Career mythbusting, and interesting facts about vegetables and Vulcans

Dr. Joseph Barber

As we conclude this academic year, let me take this opportunity to clarify some common areas of career confusion relating to the job search. But first, some interesting facts to start us off. Did you know that May is the only month that spells a vegetable backwards? I was going to say that May is also the only month that spells another actual word backwards, but then we would be forgetting about April. “What is a Lirpa?” you might ask yourself. Go ahead, look it up, and you will be ready to impress the next Trekkie you meet at a party. OK, and now onto some areas of career confusion and other assorted myths.

  • Professional recruiters only spend an average of 8 seconds reading your resume

I am sure some data have been collected on this, but I am also positive that these data are unlikely to be representative of all industries, and all jobs, and all people. It is the kind of statement that attracts people’s attention, though, and there is some element of truth to this. The reality is that different people will read your application materials at different points along the process, and each person will be looking for something specific from your document. But it is true, that all of these people have busy jobs, lots to do, and so just can’t spend an awful lot of time trying to figure out if your experiences as described might be a good fit for a position. Moreover, the first person who reads your application might not be a person at all. More and more companies are using application tracking systems and software to compare keywords from resumes against keywords from the job descriptions. In a mere fraction of a second, these systems can give a score that addresses how many keywords, skills, and concepts from the job ad are covered in your materials. If there is too low a match rate, then a real person is probably never going to read your materials at all. Your job in your resume is to demonstrate to a very specific population of people at one organization interested in filling one particular role that you have something of value to bring to that specific role. So yes, you need a tailored and customized resume for each job application so that in the short time that someone does spend reading the document, that it really addresses their needs. This leads us to myth #2.

  • But I thought only cover letters need to be customized for each separate job

Cover letters also need to be customized. If you only customize your cover letter, and no-one reads it, then have you actually customized anything at all? That’s a philosophical question for you. Not everyone will read a cover letter. Some application tracking systems won’t scan cover letters in their analysis. Now, don’t get me wrong, you want people to read your cover letter. You want them to read both the letter and the resume. Each document provides something rather different. The resume focuses on relevant skills for the job, and presents them as short, punchy, bullets that illustrate the relevant, takeaway skills in action, provide enough context to make the skills make sense, and ideally point to outcomes that show how effective the skills are. The cover letter takes the most relevant of these and tells more narrative stories that have some aspect of humanity integrated within. So, in a resume you might state:

Created a new experimental protocol in partnership with a bioengineer from a separate lab that resulted in a run time that halved the experimental timeline, and produced sufficient data for a publication now in press.

In a cover letter, you might tell the story behind this bullet point experience, structuring your story using the STAR format (situation, task/challenge, action, result):

In my last experiment, I was trying to get data from my cell-lines using the standard lab protocols, but realized that there wouldn’t be enough time to complete it before my funding ran out. I tried all sorts of approached before I reached out to a bioengineer from another lab at Penn who I had heard give a talk about a new filtration technique she was developing for her research. I was able to collaborate with her to modify her approach to my cell-lines, and actually double the experimental yield. It was really exciting to try an untried, innovative approach, and I really enjoyed the collaboration I established. My advisor has now started using our modified protocol on his own research, and we now have a paper in press. I am looking forward to bringing my creative problem solving to this new role, as I know this quick thinking is essential in a lean start-up environment.

Words such as “enjoy” or “excited by” are hard to use in a resume, but are more easily integrated into the cover letter. A one-page cover letter that has a couple of interesting and unique stories that contain just the right amount of drama and emotion will always be engaging to the reader.

  • You will never get a job by applying online – you have to network to get a job

Well…, networking will absolutely maximize your potential to get a job – and the job you want – but plenty of people I have worked with have received interviews and offers after applying directly to a job posted online. Companies wouldn’t waste their time posting jobs on LinkedIn, Indeed.com, their own websites, or a host of other websites if these were just for show. In fact, in most companies, you do have to apply online to be officially tracked within their applicant tracking system. For most companies, there is a candidate hiring process that they need to follow, and specific steps you and they need to take. Networking helps you along this process, but it doesn’t replace it in most cases. Applying online with a generic resume might not get you through the applicant tracking robots, and a cover letter that doesn’t engage the reader might not get you the interview, but that doesn’t mean that this is the fault of the online application system.

  • If the employer has answered all of the questions you had prepared ahead of time during the interview, it is OK to say that you don’t have any more questions when asked at the end

If time allows, you should always ask questions – always. In every interview that I have been part of (as an interviewer), the people who don’t ask any questions at the end, or who only ask one, or who ask a weak question, are always seen as least favourable candidates at the end of the process. Saying that you don’t have any questions basically tells the interviewer that you are disinterested. If you are applying for a new job, you can’t possible know everything there is to know about it, and so take every opportunity to ask smart, engaging questions about the specific role that you are interviewing for. Here are a few examples:

  1. Over the first 3-6 months, what will be the main priorities for the person in this role?
  2. How does this role fit into the team structure in this office – if I were in this role, would I be working with the same team over time, or on different teams for each project?
  3. What types of professional training opportunities are available for the person in this role?
  4. What are some of the most exciting challenges that the person in this role might face in this work?
  • You should only go to Career Services if you have a specific question, and only if you are an undergraduate

No, you can come at any time, and we will help you identify some of the questions you should be asking if you are having a hard time figuring out what they are. Career Services is also divided into teams, and you will find career advisors who work specifically with undergraduates, and some who only work with graduate students and postdocs. So, if you didn’t take the opportunity to stop by during Lirpa, we look forward to seeing you later in Yam! We are open all summer long!

Advice for PhDs and Postdocs from Carpe Careers

By Dr. Joseph Barber

The Carpe Careers blog on the Inside Higher Ed website is written by PhD/postdoc career advisors from institutions across North America. The bite-sized advice offered is rich with steps you can take to make the most of your professional and career development. Here are just some highlights over the last few months:

  • Needed: Flexible Mentors in Science: Adriana Bankston provides advice for how research scientists can positively influence the personal and professional development of the trainees who work in their labs.
  • Immerse Yourself with Intention: Short, intense interactions with organizations where you might want to work can provide career insights, but how do you make the most of those experiences? Laura N. Schram shares four best practices.
  • Using Assessments for Career “Fit”: Stephanie K. Eberle outlines the misconceptions about assessments in career counseling and advises how to use them most effectively.
  • Your Ph.D. Experience Is Great Work Experience — Part 2: Attending to the impression you make in graduate school is a great investment in your long-term career, argues Briana Mohan.
  • Your Ph.D. Experience Is Great Work Experience — Part I: Contrary to popular and judgmental opinion, your doctoral experience is some of the best real-world working experience you can get, writes Briana Mohan.
  • Using Job Ads for Career Exploration: Reviewing advertisements of all sorts can help you identify appealing job types and sectors that you may never even have heard of, advises Derek Attig.
  • Seeking Grants: More than Money: Pursuing funding support as a graduate student or postdoc can help your career — and in more ways than one, writes Victoria McGovern.
  • The Menagerie of Potential Employers: It’s important to realize that employers see the world differently than you do and to understand their specific emotional states, advises Joseph Barber.
  • Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Mentor: Pallavi Eswara raises the most important ones — and also provides some answers.
  • Perfecting Your Panel Interview Game: Job interviews with groups of people are quite different than one-on-ones with individuals, and you never quite know what will happen. Saundra Loffredo gives some helpful advice.
  • Help Is Right at Hand: Never again after graduate school will you have access to so many free, high-quality career development services, writes Melissa Dalgleish, who advises how to make the most of what your campus offers.
  • Building Your Personal Brand: Just as corporations try to establish a memorable brand, Ph.D. students and postdocs seeking new opportunities should work to create a lasting impression, writes Gaia Vasiliver-Shamis.
  • Mastering the Art of Presenting: Being able to give an effective presentation is essential to your career success, writes Christine Kelly, who provides six pointers on how to do so.
  • Your Job Is Not You: How can you shift away from mind-sets that equate identity with academic work? And in doing so, can you relieve anxiety about exploring unfamiliar career pathways? Sarah Peterson provides some answers.
  • Why Career Self-Assessments Matter: Determining what your skills are, what you enjoy doing and what is important to you is fundamental to career development, writes Natalie Lundsteen.

Posts are published every Monday on the Carpe Careers blog, and so make the most of these career perspectives relevant to your career development, exploration, and job applications.

Experience the hiring process from the employer’s (emotional) perspective

Dr. Joseph Barber

In addition to working with graduate students and postdocs here at Penn on their career exploration and development, I also teach an Applied Animal Behavior and Welfare course at Hunter College of the City University of New York as an adjunct professor. Since job searching is a discrete set of human behaviors that can be defined and even measured, I find several topics discussed in my animal behavior course to be relevant when talking about career-related topics with students and postdocs.

One of my lectures in the course focuses on the question of whether other species experience emotional states and whether those states are similar to the ones that we experience. That is a very important question from an animal welfare perspective, because negative subjective emotional states (like fear, pain, frustration, boredom, loneliness) can be a potential source of suffering if they result directly from the way we house or manage these animals in captivity.

There are no easy answers to these questions, because emotions by their very nature are subjective and may well be distinct to the individuals experiencing them. I assume that other human beings feel emotional states in a similar way that I do, but it is almost impossible to show that in any objective fashion. We cannot measure the experiences that we feel, even if we can measure changes in blood flow or nerves firing in parts of the brain. What we are left with, then, are some general questions we must ponder. Here are two examples.

  • Do other species have the same range of emotional states that we do, and do they have some that we don’t experience?
  • How can we try to perceive the environment from the perspectives of those other species when they see, smell, hear and experience the world in such different ways from us?

I bring up the issue of differing perspectives because, in many cases, those types of questions are also important when thinking about employers — and especially hiring managers and recruiters. Yes, I know that they are humans, too (although with the more common use of applicant tracking software, the first entity that looks at your materials could well be a robot of sorts). Hiring managers should experience the world in the same way that you do. But their environment and experiences are very different from yours, and those factors can play a significant role in their emotional and behavioral responses. In any job application and interview process, it’s important to figure out how employers perceive their environment and how they respond to the application materials you send them in these environments. So, let’s look at the questions I listed above from a job perspective.

Do employers have the same range of emotional states that you do, and do they have some that you don’t experience?

In general terms, the same things that would annoy you will annoy employers. If they ask for a résumé and you send them a 10-page CV instead, they will find that annoying. If they ask for a cover letter and writing sample and you don’t send one, then that, too, will cause irritation. I don’t think there are studies that look at this, but I feel sure that chronic irritation will inhibit open-mindedness about your potential as a candidate. Even if employers have become desensitized to people not sending them what they ask for and in the right format, it may not change their behavioral response, which is probably going to be to shift your application to the “no” pile.

But while hiring managers don’t have unique emotional states, they will generally not feel the same levels of insecurity or worry in the job-search process that some job candidates may. After all, they are not the ones being judged. For that reason, you should not let negative emotions sneak into your application materials or your interview answers, as they will be easy for hiring managers to spot. That can happen quite subtly, with an innocent-enough sounding “Although I don’t have all the experience you are asking for, I do have …” statement in a cover letter.

Don’t dwell on the negatives. Find a more optimistic tone. One easy way to do that is simply to remove the first part of the sentence I used as an example above and start with what you can do and will offer that will make you a valuable candidate. You may only ever have 70 percent of what a job ad is asking for in terms of skills and experiences, but that can be enough — especially if you can demonstrate the potential you can bring.

How can you try to perceive the environment from the perspectives of employers when they see, smell, hear and experience the world in such different ways from you?

The first thing to realize is that employers do see the world differently than you do. Your priorities might be to find a job for some of the following reasons: to have enough money to eat and stay warm, to get good health insurance, to be able to work with an interesting group of colleagues, to continue being paid to do the research you love doing, to start on your professional career path, and so on. We all have our own reasons. Employers have their own reasons, too, and they aren’t likely to overlap with many of yours. The main reason they hire someone usually boils down to the fact that they need someone to get a job done effectively, whether that is teaching courses, working with clients, developing new protein-sequencing pathways or managing programs. They don’t care what you will spend your salary on, but they do care about whether you are going to be a worthwhile investment and good to work with.

In other words, they will be more interested in what you can do for them and less interested in what having the job does for you. When asked the question “Why do you want this position?” in an interview, your answer should put less priority on what you might get out of it and more on what you can offer them.

Focus on their needs first, and it will become obvious to them that you want the job because: a) you have the abilities to do it, and b) something from your past experiences has shown you doing something similar, doing it effectively and enjoying doing it.

A common mistake is to spend too much time telling an employer how excited you are by the possibility of working for such an impressive organization as they obviously are. That is information they already have. They want to hear about what you can bring to the role.

Your academic experiences are always going to be important in describing what you as a Ph.D. can bring, but you will need to talk about those experiences in active terms. Avoid comments like, “My academic experiences have given me …” which involves actions happening to you. Instead, consider something like, “I actively sought out opportunities to study X subject with X professor so that I could connect X concept with X reality, and I have used this knowledge in X situation to help me X …” — where the concepts and realities you mention are relevant to the job and the outcome highlights how effective your knowledge and skills truly are. Employers are looking for patterns: if you have used a skill successfully in the past, then you will be likely to do so again in the future. You need to find a way to show them how effective you have been — and that will always be more interesting than just telling them that you can be effective.

Hiring managers are keyed into the abilities, experiences and knowledge that will help them build capacity within their organizations. They are aware of the challenges that they face every day and are looking for the skills they know will be helpful in overcoming these challenges. If you do not know what those challenges are or what skills are helpful, then you may not be highlighting the most relevant experiences from your past.

So how do you see the world from the employer’s perspective? The easiest way is to read the job advertisement really, really carefully. That is where employers list what they need to get done and the types of skills they believe are necessary to do so. And to really see the world from an employer’s perspective, you also have to be able to use their language to describe your experiences. A great question to ask people whom you are meeting for informational interviews is “What are the skills you use on a daily basis that help you to succeed in your role?” That will give you insight into the way the world looks from the employer’s perspective.

And coming back to the idea of emotional states: when you make it easy for employers to see how your experiences qualify you as an excellent candidate do the job they need done (and most people applying for any job won’t do that), then you will make them happy. It is probable that happy employers will more likely see you as a preferred candidate.

So, yes, employers do have emotions, and you will need to make sure that you give some thought to how you can keep their subjective states as positive as possible.

Resume advice from the most magical place on earth

I am going to be heading to Disney World with my family this month, and for me it is an opportunity to revisit an earlier step in my career path. It is also a good opportunity to revisit a blog post I wrote back in 2010 about how Disneyfying your resume may be a great idea. After finishing my PhD at the University of Oxford, I went on to start a postdoc at the University of Central Florida. Although my postdoc was run through the university, I was actually based at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (DAK) – yes, that’s right, with Mickey and the gang. You might think this a strange place to do a postdoc until you realize that my PhD is in animal behaviour. There are lots of real animals at DAK, not just the giant-headed, costumed kind. Beyond my research into animal welfare, I learnt a lot from my Disney experience, and got some great insights into the corporate world of mission statements, branding strategies, marketing campaigns, and the laser-like focus that Disney has on customer service. Some of these unique aspects of Disney can also be relevant when it comes to thinking about your own professional branding – especially when it comes to documents like resumes.

Let’s take the idea of “theming” as an example. Yes, theming is based on the noun “theme” that, like the word “friend”, probably should not be made into a verb. But anything is possible at Disney, and so that’s what they did. If you have been to DAK you know that you walk around several different environments within the park. The two main ones are Asia and Africa – not anywhere specific in Asia or Africa, but some broad idea of what we generally envision when we think about those far-off places (or at least what Disney wants you to think). When you walk around in Africa, looking at the range of fantastic wildlife, taking the safari ride, and saving elephants from poachers, you are meant to believe that you are actually there, not just in a theme park. The design of the buildings, the type of thatched roof used, the sights, sounds, and smells that surround you as you browse the vibrant marketplace or wait in the train station, they have all been designed to help you feel that you are really there. The Disney Imagineers, those people in charge of conceptualizing and creating the Disney experience, traveled far and wide to get inspiration to use in the design of the theme park.

In Asia, you may walk through a temple as you queue for one of the rides. When the park first opened, visitors who entered some of the temple areas started to take their shoes off because they saw a pair of shoes outside of the temple that had been placed there as part of the theming. They didn’t have to, and Disney probably preferred they didn’t for liability/health and safety reasons, but they were buying into the theming. It seemed natural to take off their shoes in that environment.

Every object you see as you walk around DAK is there for a reason, and has its own story. Perhaps the shoes were owned by a local bicycle repairman who had spent the day repairing a bike that had been damaged when its owner crashed it after being chased by tigers near to the old temple ruins. OK, now we are getting to the part where Disney can help with your resume. There is such a rich context to every object and every building in the park, but the Imagineers’ goal is for you not to notice them. The objects are not meant to stick out as something you need to look at and investigate, they are they to help you become immersed in the experience of actually being in Africa or Asia. The more you notice the trimmings, the less rich your experience becomes. It may seem strange for the Imagineers to spend so much time on every aspect of their design only to want them to be ignored, but they realize that people value the overall experiences that they have at the end of the day more than they value being impressed by the range of objects that they have seen. They would be impressed by the objects if they realized how much thought has gone into them, but the objects are there to become the backdrop to the immersion experience, not the main parts of it.

If you have had your resume reviewed by a career advisor, then you have probably received feedback not only about the content (your experiences), but also about the formatting (the trimmings).

  • Do you have consistent punctuation?
  • Are the hyphens between your dates the same size, with the same spacing either side of them?
  • Are the bullet points the same shape, and indented to the same degree throughout the document?
  • Is the font used consistent, and is the size the same throughout the document?
  • Is there enough white space to make the document feel easy-breezy to read, or does if feel cramped and overwhelming?

 

But are these really important issues? Will a misaligned bullet point really lose you the chance to interview for your dream job? Well, there are some good practical reasons to make sure your formatting is in order. If you are evenly matched in terms of experience with several candidates for a potential job, but your resume formatting isn’t perfect, then perhaps an employer can make their short list of candidates to interview by thinking about who has the greatest attention to detail. In some jobs (think editing or medical writing), attention to detail is not just a bonus, it is an essential requirement.

The Disney approach to thinking about your resume helps to ensure that the employers focus on the rich experiences that you have, and the relevant skills you have illustrated in your documents, by trying to make sure that that they don’t think about your formatting at all. Employers don’t really care about the formatting…, up until the point where they notice an issue, and then that might be all they can think about. As soon as employers start noticing formatting issues, they are no longer concentrating on your skills and experiences – the information that will actually get you the interview. You don’t want employers to walk away from reading your resume saying, “those were some nice shapes they used in their bullet points”, or worse, “Why don’t the bullet points line up properly?”. You want them to walk away saying, “Those bullet points really illustrated how effective their analytical skills were”. You have to format your documents so impeccably that no-one even notices all of the time you spent tweaking the look of the text and proofreading for spelling/grammar mistakes. You want the formatting to become the backdrop to the content you want to get across. When employers are immersed in your skills and experiences, they will value you more. When this immersion is interrupted by a spelling mistake or misplaced comma, your theming is ruined, and the key message that you are the most suitable candidate becomes obscured.

The relevance of the content itself is also important. If you were walking around the Africa area of Disney’s Animal Kingdom and you suddenly came across theming that looked like it belonged in Asia, you would certainly notice this fact. And this is a very important aspect to keep in mind as you think about how you are talking about your experiences in a resume. The more you can match your own experiences to the type of experiences that are relevant to the job you are applying for, the easier it becomes for the employer to imagine you in this role. You can do this by adopting the language used in the industry or organization you are interested in to describe your own examples of your skills in action. The best way to get a sense of what language is relevant will be to have as many conversations as possible with people in the type of role you are applying to. By being an active listener during these informational interviews, you can not only get a sense of what skills are valuable in the role, but you will hear firsthand how people talk about using these skills on the job. You can then echo these descriptions when you are illustrating your skills.

Disney knows how to sell their brand and the experiences they offer. You may want to take a similar approach as you market your own skills and knowledge in pursuit of your future careers. Jambo everyone, and we hope to see you at Career Services soon!

Beating the System – the “Applicant Tracking System,” that is…

by Jamie Grant, C’98 GEd’99

Applicant Tracking Systems, or ATSs, are very popular among employers for the many ways such systems can ease the process of sifting through applications for candidates that are the best match.   If you’ve applied for a job in the last 3-5 years, you’ve most likely submitted information through an ATS, provided to your employer-of-choice by a software vendor like Taleo, Kenexa-Brassring, iCIMS or Peopleclick.  While recruiters and hiring managers still do certainly read through resumes and applications –and look at LinkedIn pages – you should be aware that you may need to “beat the system” to get a human being’s eyes on your online submission.

How do they work, you ask?  Google and watch one of the many videos available to see these programs in action from a recruiter’s perspective.  The main thing to understand?  These systems and the job descriptions within them (which I like to call “employer wish lists”) are designed to function by *keywords* – keywords which should ALSO be reflected in your resume to get you the highest possible match-score and the greatest chance of being seen by a person.   A talented career advisor can quickly go through your resume and job description with you and point out the keywords you have – and those you’re missing – in an effort to help you get as close as possible to a perfect match.  You can also use tools like Jobscan.co to quickly analyze your resume content and the job description.   Our friends at Jobscan also recently wrote a post about optimizing resumes for ATS that you might find helpful!  https://www.jobscan.co/blog/applicant-tracking-system-and-ats-systems/

You’ve worked so hard to get where you are – now, make sure you can sail through the last few hurdles to get your resume seen by the professionals who wrote you their wish lists – and that make the interview offers!