I’ve hired well over a dozen field technicians in the last 10 years, and have just wrapped up this year’s recruitment. Below are some thoughts on what you can do to increase the likelihood of success in a job competition, and also some advice on whether to apply in the first place. You should also read this advice from Auriel Fournier, which hits many of the same points. Like Auriel’s post, these are things I look for when I’m hiring; other places likely differ.
Don’t be generic
I receive a fair number of what I call “Dear Sir/Madam” applications. These tend to go along the lines of “Dear Sir/Madam, I am interested in applying for the advertised position in your organization”. It’s rather obvious that little thought has likely gone into the application, as it doesn’t mention the job, organization, or other details specifically. This “fire broadly and see what sticks” approach is a waste of time. It’s not that difficult to personalize job applications, even within a generic framework, and “Dear Sir/Madam” applications go to the bottom of the pile.
Most job postings are looking for people with a given skill set, whether it be bird banding/ringing, data management, blood sampling, or operating specific equipment. It’s important in your cover letter to go through each of these and demonstrate how you fit the criteria. The first thing I do when advertising a job is make a spreadsheet with all the different skills I’m looking for. When I start looking through applications, I check off which of the requirements each applicant has. Your chances of getting an interview and being successful are very small if you have the necessary skills or experience the job is looking for (or you don’t clearly demonstrate these in your cover letter).
Use the same wording as the job advert. If the job requires someone with bird banding experience, a paragraph/sentence about how long you’ve been banding, which species/species groups, and roughly how many individuals would be a useful thing to include.
Location & wage
The assumption is that, if you’re applying for a job, you would accept the position if it were offered. I was advised in grad school to “apply for everything”, which is not a strategy I recommend. As a postdoc, I had no intention of working in the US, so I didn’t apply for any jobs in the US. Doing so was a waste of my (and the hiring committee’s) time. Likewise, if you have no intention of accepting the position at the wage advertised, then don’t apply. This is usually determined by an internal salary scale or the size of the grant.
In my most recent job competition, I asked for a cover letter, CV, and 3 references (with phone numbers) as a single PDF, yet about 15% of applicants didn’t follow this requirement. Multiple files, different formats, only 2 references, no phone numbers, … you name it. Not only is there likely a good reason for these sorts of requirements, but it can also act as a screening mechanism, much like Van Halen’s “No Brown M&M’s” clause – if you didn’t follow these instructions, it doesn’t bode well for the rest.
Check with your referees
I don’t like wasting referees’ time, so it’s unlikely that I’d contact them if you weren’t being interviewed (which generally means you have a good shot at the position). So make sure your referees are current, and can speak to your strengths for the job required. This might mean (gasp, shock, horror) that your referees differ depending on the job. While I appreciate that your 3rd-year invertebrate anatomy prof can speak quite highly of your academic abilities, are they the most suitable person when applying for a field job?
Make sure your referees also know you’re applying, either for a particular post, or just generally on the job market, so that they’re aware they may be contacted by potential employers.
I don’t simply ask referees “So, how was X at doing job Y for you?” I’m interested in their take on your strengths and weaknesses, whether they’d hire you again, and how you stack up against others that held that sort of post before, for example.
If you’re being interviewed, it generally means you have the technical skills to complete the job to the required standard, and the decision is down to other factors, such as personality, how well you’re likely to get on with other team members, or how you’d react in various situations.
Before the interview, think about what questions are likely to come up. I’m less likely to ask you about your technical skills (I can generally assess those from the application package). I generally propose a few scenarios, followed by asking “What would you do?” There’s no wrong answer, and some of the questions may not seem relevant to the job at hand, but they will tell me something of the person that a CV and cover letter can’t convey.
I’m also very likely to ask what you think your greatest weakness is. This isn’t an attempt to weasel out your flaws, but to get your perspective on your own professional development.
During the interview, take notes of what was asked, and your general answers. This will help you prepare for other interviews in the future, and the task of writing the questions down can help solidify your answers. You should also be prepared to ask some questions of the interviewer about the post, or the process. This shows a certain level of engagement with the application, and that you’ve given it thought between the application and interview.
If the interview is by phone or Skype, pick a quiet room where you’re unlikely to be interrupted by pets, family, traffic, or other disturbances, and do your best to minimize any technical glitches. If in person or video conference, dress professionally.
There are many other posts about job interview tips and tricks, and these are just a few that I’ve had come through my mind in this latest round of recruitment that might not be covered as extensively elsewhere. I think it can be summarized by these three points:
- Demonstrate explicitly in your application how you satisfy the criteria
- Provide referees who can speak to the pertinent aspects of your career for the position
- Be calm, professional, and engaged with the interview process
It’s as easy* as that!
Footnote – “fit”
My biggest frustration on the job market was being technically qualified, and being interviewed (or at least long-listed), but in the end unsuccessful because of “fit”. This can be used for any variety of reasons, some more unsavoury than others (like the exclusion of women or people of colour), but for many field jobs, it’s an important aspect as living/working conditions are likely to be very close/demanding, or for a long period of time in isolation. Having a team get on well with each other is very important. “Fit” should only be considered once the technical skills have been assessed.
Footnote the second – online presence
Chances are, I’ll Google long-listed applicants in a professional capacity (are you on Twitter, or Google Scholar? Do you have a website?). I won’t stalk you on Facebook (though other employers may). Be aware of what you put online.
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*a bit tongue in cheek. For each job, there are far more qualified applicants than there are positions, so try not to despair if you’re not successful.