Common Job-Hunting Blunders
I recently had the opportunity to review
applicants for a job at my workplace, a think tank with a large number of
Ph.D.'s on staff. As I read through dozens of résumés from graduate
students, faculty members, and administrators, I was struck by the range of
experience and skills demonstrated by the pool. Many of the academic
candidates had strong credentials, well-crafted résumés, and compelling
cover letters, but were simply not a good fit for a variety of
A large number of academic candidates
with equally strong credentials, however, took themselves out of the
running by failing to follow basic job-hunting conventions.
While an advanced degree was almost a
prerequisite for the position we were filling, I also needed someone who could
work well outside of academe. My workplace and colleagues are extremely
Ph.D.-friendly, but the pace is hectic and the work is largely
I was willing to believe that someone
who had never worked outside academe could do the job well, but I would
need to see proof that he or she had good judgment, strong communication
skills, and the ability to work as part of a team. The application process
became a litmus test for determining whether candidates could navigate the
world outside of academe. If they couldn't figure out how to write a
résumé, I reasoned, they were not likely to be a good fit in my workplace.
As a Ph.D. myself, I have a better
understanding of, and appreciation for, academic ways than the average
employer, but even I found it difficult to imagine hiring one of the many
applicants who submitted a CV that was seven or more pages long, rather
than the requested résumé.
Some people seemed to be entirely
oblivious to business etiquette: Several candidates revealed more personal
information than was appropriate in their cover letters, including one who
announced that he had decided to start looking for jobs outside of academe
because he could not afford to buy a condo on an adjunct's wages. Another
candidate sent me weekly e-mail messages written entirely in capital
letters. Several applicants (none of them academics) wrote their cover
letters in the third person ("Mr. Brown has five years of experience
in strategic marketing" and "Relocation is not an issue for Mr. Brown."),
which I found downright creepy.
I had many telephone interviews with
academics that went well and were followed by prompt, gracious thank-you
notes, but I also had a handful of frustrating telephone encounters with
Several of them called repeatedly to ask
whether their e-mailed applications had been received, and one or two tried
to persuade me to interview them right then and there since they already
had me on the phone. Those calls invariably came when I was under deadline
pressure or in the middle of a meeting and did not do the callers any good.
I certainly admire the moxie of those who tried that approach, but I would
advise future job hunters against it.
Granted, the codes of conduct for both
academic and nonacademic job searches can be arbitrary, but following the
most basic conventions reassures a prospective employer that a candidate
understands the unwritten rules of the prevailing culture. Since many
graduate students and faculty members are unfamiliar with the protocol of
job hunting outside academe, I've assembled a list of dos and don'ts
focused on the etiquette of answering job ads.
Do not send a CV when an employer
requests a résumé. Do not refer to your résumé as a CV. Turning a CV
into a résumé is a painful but inescapable process for anyone who wants to
work in a nonacademic job. Seek advice from your university career center
and from people already working outside academe to make sure that your
résumé is not a thinly disguised CV. Keep your résumé to two pages at most.
Do not attach letters of reference, writing samples, or other supporting
material unless the ad requests such documents.
Do create different versions of your
résumé for different kinds of jobs. Your résumé should read as an argument
for why you are right for this particular job. If a job requires strong
writing skills, for example, you'll want to highlight your writing
experience and leave out less relevant information. Try creating a master
résumé listing every possible way of describing your experience and then
mercilessly delete items one by one to create a teaching-focused version, a
research-focused version, a management-focused, and so on.
Do not call or e-mail to ask if the
employer has received your application. Even if an employer had time to
respond to such queries, talking to a candidate that the employer has no
intention of interviewing would be awkward and possibly misleading.
Do feel free to send a hard copy of your
résumé. Send it by overnight mail as well as by e-mail. Delivery
confirmation through an express-mail service is the best way to ensure that
your application materials were received. In addition, an employer is
unlikely to throw away an express-mail envelope unopened, thus giving your
résumé a second chance to be seen.
Do not send a generic cover letter.
One-size-fits-all cover letters that speak broadly about skills that
everyone claims to have (multitasking, analytical ability, teamwork) and could be applied to any job are a waste of
an opportunity. Don't just say you have those skills,
use your background experience to prove it. Conversely, do not be
excessively personal in your letter: Employers do not need to hear about
your frustration with the academic job market.
Do address the particulars of the ad in
your cover letter. Instead of saying that you have "many of the
skills requested in the ad," repeat the qualities mentioned and supply
specific examples from your experience. For instance, you might say,
"Your ad requested project-management experience: I have three years
of experience in developing quarterly special reports from conception to
final publication on the topic of children's health."
The most important advice I can offer
about job hunting outside of academe is that you focus on how your
experience is relevant to the employer's needs. Be as specific and concise
as possible. That approach is a dramatic change from the perspective of the
academic job seeker, who must produce a lifelong teaching philosophy and a
research plan that will define at least his or her next seven years. But
since the academic job search is (ideally) focused on filling a
tenure-track position, it makes sense that a hiring committee would
consider those long-term questions.
Ultimately, it's a question of emphasis:
Companies still care about whether you have long-term potential. And
academic-hiring committees are still interested in finding someone who
fills their immediate needs. The balance is simply different, and therefore
the job-hunting process is different. Taking time to show that you understand
the small differences between academe and the outside world can go far in
showing that you understand the big differences as well.
Karen Bock is the pseudonym of a Ph.D.
in the social sciences employed at a think tank in Washington.