The following is a conversation with one of our seasoned Wake Forest career coaches, Patrick Sullivan (’93, MBA ’03), Interim Director for Career Education and Coaching. Patrick specializes in working with students seeking internships as well as experiential education opportunities. He also serves as liaison to the Athletic Department. Below, Patrick shares some of his best career advice for Wake Forest alumni in various stages of their professional lives.

Wake Forest senior Brooke Thomas talks with career counselor Patrick Sullivan in the Office of Professional and Career Development in Reynolda Hall on Tuesday, August 23, 2011.

Photo by Wake Forest University Photographer

Who are you? Tell us a little about who you are, your role, how you ended up at Wake Forest.

I’m a Double Deac, graduating in 1993 with a Politics degree and again in 2003 with a MBA. My current role has me working with students on a daily basis, helping students work through the career development process – facilitating self-reflection, identifying careers of interest, pursuing opportunities, and generally helping Wake Forest students take their first step into the world of work.

I returned to Wake Forest after living in Washington, DC for several years after graduation. While there, I helped set up an internship program, which involved both hiring and managing the interns. I really valued this part of my role in, and it was this part of my work that gave me the experience I needed to transition back to Wake Forest and work in the Office of Personal and Career Development. Basically, I had enough relevant experience to convince my new employer – Wake Forest – that they could take a chance on me when making a transition from politics to career development.

We would like to know your thoughts on making a mid-career change, whether ten or twenty years in. Is it possible to change course once you’re that far down the road? What, logistically, should one think about?

Put simply, it IS possible to make a mid-career change. Here are a few questions to think about as you consider making that kind of transition:

What are the constraints, if any, that you have? Are you tied to a certain location or industry? Do you need to stay in the area for personal/family reasons? Does your financial compensation need to stay the same? Increase? Answers to these questions will influence your next move.

Why are you making a change? Your motivations for change also deserve careful consideration. Are you looking for new challenges? A simple change of scenery? Have you concluded that you want to make a fundamental change? Answers to these questions should influence the kinds of roles and organizations you pursue.

Do you want to use the same skills, but in a different setting? This is the question that I believe most people should focus on. It’s easier to define yourself by your job title, especially when you’ve been in the same role for an extended period, but from the perspective of your next employer, you will be hired for the skills you bring to them, not the job title you held with your previous employer.

If it’s been a while since someone has had a job interview or had to tap into their network, what should they do to prepare?

I have three thoughts here:

  • Know that networking is a relationship, not a transaction. Sure, you are trying to gather information from friends, colleagues, and others, but in most cases, you can help out these colleagues by sharing information with them, too. And doing so generates goodwill.
  • It’s crucial to learn about the employer and the role. Don’t assume that you know what is going on just because the job is similar to your current role. Talk to somebody inside the organization to learn about the culture. Figure out the “problem” issues at that moment and how you can help solve those problems. Be intentional about the skills that will be needed in the new role and be prepared to talk about the ways in which you have used those skills in a previous setting.
  • Finally, remember that you are marketing yourself in an interview – the employer has something you want – a job, and it’s your responsibility to convince them that you are the right person to fill that job. You do that by marketing your skills and experience.

How can someone best “tell their story” to a potential new employer if all of their experience has been in one field or industry (or even one organization)?

Focus on the skills you will bring to your next employer and do your best to articulate those skills in a way that will be of interest to the interviewer. So rather than simply saying, “Yes, I have that skill,” try to something more like, “I developed that skill in my previous role while working on (a specific project), here are the ways I utilized that skill, and here is the result of the way I approached that project.”

Importantly, explain why that’s meaningful to the next employer – “And based on what I know about your organization, I believe these skills would be valuable in helping you address (a specific need).”

What are 2-3 key resources that people should check out if they are looking to make a change?

Again, I have 3 suggestions:

  • The Career Insights tool available through LinkedIn is a treasure trove of information about Wake Forest alumni – where people work, who they know, what people actually do in their job, and more. If you aren’t already familiar with this tool, I encourage you to check it out.
  • The job description. I know that sounds straightforward, but really dig in to the job description. In most cases, the description will explain exactly which skills that the employer is seeking in the requirements section. And read between the lines in the job description. How do you interpret what the employer actually means when they describe the role?
  • Finally, I have to put a plug in for the content my colleagues have created on the Alumni Personal & Career Development Center website. Reviewing the information available on this site is a great way to start your transition.

What do you wish that every professional, no matter their career stage, would know or be able to do?

Honestly, I wish everybody took greater advantage of informational interviews – there is SO much good to be drawn from talking to others about what they do. Someone who already works in the role that you are seeking or in an organization of interest can often give you an insight that will be a difference-maker in the interview. And for the most part, people are happy to talk with you about what they do – your request to them gives them an opportunity to do something good for a friend or colleague. So don’t be shy about asking people for information about their work. It’s an easy question to answer with a “Yes!”