Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Tooling Up: Words With Punch

Credit: Kelly Krause, AAAS

Call me a bit of an oddball, but my hobby isn't collecting stamps, coins, or fine wines. Instead, I collect good phrases and powerful, well-chosen words. I've always been attracted to language, and I've spent my entire career seeking to understand the impact of words in the context of the job search.

It has always amazed me how much advantage a scientist gains from the ability to speak positively and succinctly about his accomplishments. It's amazing how much more buy-in a job applicant can get from a potential employer when she knows exactly how to summarize her fit with the company and the position at the end of an interview.

Words make a huge difference.

Words make a huge difference. And although I've never subscribed to the philosophy that you should be primed with prepared answers to interview questions, such as those espoused in books with titles like 100 Snappy Answers to Tough Interview Questions, there are a few areas of career development where word-craft should be an essential part of your preparation.

In this month's Tooling Up column, I'll share some examples of what I mean. While I don't want to put exact words in your mouth, I do want to encourage you to absorb the flavor of my examples and to develop the concept into an approach that works for you.

Cold call networking

Talking to strangers can be uncomfortable. Here's a typical networking approach, by telephone: "Good morning, Dr. Smith,* I'm Susan Finnegan, and I'm calling from the Zang laboratory at State University. We work on the blah-blah receptor, and I know this is of interest to ABC Biotech. Does your company have any Ph.D. openings that I could apply for?"

This approach is not going to get Susan very far, in part because she played the "are there any openings" card too early. Remember: Networking is an information-gathering process, not a direct job-searching technique.

Here is an approach that's much better for Susan:

"Dr. Smith, this is Susan Finnegan calling from the Zang laboratory over at State University. Do you have time for a question? Great, thank you. I'll be brief. I'm working on the blah-blah receptor, which I understand ABC Biotech is also interested in. I'll be targeting a job in industry not too far down the road. The reason I'm calling is to ask you about the transition from academia to a company environment. I know you did this yourself a few years ago. I'm hoping to learn how others have experienced this move and what soft skills companies are looking for in their entry-level scientist applicants. Can you spend a few minutes now, or may I call you at another time?"

People don't mind talking about themselves when they are asked politely. Many people enjoy it. In place of the tacky "are you hiring?" approach, Susan sets the stage for a conversation about Dr. Smith's opinions and previous experiences. She lets on that it's an employment-related inquiry -- nothing is hidden -- but it's primarily an information-gathering call, at least until an intrigued Dr. Smith suggests, "Why don't you send me a CV and I'll have a look." Susan has let Dr. Smith take the initiative, and that's important.

Interview day

What's the No. 1 question on interview day? Actually, it's not even a question -- it's a request: the infamous "Tell me about yourself." Here's one response, low-powered but typical:

"I'm with the Zang laboratory over at State University. At the Zang laboratory, we're working with the blah-blah receptor, and we've previously shown that blah blah may be tied closely to a cascade of issues that lead to neurodegenerative diseases. We have an article accepted by Cell that elaborates the nature of this link and paves the way for further exploration of this relationship."

While something like this may be perfectly adequate for a conversation among academic scientists with similar interests, it doesn't satisfy the request, which was to tell me about "YOUrself." Here it is again, improved by pumping up the "I" and losing some of the "we:"

"As you know, I'm with the Zang laboratory over at State University, where Professor Zang has spent 15 years studying the blah-blah receptor. My role in the lab has been to function both as lab manager and as Zang's collaborator on four papers produced in the past 2 years, one of them a just-accepted Cell paper on which I shared first author status with a colleague. In our lab, I'm considered the go-to person for anything that might require an informatics approach."

For more information on dealing with "tell me about yourself" -- including the longer versions that are sometimes required -- see my earlier column on this topic.

There's an irony here that's worth pointing out. In the academic world, it's all about you and your work -- yet, it's traditional to say "we" instead of "I." In the world of the job search -- especially in industry -- it's often the "I" that interviewers are looking for. Of course, because teamwork is valued in companies, you don't want to throw out every "we." Give your colleagues credit, even as you make it clear what you yourself have done. Oh, and always relate your responses to the needs of the company and the person you are talking to. Telling them about yourself means describing yourself, professionally, in a way that relates your abilities to them and the company's needs.

The "thank you” letter

Employers tell me that only about 35% to 40% of job applicants write in to say "thank you" after the big day. To me, that's a no-brainer. But the problem with most thank you notes is that they don't take advantage of this compact, easily read format. Why not drop in another reminder of the value that you bring to the company? Here's an example of what I mean.

First, a perfectly adequate thank you note:

Dear Dr. Smith:

I just want to thank you for the time you spent with me yesterday. It was a pleasure to meet you in person and to discuss the position and my fit with your colleagues. I'm looking forward to hearing more, and I assure you that I am interested in furthering the discussion. I think I can bring a lot to ABC Biotech! Thanks again. Susan.

And here's a more powerful version:

Dear Dr. Smith:

Thank you so much for the time you spent with me yesterday. It was a pleasure to meet you in person and discuss this position and my fit with you and your colleagues. As I thought later about our meeting, I realized that what I've been doing in the Zang laboratory has a great deal of relevance to the needs at ABC Biotech. For example, my experience here with programming and machine learning systems could prove valuable to the synthetic biology effort, especially in the interface with your database developers. I look forward to discussing this with you soon. Thanks again. Susan.

Crafting the right message

Good preparation for the job search should include developing an effective CV as well as cover letters. It should also include developing some powerful language that you can deploy to describe yourself when asked. You'll need those words when you are in your search's approach stage, at the beginning of the networking and informational interview process.

But your word choices will stand out most during the closing stage of your search, when you are one of four applicants who earned an on-site interview. You'll be remembered by the words you leave behind and by your ability to craft a message that stands out and tells this organization exactly what you bring to the table.

Good luck!

* Names are fictitious.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers