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Tooling Up: Urban Legends of the Job Search

You know what urban legends are, right? They are stories or beliefs that get repeated across the years, amplified until people have heard them so often that they think they just have to be true. But they're not true--they are legends. Well, the job search process has these as well. Here are a few of my favorites.

My job search is entirely via the Internet. Employers all have active applicant-sourcing Web sites, and this is their preferred way to receive CV's.

While it is true that employers far prefer electronic submittals to paper CV's, if you rely exclusively on the 'net for your job search, it will tank. Here's the trap: It feels like you are really accomplishing something by filling out online job applications, with very little risk. But you are just scattering seeds, few of which are likely to grow. While there is the possibility that someone will look at that package you've attached and call you for an interview, a great deal of your time is wasted. It's busy work: not the sort of productive effort that is likely to get you an interview.

Of course, you should continue to search for and fill out online job applications for positions that fit you well. Just remember to take some of that computer time and invest it in making contact with people who can help you.

I don't think there are as many openings as there appear to be on job sites and in the back of journals. I've heard that there are a lot of companies who have people in mind when they run an ad, and for legal reasons they have to post the position.

This comment comes up often in career workshops, and while there is a nugget of truth behind it, it's only a nugget. My guess is that about 5% of the advertised jobs you see are already "filled" by preferred candidates when the ad runs. And that number may be high.

The nugget of truth is that there are some legal reasons why a company would run an ad even when they have a candidate in mind. If the candidate isn't a citizen or green card holder, companies must run an ad to make certain there is truly a reason to support that applicant's immigration process. The sum total of these situations is a fraction of the advertised jobs. Don't ever think that ads you see are not "real;" you will only be hurting yourself.

I understand that you should try and dress like the staff at the firm you interview with. So, when I go to visit a small biotech company in California that is very casual, it makes sense to be in the same kind of attire.

There's something about a job interview that reminds me of the hazing process fraternities and sororities use on new recruits. Dressing up and going through the stress of an interview is something that everyone has to do to get their tickets punched. Your prospective colleagues expect a candidate to be dressed nicely when interviewing. Wear khaki's and those employees will wonder, "What's up with this guy? When I interviewed, I had to wear a jacket and tie!"

Seriously, there is no excuse for not dressing up a notch or two above the company norm. Failing to dress well could be one of the bigger--and more easily avoided--mistakes you make in your job search.

During an interview, I take as many notes as possible in my various one-on-one meetings. I believe it will be valuable to have these notes later, and besides -- it sends off a positive signal that I care about what I am hearing.

While jotting a few notes may be acceptable, you are taking a risk if you concentrate on note taking instead of the interview itself. For one thing, you can't take notes while maintaining eye contact, and eye contact is crucial for interviewers to feel comfortable about you. You are judged by a number of non-verbal elements in an interview, and your ability to communicate with your eyes is one of them. Poor eye contact can result in subconscious decisions about you; the interviewer may decide she can't trust you, or conclude that you are low on energy and enthusiasm.

Here's a short digression: Notes or no notes, maintaining eye contact can be difficult for those who were raised in cultures that have different views on eye contact than we do in Western society and especially in the USA. In some Asian or South Asian countries it is actually perceived as rude and inappropriate for an applicant to make eye contact with his or her superior. This makes the interview an especially difficult environment for some Science's Next Wave readers.

While I will need a standard CV for any academic positions I pursue, I must develop a one or two page resume for industry jobs.

There is no bigger urban legend than this one. Submit a one or two page resume to some hiring managers, and you can count on it hitting the circular file within seconds.

While chemists are often OK with this one-to-two-page resume advice, the bulk of life sciences graduates need to show a professional CV tailored to fit the job category and company they are applying to. For most technical positions, this means that for a young scientist a 3-4 page CV is more likely to be the norm than a shortened resume (and we all know how long they can get for those senior investigators).

For some examples, and an actual walk-through of the transition from academic to industry CV, see the excellent Web site maintained by the Graduate Career Center at the University of California San Francisco Resume and CV Samples at UCSF.

In order to succeed in an industry job search, you need to have done an industry postdoc.

Hiring managers in industry all seem to have done a postdoc, and they generally admit it was a valuable part of their training experience. Therefore, they look for a postdoc in the people they hire. However, managers don't scan for industry postdocs exclusively, and if anything, they are more critical of those. Instead, they look for a well-known lab and at the productivity of the candidate during the postdoc. Whether it was in industry or not usually isn't an issue, and even if it is, an industry postdoc might work against you.

The reason some hiring managers are more critical of industry postdocs is that a number of smaller biotech companies consider positions at the postdoc level to be "cheap pairs of hands" jobs and not independent research positions. A postdoc like that won't help you in your job search. Doing a good industry postdoc, however, can help you develop a great rolodex of industry contacts and have a sense of what it is like to work in a company, which can indeed be a plus, for most hiring managers, if you sell it well.

Because I am interested more in a business position than research, I intend to pursue an MBA when I complete my PhD. I understand that PhD/MBA's are very much in demand in biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.

Yes, PhD/MBA's are in demand. Many VP's in areas such as Business Development or Marketing have these dual degrees. Yet, many PhD/MBA's struggle in the job market when they get out of school, and there is a reason why.

Companies value industry experience. When you graduate with a major degree like a PhD behind you, it generally isn't the time to go back into school for yet more years of schooling and another degree. You need to get some company experience first; then, after some years on the job, the value of an MBA becomes much greater. The job market values PhD/MBA dual degrees and experience. The PhD/MBA without experience is just another new graduate looking for a job.

While I know the job talk is an important part of interview day, if l deliver it in much the same way that I would at a scientific conference, my work will sell itself.

That's a shortcut to a short interview day--and a long job search. When delivering a job talk in industry, you need to remember why you are there and focus on the expectations of the audience. They want to hear about the quality of your science and the reasoning you've applied to problem solving; if you look around you'll see engineers, perhaps an HR person or two, and a few scientists from outside your area of expertise.

At a scientific conference, you'd be presenting to a group of people who, like you, have highly specialized training in your field and are especially interested in a topic. I am not suggesting that you dumb down your talk; rather, I think you need to speak to the mix of attendees. Broaden your discussion and then drill down into the specifics when you see that the audience is with you. Save the most technical parts for the Q&A. And remember that they're asking themselves some non-technical questions about your performance. Can this person be convincing? Is there evidence of solid critical thinking skills in this work and presentation? What exactly can this person do for us?

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