Career Mentoring: Thomas Zumbado

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”
—Thoreau H.D. (1854), Walden, (Ticknor & Fields: Boston)

My father-in-law once told me that job hunting is a full-time job. I got the gist of what he was saying, but I never fully understood the magnitude of his words until it came time for me to start searching. I must have sent out 100+ applications after I received my MS in Geography. Defense, government, private industry, law schools, PhD programs, the sky was the limit and I was set to cast my net as wide as I could. I was not expecting a remarkable success for my attempts, but I did expect a modicum of choice in my next career move. What I got was a punch in the gut as a steady stream of failures began to fill my mailbox. When I finally received an interview request for my current position, I was so jaded that I expected the process to end with as much success as my other applications. Fortunately for me, Fate finally had other plans. Looking back on how I felt during those dark days, I can remember being haunted by the realization that my family’s resources were slowly dwindling and the destitution clock was ticking away in the back of my mind. It was like having a hot coal in my stomach, but I had to keep moving forward, keep trying to find my place.

At this past 2013 AAG Annual Meeting in Los Angeles, I met a lot of people who were exactly in this position. I had the honor of being a Career Mentor for urban planning and local government. I had geographers of all disciplines sit in front of me to ask for advice on how to get a job. Many were young students just starting their journey and hoping to glean some insight on how to beat the “inexperience wall” that seemed to thwart them at every step. Others were adults who (like me) found our field later in life and were worried about how to beat the “age discrimination” that seemed to (you guessed it) thwart them at every step. It was a common theme. Almost everyone felt that the deck was stacked against them and that perhaps I, the Career Mentor, had that one critical piece of advice, that one silver bullet, which could turn their failures into success and grant them the comfort they had long sought.

I helped as best as I could. I explained the importance of building their brand through social media and professional interconnectivity. I instructed them on tips for their resumes, C.V.s, and online profiles. I described the prominence of attending events like the AAG Annual Meeting and their local counterparts. But most of all, I listened, nodded, and empathized with their stories of trial and failure. I in turn, shared the stories of my job-finding odyssey to show that they were not alone in their ordeal and I encouraged them to be relentless in their search for the perfect job and to keep getting up, even when they felt they had gone down for the last time.

I spoke to a lot of folks. But the person I remember the most is the quiet Chinese graduate student who, fighting through a wall of shyness and fear, whispered to me how she was considering leaving her PhD program to pursue a career as a GIS specialist in environmental consulting. I felt like a priest in a confessional as she stared straight at the ground and recounted what I’m sure she felt was a blasphemous discourse. Colleagues, friends, you should have seen her face light up when I told her that she had every right to choose her own professional path and that even though she was well-suited for a stellar GIS career, she could always return to her PhD aspirations when she was ready. It was as if no one had ever informed her of this option. It was an empowering moment. She smiled broadly and shared a panicked laugh of relief as her eyes filled with tears. (And yeah, maybe a few tears were shed on my part.)

Career mentoring was the most gratifying part of the Annual Meeting for me; to have assisted my mentees in finding their way through the miasma of career options, varying definitions, and obscure job searches and helping them to find their place in the world as geographers. It is, in my opinion, the greatest purpose of our Association, on par with promoting geographic thought and inquiry. I encourage everyone to be a mentor at the 2014 Annual Meeting in Tampa. The Jobs & Careers Center and other similar services provided by the AAG are driving forces that continuously build our field through opportunity and encouragement. We should all do our part to pay it forward; even if it means lending a kind ear and helping our up-and-coming colleagues shoulder their quiet desperation.

Thomas C. Zumbado
Staff Cartographer / GIS Specialist
Salt Lake County Planning & Development Services
2001 S. State Street, Suite N-3600
Salt Lake City, UT 84190 

With support from the NSF-funded Enhancing Departments and Graduate Education (EDGE) project, the AAG has recently enhanced and expanded the careers and professional development activities at its Annual Meetings. In this piece, planner Tom Zumbado recounts his experience as a career mentor and encourages his fellow geographers to volunteer as mentors during the 2014 Annual Meeting in Tampa. To learn more about career mentoring, visit the website or email us.