Job search strategies: It's not about you

Anticipating what potential employers want is an essential part of a successful job search.

By Alaina G. Levine

Fact: The universe does not revolve around you, and neither does your job search.

Shocking! But it's true. As much as you want to believe that your job search is about you and you alone, it is a misconception, similar to the notion that dinosaurs and humans hunted together.

So if the job search is not about you, the job seeker, then whom is it for?

Your job search is about me: the decision maker, the hiring manager, the professional whose very specific choices can immediately impact and advance your career.

More important, your job search is about what you can do for me: How can you solve my problems? How can you add value to my team and organization? How can you make my life easier? And finally, how can you make me look good in front of my boss?

Most job seekers don't realize that fundamental principle and therefore don't incorporate it into their job searches and career plans. Most people erroneously presume that looking for a job is like drilling for oil—you focus on what you can extract from the other party.

But that presumption cannot be further from the truth. In fact, if you can recognize—and then put into practice—that your job search is about the decision maker, you will find that your vocational planning strategies and tactics will be more effective for both you and the other party. You will get job interviews, which may lead to job offers.

That thought-process adjustment is critical, especially given the state of the economy: Anything that can give you a competitive advantage and help you secure long-term partnerships with connections is a good thing. And since we know that networking is about solidifying mutually beneficial relationships over time, adopting this attitude will benefit you both immediately and in the future. So how do you put the concept into practice?

First, do some research

As you start your job search, conduct extensive research on the organizations you want to work for. If they are academic institutions or government labs or agencies, learn as much as you can about their research concentrations, funding sources, and leadership. For private businesses and nonprofit organizations, find out about their products and services, the market in which they operate, and their management teams. For any organization, you should also look at its competition, market drivers, financial state, and overall mission and goals.

To ascertain that vital information, you can consult the following sources associated with a particular organization or department:

  • Its website, which should include research or product foci, team members (such as faculty and postdocs in academia), current news and awards, and other essential material.
  • Publications, such as research magazines and press releases.
  • Annual reports, many of which are available online.
  • Public news, to find out what is being said about the organization.
  • Social media sites, such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.

In addition, you can gain information about a targeted organization by looking at the conferences it sends representatives to as speakers, vendors, or attendees. Check out conference websites to see what is being presented and which team members are participating.

If you get the chance to have an informational interview or informal conversation with individuals associated with the organization, ask them about their work, what drives them, what their priorities are now and in the future, and what skills they value. Most important, find out what problems they have that need to be solved.

As you gain more insight into the organization, you will start to see parallels between your own experience, expertise, and skills and the organization's requirements. And once you do, you can start articulating those parallels in your elevator pitch and other communications you have with the organization's representatives.

But do not start a cover letter or a cold email with the following message:

I am excited to join your organization because I am looking for a new challenge.

A letter with such an opening would get thrown to the bottom of the slush pile, or worse, it would never get read at all. Do you know how many emails faculty members receive from graduate students who ask to work as a postdoc in their lab but who make little or no reference to the professor, department, or university? Teratons! And can you guess how many elicit an answer? Hint: It's hovering around a picopound.

So if this tactic doesn't work, there must be another way to help the other party to want to learn more about you. The answer is you talk about me. You take all that research you have done and you tell me directly what you can do for me:

I am excited about the chance to work with your organization [or department or research group] because I am confident my skills and experience will allow me to immediately further your mission. For example, I recently finished a project where I used X and Y to accomplish Z. And as I know your organization is very focused on Z and Z + 1 right now, I would easily be able to add value to advance your opportunities [or research] in this arena.

Just by stating something about the organization in your communications, rather than writing only about yourself, you are setting the stage for a prolific connection, which can lead to an interview. And by going the extra mile in telling me specifically what you can do for me, you are giving me a reason to respond to and engage you to learn more.

No matter what job you seek or what career path you take, you will always be a problem solver. And the most effective way to advance is to figure out what my problems are and tell me exactly how you will solve them.

Alaina G. Levine is a science and engineering writer, career consultant, and professional speaker and comedian. Her new book on networking strategies for scientists and engineers will be published by Wiley in 2014. She can be reached through her website or on Twitter at @AlainaGLevine.

The AAPT Career Center is the ideal niche employment site for science teaching jobs.

AAPT Career Center and Job Board