An Often Forgotten Practice in Career Development

ProfessionalismWhat does it take to have your application stand out from all others when applying for a job, grant, or scholarship? I focused on that question with my graduate student advisees this past spring as they planned for their May graduations and the job application process.  I have posted before on this subject.  I  always recommend two references for building a career in the cultural heritage sector – A Life in Museums: Managing Your Museum Career and The Anthropology Graduate’s Guide: From Student to a Career.  Both books are packed with information that students need to begin acting on early in their academic career.

I offer students suggestions as someone who has hired museum staff, sat on numerous admission, scholarship and similar recruitment committees, and written hundreds of letters of recommendations over the years.  An applicants goal in these processes is for their application to stand out and make the first cut from the other hundred (or hundreds) submitted and then receive more detailed scrutiny from the review committee.  The added attention allows the reviewers to determine the candidates fit for a position leading to the possibility of making it to the short list or interview stage where the applicant can truly shine and detail their fit for the position.  The two references listed above detail many other practices to enhance an applicants possibilities to have their application package rise to the top.

My colleague Bob Beatty at the AASLH reminded me today of another important practice that seems to be falling out of favor these days – the thank you note – not the perfunctory single word of emailed “thanks” which really is nothing more than an acknowledgement of a task completed – but something that requires a bit more effort and expression.  Bob provided the link How To Write a Heartfelt Thank-You Note, Quickly & Easily by Raphael Magana.  From my perspective, a thank you note or update to an advisor or recommendation letter writer is not to have one’s ego appeased.  Rather a thank you note or progress update addresses the following points:

  • Thank you notes and updates set a tone for future discussions.  Everyone typically receives and dislikes the emails or voice messages from folks who only call in time of need.  The same is true for the former professor or employer who only hears from someone when they need another letter of reference, or six.
  • Thank you notes and updates are just a civil part of social relations, showing an appreciation for the effort expended.  In a survey I conducted a few years ago, not giving thanks was third on the list of “rules of professionalism” routinely violated by recent college graduates.  Similarly, a lack of communication is the reason given by over 50% of donors as to why they stopped their financial support to a nonprofit.
  • A thank you note also serves as a mnemonic device to keep the individual’s name and face in front of the faculty member or potential employer.
  • Generally, I find that the students who write thank you notes or send updates are the students who function in a professional manner in other respects and with whom I have the most meaningful conversations on their professional development.
  • And the point I consider most important, a thank you note or progress update simply let’s the advisor know that the conversations, advising sessions, etc. are considered of value by the recipient.  And I repeat, thank you notes must not be viewed as an ego inflation for the person being thanked.  Rather, the amount of time expended in advising, writing letters of recommendation and introduction can consume a considerable amount of faculty member or employer’s time.  Was it worthwhile?  Then let them know. They will be more likely to assist both you and others in the future.

For all the above reasons, like having a digital portfolio, a well-crafted cover letter, and a professional appearance, the thank you note or update, though seemingly a small detail, can make a big difference for those launching their careers, and beyond.  And I thank Bob Beatty for reminding me of this important practice.