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Style Over Substance?

I was recently asked a question about biochemical engineering careers in the biotechnology industry, to which I responded with a post on a public forum. After thoroughly considering the matter and checking my facts with a couple of high-powered engineer friends who work in the business, I presented a positive picture of both the current market as well as future prospects.

And wouldn't you know it, I was blown out of the water.

It seems that the relatively solid job market for Ph.D. biochemical engineers doesn't operate the same way for everyone. The fellow who slammed my advice reminded me, in a not-too-subtle manner, that the job market treats everyone a little differently. This Ph.D. had all the prerequisites that make for a highly desirable job candidate. His academic qualifications were excellent, he had experience in an in-demand "niche," and he was located in a major biotechnology center. What, then, he asked, could possibly be wrong when he can't get past first base with any of the employers he's been talking to?

In an online forum, you can't counsel a person openly on interpersonal issues, so I told him to brush up on those interviewing skills. He probably felt that my response was vague and unsatisfactory. In reality, although it was obvious he had the necessary raw material, I wondered if he knew how to package it to attract an employer. Here's the kicker: People have to feel good about you in order to offer you a job--which makes my task of giving advice about this really difficult. How do you tell someone what to do in order to be liked?

I've identified two types of style or soft-skill areas that are involved in the hiring process: those that are spoken about openly and those that are more hidden.

The first thing that a recruiter does after landing a new project is to go to all the players involved and work up a list of job specs and interpersonal qualities for the ideal candidate. These interpersonal qualities are style issues that are often written into the job description.

But there are some style issues that aren't so public, and if you're not aware of them, they can cost you a job offer. The ugly part of it is that you never get real feedback on these; instead, you are left with the impression that you "weren't an ideal fit," or that "a more suitable candidate was identified."

Public Style Issues

There are three soft-skill areas that are frequently written about on Next Wave and other career sites. Because they are found in job descriptions, they are issues that you should be ready to address during the interview:

  • Team Player: When combined with the very similar qualification of "good people skills," this one makes the all-time number one slot of most-requested attributes. Many new grads and postdocs have found that there is a perception in industry that academia doesn't foster a team spirit. As a result, companies constantly screen candidates to ensure that they not only can do the job but will fit in with and inspire others.

  • Excellent Communicator: This sometimes appears to be an obligatory toss-in because it appears on so many job descriptions. It is actually a prime ingredient for every job in industry. Even bench scientists must write or speak well in order to keep the company updated on their projects and to solicit internal support for the department.

  • Leadership Potential: It's easy to determine through the interview process if you communicate well, but it is a difficult job to forecast your leadership ability. Every offer is made with the understanding that the employer is hiring you for six jobs: the one you will be doing at the beginning and the five jobs you'll be asked to do as you continue to advance in the firm. Hence, if you don't look like a person who can lead, you may not get the chance even to work at the bench.

Unspoken Style Issues

There are also a number of much more subtle issues related to style. These are rarely if ever brought up in a recruiter's initial discussions with the client. Instead, we learn about these after the interview when the client describes why a job offer is or is not being extended to an applicant:

  • Proper Attire: This is a hotly contested topic on which recruiters vary widely in their recommendations. One school of thought says that that you should always wear a business suit to an interview, period. The other line of thought is that this is overkill and can actually be a negative. Personally, I believe that you must find out in advance what the workday attire is and then dress one step up from that. So, if jeans and T-shirts are the norm, you'd be wearing a nice blouse, skirt, and blazer. Or, if the company norm is "business casual," you'd be in a jacket and tie.

  • A Sense of Urgency: Things move quickly in industry. Once again, you are battling the perception that academia doesn't foster this style. Interviewers will be trying to assess how this style factor has affected your career development through a variety of questions geared at understanding your decision-making processes.

  • Positive Attitude and Eager Interest: It never ceases to amaze me that companies can pass over the perfect candidate in order to hire someone with fewer job skills but more enthusiasm and interest in the company. I know that I'll be accused of promoting "Pollyanna thinking," but it is true that a positive attitude combined with a smile can go a long way.

  • Eye Contact: This is one of the single most important style issues, because many interviewers will determine your "likability" from your eyes. Lose eye contact consistently, and you will be seen as an untrustworthy or uninterested applicant.

  • Ability to Self-Promote: Companies expect that you will be prepared to sell your skills and abilities during an interview. Good self-promotion is not the slippery sort exhibited on used-car lots; instead, it is being comfortable with talking about who you are and what you do well.

  • Proactive or Reactive: Do you have a career plan in place that you are following? Or, have key career decisions that you've made been knee-jerk reactions to other events in your life? When companies ask you about such issues, it is because they are trying to determine if you have been proactive or reactive in the past. They want to hire people who have a plan.

  • Professional Follow-up: The way that you respond after an interview says a great deal about your style. Have you followed the meeting with a brief thank-you to your hosts? (This is expected today, and yet only one-half of job applicants remember it). Additionally, when checking back with an employer after an interview, never push it to the irritation stage. One professional contact in a mutually agreed time frame is all that is required.

Is It Only Interviewing Chameleons Who Get Hired?

When I talk about style issues in workshops, some scientists react quite negatively. This is understandable; it is because they have been taught that doing good science is all that is required to land a job. To these scientists, it doesn't make sense that companies would choose to hire less-qualified people because of a preferred "style."

Don't misinterpret my comments to mean that employers in industry are willing to take any kind of schlock science as long as they have a person with some charisma. No--these ideas about the softer side of the job hunt don't counterbalance poor core skills in your field of interest. Employers are universally tough in this regard. However, when competing with a lot of good scientists, wouldn't you rather draw them in with your personal style and land the offer?

As in many aspects of the job search, your success will depend a great deal upon your flexibility and your ability to change your interviewing approach to reflect the whole you--and not just your hard science skills.

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