Succeeding as a student and a professional is so multifaceted, how can one be sure that they are doing all they can to be as accomplished as possible, in all of their endeavors? Well, it may not be as difficult as one may think. Thankfully, East Stroudsburg University’s Dr. Michael Pittaro shares his secrets to success as a student and professional.
First, a little about me so you have an idea as to why I wrote this article.
I am a first-generation college student, which means that I was the first in my immediate family to go to college. In order to do so, I took out every student loan imaginable and worked part-time on campus, anything that was necessary to pursue my undergraduate degree. I have since completed my masters and doctorate degrees and will be going back for another degree in the near future. Since I was the first to go to college, I had to literally pave my own path by learning how to study, write, and complete what seemed like, at the time, an endless barrage of requirements. My formative high school years did not prepare me well enough for college, which was partly my fault. I cannot deny the fact that I was more into socializing (aka – partying) than studying in high school.
Words of Advice
It is vitally important that you take care of yourself or you will experience a burnout.
I had to essentially learn how to work hard and work smart, yet it was important that I kept everything in balance, which is something I still preach today. It is vitally important that you take care of yourself mentally, physically, and spiritually or you will experience burnout. I lived with a wild bunch of college roommates, seven to be exact, which was incredibly awesome, but made studying in our house quite difficult, if not completely impossible. I had to go to the library to study and complete projects (way before the introduction of computers, laptops, and the advent of the Internet). I still partied – a lot, but always knew that my studies came first. Study first, party later. It paid off and that is why I am paying it forward because I had to learn through trial and error what was needed to maximize my potential as a student and later as a professional.
One important lesson and one of my pet peeves in life is to never settle for mediocrity, take pride in everything you do, and always try to beat your personal best. There is always room for improvement in all aspects of your life; therefore, your strongest competitor is likely yourself.
Learn from the best.
Now, enough about me. What did I learn along that journey from freshman to entry-level professional to university professor? Most importantly, I learned to listen and observe people, which is “people-watching” at a completely new level. There are strong students and not-so-strong students. If you want to be among the strong students, which I highly suggest, then learn from them. How do they take notes? How do they study? How do they prepare for exams? Observe your professors, too. Each has his or her own style of teaching. Learn their teaching style, what questions are they likely to to ask on exams, what they look for when grading essays and research papers. Learn through observation. Be respectful. I cannot speak for other disciplines but in criminal justice, it is all about respect, honesty, integrity, ethical insight, and of course, professionalism. These individuals will also be writing your future letters of recommendation.
Embrace and appreciate criticism.
Do not take what may be perceived as criticism personally. It is the course instructor’s job to teach you about the course content, but also to improve your writing, critical thinking skills, and your interpersonal communication skills. Come to grips with the fact that there is and always will be room for improvement. Embrace the criticism and see it more as constructive feedback rather than criticism even if it is delivered with far less tact than you expected. Their feedback is intended to make you a better student and future professional. Some professors are straightforward and quite blunt whereas others try to cushion the blow to your self-esteem with a toned down approach. Regardless of how the message was delivered, remember that they truly care about you and want you to succeed. I have never met a professor in my entire career who did not want his/her students to do well, contrary to what many students might think. There is no hidden conspiracy, I can assure you!
More success tips I learned along the way…
Here are a few tips that I learned as a young entry-level professional leading to my years in a variety of leadership positions.
1. Always put in more effort and passion than the next person and you will be noticed.
Always put in more time, effort, and passion than the next person and you will quickly be noticed. For example, if you are scheduled to work 9 am – 5 pm, show up at 8:45 and leave around 5:15. That is an easy, extra 30 minutes out of a 24-hour day, yet it speaks volumes about your work ethic. The opposite will also occur if you consistently arrive a few minutes late or have your coat on and keys in hand at 4:55 pm. You will also be noticed, but the outcome will likely be a ticket out the door or a poor reference to your future employer.
2. Learn everything you can about the position you are applying for before your interview.
Learn everything you can about your organization and the position you are applying for because you would be surprised with the number of people that I have interviewed for positions who had absolutely no clue what they were applying for. Who are the decision-makers, what is the agency’s mission, philosophy, and goals? You want to be sure that you possess the same ideals as the agency. Most employers will conduct a background investigation; some are more extensive and invasive than others. What do you do?
3. Always be forthright and never omit information.
Always be forthright. Omitting something from your application or during the interview will not be viewed favorably and interpreted as being deceptive. Honesty is the only option. If there is something within your background that concerns you, be prepared to own it and take accountability for it.
4. Create a PDF document of all your personal accounts to save time.
Most, if not all employers, will require your university transcripts, driver’s license, etc. I would suggest that you create PDF documents and store all of these important personal documents in an electronic folder for easy and quick access. Most delays have to do with the potential hire gathering up his/her personal documents.
5. Fly below the radar and do not bring any negative attention to yourself while you’re on probation.
In criminal justice, expect a criminal history check (FBI, State Police, and Child Abuse), medical evaluation, psychological evaluation, financial check, driver’s history check, and a polygraph (lie detector) evaluation. You must successfully pass each of these hurdles in order to be offered conditional employment. Most employers have a probationary term that you must complete, which is typically 90 days but in some professions, it could be 6 months or one year. During this time, you must be careful not to bring any negative attention whatsoever to yourself with tardiness, absenteeism, etc. As I always say, you want to fly below the radar and not receive negative attention.
6. Your employer will most likely check social media.
We live in a different world now so your life is often on public display through social media. Employers do and most likely will check social media. Be cognizant of what you say, do, and publish on social media. A picture on social media will be subject to scrutiny and interpretation by the viewer. If it is a picture that you would not want your grandmother seeing, remove it. Remember, once it is on the web, it is out there in cyberspace for eternity even if deleted.
7. Confidence is key in an interview.
The interview is one of the most intense stages of the job searching process. Confidence is key here. Be confident in your abilities. Although you may lack formal experience, you most likely have transferable skills that you have acquired in other positions like leadership, teamwork, responsibility, problem solving, etc. Do not discount your experiences.
8. Join professional organizations and volunteer to gain as much experience as possible.
I would also suggest that you become involved in campus activities such as clubs and events, join professional organizations (inexpensive as a college student) and attend conferences and online groups related to your future career. I would also volunteer. Volunteering is an attribute that most employers favor. It shows that you can put others before yourself.
9. Research the person you are being interviewed by beforehand.
Before your interview, determine who you will be interviewing with and their title / position within that organization. That is how you should address them. Some interviews, as in criminal justice, often consist of a panel interview of two or more employees, typically the mid to upper administration. Learn about them as well. Body language is as equally important to your success as your response to each interview question.
10. Maintain composure and don’t appear to be nervous by fidgeting.
Do not slouch, tap your feet or fingers (nervousness), and maintain eye contact. Maintain your composure even though it may seem like you are in there for an eternity. When asked a question, we have a tendency to respond quickly because we are nervous. Do not answer quickly even though it will seem like time has stood still in your mind, especially with the interviewer staring at you awaiting your response.
11. Brainstorm all possible questions that might be asked in an interview and how you should respond.
To prepare for this phase, think of all possible questions and scenarios that might be asked and how you will respond. Do not memorize these responses because it will appear as if they are scripted. Just accept that some questions will be easier to answer than others will. Strengths are easy to point out, but when the interviewer asks about your weaknesses, do not sabotage yourself. What are some of YOUR weaknesses that others may see as strengths? For example, I tend to be a perfectionist, which in my mind is a weakness because I am my worst enemy and create my own stress, but an employer will likely see this as a strength because, after all, who doesn’t like perfection? Keep in mind that the interview is typically after the employer has already gathered some basic information on you. Once again, do not omit anything and be truthful. They may ask you a question but they already know the answer. Should your response contradict what you previously said or wrote, you will likely be called out on it and that typically does not end well. Confidence, confidence, confidence. By this point, you are a college graduate or soon-to-be graduate; therefore, you meet the qualifications for the position and are ready to enter the wonderful world of professionals. Let that confidence come through during each response.
12. Dress conservatively, it is better to be over-dressed than under-dressed.
What do I wear? Without appearing too vague, in my experience, conservative is the way to go. Professional attire only, tattoos and piercings unexposed, freshly groomed hair and face for me. In my opinion, it is better to be overdressed than under dressed in any interview. First impressions do and will matter, so dress to impress but do not appear flashy. Remember, you want the attention to be on your response to each question not on anything that would distract the interviewer. Once again, I cannot emphasize enough that you must be confident and believe in yourself and your abilities. Remember, you must know exactly what you are applying for in that position. If it requires shift work, be prepared when they ask you if you are available to work any shift. If the position requires you to work weekends, be prepared to work weekends. If the position requires you to travel, be prepared to travel. Know what you are applying for and be willing to work as required.
13. Never be afraid to ask for help or admit you don’t understand something.
Now, let us assume that you were offered the position. Now what? Well, read the entire article again and repeat the process by learning, observing, working hard, being professional, etc. One huge mistake that I made for many years was not asking for help or admitting that you do not know something. I let my pride and ego get in the way, but all it did was make things worse and far more stressful. Fast forward and today, I am a huge proponent of having one or more mentors in your life, which is similar to a role model, but the mentor has actually walked in your shoes and climbed the ladder of success. How did they do it? Learn from them. For example, I had an offer back in 2005 to write my first book. It was a dream come true for me, but then again, I had no clue where to even start the process so I reached out to someone who was successful in that regard and he essentially showed me the ropes by giving me advice, tips, and suggestions. This wealth of information proved incredibly helpful since I now have nearly 60 publications to date and serve on the International Editorial Advisory Boards for three international peer-reviewed journals. However, it is sad that it took me over 20 years to push my pride and ego aside and ask for help.
14. Get out of your comfort zone. Immediately.
Even though I now work as a university professor with nearly 3 decades of experience and education as a practitioner, author, editor, and subject matter expert, I frequently reach out to others who I admire and respect for their advice and suggestions. This is particularly important if I feel that I am venturing into uncharted territory or as most refer to it, out of my comfort zone. Speaking of comfort zone, get out of there. The worst thing that you can do in your personal and professional lives is stay within that comfort zone. A little bit of temporary discomfort never hurt anyone and it will undoubtedly lead to personal and professional growth.
15. Never stop believing in yourself and your abilities.
Never stop learning and never stop believing in yourself and your abilities. The only person stopping you is often yourself. We all have that unlimited potential, but most stop themselves by thinking that they cannot do it. I call BS on that! Drown out the negative voices in your head that may be filled with messages of self-doubt and to all the naysayers out there who try to bring you down, just watch me succeed! One of the biggest motivators to me is when someone puts you down and says that you cannot do it. Just watch me and I will prove to you that I will do it. Eliminate all negative, doubtful language from your vocabulary like, I might, I am unsure, etc. Replace those terms with, I can and I will.
16. Surround yourself with positive people. Negativity breeds negativity.
Lastly, surround yourself with positive people. These people are the ones that push you and believe in you. Your own personal cheerleaders of sorts who support you and only bring out the very best in you. Rid yourself of all toxic people in your life and distance yourself from toxic relationships, friendships, and people that suck the positive energy right out of you. Negativity breeds negativity; therefore, positivity will breed positivity. Choose wisely. Have a sense of humor and do not be afraid to make fun of your mistakes and your flaws. We all make mistakes and we all have flaws because no one is perfect. Some may think they are, but that is simply flawed, dangerous thinking. Be passionate, driven, and always strive for awesomeness in whatever you decide to do in your life. Master your skill sets, but always stay grounded. Remember your roots. Remember where you came from and always pay it forward to others who have not yet reached that level of personal and professional fulfillment.
Dr. Michael Pittaro