• October 31, 2014

Common Job-Hunting Blunders

I recently had the opportunity to review applicants for a job at my workplace, a think tank with a large number of Ph.D.'s on staff. As I read through dozens of résumés from graduate students, faculty members, and administrators, I was struck by the range of experience and skills demonstrated by the pool. Many of the academic candidates had strong credentials, well-crafted résumés, and compelling cover letters, but were simply not a good fit for a variety of idiosyncratic reasons.

A large number of academic candidates with equally strong credentials, however, took themselves out of the running by failing to follow basic job-hunting conventions.

While an advanced degree was almost a prerequisite for the position we were filling, I also needed someone who could work well outside of academe. My workplace and colleagues are extremely Ph.D.-friendly, but the pace is hectic and the work is largely collaborative.

I was willing to believe that someone who had never worked outside academe could do the job well, but I would need to see proof that he or she had good judgment, strong communication skills, and the ability to work as part of a team. The application process became a litmus test for determining whether candidates could navigate the world outside of academe. If they couldn't figure out how to write a résumé, I reasoned, they were not likely to be a good fit in my workplace.

As a Ph.D. myself, I have a better understanding of, and appreciation for, academic ways than the average employer, but even I found it difficult to imagine hiring one of the many applicants who submitted a CV that was seven or more pages long, rather than the requested résumé.

Some people seemed to be entirely oblivious to business etiquette: Several candidates revealed more personal information than was appropriate in their cover letters, including one who announced that he had decided to start looking for jobs outside of academe because he could not afford to buy a condo on an adjunct's wages. Another candidate sent me weekly e-mail messages written entirely in capital letters. Several applicants (none of them academics) wrote their cover letters in the third person ("Mr. Brown has five years of experience in strategic marketing" and "Relocation is not an issue for Mr. Brown."), which I found downright creepy.

I had many telephone interviews with academics that went well and were followed by prompt, gracious thank-you notes, but I also had a handful of frustrating telephone encounters with Ph.D.'s.

Several of them called repeatedly to ask whether their e-mailed applications had been received, and one or two tried to persuade me to interview them right then and there since they already had me on the phone. Those calls invariably came when I was under deadline pressure or in the middle of a meeting and did not do the callers any good. I certainly admire the moxie of those who tried that approach, but I would advise future job hunters against it.

Granted, the codes of conduct for both academic and nonacademic job searches can be arbitrary, but following the most basic conventions reassures a prospective employer that a candidate understands the unwritten rules of the prevailing culture. Since many graduate students and faculty members are unfamiliar with the protocol of job hunting outside academe, I've assembled a list of dos and don'ts focused on the etiquette of answering job ads.

Do not send a CV when an employer requests a résumé. Do not refer to your résumé as a CV. Turning a CV into a résumé is a painful but inescapable process for anyone who wants to work in a nonacademic job. Seek advice from your university career center and from people already working outside academe to make sure that your résumé is not a thinly disguised CV. Keep your résumé to two pages at most. Do not attach letters of reference, writing samples, or other supporting material unless the ad requests such documents.

Do create different versions of your résumé for different kinds of jobs. Your résumé should read as an argument for why you are right for this particular job. If a job requires strong writing skills, for example, you'll want to highlight your writing experience and leave out less relevant information. Try creating a master résumé listing every possible way of describing your experience and then mercilessly delete items one by one to create a teaching-focused version, a research-focused version, a management-focused, and so on.

Do not call or e-mail to ask if the employer has received your application. Even if an employer had time to respond to such queries, talking to a candidate that the employer has no intention of interviewing would be awkward and possibly misleading.

Do feel free to send a hard copy of your résumé. Send it by overnight mail as well as by e-mail. Delivery confirmation through an express-mail service is the best way to ensure that your application materials were received. In addition, an employer is unlikely to throw away an express-mail envelope unopened, thus giving your résumé a second chance to be seen.

Do not send a generic cover letter. One-size-fits-all cover letters that speak broadly about skills that everyone claims to have (multitasking, analytical ability, teamwork) and could be applied to any job are a waste of an opportunity. Don't just say you have those skills, use your background experience to prove it. Conversely, do not be excessively personal in your letter: Employers do not need to hear about your frustration with the academic job market.

Do address the particulars of the ad in your cover letter. Instead of saying that you have "many of the skills requested in the ad," repeat the qualities mentioned and supply specific examples from your experience. For instance, you might say, "Your ad requested project-management experience: I have three years of experience in developing quarterly special reports from conception to final publication on the topic of children's health."

The most important advice I can offer about job hunting outside of academe is that you focus on how your experience is relevant to the employer's needs. Be as specific and concise as possible. That approach is a dramatic change from the perspective of the academic job seeker, who must produce a lifelong teaching philosophy and a research plan that will define at least his or her next seven years. But since the academic job search is (ideally) focused on filling a tenure-track position, it makes sense that a hiring committee would consider those long-term questions.

Ultimately, it's a question of emphasis: Companies still care about whether you have long-term potential. And academic-hiring committees are still interested in finding someone who fills their immediate needs. The balance is simply different, and therefore the job-hunting process is different. Taking time to show that you understand the small differences between academe and the outside world can go far in showing that you understand the big differences as well.

Karen Bock is the pseudonym of a Ph.D. in the social sciences employed at a thinktank in Washington.

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