How to make it in America

 

YOUR FACE HERE?

YOUR FACE HERE?

…kinda. In entry-level journalism. And it depends on your definition of “making it”.

Remarkably, two Mondays ago marked five months since I started at the Kennebec Journal/Morning Sentinel here in Augusta. Five months. I can hardly believe it – that means that as of last Sunday, as I think I mentioned, I’ve been a permanent resident of the United States for half a year. That’s even more unbelievable to fathom.

(Warning: This post turned out to be incredibly long. Oops. It’s useful though, probably.)

I know I’m fairly sentimental when it comes to these kinds of things, so I’ll “skip the gristle and get right down to the bone,” as one of my favorite television characters ever used to say.

Last week I initiated an informal chat with my bosses about my job performance over the past five months, to make sure I was on the right track (okay, mostly to make sure that I won’t be out of a job on the eve of my probation ending). Without getting into specifics, they’re happy with how I’m working out, which is a pretty big relief for obvious and not so obvious reasons.

The obvious: It’s nice to be able to have a steady income to pay for things like a roof over my head, shoes under my feet (note to self: I need new Chucks, and I haven’t had a pair of adidas Originals for far too long), and food on my table. See how I prioritize?

The not-so-obvious: To know that I’m succeeding in my line of work in the U.S. is a massive weight off my shoulders. As I’ve mentioned before, I spent September, October and parts of November applying for jobs here, all across the country. I dread to think of how many cover letters, CVs and hopeful emails I sent out over the course of those two and a half months. It would easily number over 50, and that’s not even to mention the easily 100 or more I applied for in 2012 and early 2013, before I even set foot back in the States.

Even though my experience back home was strong in both the longevity of my positions and the clout of my employer – Australia’s national broadcaster, for those who don’t know me – I struck out time and again in 2013 when it came to job applications. The first employer to actually return one of my emails said that they’d filled the position a day before I applied, had forgotten to take the ad down, but based on my application they would’ve offered me an interview. Great.

The next one knew he was punching above his weight with my candidacy – it was a community newspaper in west Texas with…shall I say, a burgeoning web presence which I’d presumably be heading up. He asked whether I’d be prepared to move career-wise from a national news organization to a small-town paper, something I was willing to do…until he told me the “entry-level” salary. As you may realize, I politely declined.

I finally landed an interview in late October, which I thought went extremely well. But despite multiple efforts to follow up and see how the process was going, I never heard from anyone there again.

As you can imagine, a bunch of rejection – and worse, utter silence – begins to eat away at one’s professional self-confidence. While I had an initial plan in place to settle in and get working, I wasn’t confident that I’d be able to convince some media organization to take a leap of faith and give me a shot. So it’s a huge relief knowing that the first employers to roll the dice on me are happy with what I’m doing.

Strangely enough (or probably not, actually), I hear from a lot of Aussie green card holder and hopefuls looking to get starts in the media over here. When I was working for the ABC at home, I used to get a lot of the same questions from students I was teaching undergrad journalism at QUT. It feels strange to be looked up to for career advice, given I fell ass-backwards into a fantastic job at home in 2007 and played the numbers game to land paid employment in the U.S.

But since I recently got done corresponding with a fellow Australian journo and U.S. permanent resident via email about how to get lucky in the job market here, I thought I’d put together some pointers for those who were in my boat. Take them with a grain of salt – everyone’s skillset and industry and luck is different – and much of this is anecdotal and picked up from along my travels.

- GET IT RIGHT FROM THE START

Make sure your resume and cover letter conform to U.S. standards. Sure, Australia and the States both speak English, but job applications are worlds different. For one, resumes are way shorter. One page is the generally accepted limit on length – but hey, no complaints: we’re journalists, right? We’re supposed to be concise.  Bear in mind that while the economy is definitely picking up here, this is a HUGE country and there have to be hundreds of applicants for every job going. Recruiters don’t have to time leaf through multiple pages – they want a quick look at your education and qualifications on one page to see if you fit the bill so they can put you in the yes or no pile.

On top of that, make sure you’re using U.S. English spelling. That means Zs and no Us, gang. There’s a high likelihood you’re applying for a job that requires impeccable spelling, grammar and language skills. If you can’t adapt from the Queen’s English to the right way of spelling things (even if it makes your skin crawl to type Zs for the first month), then that’s one more reason for an editor or executive producer not to take a chance on a foreigner. You’re in their ballpark now – play by their rules. If they’re not sure you can spell correctly in a cover letter, why would you be able to do so in their newspaper or on their website?

- SELL YOURSELF. HARD.

As I said above, the job market is hugely competitive. On top of that, the journalism business is a tough one and God knows there’s no money in it, unless you’re a veteran TV star. So keep in mind that companies are trying to get bang for their buck. You want that buck? You’ve gotta sell yourself, son! Show them in right there in the cover letter what you can do for them. Make the recruiters or the hiring manager or the editor see that you’re the one that’s worth spending the salary on to bring aboard. Forget (for now) what your own career aspirations are – if you want that foot in the door, keep what you want under the radar.

Also, make sure to point out that you have experience with every verb and buzzword they’re asking for in the job description, and make sure to address them all with things you’ve done. I’d also recommend somewhat matching the “voice” or the “feel” of the organization. If it’s Buzzfeed, you won’t necessarily be striking the same formal tone that you might if you were applying for a job at the New York Times, if you get what I mean.

BE CLEAR ABOUT YOUR STATUS

The thing that I think was my biggest hurdle was that even though I was completely eligible to work in the U.S. and I had an American address and cell phone number, everything on my resume was foreign. Overseas qualifications, overseas experience. Maybe it’s not even real? Who knows. On top of that the references are international long-distance phone calls away, and then there’s the other big thing: don’t foreigners need work visas? Doesn’t that involve sponsorship? That sort of thing is expensive. Why would we pay more to hire someone born in Australia when we could just hire a local for cheaper?

Now, you and I know that this isn’t the case. We’ve got green cards – there’s no sponsorship involved. We’re good to go. But one can’t blame an employer for the subconscious thought that foreign = visa = sponsorship = big bucks. I have nothing to back this up, but I’m still convinced that the Australian experience atop my resume was a deterrent to many of the employers I applied to work for. Not because they’re xenophobes, but because it probably seemed like all too much damn work. I can dig it.

To try and remedy this, I was always up-front. Within the first couple of paragraphs of my cover letters, I’d explain that while I was Australian, I have full permanent residency and work eligibility and did not need sponsorship. Don’t be desperate about it, just be clear and honest about it.

- BE READY TO GO ANYWHERE

Like I wrote earlier, unless you’re a veteran TV star, don’t expect to make big bucks right away. The same goes for big markets. Sure, I landed on my feet in 2007 when I got my first job out of college in my hometown, a capital city, with the nation’s biggest broadcaster, and that could easily happen to anyone here too. But if you’re single and basically unencumbered like I was, there’s no reason to turn down jobs that aren’t in Los Angeles/New York/San Francisco/Miami just because the city isn’t a big name.

Now, I’m definitely not saying “take the first offer you get, and forego your lifestyle” (although there’s certainly an appeal to being employed as opposed to being jobless). But look at it this way: I didn’t know a damn thing about Augusta before I applied for the job here. But if I had held out waiting for a job offer from a bigger or more “recognizable” place, I’d still be waiting and without any American journalism experience. Literally no one from the tens and tens of applications I sent out last September-November have ever contacted me, so I’d still be waiting. I’d have gone through with my backup plan, which was to settle in New Orleans, but I’d have also been scraping together rent from whatever hospitality job I could get, and writing for an online newspaper for free. Free don’t pay the bills.

And on top of that, it’s an awesome experience. As I’ve written at length, the contrast between going from a city of two million people to one of less than 20,000 has been an incredible learning curve, for better and worse, and I’ve learned a lot about myself since I’ve been here. It won’t be forever, but this has been a good way to get acclimatized to life in the United States. That’s pretty priceless.

- IT’S A NUMBERS GAME

Again I’m going to go out on a limb and assume you’re not an A-list media superstar looking to break into the game out here via the green card lottery. (If you are, what the hell are you doing reading this? Go get another martini.) Reality is you’re coming in at a disadvantage into a tough race. The upside, though? This is a HUGE country. There are tons and tons of opportunities. The best part about the 50 or 100 or 150 failed applications I sent out was that there was enough jobs appropriate to my career niche – online news production – for me to be able to apply for 50 or 100 or 150 jobs. The more you apply for and the wider you cast your job search net, the better chance you are of catching someone’s eye and scheming your way in the front door like I did at the KJ five months ago.

Obviously there’s a lot more to it than just the points I’ve outlined half-assedly at 1:30 in the morning in drafting this post, but there are tons of web resources out there for cover letter, resume and job searching advice. Personally I used Linked In’s job board and JournalismJobs.com and found between those websites, almost all the open positions turned up by the other job search engines were covered in a nice, mostly ad-free presentation. And that’s always good.

Holy shit I did 2,000 words without even really trying. Hopefully this can be useful to SOMEONE. If you’ve got questions, suggestions or you just want to tell me I’m an asshole who has no idea what I’m talking about, by all means post them in the comments.

3 thoughts on “How to make it in America

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