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The Dating Game: Why Job-Hunting and Finding a Mate Are Really the Same Thing

It's Friday night. You're alone. Again! Instead of spending the night out on a date, you are home, surfing the Web, and wondering how on Earth you will ever be able to find that perfect someone to share your life with. It's not that you're hideous to look at; you are just having difficulty meeting the right kind of people. What should you do? Suddenly an idea strikes you: "Maybe I should hire a matchmaker, or join a dating service, or place a personal ad?"

I know what you're thinking: "Oh, I would NEVER do anything like that!" After all, you know that if you want to meet people the best thing to do is go out and ... well, meet people! But many people find that too hard, either because they are busy, or because they are shy, or because they simply don't know how to find interesting people outside of their workplace.

The same challenges, and choices, exist for people who are trying to find a new job. In fact, job hunting is more like dating than it is like, say, applying to grad school. And, just like dating, finding a great job is mostly about getting out there and meeting people.

Why Do Scientists Have Trouble Seeking Jobs?

Scientists, as we know all too well, tend to have difficulties with both dating and job hunting! With respect to job hunting, I think the reasons are obvious.

First, we are trained in highly technical, narrow fields. It is hard to match those skills with jobs in other areas.

Second, we have been trained in an environment in which most selection processes are highly organized and regulated. Consider your application to grad school. Your information was tabulated and compared to a host of other applicants. The department ranked the results. In a very orderly and analytical way, the selection process was made. We have come to expect that all selection processes will be run in a similar, meritocratic manner.

Finally, many of us are ... well, shy. Science might suit us well because it is a career in which accomplishments, and not personality, are of highest importance. Many careers in the outside world require strong social skills, and we can feel uncomfortable in unfamiliar terrain.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker, Find Me a Job!

Like the world of dating, the world of job hunting is populated by a number of people who make a business out of helping others. However, before you go off and sign up with them, you should think about the analogy to dating.

Analogy #1: Headhunter = Matchmaker?

As most of you have learned from Dave Jensen's columns, a headhunter is a person who is hired by companies to find good people. Most headhunters are employed not by the job seeker but by the company, and many specialize in finding senior managers and leaders. (Most headhunters make a commission based on the salary of the people they place, so more senior people = higher salary.)

Many young scientists ask me if using a headhunter would be a good strategy. I find that it depends greatly on one's background and the position being sought. If you are in a hot field with great potential for work in industry, a headhunter may end up finding you! But if you are looking to make a major career move or are in a field where the job market is not so hot, it may be hard to find a headhunter who is interested.

Analogy #2: Employment Service = Dating Service?

Employment services are firms that help job seekers find placements. Their services are usually paid for by the job seeker or, in some cases, by a company that is downsizing and wants to help its outcasts find employment elsewhere. Like dating services, employment agencies help clients determine what sort of job they might be attracted to. They provide a range of self-help and advice resources on everything from improving interview skills to writing résumés and cover letters.

There is a range of employment services that are available to young scientists. One of the best is probably the career center on your university campus. They are generally well staffed and have a range of resources including databases of alumni whom you can contact and network with. Best of all, these centers are paid for by your institution and are free to you!

Analogy #3: Résumé Banks = Personal Ads?

Most people who have never used them think that personal ads are ridiculous. After all, how can someone expect to meet the right kind of person when they are asked to distill their personality and life history into three lines and a series of acronyms? People who have done the personal ad thing may tell you the same thing! Résumé banks are really no different. Instead of three lines in a personal ad, you have a single page to summarize your qualifications, experience, and potential. And, like the personal ads, you have NO IDEA who may be reading your stuff.

I generally advise job seekers to stay away from résumé banks and online résumé databases. For one, they do not have a very good track record of success. It is not at all clear which companies use these résumé databases and why. Many are simply trawling for people with key skills such as IT or programming. If you want an entry-level job in those areas, have all the right skills, and don't care with whom or where you work, then a résumé database might be a suitable tool for you. But, as I have advocated in this column since the beginning, matching skills is only PART of the process; other factors such as lifestyle, location, values, and environment are far more important in finding a satisfying career.

In the case of personal ads, you only have to go out on one date to see if the person is a possibility. But, as they say, you have to kiss a lot of toads before you find a prince. You can't do the same with jobs. Although a résumé bank may hook you up with a potential employer, you still have to go through some careful research to find out if the opportunity and the organization is right for you. Rather than kissing toads, it is better to go out and hunt down a prince from the start.

Networking Is the Key to Getting a Job (Or Even a Date)

Just like dating, the key to finding a great job and a great career is meeting people. Although some of the services I have described above may be helpful for some people in particular circumstances, for the majority of young scientists there is no substitute for networking, informational interviewing, and simply getting out there to meet people.

So, rather than spending your time online trolling through job banks or submitting your résumé to résumé databases, find out where the professionals are in the field that interests you and go there. Maybe there's a conference in the field or industry that you are curious about. Or maybe there's a professional society. You're more likely to learn more and make more contacts this way than by any remote service you can find.

And who knows, maybe that cute investment banker you just had the informational interview with is single ...

Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

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