Friends would have known that I’ve left the public service after seven years and am currently working in the private sector for about two months now. But I’ve yet to update my LinkedIn profile to my latest role, partly because of imposter syndrome and not knowing whether I’m useful enough to my boss and my organisation to last beyond my three-month probation period. In any case, the first ten months of the year had been a very tough period of soul-searching amidst job-hunting, and I thought to put on record these ten reflection points to help those who are still on the fence whether to make such a life-changing move, particularly for public service officers still in their first job fresh out of university. Hopefully, my future self will look back at this period and thank my younger self for taking action, and even if it all doesn’t unravel as plan, at least there is no regret for not having tried.
1. A scholarship is a reflection of your past successes, not an indicator of future performance.
As an overseas government scholarship recipient, I had to start with this. One of the constant tug-of-war battles that went on in my head was the opportunity cost of leaving the service. Stay, and I know that as a scholarship recipient on a ministry’s talent development programme, I should hit certain milestones along the way, given that my Current Estimated Potential (CEP) [See this 2020 PQ for more elaboration on CEP] started out pretty decently and I was told that it was pushed upwards along the way. Leave, and I’ll be out there in the private sector on my own, with nobody out there assuring me that there will be progress. But it helps to appreciate that even if I stayed, nothing would be assured either because everything should rightfully depend on one’s job performance to progress instead of being based on the outdated concept of stellar academic achievement at the age of 18. Once I got that clearer, the tipping point started to shift towards me just “coasting along from posting to posting” to “let’s go out there and try something new and see where that takes me, without the government scholar label”.
2. A mid-career switch requires a lot of behind-the-scenes preparations.
Nobody is going to hire you just because you’re taken some one hundred and one 101 courses in a new field. That’s pretty much a basic expectation. Everybody is going to ask you about your reason for wanting to make the switch and how you have shown yourself worthy of the switch. For me, I talked about having done my CFA Level I and Level II to show my interest and understanding of finance concepts, as well as the numerous data analytics/ data science/data visualisation work I’ve done and courses I’ve taken. That gives me a story for me to sell at interviews and lets my interviewers know that it’s not something I’m doing on a wimp and expect to be guided like a graduate fresh out of school.
3. Do your research.
What’s the difference between a Junior Associate, Associate and Senior Associate? How about an Associate and an Analyst? The truth is that it depends on individual companies. There’s a wealth of information to research online, from work culture reviews and salary benchmarks on Glassdoor and Salary.sg Forums to the values that a company shares on its own website. I tend to allocate about half an hour just before an interview looking up my interviewer’s LinkedIn profile and the company background so that I have a rough idea who I’ll be meeting and be able to anticipate some questions about my knowledge of the company. I’m pretty sure some of my interviewers have done the same of me too so I suppose this is acceptable standards in today’s job market.
4. Sharpen your CV.
It’s the first impression that any prospective employer will have of you. Keep it to one page and as much as possible, include only the most relevant information to the job. Try to personalise it and make it easy to remember. I added a QR code with a link to this blog, and some interviewers found it interesting enough that they wanted to meet me for a conversation!
Apart from making sure that it’s in an easily readable format and free of grammatical and spelling errors, I’ve learnt that adding numbers to demonstrate quantitative impact makes the descriptions more impressive. And after going through numerous job descriptions, I noticed some similarities, and where my skills fit the bill, I will phrase them in such a way as to include these keywords, because some algorithmic filters may pick them up. But of course, I took lots of care not to overstretch the truth because it will most certainly be called out during the interview process.
5. There’s going to be setbacks. A lot of them. All in different shapes and forms.
Getting rejections at the start felt strange because it was something that I was only starting to get used to. After the fifth or so rejection, I grew number to it and started to accept it as a default, even as I tried my best for each application and interview that I was going for. And yet, even when I thought things were proceeding smoothly, setbacks still do happen. The following episode is a case in point. After going through three rounds of interviews with the local team and other teams based globally for this particular finance analytics company, I was on the brink of being hired for this role that I was keen on. I knew because they followed up with good feedback via email and gave promising cues towards the end of each interview. They made me wait for weeks upon weeks, and I even rejected other offers thinking that I’d just hedge all my bets on this one that I really wanted. Alas, after a month and half of waiting and asking for a follow-up, I was eventually rejected because the department was in the middle of an internal reorganisation, priorities changed and even though I was their top candidate experience-wise, they didn’t manage to procure the budget for hiring me. I was pretty upset over the whole process, but then I had to pick myself up and just move on.
6. You’re going to make a fool of yourself in the first couple interviews.
The various rounds of interviews were a very humbling experience for me because I’ve never encountered rejected on so many occasions, sometimes even a few within a day! To begin with, I already wondered what kind of value-add I was able to provide in some of the jobs that I was applying for, especially for those that involved quite different knowledge domains from my experience. It was quite clear in a number of interviews that I severely lacked business acumen at the start. For example, in a particular interview with an prominent e-commerce company, it was quite telling when I was not even sure how to approach an A/B testing scenario on optimising for voucher discounts with a given budget. But what this means is that every interview secured is a learning experience and brings me one step closer to a job offer. I was also applying for roles that usually involved technical interviews on Python programming and SQL. It’s one thing to learn them in courses, and quite a whole other thing to write workable scripts under time pressure. For that, I made sure that I got enough practice with Codility or HackerRank before sitting for those tests.
7. You’re only as strong as your network.
I told close friends about my game plan and that I was looking around. I met up with university and JC friends, ex-colleagues who were in the industry that I was interested in and even cold-messaged people on LinkedIn. Some were willing to refer to their HR departments and that got me a shot at an interview. It didn’t mean that I was a shoo-in or got an advantage in the hiring process, but it certainly helped to put my resume near the top of the pile. Others helped to flag out suitable positions for me to apply.
8. Think about how you want to approach the salary conversation.
One thing about the public service is that salary conversations are almost taboo. My experience is that year-end reviews are only about work and promotions follow time-based norms, so nobody really thinks about what their market value is. The private sector expects you to know what your market value, because supply and demand dictates that if you don’t, everybody is just going to undercut you. I found an article on this issue by thewokesalaryman very relatable because HR reps and recruiters have honed their tactics very well and I, on the other hand, was looking for a job for the first time in my life where I had to negotiate for my salary. One of the things I kept telling myself was that employers may not think I’m worth paying even as much as my existing job because I’m a new entrant into the industry and they will have to expend time and effort to get me up to speed. I falsely told myself that I’m no different from a fresh graduate and the market will reflect my worth in the offers that I would get. Fortunately, I never found myself in that situation of short-changing myself. I was grateful to receive multiple offers within the same period and thus had negotiating power on my end for a higher salary.
9. Be greedy about giving yourself as many options available for as long as possible.
One of the things that I picked up in my years of policymaking and policy analysis is to take actions today so as to maximise our policy space for tomorrow. Those actions may be tangentially remote to the original objectives, but they are no less important to preserving the necessary capacity to make future tough decisions that will be aligned to those intended outcomes. This concept is equally applicable at a personal level because I wanted to be able to act on any opportunities that happen to appear, and yet also not close any doors prematurely. What this meant for me is that I continued to give my 100% at work even as I was job-hunting, because there was always a remote possibility that things might not work out and I ended up not leaving. I was also due for a posting at the end of the year as well, and I was effectively going for interviews both within and without. And up till the moment that I decided I was going to resign, I continued to participate in the posting exercises and ensured that I found a good posting for myself next year. Some may lament that I’ve denied somebody else a position because then I subsequently left, but I think that when it comes to the job market, it’s really more important that I take care of myself first.
10. Interviews are conversations, not interrogations.
Finally, don’t forget that interviews are meant to be two-way, for you to suss out whether the prospective company, boss and even HR meet your expectations, as much as it is for them to assess you. Interviewers usually set aside time towards the end for questions, and I typically asked three types of questions. First is about the team dynamics and structure, such as whether I’ll be working largely alone or with colleagues based overseas or locally. Second is about the work-from-home practices and general working style of the boss, which I personally find quite important to fulfil work-life balance. These days, it’s quite easy to get a sense of a micromanaging boss by asking him about working from home norms. Third is usually applicable to more advanced rounds of interviews and where I’m feeling quite confident, I tend to ask about their assessment of me and follow it up with anything I can seek to improve on in the lead-up to being given an offer. The latter I find is crucial to portray an image of genuine interest in the role, but also to ensure that I know what’s the knowledge gap that needs filling even before day one.
As a final note, I hope that has has given you some tips on how to approach a potential mid-career switch if you are ever considering one. Amidst all the other financial decisions on investments, buying a home or a car, in fact the job one has is by far one of the biggest financial decisions one has to make! It determines our monthly cash inflow, and more fundamentally, our time outflow, or more simply, how we use our time. So I like to think about the job-seeking process as an opportunity to optimise the conversion of human capital into financial capital, if it was not previously optimised. I’ll be happy to write more on related topics because I don’t believe that Education and Career Guidance (ECG) is something that only students and youths need.