“Bookworm,” “wise owl” and “lab rat” are just some of the analogies used to describe academics. I wish to add another: lone wolf.
The academic enterprise values individual contributions, even though scholarly achievements require a communal effort. Academics' career progression often depends on how they present themselves rather than their collective efforts. Our academic system inherently biases this approach by using metrics that weigh heavily on the number of papers, books, seminars and discoveries that individuals produce. While these metrics are an essential part of scholarly training, the environment may condition scholars to pursue all of their career goals without assistance from others.
During my first job search, I adopted the same lone wolf strategy that I applied to my thesis and postdoctoral research. I prepared résumés, expanded my network and identified resources on my own. It never occurred to me to collaborate with others, since achievement of my goals would only benefit me.
About four months into an unsuccessful job search, I connected with a friend and colleague from graduate school who was also on the job market. During our conversation, my friend suggested that we support each other during our job searches. We agreed to forward interesting jobs, share our networks and provide feedback on application material.
To my amazement, this partnership resulted in several interviews and at least one job offer. My colleague also served as a reference for a second position. While it is likely that I would have found a job on my own, I am confident that partnering with my friend expedited the process and eliminated a great deal of stress and anxiety.
If you want to be more efficient and effective during your job search, I strongly encourage you to find a job-search buddy that you can support. In a job-search buddy system, you will collaborate with a partner to help achieve each other’s goals.
Benefits of Having a Buddy
Partnering with a colleague during the job search process has several advantages, including:
Synergy. Searching for a new position is often akin to having another part-time job. On top of your normal work and research responsibilities, you must dedicate time to connect with and expand your network, prepare application materials, bolster deficient skill sets and search for opportunities. A job-search buddy can reduce the time needed to land a position by creating synergistic partnerships around common goals.
For instance, you could agree to share your networks with each other. A student I was mentoring helped her classmate land a job at a marketing firm by making an introduction to a contact working in that sector. By referring her classmate to a contact, the student gained a strong advocate who eventually assisted in expanding her own network and opportunities.
You could also send each other job postings and useful resources. When I was searching for positions, my job-search buddy notified me of a job that was not posted. I successfully interviewed for this job and was offered the position. Without our partnership, I never would have known about the opportunity.
Feedback. Concrete feedback is an essential component of an effective job search. You can review your colleague’s application materials and help him or her practice for interviews. Listening to how people answer interview questions will open your eyes to the components of a good answer, and you can use this to improve your answers, too. Many postdocs at my institution practice their job talks in front of peers.
Moreover, a job-search buddy can provide feedback on your career plans and goals. If you are unsure of next steps, the simple act of talking about your plans with another person can help you define your career goals.
Accountability. Do you always find an excuse not to attend a networking event, or have you procrastinated about taking a class that will make you a more competitive candidate? Maybe you have to finish your thesis or write a paper before you can apply for positions. A job-search buddy can hold you accountable for those goals. Inform your buddy of the specifics and deadlines of your career goals and request that he or she periodically pester you to ensure that you follow through.
Reciprocity. The most common question that I receive when I deliver workshops on networking involves the concept of reciprocity: the practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit. Many Ph.D.s are hesitant to ask their network for help because they worry that they have nothing offer in return. These concerns are often unfounded and will require another full essay to address (coming soon). The buddy system eliminates the anxiety of having nothing to offer, because you are already providing help to a colleague in return for their assistance with your job search.
Moral support. Whether you are applying for a coveted tenured faculty job or planning to transition away from academe, the job search process for Ph.D.s can be lengthy and stressful. It requires persistence and a balanced optimism. You can support your colleague who is also experiencing the same challenges by empathizing and encouraging him or her to continue moving forward.
How to Be a Good Buddy
If you want to be supportive of your buddy, you must posses some key characteristics.
Common-goals oriented. Ideally, a job-search buddy should have career interests and goals that are broadly similar to yours. You are more likely to have a synergetic partnership if the resources, contacts and opportunities that you share are mutually beneficial. For instance, my colleague and I were both interested in career paths away from academe that required an understanding of science but did not involve conducting research.
That said, depending on your personal preference, you may not want to pick someone with identical career goals. For example, two Ph.D. students whose research interests are very similar might hesitate to share faculty openings over fear of competing for the same job. However, a productive partnership might occur if you are looking for comparable jobs in different locations.
Honest but constructive. You must be able to provide candid feedback. For instance, if your buddy’s résumé needs an overhaul or their interview style is flawed, they will only benefit from constructive criticism. You are not helping your buddy if you neglect to identify these flaws out of fear offending them.
Professional. Always demonstrate professionalism when representing your buddy. For instance, when he or she introduces you to a contact, follow up in a timely and concise matter. Be sure to update your buddy on the outcome of that connection. Remember, your buddy is risking his or her own reputation by introducing you to someone in their network.
Committed. You should be fully committed to helping the other person. If you do not have the time or the dedication to enter into a partnership, do not waste the other person’s time.
Finding a Buddy
The first step in finding a job-search buddy is to let your network know that you will be entering the job market. By broadcasting your career plans, you will discover the career plans of others. If you don’t have regular contact with your peers, make it a priority to attend social or career development events at your college or university. If you are no longer working or studying at a university, reach out to former classmates and friends to let them know that you are on the market.
Once you identify a few candidates, start a conversation with potential buddies by asking if they would like to join forces in searching for positions. Be sure to mention the potential benefits of teaming up.
Inevitably, some peers will agree to team up but won’t maintain the same dedication to the partnership as you. If people contact you for assistance, you should help them even if it is not clear how they will assist your own career goals. In the book Give and Take, Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of Business, provides convincing evidence that those who give more than they take in their careers experience more long-term success.
Laying the Ground Rules
If you identify a suitable buddy, begin the partnership by having a candid discussion about each other’s career goals. In particular, you should each articulate:
- the type of positions you are looking for,
- when you would like to have a position,
- where you want to work,
- potential professionals you are hoping to connect with,
- skill sets that you need to improve and
- specifics and deadlines for goals that you must accomplish before you apply for jobs.
Next, outline exactly how you are willing to help each other. Define what, when and how you will share resources and contacts that you think will be useful for the other person. To ensure that the partnership maintains its momentum, I recommend scheduling regular meetings.
One weakness of the buddy system is that one person will most likely land a job before the other. If not addressed early on, that can lead to emotional fallout. The challenge should be addressed before you begin the partnership in order to mitigate future anxiety.
My job-search buddy and I decided early on that we would be careful not to compete for the same jobs. However, on more than one occasion, we recommended each other for jobs that we declined.
If you are the person who lands the job first, be sure to continue supporting your partner. If you do not receive a job offer first, congratulate your buddy and remember that you can actually take some credit for helping this person succeed.
Two Wolves Are Better Than One
The process of searching for a job can be a humbling and exhausting experience. Many academics push through job-search challenges alone just as they would difficult research questions. However, the lone wolf strategy is not only unnecessary but also unproductive for the job search.
Instead of facing those challenges alone, you should pair up and support a colleague who is also looking for related positions. In fact, over time, you can expand this partnership to include a “pack of wolves.” If a single partnership can increase your career success, think about what an entire team can do. The job-search buddy system worked so well for me during my first job search that I used it again to help find my current role.
Thomas Magaldi is the administrator for career and professional development career services at Memorial Sloan Kettering.
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