Tooling Up, tie
Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Small Mistakes With Big Consequences

When I give workshops, I often start my talk with a description of what it is that I hope to share with my audience. But my value as a speaker isn't in discussing my own experiences--I have never been a bench scientist or a biotechnology executive. Instead, what I speak about in my workshops (and write about in Next Wave) is what I call "OPE"-- other people's experiences. I get my OPE from many years of interviews.

OPE has taught me a great deal, much of which I have shared in this column. In fact, I've always found that if you listen well, ask the right questions, and remove a lot of the editorial opinion that people include when relating their experiences, you can extract 90% of the value of the lesson yourself. That's why I like to include stories in my articles--real experiences and the enlightenment that come out of them. (Of course, the names and places are always changed to protect the innocent!)

It is by reading about other people's successes and failures that you can develop a game plan for the continued management of your career. So, in this month's column, I'd like to use OPE to relate three small job-search mistakes that can have very big consequences.

Mistake 1: Talking up Your Science and not Their Needs

Geri had been pursuing her project for 6 years and had been sufficiently lucky (and persistent) to get three decent publications out of it. We join her as she prepares to present this work to a company that has expressed interest in her talents--enough interest to bring more than a dozen of their scientists into the meeting room that day.

Geri gave the same fluid presentation that she had delivered on several occasions at previous scientific congresses. But as she finished her presentation and opened the floor for Q&A, she was shocked to find that many of the questions had nothing to do with the specifics of her thesis work. Instead, they focused on her critical thinking process and on her collaborations with others throughout the research. One scientist even asked her if she could describe how her work might fit into the company's major development program.

Three weeks later, Geri resigned herself to the fact that she wasn't going to be hearing back from that employer. Her last meeting, the most important one of the day, was with the hiring manager. He made a comment before she left that she kept remembering: "Geri, I think you've developed some interesting skills, but I'd recommend that you think about how these might fit into our company."

Going through graduate school and into a postdoc, you necessarily focus on a narrower and narrower niche area of science. That's a "good news, bad news" situation. It's good news to have your own niche because most companies choose to hire folks with some highly developed skill in one or two areas. However, anyone entering the job market with finely honed technical skills must remember that they need to relate those skills to the job at hand.

The bad news is that after all this focus on your area of science you might tend to ramble on about the genetics of an unusual small fish, inadvertently paying scant attention to the companies needs. What you should do is explain how your knowledge in this area might benefit the company by addressing their research and development priorities!

Mistake 2: Counting on Letters of Reference

John had prepared a package for his job search that included his CV, a cover letter, and three letters of reference that he could use when employers desired to know more about him. He'd worked with these referees for 4 years now, and he was certain that they would write good letters. His advisor had even offered to e-mail John the file so that he could change the addressee whenever he needed to. To be sure, there had been some occasional difficulties with Dr. Chen, but those were sporadic, and besides--the fellow had written a first-rate letter for the first employer who had requested it. John felt quite confident that Chen's letter would work well on his behalf.

When 3 months and two further requests for references had gone by without a call for an interview, John began to worry. He asked his referees whether they had heard further from any of the prospective employers and--to his surprise--all of them had had phone contact without mentioning it to him. He immediately got on the phone with the hiring manager of the company he was most interested in. Dr. Sylvia Porter made it clear right from the beginning that they weren't going forward: "John, we're not concerned about your science--it's clear you are a terrific scientist. But this job will shortly require leadership responsibility, and it seems that this is just not your strong suit."

He was dazed. John's only responsibility for leading others had been in Chen's chemistry group. Might Chen have said something different in his phone conversation with this woman than he wrote in his reference letter?

We've all seen those ads that state: "Send CV and three letters of reference." These are often the norm in the ivory tower. Many scientists who are applying for positions in industry will assume that this is what companies are after as well, and their applications include letters that are trotted out to impress hiring managers.

But did you know that corporate employers do not believe or trust letters of reference? That's because so many of the letters that come in are questionable at best. These letters, which say things like "Susan was a continual influence on all those around her," or "I am happy to state that Ralph is a former colleague," are dubbed "L.I.A.R. Letters" (Letters of Inconspicuously Ambiguous Reference).

As a result, most employers prefer to initiate direct contact with referees, getting the information they need by phone. So, are you certain that the contacts you pass along are truly your best references? My advice is that if you need to pick between an "iffy" senior level referee versus a solid junior colleague, then you should go with the junior colleague without hesitation.

Tips for That Salary Discussion

  • Current salary information is expected and needs to be a part of the employer's knowledge bank before they extend you an offer. Don't hide it or phony it up.

  • The question "What is your expected salary?" can be turned around by asking the employer what their salary range is for the position--or, what people with similar levels of experience and education earn at the firm. If this fails, ask the hiring manager if he or she can "provide any guidance as to the compensation level that would seem to be appropriate throughout the industry for this sort of position."

  • If you are being put in a squeeze to provide a number, take the figure you want and wrap a range around it that includes about $2K below it and $5K above it. For a $60K goal, use an answer like "Somewhere in the range of $58-$65,000 would seem to me to be competitive." To do this convincingly, you first will need to have done your homework. Do you really know what people are paid in this company or others like it?

Mistake 3: Speaking the First Number

Raj took the call, despite the fact that he had just come in from a softball game and badly needed a shower to clear his mind. He wasn't really focused on his job search, but his roommate had jammed the phone into his hand while simultaneously announcing that it was "that guy from the biotech firm" on the line. Could this be the call he had been waiting for since his interview last week?

Forgetting his option to call Dr. Ramescu back in a few minutes, Raj launched into the conversation. It turned out that he had done well in his interview ... so well that Dr. Ramescu indicated he would "like to start the offer discussion." Fantastic! Raj was elated as he sat down with a pad of paper and a pencil. But suddenly, the hiring manager threw it all back in his lap. He asked, "What are your salary expectations?" And at that moment, Raj responded with a comment that he knew was a mistake the moment it left his mouth.

"I think I'd be happy with anything in the 50's," he replied.

Everyone knows that negotiating job offers isn't easy. Sure, sometimes the process flows along nicely--an offer that is fair and doesn't require any discussion shows up in the mail. But at other times, the negotiation process may begin with a probing conversation with the hiring manager. Suddenly you may find yourself talking about your earnings and desired compensation level, inadvertently forgetting rule number one in the job offer negotiation game: He who speaks the first number loses.

While it is entirely appropriate to answer questions about your current level of salary (humiliating as it may be, if you are a postdoc ...), this old adage proves very true when asked about your expected level of earnings.

In Conclusion

OPE is all around us in the airwaves, just waiting for someone with good antennae to pick it up. So, talk to those who have already been out there in the job market. But don't ask them only about their successes; find out about their bumps and bruises as well.

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