I’m sure you’ve heard the expression used to describe people who can work a room: They have “the gift of gab.” The people we describe that way seem to have been born with the ability to converse. They move comfortably through crowds at social events, going from conversation to conversation with what appears to be the greatest of ease.
Luckily for most of us, that kind of outgoing nature is not necessary for job search success. Yes, communication is crucial. But unlike the innate gift of gab, you can develop the career communication skills you need. With attention, practice, and some self-awareness, you’ll be in good shape to make your communication skills work for you at various steps throughout your job search and career development path.
Reach out and listen
Industry careers are so different from academia that I think of that world as being in a parallel universe. Sure, it looks much the same. There’s the lab bench, and people are doing science. But, just as in those science fiction movies, all the rules have subtle but important differences. And it’s important to learn as much as possible about this new universe of jobs before trying to become a part of it. Doing so requires that you talk to people—and, even more importantly, that you listen.
Most conversations are 50-50. If you and I sit down to talk sports over a beer, we’re going to each spend about half the time talking up our own team. But when you open up a conversation with someone on the far side of a parallel universe, you’re in the listening zone. This isn’t the time for some kind of sales pitch about how great you are—or questions about whether there are openings at their company. Instead, focus on the fact that you want to learn what their world is all about: how companies grow, how and why they hire, what your contact’s job is like, and how she or he managed to land it in the first place. The most helpful kind of information can be found via a serious sit-down, typically referred to as an informational interview.
Being a good listener doesn’t mean that you don’t talk about yourself at all. You still want to communicate that you would be a good potential hire or network contact. But the latest thinking is that the frequently referenced “elevator pitch” is too one-sided and doesn’t offer enough space for conversation to develop. (We should probably take that word “pitch” and erase it from our job search lexicon, leaving it completely to vendors and insurance salespeople.) Today, you might instead add to the conversation by interjecting short nuggets of rehearsed language about your key skills and abilities, as well as other personal information.
I can’t tell you which of your strengths you should highlight in this way, but the Challenge-Approach-Results exercise is a good way to remind yourself of what they are and how they’ve worked to your advantage. This easy process will remind you how important it is to talk about your skills and accomplishments in succinct language to emphasize the value that you offer.
Make yourself a candidate
When people talk about the job search, “applicant” and “candidate” are often thrown around interchangeably. But there’s a difference. In hiring manager parlance, an employer can have hundreds of applicants for a job, but there are probably only a handful of them who are actually candidates. And one of the ways to elevate yourself from applicant to candidate status is—you guessed it—communication.
Applicants are often treated as if they are a dime a dozen. They come in swarms off the internet via online job applications. A job is posted on Thursday afternoon and—wham!—300 applicants by Monday morning. Sadly, employers can mistreat applicants because there are so many of them. Job ads can list 10 requirements—which may not actually be crucial for performing the role—in an attempt to thin the herd. Or, applicants can be required to fill out stupid questions on an online application. (“What is your expected salary here at ABC Biotech?”) But with candidates—that short list of people who are actually a good fit for the role and will move forward in the interview process—companies make an effort to ensure that they don’t lose even one of them along the way.
A few applicants may turn into candidates. But the best way to set yourself up as a candidate instead of an applicant is by getting an internal referral. To the human resources executive tasked with sorting through the pool of job seekers, it’s a relief to have some that come pre-approved, ready to be interviewed by a hiring manager.
Wouldn’t you rather be positioned as a candidate, as opposed to being a part of the swarm? If that’s the case, get out there and talk to people at the companies you’re interested in. Even if you’re not in job search mode yet, starting this process will help you begin to see which industry jobs might be a good fit for you so that you can build your network and, when the time is right, target jobs.
Two big opportunities on interview day
If you’ve made it to interview day, first of all, congratulations! You’re a bona fide candidate. But that doesn’t mean that communication ceases to be important—quite the contrary. How you present yourself during your interview is a crucial part of how employers decide whether you’ll move on to the next round or get the offer. It’s important throughout the day, which is usually filled with meetings featuring back-and-forth exchanges aimed at uncovering the fit between the company and the prospect (you). But there are two moments that are particularly important: your first impression and when you close each of those meetings with your last impression.
The job talk is often put at the front end of the day, so you will be making a first impression on a lot of people all at once. In the front of their minds, your audience at the job talk will be reviewing the science you present—but they wouldn’t have invited anyone into an interview who doesn’t do good science. Sure, you need to present well and be prepared for tough technical questions. But much of the first impression will depend on factors other than your science. Keys to a good first impression include the sound of your voice, your confidence, and the demeanor you project—which will ideally convey the warmth and friendliness of a potentially great teammate.
So, think about all aspects of the message you are sending. Did you separate the “we”s from the “I”s when you talked about your work? (“In the Smith lab, we do trait integration into legumes. In this particular experiment, I identified the marker for drought resistance in pigeon pea and then began a marker-assisted breeding program for that trait.”) Did you reinforce the “I’m a problem solver” nature of your experience? Employing these types of tactics is not bragging; it’s completely ethical self-promotion. You should do so sparingly, but at critical moments.
Finally, the last impression you make as you walk out the door of each office is important too. The things that will make you memorable will be your smile, your eye contact, the positive and engaging way you kept the conversation going, and other aspects of your meeting that have nothing whatsoever to do with CRISPR-Cas9 or the size of your bioreactors.