Use Your Words

Slight changes in phrasing can make all the difference in networking, cover letters, interviews and your mindset about a job search, writes Joseph Barber.

October 13, 2014

Words and phrases are powerful. If someone mentions the phrase “tenure-track” to you and you are in the middle of faculty job search that you feel isn’t going so well, then you’ll likely have a negative emotional response to this word. Someone mentions “networking,” and you may immediately feel awkward and fearful, followed by a mild sense of guilt because you think you are not doing enough of it. Words can trigger emotions in you, and your emotional and cognitive state can also affect the words you use – whether you realize it or not. You might say that the faculty job search you feel isn’t going so well might be because of the “brutal” job market, rather than because there just happen to be fewer positions and lots of other candidates (factors you cannot do much about, and so are not helpful to focus on anyway).

Finding ways to change a few words here and there can actually make a difference to how you perceive the job search process, and will affect how others perceive you during this process. All the skills and experiences in the world won’t help if the perceptions that others have of you don’t match the hypothetical version of the candidate they would ultimately like to hire.

Let’s take networking. This word does seems to have an almost immediate effect of instilling a mild sense of terror in most people who hear it, especially in the context of the statement: “I think you need to do some more…." This terror stems in part from the perception that networking is something scary, difficult, and completely foreign to most people’s day-to-day activities. There is also a sense that networking is one of those back-scratching situations whereby if I want you to scratch mine, then I need to find some way to scratch yours first (or at least sometime soon afterward). Many Ph.D. students or postdocs feel as if they have nothing of equal value to offer the people they want to meet who have useful information they need.

Let’s change the word “networking” with all of its scary connotations to “meeting people in a planned and structured way.” The act of meeting people is something that people often do on a daily basis. It is hard not to meet new people in most cases. In this way, networking is not a new skill you have to develop, but a pre-existing skill you have that you are just applying for a specific purpose.

The only real difference between randomly meeting new people and what you do when you are “networking” is that you are thinking more strategically about who you are meeting and why. You have a networking goal – a goal that can be used to guide the conversations you have with people. For example, if one of my networking goals is to find new companies and organizations to invite to Penn’s Biomedical Life Sciences Career Fair for Ph.D. students and postdocs, then whenever I meet new people I might be thinking about some of the following questions in my head:

  • Where does this person work?
  • Could Ph.D. scientists work there?
  • Is their organization hiring?
  • Who else does this person know?
  • Do I have spinach in my teeth?

I’m not going to ask all of these questions out loud, because a summer BBQ wouldn’t be much fun for other people if I just went around grilling people for this information. However, given the opportunity to steer the conversation, I am likely to ask one or two of them. This is a form of networking – meeting new people with a goal in mind. It’s doesn’t seem so bad now, right?

Change the words, and you can expand your world! And remember, other people have their own networking goals too, and you might never be able to guess what positive contribution you could play in helping them achieve those goals. As for the back-scratching aspect, if you were to meet with the CEO of a start-up, and she was able to provide you with some great information for your job search, then you are probably right in thinking that you cannot offer something of equal value in return in terms of advice or information. But here is what you do offer:

• Gratitude – everyone likes getting thanked for doing something.
• That warm, cozy feeling people get when they think they have significantly impacted someone’s professional and career development in a positive way.
• Validation that the person’s advice is valuable.
• The opportunity for that person to pay forward the great advice they likely received from someone much higher up in the work hierarchy when they were just starting out, and when they also had nothing of equal value to offer in terms of information and advice.

Not only can we change the language we use to describe networking, but we can also change the language when it comes to measuring success. It’s likely that you have uttered something similar to this over the last few years, “I reached out to over 25 alumni, but only half of them got back in contact with me.” Based on this, you may also have said to yourself, “I’m just not that good of a networker,” or, “This is such hard work, I am just going to randomly apply for jobs online instead.”

If 50 percent of people who don’t know are willing to get back in contact with you offering to share their expertise and experience, then this is not a failure – it is absolutely amazing! Having 25 percent of the people get in contact with you is still amazing. Having just one person be willing to chat with you is amazing. After all, one person might be all it takes to put you on a completely different career path. More than that, this one person knows 500+ other people (or so their LinkedIn account says), and can help facilitate introductions to people they know. Change the words, manage the expectations, and you will start to feel the difference.

And talking of career paths, let’s focus on the term “alternative careers,” because this is another one that could do with some rewording. Career advisers will generally recommend that people have a Plan A, B, and C – maybe even a D, E, and F – when it comes to their job search. Outside of meeting with an adviser, it would be a pretty bad idea to tell any employer that they are your Plan B. No one wants to be a Plan B.

However, reading over cover letters and listening to people in mock interviews, it is much more common to hear Ph.D. students/postdocs say that they are “seeking alternative careers” – in most cases meaning non-faculty jobs. There is a risk that this sends all sorts of wrong messages to employers. Firstly, alternative to what: 1) to the job you actually want; 2) to the job you were actually trained to do? Neither of these is a concept you want to dwell on when talking with prospective employers. If you are looking to change some words, then let’s at least refer to these as “additional careers.” This suggests that you have the skills, knowledge, and experiences that are relevant to these other career fields, it is just that you are exploring your options to see what is the best fit for your skills. Remember, any employer outside of academe does not consider themselves to be an “alternative career,” and they probably won’t think highly of you thinking that they are.

If you are in a position where you are switching your focus away from a faculty career in higher education, then it is important to realize that this transition is much, much more meaningful to you than it is to anyone else on the planet – especially to a future employer.  I know this experience is an emotional one for many people (and sometimes these are very positive emotions!). You should talk about these feelings – especially the positive ones – because it is healthy, but don’t talk about them to employers. Don’t focus on the idea of going through a “transition.”

Why? A transition requires that you first move away from something (a faculty career) before you can move toward something (any of the many other career fields you might be interested in). It is much harder to paint moving away from something in a positive, confident, and skills-focused manner. Change the words, and change this transition into an active, informed choice to move towards your new goal (using what you have learnt from your past experiences).

Use the right words and you can begin to create whatever world you need by reframing your experiences, focusing the attention of others on your relevant skills, demonstrating an interest, achieving your many networking goals. It takes practice and perseverance to stop yourself from using the wrong words (e.g., a “brutal” job market), but it will help your brain and its inner world to moderate its scaremongering and catastrophizing so that you can focus on the positive, action-oriented steps necessary to make progress in your job search.


Joseph Barber is associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania.



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