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Spring Break Isn't All Good

This story was published on Friday, March 19, 2004, in the MIT student newspaper The Tech, Volume 124, Number 14
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What's Next?
by Ian Ybarra

"Spring Break Isn't All Good"

My friend Paul carried a gray messenger bag and the weight of the world on his shoulders as he trudged towards his dorm one afternoon last March. Spring break was upon him, and he was a wreck.

Before the term ended, he still had to resolve his plans for the next fall, prepare for a concerto competition, and finish his final collegiate golf season. Paul wondered why he had been so relieved in December, when he completed his thesis and decided to earn a master’s degree in security studies and work for the CIA. Now, doubting he would be accepted to a single graduate school, he applied for the Navy’s Officer Candidate School in a desperate attempt to cover his bets.

You see, one trouble with the question “what’s next?” is that even when we decide what we want the answer to be, we’re restless until we are certain we can make that answer happen. And there is no milestone that can intensify that restlessness as much as spring break.

Spring break is a breath of fresh air amidst the pollution that is our incessant business. It’s often filled with smiles and -- if you’re not in Boston -- sunshine and sand.

But spring break can be like TIME=100 in Super Mario Bros.: the dreadful moment when the music switches from normal to warp speed. Afterward, our hearts beat faster, heads ache more often, and deadlines jump at us like winged turtles. We punish ourselves for New Year’s and term resolutions we haven’t kept. We worry about not having job offers for summer or fall. Or, like Paul, we stress over graduate school admissions.

To ready ourselves for success and happiness in the remainder of the spring term, we should balance enjoying our vacation with preparing for the season it brings. Here are three suggestions to help you strike the two faces of spring break right between the eyes.

1. Do some work but not too much.

There’s nothing worse than playing catch-up after a well-deserved break. Tackle a few problem sets; write a few papers. However, don’t overdo it. Spending the entire week holed-up in the lab will probably make your solutions two parts procrastination, one part production. Besides, no matter how much you accomplish, MIT will always provide more work for you. Overwork yourself and when classes resume you’ll wish you had had more fun.

2. Have some fun.

Do something that makes you smile. Perhaps that’s seeing a beautiful new city or scoping new places in a familiar one. Do something that makes you laugh. Maybe that’s watching improv or taking in a T-ball game. Do something that has eluded you for a while. Maybe that’s conquering the novel your friend gave you months ago, the one that keeps getting nudged a few spots down your to-do list.

3. Don’t just plan, execute.

Ditch the line “When the break is over, I’m going to network more.” Just go meet someone new immediately. If you’re on the dead MIT campus, visit a staff or faculty member. She’ll welcome an excuse to postpone work as much as you will. If you’re at a spring break destination, talk to a stranger. You’ll have plenty to discuss. Chances are, she saved up for the trip just like you did. Or, better yet, she’s there on a blank check from her parents, who are executives at your favorite company.

Come to think of it, these are good things to do anytime. It figures, since time will render spring break as fleeting and insignificant as any other week. When you get the job offer or grad school acceptance you covet, everything will seem right in your world, regardless of how you felt during and after spring break.

Last year, Paul spent his break fielding questions about his grad school-then-CIA plan while secretly agonizing over the uncertainty of his future. His pain vanished a few weeks later, when he was accepted to American University. For months, Paul basked in the approval and encouragement of his parents, professors, and peers.

Then in December, Paul was so disappointed with his first term in Washington, DC, he left. Now everyone’s back to asking what the hell he’s doing, but he’s more confident than ever. He is going to become a golf pro, something he’s wanted to do all his life.

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This article originally appeared in The Tech, issue 14 volume 124. It may be freely distributed electronically as long as it includes this notice but cannot be reprinted without the express written permission of The Tech. Write to archive@the-tech.mit.edu for additional details.

Posted by Ian Ybarra on 19 March 2004 Permalink

I've Never Met With a Career Counselor

This story was published on Tuesday, March 16, 2004, in MIT's student newspaper The Tech, Volume 124, Number 13.
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What's Next?
by Ian Ybarra

"I've Never Met With a Career Counselor"

Doesn’t this week’s title sound absurd? I write “What’s Next?” to expose the factors influencing our career decisions and to inspire you to find and pursue work that is personally rewarding and just plain fun.

For more than two years I have worked for UPOP (the Undergraduate Practice Opportunities Program), whose headquarters are about ten feet from the MIT Careers Office. Yet I had my first meeting with a career development counselor on March 4, 2004. And it wasn’t even supposed to be about my career development.

I went to Building 12-170 to interview two people for my column: John Nonnamaker, Manager for Graduate Student Career Development, and Marilyn Wilson, Senior Career Development Counselor. I was planning a story on how career development services were under-utilized and under-appreciated despite being perhaps the most valuable of all MIT Careers Office functions. I found part of what I sought, but I also, unexpectedly, found my place in the story and benefited in several ways.

Ask anyone on campus to quickly tell you why you should go to the Careers Office and you’ll probably hear something like, “They’ll help you with your résumé and stuff.” Truth be told, that doesn’t even begin to do the Careers Office justice.

What’s the problem? Enter 12-170 and to the left, copies of the Career Development Workbook are being advertised with the promise, “Has sample resumes, cover letters, and more.” Huh? Resumes and cover letters were about the last things Nonnamaker and Wilson mentioned when explaining what comprises the handbook, the Careers Office Web site, and their services.

Still, the Careers Office staff probably feels forced to market their handbooks with such shallow benefits. Why? I suspect the shallow ones are what we students pay most attention to, that we ignore everything else the Careers Office has to offer.

In the 2002-2003 academic year, the office recorded 1,738 visits by undergraduates. Those weren’t even by distinct individuals. Assuming they were, though, we can be sure that less than 50 percent of undergraduates met with career development counselors last year.

What about the rest of us? We all have our excuses. Mine is that I’m too self-reliant. I do career development on my own. I read, think, and dream about what I want to do with my life. I meet people in careers that intrigue me. I create projects of my own and do various internships. Even so, it would help me to regularly visit a career development counselor just the same as it would help me to consistently meet with my primary care physician even if I eat nutritious foods, exercise, and don’t smoke. There’s always something flying under your radar.

Your excuse might be that you’re too young or too old. Nonnamaker insists that is nonsense.

“You could have PhD students who for their whole lives thought they wanted to be professors. Then after they pass their quals, there’s this moment, this epiphany, when they realize, ‘Whoa, I don’t really want to do that, but I don’t know what else to do.’ “

Perhaps you feel like a career development counselor can’t relate to you. Besides being bona fide experts in their field, MIT’s career development counselors are quite understanding of issues specific to MIT and college in general.

I’m sure there is someone in the Careers Office that understands your unique perspective, whether you are an undergraduate or graduate student, an alumna (employed or unemployed, take your pick), a professor, or a professor’s 53-year-old administrative assistant.

If we were honest with ourselves, the real reason we don’t seek help from Wilson, Nonnamaker, and their colleagues is that we just don’t make time. They know we’re busy, though.

“It’s not about preaching to them that they should have started earlier, it’s about meeting them where they are,” Nonnamaker said.

If you’re like my friend Jack Williard ’04 was when he was an underclassman -- you only come up for air every few weeks to avoid drowning by the MIT firehose -- you can meet with them once a month. It’s still better than nothing. Or if you’re like Jack now, a final-term senior who is busier having fun than doing problem sets, you can accelerate the process and meet with them once or twice per week. Either way, they’ll be glad to see you. Trust me; they’re always ready to help.

When I met with Nonnamaker, I instinctively said, “No, thanks,” to his invitations to discuss my own career development. Despite that, he politely extended an open-ended offer in case I reconsidered.

Reconsider, I have. And I urge you to do the same, especially if you think, like I did, that you don’t need to meet with a career development counselor. I met with two and, despite my desire to not talk about my career development, I still made valuable additions to my network and learned a fundamental lesson for my journalism career.

Within seconds of meeting Wilson, I found out that she used to be a freelance writer and that her husband spent several years working for the magazine I’ll be working for this summer. When talking with Nonnamaker, I noticed a plaque on his wall with a saying I wanted to use in this column. Later, I learned a journalism lesson the hard way. I couldn’t remember the saying because I didn’t write it down, and my cassette recorder certainly didn’t pick it up.

Now I’ll have to meet with Nonnamaker again, if only to revisit the quote on his wall. After having so many excuses against going, it’s good to finally have an excuse to go.

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This article originally appeared in The Tech, issue 13 volume 124. It may be freely distributed electronically as long as it includes this notice but cannot be reprinted without the express written permission of The Tech. Write to archive@the-tech.mit.edu for additional details.

Posted by Ian Ybarra on 16 March 2004 Permalink