Selling Yourself on the Job Market

To do that, you have to have a product worth selling and know how to sell it to a particular segment of customers, advises Joseph Barber.

August 1, 2016

I am currently taking an Introduction to Marketing course on Coursera as a way to think about the whole job-search process in a slightly different way. Marketing is actually a relevant topic when it comes to the process of career development. At some point as a job seeker, you are trying to encourage another entity (an employer) to purchase your product (your skills, experiences and knowledge). To do that, you have to have a product worth buying, you have to know how to sell that product and you have to know how to sell that product to a particular segment of customers.

So far, some of the most pertinent topics covered in the course include the idea that no matter what the product is, it won’t be equally attractive to the entire customer base. In other words, some buyers will really like the product, some will respond to it fairly neutrally (they might buy it, but they might equally buy a similar product from another vendor) and some won’t find it attractive at all.

In business, it generally makes the most sense to focus efforts on the subset of the population that really likes the product (taking a customer-centric approach and using a process of segmentation), rather than just hoping that everyone will find your product equally attractive (a product-centric approach). One of the career analogies here is quite clear: sending out 50 versions of the same résumé to 50 different companies (even if the job being applied for is similar) won’t work as well as really taking the time to understand the differences among the employers and targeting the most attractive and relevant ones with highly tailored application materials.

At this point in the course, several marketing principles, assumptions and theories have been shared, and I am still processing that information. It is interesting, however, to look for other areas of overlap between those concepts and what we focus on as career advisers. Here are three market-driven principles that were shared:

  • Know your markets.
  • Customers have the final say.
  • Be the best, compared to the competition, at one of these three concepts: operational excellence, performance superiority and customer intimacy. But be just good enough in the other two.

Knowing the market is essential. The more you understand about who your customers are -- and, in career terms, these are hiring employers -- the easier it is to convince them that you have what they are looking for. If employers are the customers in this case, then they still get the final say. That means that there is little point in telling an employer about all the great work you have done, and all the super experiences you have gained, if that information does not align with what the employer is looking for.

For example, over the course of a five-year Ph.D. program, a graduate student can gain a wide range of transferable skills. However, one of the consequences of doing a Ph.D. is often a lack of practice talking about those skills outside of the context of the very specific research field the student has been working in. In an interview for a nonfaculty job, Ph.D. students and postdocs have to be careful not to answer the question “So tell me about your research” by actually spending five minutes talking about the specifics of their research. Instead, they have to be able to answer “So tell me how you did your research” in a way that is much more skills focused. In addition, having completed a five-year Ph.D. and a five-year postdoc program, a candidate might somewhat expect that those combined experiences by themselves should qualify them for a wide range of positions. That is not the case. The employer wants candidates to be able to show how such experiences make them a good fit -- and to demonstrate that level of understanding.

The idea of being the best at, say, either operational excellence, performance superiority or customer intimacy -- but just good enough at the other two -- is also relevant to job seekers as it shows there are different approaches to successfully landing a position. For instance, performance superiority might represent the research skills a student has gained. Someone with 15 published papers and two grants might demonstrate performance superiority. Operational excellence might represent the number of connections that a candidate has in different career fields or their knowledge of these fields and of what employers are looking for based on extensive research into their different career fields. Customer intimacy would represent the degree to which a candidate has actually initiated and then further developed relationships with contacts at different employers through collaborations or networking (taking the idea of knowing people to the more advanced level of having professional relationships with them).

Given that, the following scenarios demonstrate how excellence in any of those three areas can help. Someone might be hired because they are the best at what they do, even if they don’t have a lot of contacts or professional relationships with employers or know much about the business itself. (They can easily be trained in that, for example.) Another person might get hired because they have been able to craft a spectacular résumé that shows that they understand the nature of the position to which they are applying, even if they are not the best candidate in terms of their accomplishments. (The most accomplished individual who cannot articulate how their accomplishments are relevant might not get the job, after all.)

And, finally, someone else might get hired even though they are not the most accomplished and don’t have a smart-looking, tailored résumé, but because they have great working relationships with people at a specific company -- and those future colleagues can easily see themselves working with the candidate for the foreseeable future. (Fit always plays a role in hiring decisions.) You only need to be the best in one of these dimensions … but it helps if you are not terrible at the other two.

One other marketing topic that is directly relevant to the job search is the idea of brand positioning. One of the points mentioned in the marketing course is the idea that a personal brand is not what you say about yourself; rather, it represents what other people say about you. You can come up with a really snappy brand statement about yourself, a well-crafted narrative about what skills and experience you bring, but if that is not how the customers see you, then those statements won’t stick.

That is another good reason to develop a broad professional network, cultivate it carefully and tend to it frequently. It will be people in that network who create your personal brand. You can help them, through your interactions, by being able to articulate your unique selling proposition: the clear, simple and distinct benefits you bring. But beyond that, they will define your brand for you.

When it comes to branding, the goal is not only to get consumers to notice the brand but also to understand the information it represents. Just as with résumés, if there is too much information (and especially too much irrelevant information), the audience will probably block all of it out. Clear, concise and target-focused information should be at the heart of personal brands, résumés and pretty much any form of communication.

I have much more to learn about marketing, and I hope to come across more ideas for how marketing principles can help individual job seekers. I also think I will glean information from this course that institutional career centers at universities can use to better market themselves to their customers, the students and postdocs they serve. Branding, segmentation and targeting, and customer-centricity are all relevant to how career advisers can work more effectively, too.


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


Back to Top