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The Old Ways Don't Work Today

Looking for a job? Then you may be doing what I did when I was leaving college. I remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday ...

It was Christmas break, and I thought that I would use the extra personal time to conduct my job search. I had just finished my studies that quarter, and although the degree wasn't in hand, it would be in the mail any day. And so it was time to start distributing my résumé and getting in touch with prospective employers.

The first thing I did was to take all of my experience and cram it into a two-page résumé. That's right, the trusty old two-pager. When I returned from the print shop, I had a stack of 300 of them ready to go, along with labels and envelopes. I managed to get my siblings in on the action around the TV for several nights, stuffing and labeling those envelopes on the family room floor. (Three hundred pieces of mail is a lot of effort, no matter how many teenage sisters you convince to help you.)

After the résumés were finally stamped and out of my hands, it was time to grab a cold drink and relax. Although I still had to do some interviewing and sorting through offers, my job search was essentially on its way. Now all I had to do was to sit back and wait for the phone to ring.


The phone didn't ring. The only ringing I heard was in my ears, after my father repeatedly warned me, "Get off that family room floor, and get out in the real world!"

As in many other areas of my life, Dad later proved to be right. My job search began on the sour note of sending out 300 résumés and getting only a few postcards in return.

In this column, I'd like you to take some of the lessons I learned and apply them to your own job search. As you can tell, my first lesson was that the "mail blitz campaign" doesn't work.

In fact, it is one of the most deceptively inviting wrong turns that you can make. If mailing a résumé or CV to one company is good, than why wouldn't mailing one to 300 or 400 be even better? Here's why: It is a nearly useless activity that disguises itself as important and fruitful work. Instead of using your time on more productive activities, you get lulled into thinking that you are doing something valuable--and then the natural reaction is to sit back and wait for the leads to roll in. And of course, they don't.

I like the quote that follows. Put this one on a sticky note on your computer monitor if you find yourself sending off too many blind letters to employers:

"You fought the good fight. You were in it right up to the beginning." (Bruce Babbitt, Secretary of the Interior)

Fight the Good Fight

As a scientist, being brought up in an academic environment means that you will have been exposed to a number of job-search "oldies" that don't fit with today's reality. You'll need to regularly examine the direction that you are taking with your search project by asking yourself, "Is my plan working?" Here are some additional areas that you will want to examine closely:

Your attitude during the job search--I sat around waiting for the phone to ring, figuring that it was up to the company to determine whether I was a fit. It was my (incorrect) belief that personal involvement could do nothing, and that it either worked or didn't, based on the résumé that I had sent. I didn't realize it at the time, but you have to develop the attitude that you are going into battle. When getting into job-search mode, you must believe that you are setting out on one of the most important missions of your life. You are! And it will take every bit of your personal involvement to move it from dead center.

Don't be affected by whining and moaning--Have you read the newsgroup ""? It will be the most discouraging thing you've done all week. Negativity about science careers exists in many quarters, perhaps even in your lab. Although I don't mean to diminish the problem that changes in society and in the job market have created for scientists, the future is too bright to allow yourself to fall for this trap. The jobs are out there--they just look a lot different from those that you may have been expecting to see when you started your graduate training. Be prepared for difficulties--with the exception of a couple of hot jobs that are always in flux, the job market will be tough, no matter what your discipline.

Are your marketing materials "golden oldies"?--The CV or résumé that you send out must fit today's expectations. In times past, you could simply mail a short statement of your degrees and positions along with a publication list. This doesn't work any longer. You'll need to do some subtle selling. Accomplishments need to be noted on the résumé, if not on the cover letter. A statement of your research interests is often vital. And the most vital information of all--contact information--is still missing on 15% to 20% of CVs. This includes your home address, home phone, and e-mail.

Are you focused and on target? --In that first job search of mine, I was applying to all kinds of jobs, using the same résumé. I remember having a variety of interests and being open for any of them. I didn't realize that nothing will happen when you are unfocused. You need to identify a job that you want and then bet everything you possibly can on securing that job. When you make calls to contacts, are you still saying that you are open for either a position in academia or one in industry? If you are calling a hiring manager about an open position in her molecular biology research team, why are you asking this person about her knowledge of openings in the business development group? Although it is entirely possible to have three different jobs you are targeting, you must manage them as separate projects.

Do you know how to network, or are you simply calling friends? --After my disastrous "résumé carpet bombing," I decided to be proactive and make some calls. I immediately gathered up the names and phone numbers of about a dozen people whom I had known and worked with. Those were easy contacts: "Hello, how are you doing, and do you have any open jobs?" And of course, it didn't take long to realize that this doesn't work well either. Networking ends up being a science, and unless you are willing to take on this difficult task and become a master of it, your job search will languish. Today's job seekers are networkers, by default.

How I Got My First Job

It wasn't until April of the following year that I got my first job, and it was one that totally fell in my lap. I had been interviewing all over the Cleveland, Ohio, area (my hometown) when one of the guys I met in the Human Resources lobby at a local company told me about a position he had declined. I wasn't so proud that I couldn't follow up on someone else's old job lead. It turned out to be a perfect match.

More than 300 résumés and 20 interviews later, I got my first job simply by keeping my ears open and following up on a lead. Now that is something that hasn't gone out of date!

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