The debate around the table intensified. The recently interviewed candidate had a specific skill the research team wanted to add to their group, and a fantastic pedigree they thought would add to their credibility as they applied for future funding. However, half of the team lacked enthusiasm. They worried he didn't have the general knowledge necessary to work with the rest of the team for a common goal.
When an employer is looking to hire a new employee, debates such as this one arise often. What skills do they need in a candidate? How will the person fit in with the rest of the team? Read enough employment ads, and you'll observe that some are so basic that it's hard to know what skills they're looking for, whereas others are so detailed that you wonder if anyone could have all the skills and experience they're seeking. Sometimes, employers who write hyper-detailed ads have a particular person in mind, but are required by law to perform an open search. Many others are on fishing expeditions to see what type of applicants take the bait.
Regardless of the ad's level of detail, unless they have a particular person in mind when they start the search, employers usually don't have fixed ideas of what they are looking for in an applicant. Despite the popularity of training programs that presume to teach bosses how to hire perfect employees, I've yet to meet a hiring manager (with the previously mentioned exceptions) who knew what their ideal applicant would look like when they started the search. Whatever the ad says, the lab has decided that it needs a worker with certain basic skills, or, at a minimum, the ability to acquire those skills with ease. Other than that, they are looking for the "best" applicant. Whatever that means.
How can you use this bit of wisdom to your advantage? The successful candidate is the one who convinces the employer that they are the perfect fit for the available job. You have to market yourself--convince your future employer that you know precisely what he or she needs in a new employee: you. While I'm not an expert in the field of marketing, I do know that when you are on the job market it can be useful to view yourself as a commodity for sale. Why would the consumer--the employer--pick your product--you--over another item?
What does your label say?
After a 15-second glance at your application materials, what are the first impressions employers come away with? How will they label you? Are you a West coaster? State-school bred? A specialist? A generalist? Focused? Scattered? Terse? Verbose? Are you an educator? An activist? A foreign national? A "career" postdoc? A hot shot?
These labels (and the many, many others that employers might apply) mean different things to different people. Some of them (lazy, uncommunicative, lacking commitment and drive) are always bad. Still others (smart, determined, a problem-solver, personable) are always good. Other labels may work either for you or against you, depending on the nature of the position for which you are applying. By recognizing how you may be labeled in a job search, you can modify your materials to highlight the ones most to your advantage.
But sometimes it is hard for us to know how we are labeled by outsiders; this is an excellent reason to have several people--preferably people who have experience reviewing job applications--to review your materials and give you their first impressions.
What does your package contain?
When reviewing your job-specific and transferable skills, remember the last time you went car shopping. After narrowing your selection based upon your budget and purpose for the car, you probably did some thinking about the features you wanted. It's frustrating to find that one has cruise control and antilock brakes, while another has variable intermittent wipers and antilock brakes, but no brand has all the features you want.
Is something missing from your skill set, something employers are likely to be looking for? If so, you need to either gain that skill or sell them on another feature that you possess that others don't have, or aren't likely to have.
Do you have a sunroof? Demonstrably superior communication skills? A continuously variable transmission? Mathematical/technical prowess that's way above average? Raw horsepower? Excellent gas mileage? Demonstrably superior project management skills? Flashy red paint?
You can't change your skill set overnight, but unless you can offer an appealing package of features--a combination that's unique to you--nobody's likely to buy.
What makes you unique?
Consumers select products that suit their needs and fulfill their desires. If your product looks just like everyone else's--boring--why would the employer want to select you? You need to have something that makes an employer pick you out of the crowd. Do you have the labels that catch their attention, a unique skill, a complete package, or an unusual use for a set of transferable skills? Your unique package will not impress everyone, but it will attract attention. If you can supplement your unique features with a compelling package of basic skills, you'll win sales.
Can you deliver?
There's truth in the old saying: You can't be everything to everybody. Especially during an interview, you may find yourself challenged to be something you aren't. Don't try. If you don't have the skill, knowledge, or interest--don't pretend you do.
Take the candidate I presented at the beginning of this column. The applicant is a specialist with a great pedigree. This candidate won't be hired into a position that requires that he wear many hats--or shouldn't--since that is not how he excels. If an employer is looking for a generalist, and your skills are more specialized, you don't want that job. You don't want your employer to be disappointed with what you, the product, deliver. Not all positions are going to be a good fit. By examining yourself as a product for sale on the market, you can be confident about the image you present, confident that it reflects who you really are, and that it makes a compelling package to the kind of employer you're looking for ... and who is looking for someone like you.