Posts by Liz Koblyk
So, you’ve got one page to persuade an employer to hire you—no, scratch that. You’ve got one page, along with your resume, to persuade an employer to interview you. Here’s what happens with that page:
- Some employers read it
- Some employers don’t
- Some employers who read it will only read it if they’ve shortlisted your resume
In an ideal world, you’d have plenty of relevant experience you can draw on to create a convincing portrait of why you’ll be excellent at the job you’re applying for. But we don’t always have that luxury. So, what do you do when you can’t just draw a straight line from past experience to future opportunity?
Say exactly why you think you’d be excellent. Thankfully, this doesn’t mean you need to add unsubstantiated adverbs to your letter (superlative! outstanding!). It does mean that, when you’ve told a story about your abilities to do the job, ask yourself what the key point is that the employer should understand about that paragraph. Then, write in that sentence, move it to the top of the paragraph, and see if you can trim what follows. Finally, ask yourself how the employer will know that you’re likely telling the truth, and put in that evidence. Trim again.
Have someone else check that your letter establishes that you can do the job you’re applying for. If your university offers cover letter critiques, take advantage of them. If not, ask a tell-it-like-it-is friend to tell you whether you have drawn clear, unambiguous connections between the skills you’ve demonstrated in the past and the requirements of the job. Worried that you’re making too obvious a point? You’re probably not.
If someone referred you, say so—if it makes sense to. If someone in your network has recommended that you apply for the job, ask whether you have their permission to say so in your letter (or other contact) with the hiring manager. If you get an enthusiastic “yes,” then mention that person right in the opening paragraph. If someone simply made you aware of a job opportunity, doesn’t feel that they’d be influential with the hiring manager, or hasn’t given you explicit permission to use their name, don’t include their name. Mentioning a mutual contact works because hiring managers will go to that trusted contact to find out more about you. Make sure that contact isn’t surprised that you’ve mentioned them.
Avoid some of the most common mistakes. It’s easier than it seems to introduce basic errors of fact into cover letters. Make sure you’ve addressed your letter correctly and name the right job title (LinkedIn can be a help with both). With other common mistakes, it helps to have a fresh pair of eyes on your letter, as errors like to hide from the writer. So, just like applicants to grad and professional schools sometimes name the wrong institution in their package, so do many job applicants name the wrong organization. If you tell organization X that you’re very excited about working for organization Y, organization X will gladly not stand in your way.
Like writing a strong resume, writing a strong cover letter requires knowing what the job is about and explicitly stating why you can do the job. An added bonus of the cover letter is that you may surprise yourself with how many of your past experiences will be useful in your next job.
Defining your areas of competence takes time. Luckily, the University of Victoria’s career office has spent a lot of time generating some ideas that they’re freely sharing on their website.
Competencies are closely related to your skills. A competency is a set of skills and knowledge needed to perform a task. At a conference last week, UVic presenters Norah McCrae and Stephanie Gayler described the painstaking process they and their colleagues went through to identify and verify 10 core competencies, four cultural competencies and a number of program-specific ones.
It can be tempting to focus on program-specific competencies, but a broader range of employers will be interested in your strength in the 10 core competencies UVic lists. While lists like this aren’t comprehensive, they’re a good starting point for assessing some of your most widely applicable transferable skills, and for coming up with examples you might draw on for resumes, letters and interviews.
So, painful though it can be to take on the seemingly navel-gazing activity of remarking on your own competencies, why not start small and tackle one or two items on the list? Once you’re on a roll, work through the rest. Or move onto areas of competence that aren’t covered on these lists—and there will be plenty of them.
There’s also no need to start thinking in terms of competencies right away; working on one of their component parts—skills—can serve just as well at helping you articulate where you are and determine what you want to further develop. Jo VanEvery’s recent post on skills takes a look at the skills you already have and those that you want to acquire.
As she usefully points out, not all of your skills will strike you immediately, and they may even relate to traits you see as disadvantageous. Often, the skills that are invisible to you are the ones in which you are strongest. Because they are your go-to skills, you might assume that “everyone” has those same skills. Whenever you’re puzzled that someone is impressed by something you’ve done, take the time to reflect. You’ve probably drawn on skills or competencies that are more unique than you’ve previously realized.
I know people who actually enjoy employment interviews. At some point in their interviews, they forget their nervousness because the problems posed by the interview questions interest them. They slip out of self-conscious self-promotion mode and into problem-solving mode.
But most of us find it hard to forget that a job’s at stake and that there’s a lot riding on a conversation with an employer — or a panel of them. So, here are some thoughts if you suspect you may not be communicating your true potential in interviews.
Take advantage of any interview skills training or mock interview services that your university provides. Job seekers often say that post-interview feedback is difficult to get from employers or is unhelpfully vague. Employers aren’t obligated to give extensive feedback and often have too little time or comfort with difficult conversations to do so. Career centre advisors, on the other hand, see your career management skills as among their primary concerns. They will bring to your attention any behaviours or interview responses that may be holding you back.
Content matters. Prepare for common questions and questions that relate to the skills and knowledge relevant to the job. Go through your resume to remind yourself of when you’ve solved problems, made beneficial changes, or demonstrated resourcefulness. There are lots of good articles and resources on preparing to deliver strong content in your interview answers, so go ahead and use them.
Preparation matters. Luckily, if you’re at a university, your library likely offers you access to business directories that will let you do quick but useful company research. If your university library doesn’t have a list of job search resources, look for study guides for business programs, since students in those courses need to find company information.
Attitude matters. This is truly not a platitude designed to comfort people with little work experience. Enthusiasm for the job at stake can vault a less experienced candidate ahead of more experienced but seemingly less motivated applicants. Interviewees who come across as unenthusiastic about the job they’re interviewing for can seem like a risk to the employer: not only might they fail to excel in their daily work, but they could cause more dedicated colleagues to feel resentful. And, since the organization will hold the employer responsible for the whole team’s performance, the employer likely won’t take the risk of hiring someone with a negative attitude.
Finally, as with most parts of the job search, networking is useful. The more you dread networking, the more you may wish to use it as practice, so that you become more adept at talking about your skills with strangers. Networking may even result in the best kind of interview — the kind where the employer has decided in advance that you’re the desired candidate, and the interview itself is a formality.
When you’ve had positive employment or university experiences, asking for references letters can be a great ego boost. When your experiences have been less positive, so is the experience of securing good references. If you find yourself applying for a job or academic program with few positive references under your belt, here are a few tips.
Test your assumptions about potential referees. I’ve met with clients who assumed past supervisors would only provide negative references, and who were pleasantly surprised by the references — and resulting job offers — that they received. So, don’t immediately rush to replace key referees with your B list. Instead, start with the people whose knowledge of your work and relevance as a referee could make the biggest impact on your application. Ask them whether they feel comfortable providing you with a very positive reference. In fact, ask that question of referees whom you assume will give positive references — applicants have been surprised by unexpected negative references, too.
Keep in mind that the job or program you’re applying for may determine who is willing to provide a positive reference. Even potential referees who have expressed concerns about your performance in one arena aren’t necessarily oblivious to your strengths. Ask your potential referees which strengths they feel best equipped to attest to. What concerns would they have about your fit with the particular opportunity you’re applying for now? Regardless of your past experience with your referees, they need to be able to see the fit between the strengths of yours that they’re familiar with and the opportunity you currently want.
Expand the strengths that your referees are aware of. Your referees need more than information about the job or program you’re applying for; they also need up-to-date information about why they can recommend you. Are there new materials or information you can provide to your potential referees that demonstrate your skills and show how you’ve developed in areas where they may have felt you were weak?
Cultivate referees for the future. As unpleasant as it is to find out that a potential referee would be a weak one, that person may have shone a light on an area that you can improve on for the future.
You can also seek out other opportunities to gain new referees. It takes time to cultivate a set of referees who have witnessed your abilities, but you can start that process now to make future requests easier. Are there experiences you could gain that would bring you into contact with new colleagues, supervisors, partners or customers?
As your career grows, so does your pool of potential referees. By addressing any concerns you’re aware of that are relevant to your next career step, you both develop an answer to that dreaded “describe your greatest weakness” interview question and increase the number of people who can vouch for your strengths.
If you’ve had the experience of carefully crafting and revising a resumé and cover letter, you’ve likely also had the experience of wondering whether anyone actually reads the documents you so carefully research and write.
The bad news first
Blogs by recruiters suggest that recruiters skim resumés in 5 to 20 seconds. That’s not a lot of time for a job seeker to make a positive impression, and it just feels crappy to think that a document you spent a long time writing could be reviewed so quickly.
Granted, recruiters may be a special breed. They need to have resumé skimming down to an art, since they review far more resumés than the average hiring manager will. Due to workload, though, hiring managers also may not have time to read resumés as carefully as they’d like to.
Making the first cut
It’s useful to imagine the job search from the employer’s perspective. If you had 200 resumés to sort through, you’d probably start by screening out the obvious no’s, such as resumés that are generic rather than focused on the job in question, that focus on a different job than the one in question, that use non-standard formatting (say, a CV format for a non-academic job), or that have obvious errors.
Once you have jumped the first hurdle and have been screened in, you want employers to read your resumé. Despite all the rapid reading taking place, resumés and cover letters do give employers information that they’re looking for. The more you know about your potential employers’ wants, the better you can highlight that information so it will stand out when the employer is skimming your documents.
To help make that happen, use keywords liberally. You’ll find these in job descriptions, the “Skills” section of LinkedIn, and well-written LinkedIn profiles of people in your field. You may even find good keywords in descriptions of profession-specific training opportunities and conference paper abstracts. Keywords are especially important if you apply to organizations that use computer-based applicant tracking systems to search resumés for specific words and phrases.
Since the goal is to get to a human reader, though, organize your information so that it’s easy to find, with the most important information close to the top of your resumé and as far left as possible, so it stands out to people who are skimming. (I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating!)
Start your resumé with a summary that’s designed to keep the employer reading, rather than give a comprehensive overview of all of your experience.
What about cover letters?
Whether employers read cover letters is hotly contested by job seekers. Employers who recruit from the university where I work often say that cover letters help candidates stand out. But don’t expect that the letter will be read first. Resumés can be scanned more quickly, so it’s likely that your cover letter will be read only after the first cut.
If you’ve been involved in hiring decisions, please share your comments on what you’ve looked for in candidates.
Tax season always seems like a good time to talk about money. Regarding money, career advice tends to range from “do what you love and the money will follow” variety to “get a practical degree and earn good money.” Money is extremely useful at paying for stuff, and sometimes life or health circumstances mean that financial stability and benefits are, at least for the time being, more critical to your overall happiness than finding satisfaction through your work.
That said, I’m making a plea for setting assumed income levels aside during an initial career exploration. That’s partly because the high-income clients I’ve worked with seem to have felt boxed in by their income. They’ve sought out career advising because they don’t like what they do, but they’ve often acquired so many fixed expenses that they feel they can’t afford even a temporary drop in income to pursue another career direction. It’s also because many people rule out general career directions based on false assumptions about the potential income associated with different jobs.
So, when you’re thinking about career options and potential income:
- Know what you actually spend right now, how much of it is fixed, and how much is discretionary
- Know how much you want to have at your disposal; the meaning of “just enough to live comfortably” differs radically from individual to individual
- When considering typical salaries for a career, also consider the typical income earned per hour; that management consulting position might not pay as much as you think, when you consider its hourly wage
Should you be considering an otherwise unappealing career because the pay is good, give your plan some serious thought. I’ve seen people pursue careers they don’t plan on enjoying, because they think they can buy enough enjoyment in the hours outside of work to compensate for the 9 to 5 misery. The problem with most high-paying jobs, however, is that the 9 to 5 is typically more like 8 to 6 or 7 so, no matter how that money is spent, the bulk of time is still spent in an unsatisfying job.
If you’re determined to try a path that’s likely to be both high-paying and unsatisfactory anyway, here are some tips:
- A job you hate is better than a career trajectory you hate, so make sure you have a clear transition plan in place to move from your hated job to a more enjoyable job
- Attach dates to each step of your transition plan
- Don’t let your expenses grow with your paycheque; keep your fixed expenses low, so that you retain the flexibility to change careers
- Meet with a career counsellor before you commit to your path, both to review the career decision-making process and to have someone who isn’t personally invested in your decisions act as a sounding board
And keep in mind that, in careers, personal satisfaction and financial stability needn’t be mutually exclusive. If none of the options you’re aware of meet both criteria, a visit to your university’s career office may be time well spent.
As long as job search books advise job seekers to sell themselves, job seekers will struggle where to draw the line between honesty and embellishment.
Jo VanEvery neatly addresses the topic of honesty on CVs. In particular, she points out the danger of falsely implying that publications are peer reviewed, or that articles have been accepted for publication, if the truth is otherwise.
Every now and then, I hear someone claim that “everyone” lies on resumés and cover letters. And that may leave you wondering whether you need to exaggerate in order to compete against people who are embellishing their job search documents. If a lie doesn’t get caught during the application or interview process, though, it can catch up with applicants after the fact. People who get caught lying about their qualifications and experience can find themselves unemployed and working against a newly tarnished reputation.
But I want to address a circumstance in which you don’t have to fess up. If you’re a parent, potential employers generally do not need to know. Employers can’t legally ask you whether you have children (or whether you’re married, what your sexual orientation is, what your ethnicity is, and more).
Sometimes, it’s tempting to disclose this information anyway. For example, interviewers sometimes ask interviewees about their greatest accomplishment, and I’ve met some people who talked about becoming a parent. If you offer parenthood as an example in a job interview, you’re giving employers information they shouldn’t have access to, and you’re quite possibly overlooking examples that might be just as or more relevant to the work you’re applying for. Not only that, but you may well be picking an example that doesn’t distinguish you from other interviewees.
Does it always necessarily harm applicants to disclose that they’ve had children? No. There may be situations in which it’s clearly relevant (for example, if you have a publications gap that you want to address in your academic job search). You may know for certain that the organization as a whole and all the interviewers and decision makers in the hiring process are family-friendly.
Even then, it’s useful to draw a line between what you’d say in a personal setting, and what you say in the professional context of the job search.
A woman I recently interviewed about her academic job search is glad she informed the committee that she’s a parent, but also feels she could have put tighter limits on what she shared:
“I would be less candid about my feelings about being a new mother – be it fatigue or maternal pride and happiness. To talk with candor about parenting still appears to be at odds with the cherished or cultivated persona of the successful and ultra-dedicated professor.”
So, when considering what to disclose, consider whether the employer is legally entitled to ask for the information, whether it’s relevant to the job, and how much information is right for your audience.
Career planning isn’t always just career planning. Completing grad studies and launching a career often seem to coincide with planning or launching a family.
The challenge of trying to figure out whether to privilege family or career goals was raised by academic mothers I interviewed for an upcoming UA print article. The interviewees shared with me far more information than would fit in that 750-word article.
One of those interviewees is Dr. Tracy Penny Light, an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo. She has two children, two years apart in age. The first was born the month she started her PhD, which didn’t exactly set her on the fast track to completing her degree and starting her academic job search.
That said, she did finish her degree and land a professorship, while raising young children with her spouse. Here’s her story.
Because Dr. Light gave birth almost immediately after starting her PhD, she didn’t qualify for mat leave. Instead, she took one term off, but would have had more time, had she been eligible for parental leave.
Because of that term off, Dr. Light didn’t have grades available when funding applications were due. So, time and money became mutually compounding concerns. As she states, “When you have kids, there are extra expenses, and as a graduate student, you don’t make a tonne of money.” With external funding and mat leave financial support unavailable, Dr. Light took an unconventional approach to financing and scheduling her studies: “When my TA support ran out, I worked full-time for four years” in university administration, and switched to part-time PhD studies. While this led to late-night writing sessions, it also led to financial stability.
The roadblocks she ran into — no mat leave, no early external funding, part-time studies alongside full-time work — might suggest that families and academic careers are oil and water. But Dr. Light feels that having children early in her graduate studies was useful in the long run. As she points out, “When you’re in a tenure track position, you’re on the clock to get certain things done. If you’ve just had a baby, it can be much more constraining” than if your children are older.
Much as having a child one month into doctoral studies might seem like a career derailer, it meant that Dr. Light could spend those crucial pre-tenure years preparing her application package rather than battling chronic sleep deprivation.
While Dr. Light’s story might come with the sort of fine print you’d expect on a weight loss commercial (“results may be atypical”!), it also offers widely applicable suggestions:
- Timing matters — but even seemingly awkward timing can be turned to your advantage
- Be willing to explore alternate funding methods for grad school
Her final words speak to needed changes in workplace culture: “For men and women, we need to be more accepting of the fact that parenting duties aren’t an excuse,” but a legitimate part of the lives of working parents.
In most things you do, you get to see progress. You start painting a wall and, an hour later, you can see that you’ve put in an hour’s work, and that less work remains because of your efforts. You incorporate feedback from a reviewer when strengthening an article for publication and, sure enough, you end up with a better article that’s likely to be published.
In the job search, it’s a lot more difficult to tell whether you’re making progress. The inability to chart how close we are to achieving our goal can make the spirit say “meh.”
The fantastic thing about the job search and its feedback vacuum is that you’re probably already well-prepared for it. If you’ve worked on a thesis, you know what it’s like to face a seemingly endless task and to keep yourself motivated and working, even if your committee members take six months to comment on your latest chapter.
So, what else from your studies can be adapted to your job search? You probably had some strategies in place that routinely got you through tough spots and past the series of rejections that are part and parcel of the job search.
Maybe, in your academic writing, you have a rule that you had to achieve a certain amount of output, rather than put in a particular number of hours. That way, you know at the end of the day that you’ll have at least 500 words written, instead of having spent the time checking databases for relevant articles again, just in case. The same can apply to your job search. Maybe you can commit to researching a certain number of organizations, writing a prickly part of a cover letter, or attending a workshop at your university’s career centre, instead of searching online job postings and hoping for the best.
If you ever used the strategy of having a “junk” file to deal with writer’s block, try the same strategy with your résumé, cover letter and any notes you make to help prepare for networking or interviews. After all, it’s much easier to edit an ugly first draft than an empty page. So, if you found it useful to create a document that wasn’t your paper, where you could work out ideas without worrying about whether you were articulate, try the same with your job search documents. Give the document a separate name — something called “ugly résumé” or “cover letter that will never see light of day” gives you permission to write in plain language about what you can do.
Career advisors tend to talk a fair bit about transferrable skills. They extend beyond the skills that you will explain to employers. If you can handle an extended research project — even if it hurts — you’ve already developed the abilities you’ll need to come out on top, on the other side of the job search.
Before moving on from the topic of awkward moments in networking, I want to address one final, painful topic. So far, I’ve looked at situations controlled by the networker. What happens, though, if you run into someone with whom you suspect you have burned a bridge?
That question came up in a workshop, in which a participant noted he had been networking and continued to network in his field. During his networking, he encountered someone — a potential employer — against whom he had previously committed a gaffe. He opted not to mention the elephant in the room but came away questioning his choice.
He’s far from the only job seeker out there to have made a misstep with a potential employer. Looking for work is stressful, time-consuming, and likely to lead to mistakes now and then.
Over the holidays, I asked some friends about mistakes they had made (I know — that’s a gaffe right there). They came up with:
- Using someone as a reference without telling him or her
- Asking for a reference letter and not using it
- Exaggerating your relationship with a mutual connection
- Talking about a professional contact on social media.
So, what do you do when you realize you’ve made a mistake? Some choose to ignore it and hope it goes away. Others opt to apologize in order to smooth the waters, despite the momentary embarrassment of reliving the error.
The worst option is a combination of the two: the supposed apology that’s actually an excuse. This version of an apology is tempting because it gives you a chance to say sorry and explain that the offense isn’t actually your fault. If, indeed, the offense isn’t in any way your fault, that’s fine; however, if you bear any responsibility for something you regret, then a pure apology shows that you’re aware of the impact of your actions and that you feel remorse for whatever inconvenience or harm it caused the other person.
Apologizing at all can seem risky — after all, it might revive the other person’s anger, or even draw their attention to something they hadn’t been aware of in the first place.
One of my friends summarized the risk this way: “If someone apologized to me for something I hadn’t known they had done, my initial reaction would probably be irritation, but my trust would return. If I found out about the same mistake through someone else, and hadn’t received an apology, I don’t think my trust would return.”
How we handle difficult situations speaks to others and (perhaps even more loudly and insistently) to ourselves. Painful as making amends may be, it can be good for your relationships, your career and your sense of integrity.