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When I began working with Ph.D.s and postdoctoral scholars in the biomedical sciences, I attended a number of their scholarly talks and poster sessions. I wanted to get a sense of what the trainees with whom I would be working actually did. While watching those presentations, one thing was clear: they knew their stuff! They presented complicated, high-level scientific concepts and fielded questions with aplomb, even questions that seemed to challenge every aspect of their science. They were highly accomplished scientists with curious and creative minds who were passionate and confident about their research.

As I began to meet one on one with these trainees to work on résumés and CVs, conduct mock interviews, and discuss career goals, however, I was flabbergasted to find that such self-assuredness was scarce. In appointment after appointment, these scientists felt uneasy speaking about their skills. Some doubted the worth of their abilities in the real world. Many reported feeling extremely uncomfortable selling themselves. They often told me they felt as if they were bragging.

“I don’t want to take all the credit.”

“I obviously worked on all this as part of a team and with my principal investigator.”

“I’ve never had a real job.”

“I don’t have any real experience.”

Accomplishments were described in terms of what we or what the lab did. Successes were credited to others. They often undervalued their skills and underplayed their years of experience.

When I probed, I learned these Ph.D. students and postdocs were responsible for designing and developing the protocols of the research. They personally ran experiments. They oversaw all day-to-day maintenance of their lab. They managed schedules and supervised lab personnel. It was obvious that they weren’t taking sufficient credit for these experiences that helped to develop their skills and abilities.

The mentality in academia is to speak as a collective, as it is the combined collaborative effort that carries the science forward. Certainly, employers want employees who are team players. But employers are hiring a person, not a lab, so such thinking doesn’t work well in a job interview where individual skills and competence must be highlighted.

To help my students and postdocs understand the importance of their individual contributions, I analogized hiring a research assistant. I asked them to imagine their lab desperately needed a person to ease the significant workload. What would they need to know to make sure they hired the right person for the job? How helpful would it be if the potential employee knew key lab procedures and had a good understanding of the scientific concepts as related to the procedures? Beyond technical skills, would they prefer to hire someone with a strong work ethic? How important would it be to know whether or not the applicant was capable of meticulously keeping detailed records and doing their research with minimal supervision? Finally, how much stronger would the applicant be if they had excellent communication and presentation skills?

Knowing those facts about the applicant would help determine the right person for the job. The same is true for recruiters or hiring managers who are looking to fill a gap in their lab, office or company. It is essential to provide the information employers need so they are able to determine the person who is the right fit for the job. Applicants must discuss technical skills and experience, but they must also speak to their soft skills to let employers know what they bring to any job.

Doing this requires a change in mind-set. Job seekers have to understand that they are providing employers with information necessary for their decision making.

So next time you are in a situation, such as an interview, consider the following:

Use I, not we, to describe what you have done. When you use we, the actual contribution you yourself made is not clear.

  • Speak openly about your accomplishments and the role you played.
  • Describe how you collaborated with others in your lab. Use we to set the stage and describe your goals (e.g., “Our team was charged with …”), but then describe your role (e.g., “I initiated the …” or “I oversaw …”)
  • Be specific, and back up your answers with concrete examples of what you accomplished and the impact it made.
  • Explain how the work you did relates to the job you’re seeking.

Make sure you tailor your information to fit their needs. To do that, you have to truly understand what the recruiters want and show them how well you fit their needs.

  • Start with the job description. Determine what technical skills might be preferred or are required.
  • Read between the lines of the job description: What personal characteristics seem valued? What characteristics are repeated over and over throughout the job posting (examples: “collaborative,” “innovative”)?
  • Recognize the values of the organization by reviewing its mission and vision statements.
  • Consider speaking with current and former employees to get some inside information. Use LinkedIn or an alumni database from your alma mater, or ask contacts in your own personal network, to find people with connections to the organization.
  • Understand the culture of the organization by exploring its social media (LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter), and don’t forget to follow the organization on all key platforms to really highlight your interest. Organizations often check whether applicants are following them or not.

Distinguish yourself from other candidates. Your technical skills will get the interview, but you will be up against other equally worthy candidates, so why should they hire you? Go above and beyond just explaining your skills and experience and tell them what they will be getting when they hire you.

  • Conduct some key self-assessments (examples: myIDP, ImaginePhD, Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, Strong Interest Inventory) to identify your strengths and positive personal characteristics to be able to distinguish yourself.
  • Consider which of your top strengths and characteristics correspond most closely to the position you desire.
  • Determine your backstory. Consider all of your background -- what you have done, what you have studied, what you have accomplished. Then develop the narrative, with details that you choose, to tell the story that shows your fit.
  • Connect the dots for the hiring manager to explain how your skills and personality are the right fit for this job.

Build your confidence. You need to believe in yourself before you can convince others.

  • Get excited about where you see yourself going and what you hope to do.
  • Support yourself. Practice positive self-talk to replace the voice of that inner critic.
  • Surround yourself with support. Find people who make you feel good about yourself and appreciate what you do.

Recognize and be proud of your strengths and accomplishments. Understand the value of your skills and realize how lucky the company would be to have you. You aren’t bragging.

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