Most scientists and scholars dislike the idea of "selling" themselves when on the job market. It feels a bit forced and disingenuous, right? Shouldn't good work and your abilities speak for themselves? The answer is, unfortunately, NO.
How do you stand out from the masses? Through powerfully communicating who you are and the expertise you bring to solve problems an employer cares about. It starts and ends with effective communication in your conversations, on social media, and in your application documents.
For those readers looking to pursue a faculty career, the quality of your research, teaching, and diversity statements is essential. But don't forget to craft a cover letter that provides a description of how you fit the department, institution, and role. The key across all of these documents is to convey the value you bring as a potential colleague to the department you are applying to. You should ensure throughout these application documents that your tone is written from the perspective of a colleague that has expertise and knowledge to add to the unit's teaching and research efforts. And please don't write these materials with a deferential tone, saying things like "it would be an honor to join your department" or "I would love the privilege of working at institution X". Words like honor and privilege convey the idea that you are asking for a job (that they are doing you a favor by considering your application). Rather, you want your tone and word choice in your application documents to speak to how you can add to their department and bring value through teaching needed courses or leading new research efforts (via particular techniques or areas of expertise you possess) at the institution (that you are doing them a favor by applying).
While you cannot completely network your way to a faculty position, you can certainly learn a lot about an institution and department prior to applying by talking with faculty, especially newly-hired assistant professors. Informational interviews with faculty can be immensely powerful in helping you understand the expectations for new faculty at various institutions. You can also use these conversations to learn from those who recently navigated the faculty job market in your field and get a better sense of what is valued in faculty applicants.
You can also reach out to faculty at departments you know are hiring to talk more about their research and experience working there. These could be future collaborators even if you don't land the position. So approach the conversation with the goal of learning more about the individual, their research, and their experience working at the institution NOT about a single position, though the open position may come up in conversation and allow you to learn about hiring priorities for the department.
For more see my Tales from the Academic Job Market post from July 2019.
One way to immediately improve your odds of landing a position is not to apply to one in the traditional sense.
Applications submitted online (especially for employment at large companies) are likely to be sifted through by an applicant tracking system that automates review of your materials. If you lack the keywords or experience the job advertisement calls for, you could be screened out before a human being even looks at your materials. And while there are certainly strategies to improve your application making it through such automated systems, why put your employment fate completely in their hands?
How do you avoid being subject to the whims of an online system? You leverage your network. This is the piece of advice that job seekers typically don't want to hear as it requires advance "groundwork" and effort that needs to begin 6-12 months BEFORE you need a job.
- Whether a particular position fits your skills, interests, and values
- Whether a potential employer fits the environment you want to work in
- What an employer's future plans are - where they are growing, what types of positions may become open in the coming year
- How individuals with similar backgrounds to you (Ph.D., postdoc) made career transitions
- Advice on how to make a career transition yourself
- Whom else to speak with in your career field of interest or at the company
- And more....
Remember to treat these conversations as fact-finding missions and a chance to learn and connect. Be sure to take notes and follow-up with those you speak with as well as strategize ways to keep them updated on your plans and accomplishments as you progress toward the end of your training. Also, be sure to consider ways you can provide value to those you speak with by either sharing research (recent publications) or news that could be relevant to their work or by connecting them with individuals you know who could help them fill an open position, learn about a new technique or process, and more. You have more to "give" than you think.
Read more on career exploration and informational interviews on the blog:
As you speak with professionals about their career (via informational interviews) or attend networking events, you will certainly also need to be able to talk about yourself and your value in an effective way: your professional narrative.
As human beings we are all working to construct narratives of others...it is how we make sense of a complex world. So, if you don't do a thorough job of crafting your own personal narrative and value proposition, one will be created for you.
When scanning your resume or LinkedIn profile, instead of "10+ years of experience working with leading genetic editing technologies including CRISPR-Cas9", someone may see career "student" focused on academic minutiae. Or, they may see you as just a scientist with a lot of great technical skills but wonder how you will do interacting with others or with clients who lack a full understanding of the technical details you take for granted. You must ensure you craft a compelling and clear narrative about your experience and expertise that is accessible. Less jargon and more focused on results and the impact of your work.
One of the largest challenges faced by graduate students and postdocs when describing their experiences and skills is ensuring they frame the work they have performed and tasks they have accomplished in an accessible way. Filling your application documents with technical jargon and listing out the papers you have published is fine when applying for academic positions. If you are looking for a career outside faculty or university research roles, however, you need to reframe and tailor your application documents.
A resume should always be tailored to a position and be focused on how your contributed toward various projects, with an emphasis on the results and impact of your work.
For more advice on reframing and tailoring your experiences in a resume, see this Guide for CV to Resume Conversion from Yale University.
Practice Your Messaging
A crucial step in conveying your skills, abilities, and interest in a particular career field is having your personal brand messaging honed and ready to share.
When at a networking event, for instance, you are meeting professionals that may work in areas of interest to you and your task upon meeting them is to efficiently and compellingly convey who you are, what you do, and your future interests in 30-60 seconds. You might have heard this referred to as an elevator pitch. Having this short description of you, your work, and your aspirations ready to share can really help those you meet understand who you are and where you may fit into the world of work.
Some other points to consider as you work to convey your narrative and value as part of a job search:
It is critically important when applying and interviewing for a position to ensure you project confidence but not cockiness
You need to make clear to potential employers that you have valuable skills and experience to offer them. Sometimes this requires working to explain how your background and training fit aspects associated with the role. You will often need to "connect the dots" between your past experiences and the role for an employer.
Also, you must not view yourself as just a student or trainee but rather as a professional with valuable skills & expertise. See Reframing, above, for tips on this.
While many believe they must appeal to concrete examples and data points that speak to their fit for a position, they often leave out the clear role "feeling" plays in most human interactions and decisions. Human beings are very good at rationalizing a decision based on "gut feeling" after the fact and the hiring process is not immune to this rationalization process. So, it is critical to ensure you are also making a reader of your application materials feel something.
If you have successfully used your network to have your application materials elevated to the point that a human being is reviewing them (i.e., a referral), remember that a human being is influenced by more than just metrics and data. Why we often think of ourselves as logical beings, our emotions and "gut feelings" play a larger part in shaping our choices and behavior than we consciously realize. In terms of crafting your application materials, remember that a potential employer wants to hire someone who is qualified for the role (i.e., has made a good argument) but also someone who conveys interest and passion for the position and work it will entail. Going even further, people want to hire people they want to work with as colleagues. So, show a bit of humanity in your materials.
For example, it is sometimes worth using a few sentences in the cover letter to speak to why the role you are applying to is right for you as a human being. You might add details related to how the role fits with your personality or passion for working in a particular area...things that can't often be conveyed in a resume. This is certainly a personal decision but also mentioning you have family in the area or, after speaking with employees at the company/institution, really value the emphasis they place on work/life balance can demonstrate that the choice you are making is about more than just the job. It also emphasizes your priorities and shows you are thinking about the long-term prospects associated with working there. Remember a potential employer is also trying to surmise whether you will take the job if offered. So, be sure you convey why you are interested in the position professionally and personally.
When it comes time for a job interview, you will need to be sure you have a compelling career story to share and are ready to use narratives around your experiences to respond to the behavior-based interview questions that are certain to be asked.
You have heard these behavior-based interview questions before:
- Tell me about a time you encountered a set-back or failure and how you worked to overcome it.
- Give me an example of a time you faced a conflict while working on a team. How did you handle that?
- Tell me about a time you were dissatisfied in your work. What could have been done to make it better?
- Describe a decision you made that wasn't popular, and explain how you handled implementing it.
The critical piece of advice I want to offer here and one that you should remember if nothing else from this piece: Be the author of your own story.
By this I mean make sure you are speaking to key talking points you want to convey whenever you are interacting with someone professionally as part of your job search. Don't let behavior-based interview questions hem you in. Rather, be sure you have 5-7 great stories to tell that emphasize key aspects of your personality, work ethic, or expertise that you want to ensure a potential employer hears about. Then, it is your job to weave these stories into your response to an interviewer's questions. The goal is to leave a job interview with the sense you expressed what you can offer to the best of your ability and have few regrets that you missed a key talking point.
None of this is easy and practice makes perfect. While mock interviews can certainly help, nothing beats the real thing. As such, consider taking any interview you are offered, even if you aren't sure of the career fit. Getting experience telling your story is never a bad thing and you never know when talking with someone, even an interviewer, could lead to unexpected opportunities down the road.
See the two Resources at the end of this post on tips for navigating a job interview, including a Story Circle activity that can help you frame your talking points in response to questions you might encounter during an interview.
There has been much mentioned in this piece and my previous post about the need to start early, network, and have conversations with professionals (informational interviews) well before you are on the job market to effectively uncover opportunities. I acknowledge that this advice might not be feasible with your current timetable, though.
I completely understand many of us need a position NOW and cannot lay the networking groundwork referenced above to land our immediate next job. Certainly you may need to take the best position available to you right now. This doesn't mean the tips shared above can't be used once you have a job.
Maybe you want to explore how you advance at your new company? Maybe you are interested in learning about other roles at the company? Maybe after working in your new role for a few months you realize it isn't right for you.
In all these cases, you can use informational interviews and networking to learn more about your employer, coworkers, or other careers available to you. It is never a bad thing to work to expand your network and continue to learn about options available to you in your career.
As a graduate student or postdoc, many of us have seen how an academic career path is quite linear and regimented:
Ph.D. student -> postdoc -> Assistant Professor -> Associate Professor -> Full Professor
Most careers aren't that way, though, and most professionals don't stay with one employer or in one job family for their full career.
Thus, you need to be continually accessing your skills, interests, and values and how your current career fits with them. By continuing to have conversations and working to convey your current and future value effectively, you will keep yourself open to opportunities and be agile enough to take advantage of them. All this is crucial in a rapidly changing world where we can't even begin to imagine what career opportunities will exist in the near future.
Finally, remember that no one will care about your career more than you. So empower yourself to take charge of your story and talk to people to discover what possibilities await for you out there.
You can do it!
A Ph.D. is Not Enough: A Guide to Survival In Science
If Your Really Want a Job, Show You Have These 6 Qualities
How to Tell a Concise, Compelling Career Story in an Interview
How to Write a Personal Value Proposition
Interview Question: "Tell Me About Yourself"
Storytelling: The Secret Weapon To Wow A Hiring Manager
Contains excellent advice and tips to assist you in telling your stories during a job interview
Mirror Neurons: Why Good Stories Provoke Empathy and Connection
Go with Your Gut: Emotion and Evaluation in Job Interviews
Emotions in the Hiring Procedure: How ‘Gut Feelings’ Rationalize Personnel Selection Decisions
Emotion and Decision Making (from Annual Review of Psychology)
Informational & Job Interview Overview & Resources
Story Circle Activity Worksheet - a framework for crafting stories around your experiences and skills to use to convey your expertise and value during an interview (credit careercontessa.com)