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Your resume is a precious thing, and regular readers of Tooling Up are probably well aware of my admonitions against posting it on online resume boards, mailing it in bulk to prospective employers, and spamming strangers with it. Instead, Dave Jensen and I have in our previous columns stressed that you need to be proactive in your job search and that you should retain control of your resume. The best jobs, we have argued, are like wild game. You must stalk your next job like a big game hunter--position yourself carefully, take aim, and then fire. Of course, in this case you're not firing a bullet but a resume.

In the last month, however, my convictions received a jolt. I've heard from several young scientists who were using resume boards to find their next job ... and three of them wrote to report their success! (Nothing annoys an advice columnist more than folk who deliberately do what you tell them won't work--and end up getting what they want anyway.)

So, was I wrong? Are resume boards the wave of the future? Is "job hunting" outdated? Or were their successes a fluke? Like any good scientist, I could not rest until I investigated further.

Resume Boards: How to Fish for a Job

Even if you have never heard of Monster.com or HotJobs.com, you are probably aware of one or more resume posting services, resume databases, or "resume boards." These are sites that invite people to post their resume and allow employers to troll through the database of all the resumes they have on file. There are zillions of these resume boards; some run for profit, some run as part of a larger Web site, and others run by professional and scientific societies. The best have a sophisticated database that allows you to post multiple resumes, alerts you to jobs that match your qualifications, and tells you when someone is "nibbling" at your bait.

It is easy to see the attraction of this service for a job seeker. It's a painless way of finding a job. Like fishing, you bait your hook, cast your line into the water, put your feet up, and doze until your rod and reel feel the strike of a fish!

But Is It a Keeper?

Like fishing, however, it's hard to say what you're going to pull out of the water. Maybe it's a gleaming 14-pound bass. Maybe it's an old shoe. If you're fishing for fish, it's not difficult to tell the difference. ... You can always throw the shoe back in the water and cast your line again.

But if you're fishing for a job, evaluating whether or not you have landed a "keeper" is not so straightforward. You may be given an opportunity to interview, and you may even receive an offer. But is it really the right place for you? How do you know if their offer is a good one? How can you tell whether the job has the potential for advancement or is a dead end?

Most of these questions require careful research and informational interviewing for answers. However, once an offer is on the table, it can be really tempting to accept it--particularly if you have no other competing offers. After all, what hungry person would want to toss back a perfectly good fish?

Another problem with job fishing is that you're likely to catch a job only if you're using the right "bait," that is to say, if your skills are in high demand. These days, the job market is absolutely white-hot in a few areas, like opto-electronics and genomics. Other areas, including perhaps your area of specialization, may not be so hot. When you're fishing for fish and you fail to catch anything, you can always change your bait. When you fish for a job, you have only one lure ... your own skills and experience. It turned out that the three people who told me of their success using a resume board to find their jobs were all physicists with years of lasers experience, and they all found jobs in the opto-electronics industry!

The final problem with job fishing is that, like regular fishing, you're most likely to catch the fish that are most abundant. In the case of job fishing, that would be the often rather drab "entry-level job." Entry-level jobs are appropriate for people who are just starting out, and with the right company or organization, an entry-level job might begin a wonderful career. But for people with a few years of experience, the entry-level job may be a step down. Plus, employers filling entry-level jobs tend to be hiring for skills alone; often technical skills. They care less about your ability to communicate thoughts and ideas, your leadership experience, and your multifaceted background: They just need an engineer, and they need one NOW!

Nothing Substitutes for Thorough Research

So, are resume boards a waste of time? For those of you in "hot" technical areas, a resume board may land you several interviews and job offers. But without carrying out additional research, networking, informational interviewing, and deliberate investigation, you could end up making a major career decision with very little background information. At the very least, you will probably end up accepting a smaller compensation package than you might have received. And, for those of you who are not in hot fields, a resume board will most likely lead only to disappointment.

Serendipity Does Strike ... But Not Very Often!

There is always the possibility that you may stumble upon a great job opportunity when you least expect it. It is important to keep your eyes and ears open to opportunities around you. However, this is less about posting your resume to a Web site than it is about maintaining a healthy and active professional network.

Landing the best jobs--opportunities in great companies or in organizations with fabulous colleagues and great leadership--like snagging the best fish, takes hard work and patience. You can't just drop your lure in the water and hope that one of these beasts will take the bait. You have to put on your scuba gear, get out your spear gun, and go to where the rare fish live.

Happy hunting!

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at phds.org) on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.