Hans-Peter Gauster/Creative Commons

To answer the million-dollar job search question, you need all of the pieces

It’s the single biggest concern looming behind the success of your job search, the million-dollar question. “Why should I hire you?” lies behind every decision potential employers make, first about your CV and then about you as a person. But you’ll rarely hear it asked aloud. And, when I talk to applicants leaving academia and exploring their options in the outside world, I find it’s rarely on their minds—to their detriment.

Clearly, you need to develop the technical skills that will make you a good hire. But that’s a given. Beyond that, there’s a whole other world of skills—some call them “soft” skills—that you need to consider in order to craft a compelling answer to those all-important five words.

Know what you’ve got

Many soft skills are important to the job search and career success, but for now, we’ll focus on three main categories: verbal communication, writing, and negotiation. Verbal communication includes one-on-one conversations, oral presentations, listening skills, and persuasion abilities. Writing is its own category because it’s so important, and even scientists who communicate well in person can struggle when it comes to creating powerful documents that lead to action. Finally, negotiation is about much more than just job offers; it’s about being able to get a mutually agreed-upon result out of a difficult situation.

Even though these soft skills (and others) are so important for your future career, it’s likely that they’re not on your adviser’s radar—at least not in terms of how they make you a desirable candidate for a nonacademic career. That’s because many professors believe their job is to train you for an independent life in research, not to explicitly guide you into a job as teachers in a trade school do. As one professor described it to me years ago, “My job is to provide the underpinnings of an area of technical expertise and, most importantly, to provide young scientists with the critical thinking skills that they will need later in their scientific life.” Moreover, many institutions do a woefully poor job of providing information and support to help students develop their soft skills.

In some cases, professors or labmates who are strong in specific soft skill areas can act as mentors. But, for the most part, it’s up to you to make sure that you’re developing your skills in these areas—as early in your training as possible. These specific suggestions can help you get started. 

Communication skills. To improve your one-on-one communication skills, you could look into participating in your local postdoctoral or grad student association, or be on the social committee for a national conference. Extend yourself! For presentations, making your point technically is one thing; carrying an audience along to a different way of thinking is a skill to be developed as early as possible. To start down that road, treat every single opportunity to talk to a group as a valuable experience. Don’t throw a few slides together without thinking of the key points you’d like to make and how you’d like to express them. I find it valuable (and sometimes refreshing) to do a presentation in front of a whiteboard first, without slides at all. It teaches me very quickly which slides are necessary and what I can do without. (Several of my best presentations originated as talking points in a free-flowing whiteboard session.) You can also pursue more formal communication training through groups such as Toastmasters International or excellent (but sometimes expensive) courses from companies such as Dale Carnegie Training.

Writing skills. Collaborations with other scientists are a great way to develop your writing skills—but you have to pay attention. When your colleagues and adviser work on something you’ve written, make sure that the changes are tracked. Then, study their specific edits and consider how they improve the document. When reading others’ writing, think about what works well and how you could implement it in your own writing. Also, your university’s career development office—even those focused on undergraduates—will likely offer general writing classes, and grant writing classes are often available as well.

Negotiation skills. Students and postdocs almost always neglect this category. But with some attention and practice, you can avoid falling into the trap of discovering too late that you really need to know more about the dance that takes place around a negotiation. It’s not just about negotiating job offers. Have you ever worked with labmates and your adviser when there’s a disagreement about who deserves first-author status on a publication, for instance? You can use such difficult daily situations to your advantage and learn about negotiation by working to bring about positive outcomes. For more formal training, I frequently see negotiation training offered at scientific congresses, at some universities as formal classwork, and in short-form seminars conducted by outside training organizations.

These are just starting points. The lesson is to get out there and intentionally develop the skills that will make it easy for you to answer that million-dollar question.

Highlight your value

Developing valuable soft skills is undeniably a crucial first step toward providing a convincing answer to our question of the month. But the next step is, well, actually answering the question—even when it’s not being asked explicitly, which is most of the time.

The cover letter is a great place to start. But the cover letter’s job is really to generate interest in the enclosed CV. A reader looking over your CV is in essence asking you, “Why should I hire you?” You have to hit them over the head with the answer—this is not a time to be subtle.

I’m always surprised when some job seekers get totally confused as I request a “fine-tuned” CV for a particular job description. They often come back wondering what I mean. To some of them, it almost seems unethical to change their CV to suit a job. That’s not the case! This is where it pays to be flexible. You have a long list of skills and knowledge areas, correct? Well, just like a good cook, you must toss and scramble those ingredients one way for one job while highlighting completely different ingredients in another application.

Moreover, too many young scientists consider themselves to be laundry lists of skills, forgetting that it’s what they can do with those skills that makes them worth hiring. That’s why it’s important to develop a powerful and succinct summary statement to put at the top of your CV. It’s worth spending the time to get it right—and to customize it for each job you apply for. More than anywhere else, it’s in these three or four sentences that you’ll provide an impressive, persuasive answer to the question, “Why should I hire you?”

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