Recently I was a part of a Dan Rather Reports special called "PhDon't!" In this exposé, Rather and his reporting team focused on a couple of young scientists who are having difficulty with the job market. He also interviewed academic and career experts who spoke about the changes that have occurred in the availability of talent. After more than a decade, it appears that the rest of the world is catching up with the issues that Science Careers has been writing about since its very first issue nearly 18 years ago.
In my on-screen time, I focused on the large stacks of paperwork in front of me because of my job as a recruiter: reams of application materials. Run an ad and watch what happens. With most any kind of job, the advertiser is buried in responses. Rather's report makes it clear that, as a result, employers are becoming spoiled and lazy. They start adding "must-haves" to their job specifications, and they do only the bare minimum of on-the-job training—if they do any at all.
Today, hiring managers get their pick of the litter—and it's a very large litter indeed.
It's only the top graduates from the best schools, right?
The assumption that many people have after seeing "PhDon't!" (available on iTunes), or reading about those same issues on Science Careers, is that only the best and brightest get job offers today. They assume that it is only graduates from the top-10 schools who are likely to win the jobs that are available.
But that's not true. Many graduates of top schools are not finding jobs. There's something else that you need to get hired, something much harder to define, not some hard technical skills or a certificate that confirms your pedigree. The people who get hired are the ones who get noticed.
Noticed? That's right. Have you heard that great Woody Allen quote, "Eighty percent of success is showing up"? Let me be the first to tell you that the biggest part of getting a job is showing up—and being noticed. Sure, it helps to have great communication skills and to do a great interview. And, it's nice to have a well-written CV, or to be the nephew of a VP of research for a major pharmaceutical company.
All those things help, but I'll place my bet on the person who gets out there, the woman or man who is visible.
Visibility in a sea of job seekers
Here's some advice that a lot of readers are going to have a hard time swallowing. It flies in the face of what you've been told for years, that your science is what will get you the job. I'll agree with your adviser that no one is going to hire a second-rate scientist, but if you want to get hired you need to self-promote.
Many scientists struggle with this. Self-promotion clashes with the culture of science. But, consider two people whom I met recently at a biofuels trade conference, both scientists, both 3 to 5 years into their industry careers.
I walked over to chat at their poster session. (I've always found poster sessions to be the best networking environment, better than coffee breaks or the beer-and-wine event on the first evening of a conference. The poster provides a shared focus, a context for easy conversation.) Both of these young scientists ran me through their posters, and I learned a lot about their companies' technology. They both gave me their business cards. But only one of them stood out.
"So, you're a headhunter! I'd love to know what you're working on and how I can help. You're in a business of making new contacts, and if there's ever a time that I can assist you with a connection or two in my field, please give me a call." Bang—he had my attention.
I followed up with the old standby: TMAY. "Tell me about yourself." It's a line that has been used since the beginning of time and invites self-promotion. And this guy stepped in with a masterful performance, making me aware of his expertise and interests, in case I ever had a reason to call on him.
Read my earlier article on the TMAY opportunity. It makes a very important point: There's a fine line between too much self-promotion and not enough. This young scientist nailed it.
How to be noticed
This ability to sneak self-promotion into a conversation, in a seemingly natural way, is common to all those who get noticed in this crowded job market. It's the ability to use the word "I" in addition to science's standard "we." ("In the Smith lab, we've published on the blah-blah receptor"—nothing wrong with that, as long as you add, "I am the lab's expert in the blah-blah technique that forms the core of our assay technology.")
If you want to be visible in this sea of job seekers, you've got to be seen as well as heard. So, if you want to be noticed, you need to put yourself into situations where you will be exposed to people who can help you. This is why Woody's quote really makes me laugh, because it's so true. It's impossible to succeed from behind a computer. You've actually got to show up.
The trade shows that I attend are expensive. For an industry attendee, some of these conferences can cost $2000 to $3000. They're expensive because the people who put them on know they can get it. If I invest two grand in an event where I will be exposed to 300 prospective clients over 3 days, that's a lot less than it would cost for me to fly around the country and see them individually.
These events often offer academic attendees dramatic savings, but they're still too expensive for many readers. But—did you know that show promoters will sometimes be receptive to a call from a postdoc or graduate student who offers to volunteer? Sure, you'll be working the lights and AV, or manning the registration desk, but at least you'll be there, ready to meet and greet.
Another option is an "exhibits only" badge that gets you in the front door for 80% of the action. You'll miss the presentations being held upstairs, but when we meet in the exhibit hall for the free food and drink that inevitably closes out the show, I'll be happy to stand with you and make small talk about the extra $2000 I spent.
Can you be too visible?
Today, the reams and reams of application materials have been replaced by e-mails—but the challenge is the same. In that pile of CVs shown on Dan Rather Reports, one sticks out because it was printed on purple paper. That's an example of overdoing it. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to become more noticeable without overdoing it.
Authenticity is the core of ethical self-promotion. No one likes a blowhard. This is a subtle business. Purple CVs and shameless self-promotion won't get you anywhere, in academia or in industry. Your ability to select the proper phrasing, to put a bit of yourself into a technical discussion, and to focus on the needs of the person that you are talking to—these are the things that will help you stand out in the job market. Yes, it's self-promotion, but it's about substance, not slickness.
Next month, I'll provide some specific examples of how to get this done.