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Tooling Up: The Slightly Irreverent, Shake 'Em Up Job Search

It doesn't matter if you're a fifth-year postdoc or a laid-off industry scientist; getting stuck professionally is a common experience. In last month's "Tooling Up column," I described some good people who found themselves in this frustrating situation without a plan.

So what should the plan be? You could just stand by the wall and hope someone asks you to dance. Or you could actually do something--bend the rules, push the limits, break the protocol--and go out and find yourself a partner. The key thing is to try stuff, be active, get out of your chair, stir things up, and make things happen. This new, aggressive way of thinking should help you break out of "stuck" mode and move into a far better place. Anyway, you're already stuck. It can't hurt.

Responding to job advertisements

The rules of the job search say that when an ad fits your qualifications, you submit a curriculum vitae (CV) and a cover letter to the e-mail address, Web site, or snail-mail address in the ad. Almost always, your application ends up in the Human Resources office. This works well only if you have the perfect CV for the job. But it doesn't offer a lot of hope for those missing that "1-2 years industry experience" or a few of the required techniques. HR folks aren't qualified to appreciate the unique advantages you offer beyond the job description. Their job is to identify your shortcomings and make the pile of applications smaller.

So what should you do? First, send that CV to the HR department. If you don't do exactly what they ask you to do, they'll think you can't follow simple directions. Worse, your application may never make it into the system; they can't offer you a job they don't realize you applied for. And don't be scared off by a seeming lack of a fit; if you've got more than 60% to 70% of the qualifications and you really want the job, it's worth a shot.

Do not send them a stock version of your CV. Make sure the responsibilities shown in the job ad are visible in the description of your work on the first page. As mentioned in last month's "Stuck" column, employers look for people who are currently doing the job they want done. If they're looking for a Ph.D. biochemist to do protein purification in a Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) environment, you'd better show plenty of recent protein-purification skills up front. The GMP experience they're seeking may not be there, but most managers are willing to forgive that missing piece if they like you. If your application gets culled by an HR person because you don't have 3 days of GMP training, the people who matter most will never get to know you. Somehow, you've got to let your natural self shine through.

What a critical comment this is! Hiring managers usually choose someone they like over an equally qualified person they don't like as much. So you need to track them down and let them know you exist. (We're assuming here that you're a nice person with a professional demeanor--someone managers and colleagues will enjoy working with. If you're not, that's something you need to fix, and a topic for a different column.)

Doing the research

Let's say an ad from XYZ Biotech describes an open job you are capable of filling. Let's find out who the hiring manager is so that you can send her your CV and maybe have a phone conversation.

An aside: I've spent more than 2 decades doing this stuff, but I know some readers will hesitate to use methods that are, as my title says, irreverent. Yes, you'll be breaking the rules, but that's exactly the point. My attitude is that if you are stuck, you should do anything you can to get unstuck as long as it's not illegal, unethical, or obviously foolish. (Some people, regrettably, add "uncomfortable" to that list, but they should ask themselves which matters more: a few minutes' discomfort or getting hired for a job they really want?)

"We are so outnumbered, ... we must attack."

- Sir Andrew Cunningham.

Some advice on getting the information you need:

- Do you know anyone who works for this company? A grad-school mate? A friend of a friend of a friend? Call and ask them to identify the hiring manager.

- Only two groups in the company are taught not to give out information like this to callers: receptionists/operators and the Human Resources team. Names of people in other departments, such as Business Development or Media Relations, are likely to be posted on the organization's Web site or available via a Google search. Sometimes a polite call to those departments asking who would be a good contact in protein purification will yield the answers you seek. Just say you're a scientist hoping to make some professional contacts; don't mention a job search because you'll be referred to HR faster than you can say "job line."

- Conduct a Google search, scan job ads, and search the company Web site for the name of the most senior person in the area they're hiring in, then call that person's assistant and ask for the name of the lower-level manager. You have a decent chance of getting the name this way, but the more like a job seeker you sound the worse your chances will be. I always say that I have something I'd like to send to that manager and I need the proper spelling of her name. She'll ask your name and organization; just give your name and institution, proudly and without hesitation.

- Try calling before 8:30 a.m. or after 5:30 p.m. to reach the senior person directly. Usually the assistant works regular hours.

- If you don't know a name when calling a company, make one up--"May I please speak to Dr. Mei Wong, your director of protein purification?" "I'm sorry, we don't have a Dr. Wong," the receptionist is likely to say. "You may want to speak to Dr. Susan Finnegan in that department. She is the manager of R&D."

- Alternatively, call and use any publicly available name, but get their title wrong. "May I speak to Dr. Jacob Smith [actually the VP], your manager of protein chemistry?" "Oh no, Dr. Smith is our VP. The manager of protein chemistry is Dr. Sonal Gupta."

Once you've found the right contact, or anything close, send your CV to that person. If you don't know or can't guess the e-mail address, use a Post Office "Priority Mail" envelope, which costs about $5. It makes a bigger impact than a CV folded into a little white envelope. Even if the person you've identified is a bit too senior, he or she often will make sure it gets to the hiring manager. You'll also want to include a cover letter, which is customized for this manager and not something you've sent to 10 other companies. Remember the law of "WIIFM" ("What's in it for me?")--that's what the hiring manager is thinking as she reviews your letter.

What if you find yourself talking to your future boss?

You may call to get the name of a hiring manager and find yourself on the phone with that person. If this happens, remember these things:

1) As I mentioned above, many senior managers just don't care all that much about HR protocol. They might be pleased to talk to you about the job and your background.

2) Some people will be impressed that you took the trouble to decode the organization's system. This, together with the fact that you are now a human voice, gives you an advantage. And if your boss resents the imposition? Well, you were stuck anyway, so you had to take some chances. And maybe, just maybe, a boss who cares so much about bureaucratic protocol isn't one you want to work for.

3) Make sure that you have a prepared answer to "Tell me about yourself" when you start making these calls, and that you're prepared to keep your response in the 1- to 2-minute range.

In future "Tooling Up" articles, I'll look at the other slightly irreverent ways of conducting a job search.

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