Sunday, January 4, 2015

THE Mystery of The Field: How To Become A Trainer (Part 2)

Last week, I started talking about ways to help yourself get a job in the field.  If you missed it, here is Part One.  We talked a little bit about the best ways to get feedback on: resumes, work performance, and information on swim tests.  We talked about asking for and actually comprehending constructive criticism from colleagues and bosses.

This week, let's focus on the application process of getting your first animal training job.  There are a lot of questions and misconceptions surrounding the application process alone, so it merits its very own blog post!


I'd also like to reiterate something I mentioned a few times in last week's entry.  While I stand by what I'm writing, also realize that this is my opinion.  It is an educated opinion backed by a lot of experience, but not everyone sees the world the way I do (and hey, that's a good thing or the world would be very boring).  These are general guidelines to consider, but the only resources that will benefit YOU individually are the ones who know you the best.  No book, blog, or Facebook thread is going to coach you appropriately on your best path.  So make sure you forge good working relationships with your bosses at your internships, your summer jobs, professors and anyone else who knows YOU well.

Okay, with that said, let's get started.  Here are some tips for the application process.

1) Cast your net wide!

For anyone here who is like, really literal

"I'm only looking for jobs in California."

"I don't want to work in Miami."

"I'm only applying to jobs working with dolphins."

Every time I hear someone limit themselves in their job search, I'm compelled to yell, "BUT WHYYYY?"

Here's the thing when you're first starting out; if you limit yourself to a city, state, one species of animal, or tell yourself you never want to work in certain places, you are going to have an extraordinarily hard time landing an interview, much less a job.  

Okay lookit, I know that there are circumstances when you really are limited to where you apply for a job.  Life gets in the way.  But that doesn't change the facts: no matter how good your reasons are for not applying to lots and lots and lots of jobs with lots of different animals in many, many locations, you are at a really massive disadvantage.  I'm sorry for those of you who really are stuck in a location.  It's not impossible, but it will be much, much harder.  It's better you know the truth though.

That's the way the cookie crumbles, folks.

For the rest of you who are going, "Wellllll....the reason I'm being so picky is because I just don't WANT to go to some places, or I only WANT to work with sea lions", it's time to change your tune.  

You know this: the field is competitive.  What does that mean?  There are very, very few job openings at the entry-level.  And there are a lot of people vying for those limited positions.  Not just a lot of people; a lot of people who have experience just like you.  You can differentiate yourself all you want, but even if you are a fantastic amazing wonderful hard-to-find are not alone in your eliteness.  There are tens of elite candidates hoping to get the one job you applied for.  That's the nature of competitive industries.  Some people have worded this to say that you're basically replaceable.  I personally hate that idea, because you're not.  You aspiring trainers are not a dime-a-dozen; you all have something unique and wonderful to offer.  But that's not easy to see in every single candidate, and sometimes there are so many great candidates but one has something that's best for our particular facility.

What that means is that your best chance at landing an interview is to apply EVERYWHERE.  Increase the odds that your incredible application and unique persona will pique the interest of someone hiring.  Applying to five jobs gives you almost no chance that that.  Applying to 50?  You've got a fighting chance.  100 job applications (phew!!), now we're talking!

"100 job applications? There aren't that many marine mammal jobs! Are you crazy??" you may be asking me.

Bahahaha, a little crazy math humor.

Nope.  You could easily apply to 100 animal training jobs in one year.  Easily.  Of course, if you limit yourself to one state, or one taxa, then yeah that's pretty much impossible.  

Yes, you probably want to work with a particular group of animals.  I'd be willing to bet that most people reading this blog would prefer to work with a species of dolphin, but I know there are many others who love sea lions, primates, wolves, big cats, etc. etc.  It's ideal to land a job working with the species you're most interested in, but it's not critical.  In fact, there are some really fantastic animal training programs out there, so don't get snobby about the animal.  Want to work with elephants?  Guess what, there are some pretty great elephant training programs out there who want good behaviorists and have hired primate and dolphin trainers.  Many zoos have pinnipeds; what if you get hired in hoof stock, get lots of great experience with them and impress your bosses and the zoo's curatorial staff, and are the first pick when an opening in the pinniped department comes around?  Don't just apply for jobs with your preferred species.

I've known people to flat out refuse to apply for a job with sea lions, because they just wanted to work with dolphins.  Or people who would not apply to any jobs other than at SeaWorld.  One person said they could never, ever live in Miami.  Another said they didn't want to live in a cold climate anymore.  They all had a very difficult time landing an interview (some still do not have jobs).  It is unreasonable to be so picky, especially when you're just trying to get a foot in the door.  

That's one sultry-looking foot in the door

Now that I've said to cast your net widely, let me add a caveat.  It's okay to have some guidelines for the jobs you apply for; just make sure they aren't severely limiting.  For example, if you live in the U.S. and you would rather not work outside of the States, I think that's a perfectly reasonable limitation.  Why? Because you've got lots and lots of potential jobs here.  Or let's say you really want to be an animal trainer, so you decide you'll only apply to animal TRAINING jobs, not just any and every zookeeper or aquarist job.  That's totally fine and makes sense, because again there are still lots of potential opportunities in just animal training alone.  

But don't be picky.  In fact, that brings me to my next tip...

2) You can't be picky until you get a job offer

Yeah, Clover! 

This was the single best advice I was given when I was starting out, both in my internship journey and when I was trying to get my first paid job as a marine mammal trainer.

It is so easy (and completely normal) for all of us to daydream what it'd be like if we got a job interview, then offer, and then what it'd be like to work at a certain place.  We send our application and immediately think about what it'll be like to work there.  But there are lots and lots of things that have to happen between the Application and the Job Acceptance phase.  Notably: interview and job offer.  

Being picky is an extension of NOT casting your net widely.  Here are some hypothetical examples:

Person A: I didn't apply to that job in Arizona because they only have sea lions and that's not going to give me the experience I need with dolphins.

Person B: I'd hate living in Denver.  I'm not applying to jobs there.

Person C: I've heard things about XYZ Zoo's method of training their new keepers and I think they move them too slowly, so I'm not going there.

Guess what?  Neither Person A, B, or C has anything to worry about.  Why?  Because they never got job offers, so they never have to worry about working with only sea lions, or hating their life in Denver, or disagreeing with management at XYZ Zoo.  They never had the choice to work there, so why on earth did they think they could be picky when there was nothing to pick FROM?

You decide.

Here's the other thing this ill-placed over-the-top selectivity does: it makes you think you're psychic.  It's incredible how easily it is to go from, "Well, there's a job at Oceans of Fun working with seals and sea lions!" to "Eh, I don't want to work there because I only want to work with killer whales.  There's no way I'll get the experience I need to achieve my dream."  What's hilarious about this is that you can't possibly know what kind of experience you'll get.  In fact, here's what will PROBABLY happen if you, an aspiring orca trainer, take a job at a pinniped facility:

1) You'll get experience with marine mammal training...
2) ...led by one of the gurus in this field
3) You will get pinniped experience, which is a HUGE perk on any resume
4) You will probably LOVE working with pinnipeds, even if you do decide to pursue a career with orcas

An awesome place!

Guess what?  Not applying to Oceans of Fun means you have this much chance at getting any of the aforementioned four AMAZING benefits:  Zero.  Zero chance.  You shot yourself in the foot before you even got out of the gate.  

You aren't psychic, and especially when you're new to this field you really don't have any idea how much experiences with different animals, at different facilities, and in different locations translate into making you a better, more appealing trainer.  You just don't get it...because you haven't been immersed in the field long enough.  It's not a knock on your intelligence or your hard work.  I had zero clue, and I was picky, picky, picky.  And I got no interviews.  Then, I was told what I'm telling you now, and boom, I got interviews.  Not only that, I learned so much from that interviewing process that it got me my first job.  And my first job was not the job I'd always wanted: I wanted to be a research trainer.  I wanted to work for the Navy marine mammal program.  But I wound up getting fantastic training experience at Miami Seaquarium....and the skills I learned there still help me with my job TODAY so many years later.

For those of you who are picky about where you live...stop it.  Just stop it.  NOTHING is permanent.  You've got the wrong priorities in order if you're really worried about living in a climate that's not ideal for you, or you aren't a city person, or you just hate living in Alabama.  Sorry, that's so not going to get you your first job.  Get your foot in the door, get good experience, learn how to be the best animal trainer and caretaker you can, and earn yourself a great reputation.  THEN, you'll be able to move around a lot more easily in the field.  You can start to be a little more selective about types of jobs, species, location, management style, etc.  But not so much (er, not at ALL) in the beginning.

3) Think of your resume as a fishing lure

Hell, I'd bite that

How long should your resume be?  Okay, let's not focus on length.  Let me give you a quick list of facts about resumes, and you can make your own decision from there.

* There are tens to hundreds of other people sending in resumes to the same person (or small group of people) you're sending it to

* There are tens to hundreds of other people with the exact same experience as you applying for the same job

* Sometimes, it's an HR representative (not a trainer) who is scanning resumes before it gets to animal training staff

* Whoever is reading your resume is probably looking at it for about 10 seconds, if that.

Those four things may not be the case at every single zoo or aquarium, but it'd do you well to assume that they are.  Assume that you have ten seconds to sell yourself to someone who has been reading hundreds of resumes for the past hour.  How do you make yourself stand out (in a good way)?  Hint: it is not: colored paper, glitter, photos, or crazy fonts. are not going to help.

Your resume is not the culmination of Who You Are As A Person.  It's a teaser, a movie trailer.  It's meant to lure someone into going, "Hmm...that's interesting, I want to interview them to find out more."   What about each of your experiences are relevant to the job for which you're applying?  What things can you HIGHLIGHT (not opine on!) that make you stand out from the hundreds of other applicants who did marine mammal internships?  

So many people want to put on every single job, class, and volunteer opportunity they've done to show the breadth of their experience....but it doesn't actually differentiate you from the others.  It just creates clutter.  Don't become emotionally attached to your resume; it is not an extension of you and the awesome stuff you have to offer.  It's just there to hook into a prospective employer, so make it crisp, clean, and really interesting.  And of course, make sure everything is spelled correctly and is totally honest (no embellishing or lying!!! You will get found out!).

4) Relax and Learn

Take a load off

Applying for jobs is exciting and terrifying, especially at the beginning of your journey.  After you've sent out a bunch of applications, you may start to feel a little deflated or even downright bummed.  That's normal, so don't panic.  

You will probably not hear back from most of the places you apply to (not even a rejection letter).  The sooner you know this, the better off you are.  Don't waste your time making a judgment on how fair or unfair that fact is; just know it's part of the deal.  And while it is like torture to wait for days or weeks to hear back from a prospective job because you're just dying for an interview, don't follow up a hundred thousand times.  If you do follow up to see if someone got your application package, just do it once.  You may still not hear back from them...and if that's the case, just let it go.  

Learn from the experience, too.  You'll get rejected.  You'll get interviewed or swim tested, and you'll get turned down.  Yes, it's normal to feel sad about that.  It's okay to feel sorry for yourself for just a little bit, but then you need to get back in the game and glean what you can to better your chances the next time.  Don't get vent about it on Facebook or get upset and bitter at the facility who turned you down or never responded.  Just move forward and know there are plenty of other people out there going through the same exact thing you are.  And don't forget, those of us employed in this field went through the same exact emotional rollercoaster, too!

That's all the tips for this week, dear aspiring trainers!  Stick to your guns and don't get crestfallen, just keep at it.  Your hard work and high level of emotional maturity will pay off!  Tune in next week for part 3!

It's what I'm wishing you!

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