Are You Asking the Right Questions?

While I was in graduate school, and for a few years after, I moved around quite a bit.  I got very good at picking apartments in new towns, and learning what to look for when selecting one.  Eventually, I moved back to my hometown, and was ready to buy my first (and so far only) house.  My father and I were talking about this, and he asked me what I was looking for in a house.  I started listing all the things I had learned to look for when choosing an apartment.  My father pointed out that many of the things I looked for in an apartment didn’t matter in a house, and vice versa.  While both are places to live, there are significant differences between them, and what you care about in one instance is easily changeable in the other.

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

When determining your requirements for your next job, you need to think more broadly. You need to 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.

I’ve seen many resumes where the applicant listed that they synthesized delta 5,7,9(11)-cholestatrien-3 beta-ol, or used an Ascentis C18.  Ask yourself not “Exactly what have I done?”, but “How can I generalize my skills to cover more territory?”  In the previous examples, try using “synthesized steroid analogs” or “conducted LC-MS analyses.”  This makes your skills applicable to a much broader range of employers.  Since so many resumes are electronically searched for specific keywords, it’s even more important to make sure your resume includes the general terms employers are using, not the specific ones that describe exactly what you did in your previous position.

While most resumes I see are too specific with technical skills, they also error the other way and are too general with soft skills.  Virtually every resume claims “excellent communication skills” (probably because someone told them that was important to have), but few include specific examples of the kinds of things they can do. Ask yourself not “What have I done?” but “What specific accomplishment do I have that demonstrates my proficiency in this skill?”  For example, did you write more than 25 SOPs for manufacturing procedures, resulting in 18% decrease in production errors?  Or did you testify before Congress about the importance of your field of research, resulting in a 150% increase in funding for your field over the next 3 years? Both are communication skills, but are very different.  Are you better at oral or written communication?  Are you better at debating technical issues with other scientists, or explaining theories to non-scientists?

So when you’re contemplating your career, ask yourself not only what you have done, but how to categorize, generalize, and apply those successes to other areas.  And when you’re thinking about soft skills, identify concrete, specific accomplishments that demonstrate those skills.

By asking yourself the right questions, you can identify your skills and abilities, as well as specific, supporting examples of times when you have achieved success using those skills.  Then you will be able to prove that you can do whatever you say you can do – 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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