To Find the Right Job, Learn How to Ask the Right Questions

22. July 2013

Lisa Balbes

This post was adapted from content on the Career blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS) with the kind permission of ACS and the author.

While I was in graduate school and for a few years afterwards, I excelled at finding good apartments as I moved from place to place. Eventually, I returned to my hometown and became ready to buy a house. When my father asked me what I was looking for, I started to list all the qualities I had sought in an apartment. He pointed out that many of those things didn’t matter when one is looking for a house, and vice versa. While both apartments and houses are places to live, there are significant differences between them.

I was recently reminded of this incident when a graduate student came to me for help in finding a job after graduation. I asked her what she was looking for in a new position, and she proceeded to talk about the techniques that she had used in school—instruments with which she was familiar and classes that she had taken. While those are all important parts of your education, they are not what you want to focus on when looking for a new job.

When determining your requirements for your next job, think more broadly. Identify not just what you did, but what you accomplished and why it was important. Most candidates make the mistake of being too specific in their description of their previous job. They use their resume to list what they’ve done, often in excruciating detail. The odds of another company hiring you to do exactly what you did previously is fairly small –and you probably want to try something at least a little bit different anyway.

Ask yourself not “Exactly what have I done?” but “How can I generalize my skills to cover more territory?” This makes your skills applicable to a much broader range of employers. Since so many resumes are electronically searched for certain keywords, it’s even more important to make sure your resume includes the general terms employers are using, not the narrower ones that describe precisely what you did before.

At the same time, be specific when it comes to “softer” skills such as communications, teamwork and leadership. While most of the resumes I see are too specific when it comes to technical abilities, they are often overly general with these softer proficiencies. Virtually every resume claims that the applicant has “excellent communication skills” (probably because someone told them that was important), but few include tangible examples.

In this case, ask yourself not “What skills do I have?” but “What particular accomplishment do I have that demonstrates my proficiency?” For example, did you write more than 25 standards for manufacturing procedures, resulting in an 18 percent decrease in production errors? Or did you testify before Congress about the importance of your research, resulting in a 150 percent increase in funding for your field over the next three years? Both demonstrate communication skills, but in very different ways. Are you better at oral or written communication? Are you more comfortable debating technical issues with other scientists, or explaining theories to non-scientists?

Once you learn how to categorize, generalize and apply your specific technical accomplishments to other areas—and to identify concrete examples of softer skills—you will be in a good position to prove that you can do whatever you say you can. In other words, you’ll have the right answers when others start asking the questions.

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists: New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

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Myths and Tricks from a Hiring Professional

18. September 2012

 Lisa M. Balbes

This post was adapted from content on the Career blog of the American Chemical Society (ACS) with the kind permission of ACS and the author.

I recently had the pleasure of listening to a presentation by Jill Lynn, a human resources professional at BASi, which provides research to the global pharmaceutical industry. It’s always interesting to hear from someone on the other side of the hiring process, and she graciously allowed me to share some of her insights with you.

She began by debunking three myths about the job application process.

Myth 1: “My professional experience and skills are the most important thing, and that’s all that matters to get the job, right?” Nope, sorry! A lack of interpersonal skills is the most frequently cited reason for not hiring someone (2005 Leadership IQ Survey), so they are crucial. How well you fit into the corporate culture is a major factor in the hiring decision, and many companies will “hire for attitude and train for aptitude.”

Myth 2: “My resume should be unique, creative, and a reflection of my personality and style.”
Again, nope! Hiring professionals receive a huge flood of resumes. The thing they most want is an easy-to-read and electronically friendly resume (meaning one that scans easily and contains all the appropriate keywords). Resumes that are “unique” are often difficult to read. With so many candidates for companies to choose from, the less work the reader has to do, the better. Your resume should list your professional experience in reverse chronological order, using action words and phrases (not narratives). Make sure to use a professional email address. (
Hotbabe@domain.com may get you a date, but it will not get you a job.)

Myth 3: “A detailed job objective, and information about my hobbies and outside interests, will make me stand out.”
Perhaps, but they will not get you a job. Many hiring professionals view objective statements as “filler” for those who don’t have enough work experience, and hobbies can actually hinder your ability to land an interview because they distract from your professional experience.

Hiring professionals make their living researching and reading people. They may talk to your friends, family and co-workers, and they will read your online social networking profile and postings. Any publically available information is fair game (including your Facebook or Linked In profiles), so make sure you know what’s out there about you and start cleaning it up now, if needed. Be especially careful of whom you let tag you in online photographs or comment on your pictures or posts.

The interview begins not when you meet the interviewer, and not even when you enter the building, but the minute the company receives the first contact from or about you. From then on, everything you say and do is considered as part of the package. You are never off-stage.

Before you go in for the formal interview, make sure to research the company—and, even better, the person with whom you will be interviewing. Always be prepared with a few questions to ask when it’s your turn, and stay focused on the position and the organization.

During the interview, be professional. Dress to impress, matching the company style if possible. Try to connect to the people with whom you interview, but remember that they are investigating you, and may try to “trip you up” by asking the same question in a different way, to see if you give a different answer. Make sure to give a clear, concise, and always accurate, answer to each question. Before responding, think about what they are really asking. Do they actually care where you want to be in 10 years, or do they want to know what you’re most interested in now, and if you have considered your future? Are they genuinely concerned about what your biggest weakness is, or do they want to know how you are working to overcome it?

These few tips will go a long way towards making sure you shine during the hiring process. I hope you find the company that fits your skills, personality and ambitions.

Good luck!

This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes (lisa@balbes.com) of Balbes Consultants LLC. Lisa is a technical writer/editor and author of Nontraditional Careers for Chemists, published by Oxford University Press.

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