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The Master List of "Don'ts"

(Kelly Krause, AAAS)

It's true that I'm a realist, but I'm known for my positivity. Most of my Tooling Up columns focus on must-do items that combine to make a successful job search. I rarely if ever write "Do not do this."

However, I see people making the same mistakes over and over, in the networking process, on job-interview day, and in that critical period after a successful interview—and it is starting to drive me crazy. These are "rookie" errors, but more senior prospects make them, too, like the prospect for a director of research position who doesn't remember the best way to answer a salary expectations question, or the vice president-level business developer who walks away from an interview thinking he's done with the process.

This month I've decided to abandon my customary positivity and share the best of the "don'ts" from my ongoing dos and don'ts list, which I've been updating for years.

This month I've decided to abandon my customary positivity and share the best of the "don'ts" from my ongoing dos and don'ts list, which I've been updating for years. "I was inspired to take this darker path by an excellent book, This is How to Get Your Next Job (Amacom, 2013) by Andrea Kay. I've always enjoyed her newspaper column in USA Today, and Kay makes some excellent points in her book, which uses far more of the "don't do this" approach than I usually do.

Before the interview

We've had many articles on Science Careers over the years about the preinterview part of your search. Here are some of the biggest and most damaging of the don'ts for this stage.

  • Don't approach people in industry with an academic CV, or tell them that your goal is to get a tenure-track position but that you'd be "open to something else." When going after an industry position, go after it with all you've got. Burn the boats.
  • When networking, don't ask too soon about openings in their company or lab. Keep the focus on learning how to conduct the search. Find out how she managed her search; how he landed his job. Your goal is to gather information and make a good impression. It's a research project.
  • Don't write "Dear Sir or Madam" on your cover letter. Get a name, even if it is the name of the human resources (HR) supervisor, and use it in the salutation.
  • Don't send out a generic cover letter. Every cover letter should be carefully written to demonstrate your suitability to the position on offer.
  • Don't go to a meeting or scientific congress without business cards and a plan for networking at social events and poster sessions. Make a game with your job-seeking colleagues to see who can get the most business cards from people who could help your job search. Share them. Then, invite those contacts from the business cards to join your LinkedIn network.
  • For industry jobs, don't restrict yourself to filling in an application form on their Web site, or otherwise playing by the rules. Rule-breakers are appreciated in industry, so do whatever you have to (within reason) to get your CV into the right hands.
  • Don't let typos, misspellings, or missing information make you look sloppy. Review even spellchecked application materials at least a couple of times.

During the interview

  • Don't present a shiny interviewing persona. Be yourself—the best you that you can manage, but yourself nonetheless. Sure, it's good to practice, and it's fine to prepare responses for certain obvious questions, but do not come across as an annoying automaton.
  • Don't act clueless and unprepared. I thank Kay for a line that summarizes the problem that so many have in the interview: They didn't do their homework!
  • Don't use the academic "we" when an "I" is much more powerful. Even your language needs to change for industry—but the issue is not just the choice of pronouns. Your interviewer wants to know what you did, not what your team did. "I" is the glue that holds your part of the day together.
  • If you can't feel and project genuine interest for the position, you should never have applied. Don't play it cool, and don't miss any opportunities to demonstrate enthusiasm. Don't go in without a list of good questions. And don't let your eyes stray too far from the person you are talking to; eye contact is a clue that demonstrates engagement.
  • Don't just tell what you can do; tell what you did. Don't talk about skills, techniques, and experiences that you can't back up with real-world examples. Assume that everything you bring to the table will be explored further with detailed questions.
  • Don't say negative things about previous employers, bosses, or colleagues. If you had a bad relationship with your adviser, find a polite and astute way of describing it. (One of the best ways of handling such situations is to have one of your references defuse it.)
  • Don't jump the gun on the salary discussion; let them come to it naturally. Don't ask about perks, insurance, vacation, or anything that doesn't have to do with the job and your role. They'll get around to those topics if they're interested.
  • Your current compensation is not a secret and should be shared freely. But when asked "What are your expectations on salary?" don't answer with a number.
  • Don't use clichés and trite language. "I'm a people person," "I'm computer literate," "I can think outside the box," or "I'm a quick study," translate into, "I'm not an intelligent individual with original thoughts."
  • Don't give a job talk without rehearsing it first several times and reviewing it for length and freedom from nonwords such as "umm," "ya know," "like," and so on. Even a talk you've delivered several times should be reviewed to fit the circumstances, and you should be comfortable enough to deliver it without sounding like a teenager.
  • Don't get caught in the trap of thinking every opportunity is a do-or-die situation. These are tough times, and one interview can be important, but you can't afford to put all your eggs in that basket. Thinking that way will harm your performance in the interview and close your mind to new ideas that can get you to your next interview.

After the interview

  • Don't disappear from sight. A polite thank-you note is an essential next step. A follow-up call to the person who invited you, or to your HR contact, is a good idea once the timeline identified by them goes by: If they said "we'll contact you in a week or two," make that call at 15 days. Always be polite and professional, even if you get bad news.
  • Don't be a pest. If your enquiries don't yield an answer, resist the impulse to call every week. Relax and focus on something else for a while.

It has been a long, bad spell in the science job market, and times remain tough. But don't despair; things are looking up, at least a little. If you can avoid making these rookie mistakes, you'll be in the top 10 to 20% of those who interview, making your chances for an offer much stronger.

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