It’s the Little Things that Matter

Once upon a time (quite a few years ago), there was a young woman* who graduated from high school, and went out for her first job interview.  She had no work experience, but had taken a typing class in high school and was a pretty good typist.  At her interview for a secretarial position, the supervisor asked her to create a letter telling someone that their claim was in progress.  He left her to it, and went back to his desk across the room.  When she finished, she waited a few minutes, but he did not come back.  So, she got up and took the letter to him.  He read it, said he liked what she had done, and she was hired.

Her assigned desk was near the interview area, so while she worked she watched other people being interviewed for similar positions. Over the course of several months, she noticed a pattern.  Those who finished their letter and sat quietly, waiting for the supervisor to come back and get it, were thanked for their time and sent home.  Those who finished the letter, and then took the initiative to take it to the supervisor, were hired.  The quality of the letters they wrote varied, and had to be at least a certain level, but almost without exception the deciding factor was whether or not they took the letter to the supervisor.

Maybe that supervisor was onto something.  He didn’t hire the fastest or most accurate typists, or the ones with the most experience.  He hired the people who demonstrated by their actions that they would take initiative and be productive workers, not just sit around and wait for someone else to tell them what to do.

Today, the employment landscape is very different (when was the last time you saw an opening for a typist?), but things haven’t really changed all that much.  When there are so many candidates who have the technical skills to do the job, it is still very often the nontechnical or interpersonal skills that determine who gets hired.

This was made very clear to me recently when I was chatting with a colleague, waiting for a meeting to start. He mentioned that one of his staff had just quit, so he had an opening to fill. I asked what he was looking for, and was told “someone who can work independently, but knows how to solicit input from the team. Someone who can apply what they already know to new areas, but is also willing to learn new things…..”  Only when I asked about education and experience did they say “Oh yeah, a PhD in something like materials science or biotechnical engineering or physics…..we can teach them the technical information they don’t have and the details of our specific field, but the other qualities are more important.”  To this hiring manager, the teamwork skills and working style were more important than the person’s specific technical knowledge.

A recent article in Chemical and Engineering News, “Closing the Skills Gap” ( talked about how many employers have openings, but are now having trouble finding people with the right skills to fill them.  Most often, what they are missing is not technical skills, but experience with teamwork, collaboration, intellectual property, conflict resolution, working across disciplines, cultures, and distances, and other things that are crucial to a successful, but not often taught in most schools.

So what does this mean for today’s scientific job seeker?  Especially if you’re just coming out of school, it is crucial to get real-world experience with those non-technical skills as well.  A summer internship in a local company, collaboration with some industrial colleagues, or even carefully selected volunteer work can do a great deal to enhance your awareness, and your credentials.  Then you’ll know when to take initiative, and ace the interview by taking the letter to your supervisor.

(*Based on a true story, shared with me in confidence.)

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.

One Response to It’s the Little Things that Matter

  1. I definitely agree: someone who takes the initiative to ask what to do next (or even figure that out themselves) is so much easier to work with than a person who just twiddles his thumbs when a task is done. With someone who takes the initiative, you don’t have to worry about work not getting done because they’re sitting there waiting to be told what to do.

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