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.

Career, Communication skills, Job Search , , , , , , ,

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