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Tooling Up: A Job-Search Plan for the Person Without One (Part 2)

CREDIT: Brontosaurus/Cathy on

In the first of this series, published last month in the Tooling Up column, I described a logical process that can help you in your job search whether you are just getting started or considering your options after an unsuccessful first attempt. Although recessions are not the easiest time to be looking, there are indeed jobs out there. They go to the best-prepared, most competitive candidates. That means you have to do it right.

If you are targeting industry, note that the term "competitive" might not mean what you think it does. Industry hiring managers want to hire first-rate scientists for sure, but they have a list of must-haves that is different from the one a faculty hiring committee has. Their list doesn't necessarily require top-tier universities and a high-level pedigree with x number of publications.

There are jobs out there, and the bulk of them are not advertised. But they are not hiding behind every bush.

A busy manager has an open slot because she has a unique problem to solve. There's a vacant position on the analytical team for a mass spec expert, or the bioprocessing unit needs a cell biologist who knows something about cell-culture media development, because of a currently unaddressed need. These managers may have had many openings in the past but have only a few today -- and as the number of openings decline, the specificity of the need intensifies. To get the job, you must convince the hiring manager that you fulfill that need.

You can't go into a market like this with a "here I am" mentality. That approach will fall flat. Employers could care less about many of the things that can get an academic hiring committee excited. They want solutions to their problems.

Going after jobs one at a time

Consider yourself a hunter going after elusive prey. Even if you're hunting geese and they're abundant, flying in tight formation, it's a bad idea just to aim in the general direction of the flock. (And, yes, it is called a flock; it's a gaggle when it's grounded.) You absolutely must choose a particular goose to shoot at, or you'll go home with an empty game bag.

In a great job market, it's possible to do a little better -- fire off your curriculum vitae (CV) with such a shotgun approach and start reeling in interview opportunities, to mix outdoor-sportsmen metaphors. But a market like this one is like hunting geese when the birds aren't especially abundant. There's little chance of hitting a target you don't aim for.

Jobs today don't come in flocks -- or gaggles. You won't get very far sitting at your desk sending out a stack of CVs with "To Whom It May Concern" cover letters or filling in general application forms on two dozen Web sites. If you are a hunter for jobs, you need to have a high-powered rifle with a scope. A successful job hunt requires first finding the game -- identifying needs you can fill better than others -- then aggressively pursuing those targets one at a time, as a big-game hunter might do. There are jobs out there, and the bulk of them are not advertised. But they are not hiding behind every bush.

Take your networking to the next level

With that idea in mind, let's go back to the concepts from the first part of this article, in which I closed with some "Golden Rules" for networking. Networking is the best way of tracking big game. Your network will inform you about those gems -- great, unadvertised jobs -- awaiting your application. Or maybe it won't. It depends how good your network is.

As I have repeated often in Tooling Up, when you are networking, don't ask for a job, at least not at first. The point of networking is to set up an information pipeline. You'd like your networking contacts to know enough about you and your goals -- and to think well enough of you -- that when they see or hear about a job that fits, they tell you about it.

It's fine to ask an established contact, someone you've known for a while, if he knows about any openings you might apply for. If you're lucky, there'll be something he can steer you toward. And often there's an incentive. Apart from the desire to give back, or pay it forward, or whatever, there's something called a hiring bonus. Company employees can earn an extra $5000 to $10,000 a year or more by being the one who found you.

When you start hearing about jobs from your networking contacts -- evidence of big game lurking nearby -- you know you've been doing all the right things. But don't rush the shot. Avoid the temptation to immediately "fire off" a CV. You need to fine-tune it first and carefully consider the best way to respond in your cover letter. So it's time to figure out as much as possible about the particular problem the hiring manager needs to address. The more you know about what the target looks like, the more effectively you can aim.

Here are a few questions you can ask your contacts about that opening you've been pointed to:

1) What do you know about the opening that isn't stated in the job posting?

2) What's the hiring manager's timeline to fill the job?

3) Would you happen to know the hiring manager's name?

4) Knowing what you know about my background, what area of expertise do you think I should put up front in my cover letter and CV?

You may have more to offer than you think

The last question above is important because to a prospective employer, you may offer benefits other than the ones that your current academic CV advances. You have choices in how you present yourself. I haven't met a job candidate in years who didn't have two or three ways that they could structure their approach. You need to pick the approach that fits the opening best.

Here's an example: An environmental chemist may have studied binding of certain molecules to humic materials (soil chemistry). Along the way, that same chemist has developed a terrific expertise with certain analytical instrumentation. Emphasizing analytical expertise in the cover letter and the industry CV opens up a wide range of jobs that an emphasis on soil chemistry might have closed off. Target different jobs with a different emphasis.

An aside: One great way of being sure to hit the target is to have a point-blank shot. If your contact offers to present your CV to the manager or human resources department, take her up on that offer because sidestepping the big pile of incoming CVs will help you immensely. But if the offer isn't made, don't force it and risk alienating a good contact. Whatever approach your contact suggests, follow her advice.

Either way, you'll be sending the company something that is targeted to the job, customized to fit everything you've learned about the position -- and the problem it's intended to address -- whether it's from your inside sources or just from a careful reading of the advertisement. As I've written before in Tooling Up, you don't need to be a 100% match. You just need to make the best case you can for the 60% to 70% of your qualifications, experience, and passions that match up really well with the company's needs.

Broadening your search

Do I really expect everyone reading this series to strike pay dirt and find an unadvertised job at a top employer as the result of networking? No. But you have to cultivate every advantage, leave no stone unturned. I hope my readers will carefully nurture their networks even as they carefully perform those more traditional job-seeking tasks such as responding to journal and Internet ads. Even a top networker with leads coming in from people in several companies needs to keep scanning journal ads and applying for positions on Web sites.

To bring this two-part series to a close, I'd like to offer a list of suggestions for optimizing your responses to advertised jobs.

1) Never use a form letter as a cover to a CV job application. Your cover letter is always read, and it's a critical part of your application. Even if you don't have any inside information, your introductory letter should be tailored to the job at hand.

2) When reading an ad, separate out the absolute must-haves from the "toss-ins" almost always included by HR. Use your instincts and your analytical skills to figure out what matters most, what's likely to make or break your application, then make the best case for yourself. If you can't make a strong case, don't apply.

3) Avoid the temptation to put your application into a company's Web site without a specific job to reference. This will damage your ability to get an employee referral from someone at that company at a later date, because if you're already in the CV database, no one gets a bonus for recommending you. So only apply to those jobs for which you are a good-to-excellent fit.

4) Never respond to an advertised job with a link to your resume or CV on a Web site. No one is going to chase down your documents, even if it requires only one click. Enclose them as a Microsoft Word or a PDF file.