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Applying the 80-20 rule to your job search

You may not know it by name, but I’m sure you’ve heard of the Pareto principle. It’s that turn-of-the-century formula by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who famously wrote that 20% of your effort will produce 80% of your results—or, more accurately, that there is a great imbalance between inputs and outputs and between causes and results. It’s remarkable that 120 years later it still explains so much.

Take a look at how retail stores operate: 20% of their goods produce 80% of their profits, and 20% of the sales year produces 80% of their revenue. Car insurance companies will tell you that 20% of their insured drivers cause 80% of accidents. In your home, 20% of the carpet gets 80% of the wear, and in your automobile, only 20% of the energy gets transferred to the wheels (combustion chews up the other 80%). When I come into work in the morning, 20% of my actions are going to result in the bulk of my paycheck. And I’ll bet that 20% of your papers produce 80% of your citations!

Don’t you wish that you could simply be happy with that 80% output and work just 1 day out of 5? The problem with that logic is that we can’t recognize which 20% of our actions are the ones that will lead to the big payoffs. But for you, as a scientist seeking an opportunity to move into a new phase of your career, perhaps there are some ways to use this 80-20 principle to your advantage in the job search.

Prioritizing your job search activities

A job search requires a variety of different activities, including researching, applying, and networking. Figuring out how to prioritize them can be a challenge. But in light of the permanence of the Pareto principle, it’s clear that the best approach is to focus on the high points from each category. In other words, don’t throw all your efforts into the networking column, even though that’s often a productive use of your time. And neither should you put all of your effort into responding to job advertisements. Instead, recognize that the job search requires that you engage in a range of activities, and that the returns on your activities will vary. Even though you won’t be able to discern the difference between low-return and high-return actions immediately, it will come to you with experience. As you begin to realize what your “big reward” activities look and feel like, you can then fine-tune how you prioritize your job-search tasks.

Here are the five categories of activities that fill out anyone’s time spent job searching, along with my tips on how to maximize the 20% of action that results in 80% of your success.

Researching employers on the Internet

This is an important category, especially early in the job search, but it can also be a giant time sink. Researching employers makes you feel like you are accomplishing something, but in reality it is often just wasting time. One way to avoid this trap is to determine what your geographical restrictions are early in your search (remembering that people with flexibility end up in a better position for job offers). Then, focus only on the employers in those regions. Do you want to remain in the Pacific Northwest? Then why are you looking at pharmaceutical companies back in New Jersey?

Applying to job ads that fit your background

The average scientific job seeker looks at any and all job advertisements that fit their disciplinary background and then sends off applications on a wing and a prayer, with only a fraction of the required skills (and thus only a tiny chance of success). That’s definitely in the time-taker-upper category. Don’t bother! Trimming back dramatically and applying only to jobs that are a good fit for your interests and experience will free up time to go after other high-productivity items.

On the other hand, job ads where you fit 60-70% of the listed parameters or more do fall into your Pareto list. After you’ve focused on the employers only in the regions you’d consider, find those job ads in which you have a true fit. Don’t be concerned about job ad statements like “2 years of industry experience required.” If you have the skills, send the application. That’s the kind of 20% that will make up 80% of your success.

Building out your network via online platforms

The big online networking tool is LinkedIn, where any effort spent building your profile will be time well invested. Even though LinkedIn doesn’t count as real networking, enlarging your database there is important because the size of your contact pool opens doors for you. More people will find you—and you’ll find more contacts—if you have a larger LinkedIn database. So it’s Pareto time for sure when you invest in connecting on the platform with everyone you meet and work with.

But even a tool as useful as LinkedIn can be a time sink sometimes. Wasted time on LinkedIn includes using the auto-connect feature, where you click one button and an invite is sent without an opportunity to customize the wording. Don’t let anyone receive a connection request with LinkedIn’s suggested verbiage! That’s seen as tacky by 50% of your probable connections.

As for other online networking platforms, I’m not so sure that Facebook and the like are going to earn you a lot of opportunities, so avoid the highly “social” of your social media sites. But ResearchGate is important, so ensure you’ve added a photo and your contact information. I’m constantly frustrated by seeing an interesting scientist on ResearchGate and then having to do an additional search to find them.

Making personal, face-to-face connections

It’s hard to imagine how any face-to-face contact with another person could be a time waster. I’m really at odds trying to help you prioritize here, because each and every person you talk to will add value. Is he a year or two ahead of you? Great! Ask him how he transitioned into his present job. Is she an industry manager with 20 year of experience? Fine. Impress her with a few questions about her organization’s research, how she defines success at her company, what the culture is like there, and so on.

But when it comes to searching for people to meet, there’s a fair amount of time wasted looking at people who are too senior to reach. It’s great to meet and talk to a vice president of research, but that’s a rare opportunity. In the time it takes to pull that off, you could have spoken to six researchers on the scientist ladder and three supervisors with open positions. Use 20% of your time to identify networking contacts who are reachable.

Conducting exploratory interviews

As your job search progresses, the goal is to meet and talk to as many people as possible. But at some point, you’ll start recognizing those in your developing network who seem friendly and open to helping you. That’s where you move to the informational interview. Find that person who is just a few years ahead of you and invite her to a Starbucks at the next meeting you’re both attending. There’s no way you can lose. Sure, you’ll spend $10 on overpriced coffee, but the advice you pick up about that person’s career track will be worth far more. Each and every informational interview has a value that falls, I’m sure, into the 20% that gets you 80% of the way.

Using these tips to help you prioritize the elements of your job search will be a good start, but it’s also important to recognize that, within each specific activity, there will be a further 80-20 breakdown. If you make 10 networking contacts, for instance, that’s great—but only two or three of those are going to be long-term winners moving you closer to your goal. You can’t escape Dr. Pareto, no matter what you do. All you can do is be aware of the principle and do your best to prioritize high-impact activities over those that are likely to waste your time.

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