About half the time, I get answers such as: “I was a research associate, until I got laid off.”
With an answer like that, you set an overall negative tone. You didn’t answer the question of what you do, not even what you used to do; you pinned yourself down to a position, and with a look back, still struggling to move on. That makes you a has-been. What would make people want to network with a has-been?
Here’s a variation on the type of answer just quoted: “I used to be a research associate. Now I am looking for a job as a developmental editor.”
On the surface, this sounds like goal orientation. But look at it closely: It goes from a look backwards on to something not yet attained. The worst-case takeaway message here is: has-been topped off with never-has-been. Again, do you think people will be lining up to network with someone projecting that type of image?
The person networking with you learns nothing about you from a past job title. And if indeed you got laid off, then chances are the job doesn’t even exist anymore; it may have shipped off to China, it may have been consolidated, or it may have been just plain eliminated.
The question “What do you do?” invites you to showcase the signature type of impact you make. The question goes to what you strive to accomplish. It begs to be answered with action-oriented verbs, not with static position titles—least of all, with position titles of jobs you no longer have.
Instead, focus on what you have actually done: how you have applied your competencies, how you have achieved results, and what expanded skills you have come away with. Now you may think: Wait a minute—that’s still a backwards perspective. How is that the present, let alone a look ahead?
To transcend the past, talk about what you do in the form of a story that says: “Here’s the type of endeavor I engage in, evidenced by a consistent, progressive record of accomplishments I have been building on. Here I stand ready to make my next contribution.”
Now let’s look again at the job seeker above who is looking to move from research to developmental editing. Instead of evoking in the listener the tiresome associations with all the tediums of career change, the story told in terms of action and impact could look something like this:
“I produce textbook chapters and journal articles. Specifically, I ensure the substantive content is sound and the narrative is compelling and coherent before a piece is published. To this end, I thrive in liaising among subject-matter experts, peer reviewers, and editorial professionals, until things add up. Incidentally, I am currently available for new opportunities.”
Now that sounds a lot more positive, and it is a much more spot-on answer to the question of what you do. You touch on the treasure trove of your accumulated assets, not as faded glories but as resources from which to benefit for future challenges. This type of answer is much more likely to keep a good networking conversation going.