My editor at Science Careers reminded me recently that some of the early articles in the Tooling Up series are still very popular. Reader traffic remains high, despite all the years that have passed since publication. It's the same with some of the other, older articles at Science Careers, the ones that focus on basic skills.
Those early columns, on such matters as interviewing, CVs, and cover letters, still shine because they describe ideas that readers all need, regardless of discipline or interests. And there's another reason they're as durable as they are: The advice they offer is timeless.
The fundamentals usually change slowly—but they do change. There comes a time when it makes sense to revisit some of those basics.
Over the next several articles, Tooling Up will revisit some of these seminal topics, tips, and techniques related to gearing up—tooling up—for your job search. If your search is just getting started, dig in. If you're already an old hand, you can still check in to make sure you're not missing anything new.
Your career development–in your hands
Above I wrote that fundamental things usually change slowly—but one of the most fundamental things has changed rapidly and dramatically. Years ago, a standard, default science career path existed. Sure, there were exceptions—scientists have long pursued "alternative careers"—but most scientists still developed along the specified path, well trod by the scientists ahead of them. Even if you decided to leave it, the path was well known and familiar.
Today, for the majority of Ph.D. scientists, that system has failed. No apprentice system ensures that you will emerge from your training with marketable skills—or a job. A Ph.D. plus a postdoc doesn't guarantee that you're ready for any of the jobs that are likely to be available. Today, you have to be "street savvy" about your career.
The street-savvy job seeker takes a great interest in how things work behind the scenes. She optimizes her situation to overcome roadblocks, expected and unexpected. He is purposeful and focused on his career—not just his science. Today's successful job seeker must have a strong sense of personal mission.
The marketing campaign begins
The outward manifestation of that personal mission is a marketing campaign. Just like any product-driven company, you've got something to offer. You need to find a niche to sell it in, and package it just right. The difference between a scientist who finds a job right out of the chute and another who is watching Everybody Loves Raymond at two every afternoon is positioning: packaging and marketing. Performance and ability are necessary, but they're not sufficient.
In order to develop a marketing campaign, you have to know where your value lies—that is, precisely what you offer an employer. The best way to do that is to analyze what you've already achieved.
Merge your C-A-R into the fast lane
The value that you offer employers is your ability to help them solve problems. As a recruiter I can tell you that companies hire problem solvers. The best way to get your arms around this concept is to do a "Challenge-Approach-Results" exercise.
Get a pad of paper—legal sized works best—and create three columns running down the page. The left column should be headed "Challenge," the middle column "Approach," and the right column "Results." That's C-A-R; it's easy to remember.
Start by going back to the first problem you were asked to solve. It may be from your undergraduate days, but hopefully no later than the early part of graduate school. Probably it will be a piece of a larger problem that a more senior person asked you to work on. Describe that problem in the left hand column; this was your first challenge.
Write succinctly, three or four sentences at most. (That's tough writing. You're used to descriptions of scientific challenges that go on for many paragraphs; here you need to rein that in.)
Across from that, in the center column, write a few lines about the approach you decided to take to solve the problem listed at left. Finally, write down the result that was achieved because of your involvement.
Now move down the page, listing the next problem you solved—and so on. If you carry this through to the present day, you will end up building a complete problem-solving history, which is easily mined to produce a list of specific problem-solving skills.
As you'll see in future columns, these tidbits of succinct writing are the stuff from which effective cover letters and interview responses are made.
Here's an example of a C-A-R statement:
Your value proposition
The expression "value proposition" is thrown around a lot; it's a buzzword, popular among senior-level candidates who interview for jobs like chief business officer, or director of new product development. I hear it many times a day, and it sometimes loses meaning. But, the way I'm using it here is important. It is a basic promise you make to your customer—your future employer—of value you intend to deliver: "Here's what I promise to offer, and this is why it would be a good idea to hire me."
While you will never actually say that to someone—not in those words—that's the core of the message you'll take to potential employers. It is your unique value proposition. Once you start thinking that way, your words and deeds will fall naturally into line with this problem-solver approach, and that will get you hired.
It's important to remember that you are much more than a person with a list of classes taken and techniques you've learned. Companies don't care about that. What you really have to offer is reflected in the C-A-R exercise. It's in the accomplishments you've got under your belt and the approaches you took. Even more than that, it's that promise of the value you can deliver in the future.
Get comfortable with that list of accomplishments you just worked up, because next we're going to use them next to write an effective cover letter.