Leveraging Luck in the Job Search

Luck may play a part in various aspects of a job search, writes David A. McDonald, but you can have much more influence over the process than you may realize.

March 18, 2019
 
 
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When talking with faculty members and professionals about their careers, one of my biggest pet peeves is when someone says, “Well, I got lucky.” No career advice is less helpful and more disempowering than hearing that you have to “get lucky.”

Not a single graduate student with whom I’ve worked has sent out a bunch of applications, made some contacts and then just waited for luck to happen. It seems there is a Law of Conservation of Job Search Energy: as soon as one set of applications is done, people don’t stop searching. They’ll move on to the next batch of applications, start working on a backup career plan or check their email every five minutes in the hopes of an interview.

It’s tempting to think of your chance of getting a job as a function of probability: if you’re one of 20 applicants for a job, you’d have a 5 percent chance of getting that position. But a job search is not the same as randomly drawing a single colored ball (i.e., your application) out of a box. Instead, it is a series of nonrandom drawings of multiple balls until a final job offer is made. And the good news is that you can capitalize on the nonrandomness of this process.

In the following sections, I’ll walk through the various aspects of a search in which luck plays a part and emphasize where you have more influence over the process. As a quote attributed to Seneca goes, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

The Specific Skills and Experience the Employer Seeks

How luck plays a role: Depending on your field, it can be quite hard to predict what methods, technical skills or research topics will be “hot” a few years from now. And by the time you’re applying to jobs, you obviously can’t go back in time and acquire the skills that universities or companies are looking for. In the academic world, you won’t know what particular areas of research and teaching expertise that institutions will be seeking. In industry, a specific coding language, analytical method or lab technique may only be in vogue for a couple years.

What you can do: If you have some time before you actively search for your next job, consider how you can build a breadth of experience. Do you have an opportunity to take on a new project or apply a new technique to your current work? Consider collaborating with other researchers who have expertise you’d like to learn, or seek out courses and experiences that can help you build those new skills.

Specific technical skills may be your foot in the door, but if they’re hiring doctoral-level talent, they’re looking for someone who will want to keep learning the newest developments in the field. For example, Ph.D.s who have gone into data science don’t recommend particular coding languages since the field is moving so quickly. Sure, machine learning is a popular approach right now, but companies want to hire someone who will be ready to learn the next approach, as well.

If you’re actively searching, you probably don’t have the time to build a new skill. In that case, first search for jobs requiring the specific skills you do have. Many fields are broad enough that you can search more specifically than you may think. On job sites like Indeed, an optimal search yields only about 100 to 200 results. Try including specific software or techniques in your search, such as NVivo, SPSS or siRNA -- potentially adding “Ph.D.” to your search to be more specific. Start with the jobs that suit your skills and interests well, and then broaden your search from there.

The Initial Screening of Applications

How luck plays a role: You’ll rarely know who will be the first to read your CV, résumé, cover letter or other application documents. It may be a recruiter, human resources professional, hiring manager or search committee. You have to speak to multiple audiences with your application simultaneously. Make sure you dive into enough specifics of your research projects to demonstrate expertise, and then balance that by including transferable skills.

Read the job posting closely to see which specific skills and phrasings they mention and use those to write your materials. In case they’re using an applicant tracking system, this is your best tactic for matching which keywords they’re scanning for in this initial screen.

This approach to job applications can feel like standing in line at a theme park. You’ve been waiting as the line shuffles forward, hoping that each step is getting you that much closer to the ride. Every few minutes, some people breeze by you in the express line. You try not to be jealous, but you can’t help wondering as they pass, “Didn’t I see that person go by already?”

What you can do: In the job search, sending in applications is the slow line. People certainly obtain jobs by sending out as many applications as possible, but the process is slow and frustrating. However, when people on the search committee know who you are or someone at that organization has referred you, your application gets plucked from the slow line and moved to the express line. I’ve seen some pretty terrible résumés from people who got the job, in part because you can get away with less than perfect documents when people at that institution can speak to your strengths.

So, yes, networking is a thing, both in academic and nonacademic searches. Don’t spend all of your time crafting and fine-tuning your applications. Make them good, but once that’s done, refocus your efforts on meeting people at conferences, networking events or arranged informational interviews. Ask everyone for their advice and for suggestions of additional people whom they think you should meet.

Ghost Job Posts

How luck plays a role: Not every job is posted publicly, and not every posted job is actually available. Many institutions have to post all jobs publicly, even if they have an internal or external candidate in mind. Depending on the institution, they may be required to interview a certain number of candidates just to offer the job to their original candidate anyway. In theory, this is about equity. But in practice, it can be frustrating and a large time investment for applicants and organizations.

Similarly, a significant proportion of jobs are filled but never posted. Organizations have someone in mind, and they can craft a position around the person. In both of these scenarios, it can feel difficult to know how to get a job that’s not posted or to know if a job that’s posted is real.

What you can do: One approach is to talk to people at these organizations of interest. If a job is posted, reach out to anyone you can find to ask them more about the position and the work environment. If you’re interested in a particular organization and they don’t have any jobs posted that suit you, you can still reach out to learn more about their work. Not all organizations will be able to create a job for you, but you’ll be top of their mind when something does become available.

Your Competition

How luck plays a role: Only rarely will you have any idea who else has applied for the same job as you. I hear some students talking about how they are not as competitive as the other people who have applied, but the reality is they have no idea who is in the candidate pool. In some ways, focusing on the other applicants can be way of projecting your own concerns.

What you can do: You’ll never control whom you’re competing against, but you can control how well you communicate your strengths and experience. It’s less of a contest between you and others and more of a contest between you and yourself. Spend time reflecting on your strengths and what experiences you’ve had that you’re proud of. Make sure you prominently feature your best qualifications in your application documents. When you interview, make a short list of the top qualities or projects you’d be remiss in not mentioning.

In this same vein, keep in mind that applications and interviews are very different forms of communication than most of your academic experience. Communicating your research in academe is centered on knowledge. Don’t carry that same approach into the job search. Applications and interviews are about self-promotion. Ground the conversation in your distinct skills, qualities and motivations, and use your graduate school experiences as specific examples. That is how to best convey who you are and how you fit that institution or organization.

Luck is undoubtedly part of the job search process. But if you can acknowledge where you do have control, you can work more effectively and efficiently. Instead of ending this article by saying, “Good luck,” I’ll close with “Keep up the good work.”

Bio

David A. McDonald is associate director of graduate services at Duke University Career Center and a member of the Graduate Career Consortium -- an organization providing a national voice for graduate-level career and professional development leaders.

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