Career Retreats, A Guest Post from MARA Instructor Joshua Zimmerman
Published: March 22, 2017 by Anna Maloney
Career retreats are actual things, things that anyone can do, and they actually can help provide some perspective on your career and life.
Hi all. I’m Josh Zimmerman and I teach MARA 285 Research Methods in Records Management and Archival Science in the fall semester. After the close of the course in the fall of 2016, I decided to take a career retreat. I had heard about yoga retreats, spiritual retreats, corporate retreats, and even Bonaparte’s Retreat (a popular 19th and 20th Century fiddle tune) before, but I had never heard of a career retreat. I really liked the reflection aspects of some of these retreats, but the settings, structure, and costs were prohibitive and in the end, really not my style. When Stephanie Bennett (one of the archivists I follow on Twitter and someone who graciously contributed to my course’s video series) posted her experiences of a do-it-yourself (DIY) career retreat on her blog, I knew that this was exactly what I had been looking for. I really liked the idea of stepping back to examine and explore my career path and goals on my own terms. Stephanie has a few links in her post, but by and large, there isn’t a clear blueprint for DIY career retreats out there so I thought that sharing some of my ideas and experiences from my first career retreat could be useful to students in the MARA program. In particular, I think that career retreats could help students focus on what they want to get out of the program and ultimately, their careers in RIM.
The where, when, and how are perhaps the biggest parts of a career retreat. You need to be able to step outside your daily routine for a period of time, whether it’s a half day, day, or whole weekend like I had. Being both uninterrupted and undistracted are essential to success. I can’t overstate the importance of this! A lot of MARA students work full time in addition to school. This hectic schedule doesn’t readily lend itself to reflection and introspection. Students are often laser focused on immediate tasks and deadlines. I know I certainly was. I rarely thought beyond the end of the semester, let alone stopping to think about what I wanted to do after graduation or beyond. I look back now and think that this type of retreat would have done wonders for me, if nothing else than for stress reduction between semesters.
For my retreat, a good friend and SJSU iSchool grad graciously allowed me to use her family’s cabin on Whidbey Island, WA overlooking the Puget Sound. I understand that this type of opportunity isn’t available to all. The place doesn’t matter as much as the devoted time to think and maybe walk around (if able). Don’t underestimate the power of a mind-clearing walk (see Thoreau and Wordsworth) or at least making some connection to nature. Maybe you camp out at a coffee shop with a view. Maybe you sit on a bench in a park on a nice day. Again it’s all about being relaxed enough to think clearly about things.
Once you’ve found a good place, you’ll next have to find the time to carve out to do it. This can be harder than it sounds, but fortunately I found one weekend that worked with my family’s busy schedule. For students, breaks or holidays could work well. The key is actually planning for it and getting it on your calendar.
Your objectives are just as important as the logistics. To be clear, I’m not looking to switch careers, jobs, or make any major life choices (though these are perfect reasons for retreats), my aim was simply to reflect on and set my career goals, kind of a career “check in.” I also took stock of personal goals for the year during this retreat, but this isn’t necessary. I’ve found that I only have so much bandwidth in a year for family, work, teaching, volunteering, and hobbies, so balancing and prioritizing them is extremely important to me. It also helps me focus on setting realistic goals and actually accomplishing them. The document that I created has both goals and steps and potential time periods for accomplishment. I divided the 2 days into four specific morning and afternoon sessions, allowing me to focus on specific areas for a few hours a piece. Though I looked at my entire universe which included personal, teaching, work, and career, I think the main application of the career retreat for students is to chart out your career. I understand that this type of clairvoyance isn’t always the easiest of things to conjure when you’re in the middle of school. So think of the result of a career retreat not as a final version of your career path, but as an ongoing draft of your career. Things will inevitably change. I’m still drafting mine! Let’s take an example of how this might play out. If you say “I want to work in film archives” (an interest that comes up fairly often in my class), then maybe you want to envision and think about the type of institution you want to work for. Do you want to work for a not-for-profit film organization? Do you want to work for a movie studio? Do you want to work in a university or college that focuses on audio visual materials? More important than the specific institution, you might chart out what concrete steps you’ll need to accomplish to get there. Do you need to do an internship? Can you afford to do an internship? Do you need to be a member of a certain professional organization such as SAA, ARMA, ALA, or ICA? Do you need any specific certificates (CA, CRM, IGP, etc.) or technical training? Maybe you’ve just started in the MARA program. What courses might help you to achieve this goal? Could you write about film archives in any classes (ding ding MARA 285) to help you get up to speed on the relevant literature? These are still fairly large goals. You could even drill down in your goal setting to include extra-curricular activities, as well. In my film archivist example, this could mean simply loading up your Netflix queue with groundbreaking or classic movies or perhaps infusing your distraction reading with film histories, film-based novels, or director autobiographies. Most goal setting that I’ve done in the past is simply acknowledging the goal or goals. I want to do x or y! Rarely did I plot out the specific steps needed to achieve them. Then predictably, next January rolls around and I have very little to show for a particular goal. This is definitely something that I wanted to avoid this year. Additionally, following up is absolutely necessary to the success of any goal setting. It’s too late to tell how well I will follow through, but judging by the first two months, I’d say this year’s goals have a good chance of sticking. Once you have steps outlined, another question you can ask yourself is: Can your steps be prioritized? If so, which ones require the previous steps? You could even bring in the Critical Path Method and conceive of your goal as a project, if you want a more formal structure. Another question related to this objective would be: Who can help me along the way? For instance, maybe you set up phone interviews/conversations with those who are already doing the work that you want to do or check out the MARA community profiles. Your professors and advisors can be an immense help; just ask them. That’s what they’re there for. Maybe you don’t know exactly where you’d like to work or what aspect of the profession that you’d like to pursue. If that’s the case, then career exploration could be your retreat goal. You could chart out a few interests and do some preliminary research of the type I mentioned above. Additionally, you could define what makes up your general “ideal workplace” or job and in what region, state, or country you’d like to work.
In addition to outlining the rough steps in retreating, I thought I’d offer some specific takeaways from my own retreat in hopes that it might help in yours. As it was my first retreat, there are things that I would change next year. My main regret was that I should have taken only a few goals or questions that I wanted to work on and really focused on them. I treated it mainly as a continued brain storming exercise. Most of what made it onto my goals document are ones I had started to think about and write down even before the year ended. Next year, I might create the year’s goals beforehand and then take the vague and important issues/questions to reflect on. I felt that the largest and probably most important issues didn’t get resolved or at least the full attention that they deserved.
Another takeaway is: You have to treat yourself. If you’re taking time off work or away from family, you might as well make it enjoyable. This was a big enticement for me. I made two huge meals and had a nice bottle of wine. I viewed the retreat as both an ends (vacation) as well as a means (way to establish goals). Luckily, treating yourself can scale up or down depending on time and resources! Mainly, you want to ensure that you’ll want to do it again next year and making it fun definitely helps to establish the retreat as an annual tradition.
I think the biggest takeaway from my retreat and this post is the acknowledgement that career retreats are actual things, things that anyone can do, and that they actually can help provide some perspective on your career and life. Also, though I’ve detailed one type of retreat from one perspective with one set of goals, you shouldn’t necessarily feel locked into one retreat format or style.
If you have more experience with career retreats or are thinking about doing one, I’d love to hear from you (firstname.lastname@example.org). Also, if you have any questions or comments, please send them my way.