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The National Bureau of Economic Research recently published a study that showed that job seekers who sought help from a non–generative AI writing and text tool to improve their job application documents had an 8 percent greater chance of getting hired than those who did not. One might argue that larger likelihood of landing a role, particularly in today’s economy, is invaluable to job seekers, but is there a right way to use AI? And, most important, how do you ensure you do not lose your own voice while using it?
In a follow-up to the study discussed above, the lead author Emma van Inwegen-Wiles emphasized that while it is helpful to use AI to improve writing quality, that benefit would diminish significantly if everyone started using AI and thus “homogenizing” writing. Additionally, employers would not be able to use writing in résumés and cover letters as an indicator of an applicant’s communication skills. Those findings—combined with those of other studies that have found that a combination of personal, societal and computational biases can trickle into AI—raise a fundamental question: Should we be using AI for job applications at all?
Recent articles and insights by thought leaders in the career-development space point out that graduate students and postdocs can use generative AI tools like ChatGPT for gaining clarity in their career development and job searches, but in defined contexts, such as:
- Obtaining a list of suggested career paths if you have a specific educational background or interests;
- Highlighting key skills in a job posting;
- Suggesting potential interview questions for a position after inputting your résumé and the job posting; and
- Getting feedback on your application materials, with the intent of using your own language to incorporate any AI suggestions.
Besides using AI to help improve grammar and clarity, however, you should probably not employ it to completely craft swaths of text from scratch. Despite any imperfections you may feel your writing style has, your job applications speak to your abilities and your original voice. Further, as van Inwegen-Wiles reasons, if everyone started using AI, employers will rely on alternate methods to evaluate potential job seekers’ writing skills. So, at some point as a job applicant, you will be expected to produce AI-free writing.
While candidates may use AI in career development and job searches, employers are increasingly using it in recruitment. Applicant tracking systems, or ATS, software that helps recruiters organize and screen potential candidates for positions, may have AI integrated in them. AI has the potential to speed up recruiting by automating certain aspects of the candidate-review process. But a report by the CBC highlighted different studies that show significant drawbacks to using AI-based ATS in recruitment, as well—including biased recruitment due to AI relying on past hiring data that may favor a certain demographic while potentially excluding minorities and equity-seeking populations.
As a career adviser, I was interested in learning from recruiters about how to effectively navigate the ATS and recently wrote a LinkedIn post dispelling myths surrounding the system. Consistently, recruiters affirm that using a simple résumé format without a dizzying array of different colors, fonts, tables and graphs makes it easier for the ATS to parse text from the résumé and organize information. Recruiters may use key skills and screening questions with specific prompts to filter out potential candidates via the ATS—such as those who receive auto-reject emails. Most recruiters say that they, as humans, read résumés, so therefore it is crucial you write as one.
So how do you write about your accomplishments in a way that speaks to the employer without compromising your authentic voice? Paul Rainey, senior coordinator for graduate student career services at Texas A&M University, explains that while graduate students and postdocs often mention accomplishments like presenting at conferences, developing assays, writing literature reviews and designing research projects, they frequently fail to explain the purpose or the why of all they have been doing. As a student or postdoc, you should consider how your work affects your field, organization and the broader society. I also always remind my students and postdocs that their prime focus should be on tying accomplishments to the pertinent requirements and skills stated in a job posting—not just listing accomplishments or mentioning technical details without adding a purpose or rationale.
Nor should you randomly insert key words from the posting into sentences without considering coherence and relevance. Remember, as a job seeker, it is up to you to understand the language that the employer uses and translate your assets to fit that narrative.
How else in this age of AI can you make your job application stand out? Consider networking! You can apply your analytical skills to craft thoughtful and creative elevator pitches to facilitate it. Insights you gain from informational interviews can help you understand what an organization is looking for in a potential employee. Then, through effective writing and communication skills, you can highlight for an employer in your job application documents how your distinct skill set and advanced training can contribute to their organization or team’s mission and vision.
Networking authentically with employees at an organization may even get your résumé directly in the hands of decision-makers, thereby removing the ATS as a factor in your job search. No AI can ever replace the value of building genuine professional connections via networking and leveraging those connections for mutual career and professional development.
For graduate students and postdocs who have invested time in specializing in a particular subject area, representing your original voice in both networking and job applications is vital. Remember to craft a compelling narrative that highlights your relevant achievements in ways that fit the employer’s needs. Use AI to complement and for critique. I hope that as we learn more about effectively using such technology to make job search and recruitment more efficient, inclusive and equitable, we always remember to embrace our authentic selves.