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How (and Why) to Keep a Career Diary

Are you tracking your education and career achievements? Last month Lifehacker advised keeping a “work diary” as a way to prepare for performance evaluations at work, and it’s an idea I think translates well to online learning and career development. What if you started a journal of your experience across courses and jobs?

The most critical functions of your job search materials are demonstrating, describing, and documenting your specific accomplishments. The impact of your resume, portfolio, and responses to interview questions all hinge on what you’ve done in the past and how those achievements indicate your potential for success with a new company. But when the time comes to write your resume, select work samples, and answer an interviewer’s questions, we are often stumped and struggle to come up with specific examples that tell our stories.

Maintaining a career diary is one technique to help track what you’ve done, so you can fill in the gaps. It provides you with a dedicated space to quickly capture details of your work and learning, for later use.

What to Include

Keep your mind open to any activity that provided you with new experience or resulted in new skills. While work projects are important, you’ll also want to consider course assignments and community activities. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Completed work tasks: Especially those that introduced you to something new or allowed you to practice in some way.
  • Coursework successes: Identify one assignment from each course that you are particularly proud of and that demonstrates something you learned.
  • Professional development activities: From formal training events you attend to sessions you present, document and save certificates of participation, slides and handouts, etc.
  • The … bad and the ugly: In a portfolio, you want to include only your best work, but a diary should include much more. Open Forum’s “5 Reasons to Keep a Work Diary” emphasizes insight gained not only from positive outcomes, but also those things that didn’t go so well. What did you learn from the mistakes? “It turns out the worst part of our days are important to remember as well (even though it stings).”
  • Thank you notes: suggests you “collect compliments” in this kind of work journal. Save those emails and notes from clients, supervisors, co-workers, etc. that provide testimonials not only about your work, but also your work ethic. These items also often contain helpful details about projects and your role in making them successful.

Try to capture a variety of activities. This is not the time to be super-selective. You can decide which items to include in your resume, etc. later on, but keeping a career diary gives you a place to start and items from which to choose.

Tools and Format Options

So, what should a career diary look like? The choice is yours, with a wide range of simple to complex options, such as:

  • Calendars: If you regularly use a personal calendar (printed or online) this may be a good place to start making brief notes about your work.
  • Documents: A single Word document with a handy table, or a folder or notebook at your desk that is within reach, may be all that you need.
  • Apps: Web-based tools like Dropbox, Evernote, and Google Drive (formerly Google Docs) add the flexibility of being able to add an entry from multiple locations and devices.

Find a place that’s easy to get to and use. If you have to go through a lot of steps to find and open your career dairy, you’ll be less likely to make it part of your routine. Identify a single location so that you don’t end up with notes tucked in various, hard-to-find and remember spots. One of the key benefits of the process is consolidation.

Creating a Diary Entry

Just as with resume writing, your diary requires more than saying you were “responsible for X” or “coordinated Y.” How can you better document what you’ve done? Add the following information to each item you include in your career diary:

  • Numbers: Were money, people, or resources involved in the project? How many? How much? Share your results as quantitatively as possible, such as “recommended new software to the team manager that was accepted for a pilot project, and saved $1000,” “presented workshop on the certification process to 12 technicians,” and “guided 10 new cub scout leaders through their initial training.”
  • Details: Add anything that may help you describe your past achievements so that you’ll be able use these descriptions in the future: dates, locations, names of people involved, etc.
  • Related artifacts: There may be a webpage, video, certificate, image, or other type of file that tells the story of your accomplishment. Add these to your diary now so you won’t have to search for them later.
  • Your thoughts: Why was the item important to you at the time you added it the diary? Beyond use in a job search scenario, you may see other interesting patterns emerge when you review your accomplishments, and your reflections on them, at a later date.

Take a look at your current resume. How could you improve it with more concrete examples? Keep these areas in mind as you begin your diary documentation.

Get started!

Give yourself a trial period (maybe a month?) to make career diary entries on a weekly basis. Block 15 to 30 minutes on Friday to list anything you participated in during the week that helped you move toward your education and career goals. Small steps count, too.

Remember that these notes are for your use only, so they don’t have to be formal and complete, like something you would post on a blog or other more public place. Use this trial to figure out what details are important to you and modify your approach as needed, laying the groundwork for job search success in the future.

Image credit: mac.rj, Flickr: CC:BY