by the Japanese Embassy or Consulate in your area. They are great opportunities to introduce yourself to a community or, in my case, re-introduce yourself to a community you lost touch with. I attended my welcome back reception and met former colleagues who were either still at the Embassy of Japan or who had moved on to other positions, but were former JETs. They introduced me to several job opportunities they were aware of as well as to the JET Alumni Association of Washington, DC. I signed up for newsletters and began receiving general updates about any Japan-related job postings. I didn’t begin volunteering until after I secured a full-time job, but that can also be an entry point to deeper connection with the community you want to be a part of. 

While attending events greatly helped my awareness of available positions, I was still acting in a fairly passive way. I was present, but I wasn’t engaged in more meaningful relationship building. I have since learned how to approach this type of event in an active way. Here are three lessons learned:

  1. Don’t try to meet everyone, focus on a few key people you are genuinely interested in knowing better. 
    1. People can tell if you are only interested in talking to them to serve your own purposes. Your body language alone reflects that and it is off-putting. Even if you might be able to forge a better connection later, be present in the conversations you are having and aim to exit them gracefully if you aren’t making a connection. There are many polite exit tactics. Here are a few to consider:
      1. Refilling a drink or getting more food if you are at a reception
      2. Introducing them to someone else
      3. Simply stating you have enjoyed speaking with them and that you hope to see them at another event
      4. Find a natural transition point, like someone else joining the conversation, to leave
  2.  Don’t only talk about your work related goals – find topics you are mutually interested in.
    1. At first this might seem counterintuitive, but this is one of the main complaints I hear from professionals and senior professionals in my field. They’d much rather make a human connection than feel like they are only seen as a stepping stone to something better. If you can hold a genuine conversation, they are 100% more likely to remember you and help you in the future.
    2. What’s appropriate to discuss? Hobbies, popular shows, news of the day, fun facts about you and many other topics. Any of these can help you forge a deeper connection. It’s fairly easy at a JET event or event where you have many shared experiences with other guests. When in doubt, actively listen to someone else. That also shows a deeper level of engagement.
  3.  When you do connect with someone, have an ask – but a measured one.
    1. Potential asks you can have:
      1. I noticed you work in this field, I’d love to know more about it. Are you open to having coffee or lunch sometime to talk?
      2. I learned X job is available at your organization. Would you be open to an informational interview so I can learn more about your org. culture and needs?
    2. If you are asking for something, you need to follow-up! Agreeing in person is great, but make sure you get their contact information so you can follow-up with a quick email to confirm details.

It probably took me a few years of actively working on relationship building at events to feel less awkward in those situations. I also didn’t know how to better engage in conversations at events like these when I first returned from Japan. Luck comes into play again for me here since a former colleague I reconnected with at one of those early events offered to give me an informational interview about a job opening at her organization – S&R Foundation. That interview really helped me to manage my expectations and create a better application. It was one of many applications I’d filled out, but I’m sure that having that proactive meeting is what made me stand out from other applicants. 

Goal Setting – A framework 

Photo by john.schultz

These are the parameters I chose to narrow my job search. I wrote them below in my priority order. Determining specific factors helped me to better visualize my end goal. In order to find an ideal job for me, I had to find out what I considered to be “ideal.” I decided to try and meet at least four of these eight criteria, but I wound up eventually meeting most of them over 5 years. I’m still working on my ideal commute. 

Geographic Region: DC, MD, VA or the “DMV” so I could be close to my family. Luckily, I’m in a region where there are a lot of jobs in international affairs.

Did I meet this goal? 

Yes! My office was in Georgetown. Over the years I’ve had 4 different office locations with the same organization, but they have all been in DC. 

Field:  Human Services & Resources, Business and Management specifically in: International education, International affairs, International exchange

Did I meet this goal? 

Yes! I was eventually able to work at the intersection of all of these fields and even got involved in the arts, sciences, communications and more. 

Position Requirements: non-entry level, 5+ years experience, Officer or Manager title (I tried to avoid positions with Associate, Coordinator, or Assistant, but I made exceptions to try to break into organizations I was very interested in). 

Did I meet this goal? 

Not at first. I almost never got any responses back from positions like these. It was hard to swallow in my late 20’s with 6 years of professional experience. I realized I didn’t have a masters degree and would be overlooked in this highly educated region. I also never had an internship. Internships weren’t promoted in my field when I attended college from 2004-08. My years of office work experience didn’t compete with these educational achievements on paper. At S&R I applied to be an Executive Assistant. They only required 3 years of experience as an admin assistant working with VIPs, which I had at the Embassy of Japan. In March 2015, my title was changed to Special Projects Coordinator and EA to the CEO and COO. A mouthful to be sure. Finally in 2016, I was promoted to Special Projects Manager and then in 2017 to Senior Program Director.

Salary: 50K or more (I planned on living with roommates in a DC suburb, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to support myself on this salary in DC).

NOTE: Research cost of living in the area you want to work in when considering salary requirements and especially in situations where you can negotiate salary. Cost of living by region varies widely. Necessity also means some people have to take a lower salary than they know they are worth. I’m primarily recommending this as a negotiating tactic and to give you some place to start if you are asked by a potential employer what your salary needs are.  Cost of living in the DC area is quite high with an average studio apartment renting for $1500-1600 per month back in 2015. In 2017 the Washington post reported that you need to make about $80,000 to live “comfortably” in DC. Obviously definitions of “comfortable” vary. You can read theirs in the article below.

Did I meet this goal? 

Yes! I didn’t negotiate for a salary and just accepted the offer I received because I was so happy it met my expectation. In retrospect, I probably could have negotiated. I had this untrue notion in my head that I wouldn’t be able to demand a salary that other individuals around my experience level with masters degrees could demand. When the opportunity came up later, I took that lesson to heart and was a better advocate for myself. 

Sector: Private or NGO

While the public sector provides many of the jobs in this area, I had just worked for the Japanese government for 6 years and was looking for a change. Something that would be more flexible and faster paced. 

Did I meet this goal? 

Yes! While this was a goal of mine, I still applied to a ton of public sector jobs. However, they can be notoriously challenging to break into if you don’t have a connection or if you don’t start right out of college. Ask anyone who has been through USAJOBS.GOV ::shudders::

Skill Sets: Program and/or Project management, grant writing, Program development

Did I meet this goal?

Not at first. Through luck, support of my bosses, and though personal drive, I eventually met all of these goals by 2016. I pursued any program support roles available at my organization and clearly stated that this was my goal. That outlook plus my stated intention worked for me. 

Perks: Professional development opportunities, international travel, flexible hours 

Did I meet this goal? 

Not at first. Eventually I was given the chance to shape a role for myself, but it didn’t really happen until  2016-2018. When I did get the opportunity, I tried to institutionalize the same opportunities for any staff I managed as well. In 2016, I was given the option to have a more flexible work schedule. In  2018 I pursued and achieved a Project Management Professional certification through a professional development line item that my organization provided to its employees. My first work trip abroad took place in 2018 and it was to Japan to facilitate a selection process for a program I was operating. 

Commute: Under 45min in traffic. Preferably by car, but metro access would be nice.

Did I meet this goal? 

Sorf of? Georgetown is notoriously inaccessible, but I was offered free parking which is an incredibly rare commodity, so I took advantage of it. I moved to Silver Spring and lived with roommates since I wasn’t able to afford DC proper at first. I came close to a 45min commute, but traffic is so unpredictable. I was almost always in traffic for about one hour each way. I moved to Glover Park in 2015, back to Silver Spring in 2016, and to Georgetown in 2017. I’ve since moved again and still have a solid hour commute. 

Advice 2019 me would give 2014 me regarding the job search: 

  1. Be kind to yourself

    I was really hard on myself for not having lined up a job before returning to the states even in light of the loss I was dealing with, the time consuming returning procedures for JET, and saying goodbye to a community I’d spent the past three years immersed in.  I punished myself everyday for how long it was taking me to get back on my feet and for not spending every waking moment job hunting. Unsurprisingly, this was counterproductive. Stressful, uncertain situations are bad enough without treating yourself like crap on top of it. Find ways to give yourself some slack and treat yourself how you would treat a friend in a similar situation.

  2. Choosing a good boss is more important than choosing an ideal job. 

    In a lot of ways, I lucked into this, but I hadn’t even thought of it in 2014. A good, supportive boss will fight for you, will give you opportunities to grow, can mentor you, and can give you a good recommendation if you do find your “dream” job. You typically spend at least 8 hours a day at work and your boss or direct supervisor is a big part of determining where those hours fall on the spectrum of pleasantly productive to impossible expectations.

  3. Look for jobs to develop skills, don’t just look at jobs you can already do perfectly 

    I was under the impression that I had to meet all or most of the qualifications of a job to even get my foot in the door. While this is absolutely true of highly specialized jobs (surgeon, electrical engineers, machine specific technicians), this is not true for most entry-mid level positions. I’ve been annoyed at the years of experience sometimes required to do an “entry level” job or a masters degree required to work as an associate researcher in a think tank. Many hiring managers are really looking for people with flexible soft skills and high Emotional Intelligence Quotient (EQ) who are able to mold themselves into positions, rise to new challenges and creatively solve problems. Every time I’ve been a part of the hiring process this is at the core of our discussions when selecting between two otherwise similar candidates.

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In part 3, I will provide more information on building (and maintaining) your community. I mentioned some of my event go-to conversation tactics in this post, but I’ll provide more examples next time as well as tips on following-up on connections. In the meantime, do you have any reception/event conversation tips? Feel free to share below in the comments!

About Paula

Paula lives in the vortex of academic life. She studies medieval Japanese history.
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