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In our roles as career professionals, it is common that students want and expect us to share everything they need to improve the career task on which they are focused. We hear requests like, “Tell me everything I need to do to enhance my CV” and “I need all the tips to improve my interviewing skills.”
When students ask for all of our feedback and everything we know, at that moment we are at a crossroads, determining which and how much advice will be most beneficial to activate and optimize their career preparation. We are in the interesting position of constantly having to make decisions about how much to share.
While standing at the crossroads, we recognize that, while there are many correct actions our students can take, dialing back from offering all the advice and everything we know is often the best way to help them. Providing too much guidance can overwhelm students, erode their confidence, increase their stress and, in fact, do little to contribute to their career preparation.
Instead, we’d rather be strategic in our advice and provide only the very best recommendations. So, to optimize and set your career preparation in motion, each of us will separately share our favorite pieces of guidance on five areas of career preparation.
Career exploration involves researching options to understand the scope of job possibilities and aligning those possibilities with your ever-developing experiences, skills, values and interests.
Tithi: Keep an open mind. During their graduate journey, students can frequently be hyperfocused on one career goal, such as finding a tenure-track position, industry research role or consulting job. Often various factors like social conditioning, expectations from mentors or the familiarity of your family and peers with a certain career pathway can contribute to this narrowing of focus.
While it is good to have a sense of the general career direction, you should avoid tunnel vision as a graduate student and be amenable to learning about other possibilities with genuine interest and curiosity. You can add value to many career fields with your diverse skills and expertise. If you keep an open mind, it can lead to discovering a career pathway you were unfamiliar with and might find extremely fulfilling. For example, I once spoke to a graduate student who had never heard of a career as an ontologist, but once she started exploring the field, she found it to be a great fit and now works in it.
Kay: Read job postings every day. Reading job postings is a great way to explore careers, determine positions of interest and gain awareness of what resonates. It will alert you to qualifications you may need to develop during the pursuit of your graduate degree. Your degree will be just one of your many qualifications.
Turn a casual read into an examination by identifying the skills, experiences, knowledge and training you possess. Pay attention to additional skills or knowledge that you might need to acquire to be a competitive future applicant. Applicants for a position usually possess a combination of only some of the qualifications. But if the majority of jobs that interest you require skill X, you will need to possess or acquire it to be a top applicant.
CVs and Résumés
These documents showcase the best of what you have to offer that’s relevant to the opportunities to which you apply.
Tithi: Tailor to every role. Résumés and CVs are central documents for the job search. Graduate students often hope to perfect a single document for each one that they can use to apply for multiple career opportunities—internships, fellowships, jobs and so on. But in conversations with students, I emphasize the importance of tailoring these documents to the role and the context of the application. For example, if you are using your résumé to apply to a research position in an industry setting, you will want to prominently feature your research experience and expertise. In contrast, if you are applying for a role in science communications, you will want to highlight experience you have had in communicating research to a diverse audience.
Kay: Include a qualifications section when applying for industry positions. Creating a qualifications section can optimize your résumé and CV content for a scan by an applicant tracking system. In it, you can identify a few of the ways you are particularly qualified for the specific opportunity to which you are applying. The section typically includes three or four bulleted statements that highlight certain aspects of your knowledge, skills and experience that are aligned with the responsibilities and qualifications conveyed in the job posting.
Let’s say a job announcement emphasizes that candidates must be able to collaborate with multidisciplinary teams to create process improvements. If you have experience doing this, then one of the bulleted statements in your qualifications section could say, “Strong background collaborating with multidisciplinary teams to communicate research to stakeholders.” Perhaps you don’t have much experience with the process improvements described in the job ad, but you can include communicate research to stakeholders to provide context and to highlight your communication skills.
The qualifications section creates additional opportunities, beyond the skills and experience sections, to include keywords that the applicant tracking system can match. And for the human reader, the section immediately conveys that you’re an applicant who can do the job.
Interacting with people to exchange information and to cultivate connections can be helpful throughout your career.
Tithi: Get out of your silo. It’s not easy to reach out to try and connect with someone you might not know. But networking doesn’t have to be about connecting at conferences, setting up informational interviews or emailing someone cold. You can begin by just getting out of your usual groove and making time to do something you’re not required to do as a graduate student. For example, joining a student organization can be a fun, low-stakes way to engage with other people with shared interests. Volunteering for a cause you care about might lead to meeting individuals who aren’t a part of your normal orbit, whom you wouldn’t meet in your lab or your department. You never know where these interactions might lead—what doors they might open for you.
Kay: Make it a habit to talk to people. Networking in its simplest form is a style of conversation that can be easily integrated into your daily routine. Become genuinely curious about people: what they do, what their career journey has been, the advice they have to share and the other individuals they know. If I lined up three people and said to you, “One of these people will lead you to your future job,” would you be eager to engage with them? The truth is that, at any given moment, you might speak to someone who can lead you to a future job.
Let’s say you are at the grocery store checkout and notice the person ahead of you is wearing a jacket that says Cengage Group. You’ve heard of that organization and wondered if educational content development might be a career option for you. You decide to ask, “I noticed you have a Cengage Group jacket on—do you work there?” The person responds, “No, my partner does.” You might follow with, “My name is Eleni and I am in a Ph.D. program here at the university. What part of the company does your partner work in?” The person responds, “At National Geographic Learning. What are you studying?”
As the brief exchange unfolds, it is likely you’ll get an opportunity to say something like, “It was really nice speaking with you. Do you think your partner might be willing to talk with me about their experience at Cengage Group?” The person responds, “Sure! My name is Andrea—why don’t you write down your name and email for me?” This is how to build one’s network through an everyday conversation: by being aware, talking with others and engaging your curiosity.
Good interviewing is communicating the value that you bring to the hiring organization.
Tithi: Think about what someone is trying to gauge through a question. As career advisers, we field tons of questions from grad students about interviewing. One key recommendation we offer is that they should take a moment and analyze each question to understand what the interviewer actually wants to know about them. When being interviewed, our natural instinct is to dive into giving an answer. But it is a good idea to take a pause and really think about why the interviewer is asking this question: What do they care about? What are they trying to learn?
Taking time to reflect on such questions before responding can help you be strategic in your response and home in on the themes you think will most interest the interviewer. For example, consider what they are actually interested in when they ask, “What is your greatest weakness?” They are perhaps trying to understand if you are self-aware about your own shortcomings and how you have addressed them. Having this perspective might allow you to provide a strategic answer that showcases a quality you have worked to improve.
Kay: Practice examples more than rehearsing answers to questions that may never get asked. Responding to interview questions with examples provides memorable stories that convey your skills, knowledge and experience. Too often individuals prepare for interviews by only rehearsing answers to a long list of very specific questions and then are fearful of being asked those that they didn’t practice. Sound familiar?
As you get ready for an interview, dedicate time to review the job posting and think more broadly about the content areas of the position. For example, interviewers will often ask you to share your strengths. If you are asked this question, you will want to identify two or three strengths that are central to the job. Before the interview, outline an example for each of your strengths by identifying what the strength is, how you developed it, where you applied it, and how you envision using it in the position. Each component of your example might be one to three sentences in length.
With examples of your strengths mapped out, your response is no longer tied to the specific wording of a question. You can now comfortably respond to any variation of a strengths-type question like, “Tell me about your strengths” or “What strengths would a supervisor describe you as having?” or “What strengths do you enjoy using the most?” While you will never know in advance the exact questions that you will be asked, you can effectively anticipate what the interviewer will likely want to learn about you. You will also find that you can recycle all or parts of your examples for future interviews.
Negotiating Job Offers
During such conversations, you will be advocating for your priorities to reach agreement about what is attainable.
Tithi: Consider your long-term goals. Graduate students often tend to focus on things like salary or sign-on bonus at the negotiation stage. While these are important aspects of a new position, it is also crucial to consider how the role supports your long-term goals. That means considering what professional development opportunities that role might provide, as well as the skills and competencies you want to develop in it—and then advocating for them at this stage. You might, for instance, negotiate the opportunity to travel to conferences or for tuition reimbursement for courses. For success over the long haul, keep in mind your overall growth at the negotiation stage.
Kay: Adopt a collaborative approach. When viewed in this way, negotiating a job package becomes a give-and-take and signals that you and the employer are in it together as partners. Let’s say the hiring manager offers you a salary of $80,000, but based on your salary research, qualifications and ability to do the job, you are looking for a salary of $88,000. During your negotiation, you can briefly mention the salary research you did for the specific role in that specific geographic location and, after reminding the employer about the value you bring, then ask, “How can we get closer to $88,000?” Using the word “we” implies that it is a collaborative effort to get closer to that salary figure.
(I should also note that asking in this way signals that you would take the position if the employer offers an amount slightly less than the salary you identified. I don’t recommend this approach if you must have $88, 000 in order to accept the position.)
In conclusion, although embarking on a career path after finishing your graduate degree is exciting, it requires preparation. Sometimes the process can feel overwhelming and immobilizing. Do not let this daunt you. Take strategic steps to generate momentum and invigorate yourself. The sense of accomplishment that you will feel from taking even one of those steps can build your motivation to take another—and then more!