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Reverse Engineering My First Industry Job Search

New Contributor II
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9 years ago, I landed my first industry job following little of the advice you may find on these discussion boards.  I was very lucky. I got my first job by responding to a job board ad for a company I had never heard of, but was developing products based on technologies very similar to my graduate and postgraduate research. The company was also located in my preferred geographic region, so I definitely should have been aware of them.  Though things worked out for me, here are 3 things I would now do differently instead of relying on a lucky break.

1. Target both the big fish and small fish in your industry of choice.

Because my research experience was in optical spectroscopy, I focused my job search on the large, well-known companies in this industry, Thermo, Bruker, etc. Problem is, these companies attract a large number of candidates, many of whom will have prior industry experience. I recommend targeting a mix of large and small companies for your networking efforts. The large companies will post more opportunities, but you’ll have more applicants competing with you. Smaller companies will post fewer opportunities, but you should have less competition.

2. Explore the full value chain in your industry of choice.

How do you find the smaller companies that could be a great fit for you?  Consider that every large, well-known company operates in a sort of ecosystem with smaller suppliers, customers, strategic partners, and competitors. During my search, I was targeting the big players but landed at Smiths Detection, who was a competitor of Thermo and Bruker in the Defense and Security market. Had I uncovered during informational interviews that Smiths was both a supplier and competitor to these companies, I would have added Smiths to my target list. I was working as a postdoc in the Washington DC area and could have networked with many defense customers who could have introduced me to the company.  Instead, I left my job search to chance by not going to this level of depth.

During your informational interviewing, be sure to find out the names of the suppliers, customers, partners, and competitors to your target companies, as each of these may present another opportunity for you. This information can also be gathered by reviewing the press releases of your target companies.  Press releases will often announce key supplier, customer, and partner relationships that can expand your view of the industry. As an example, if one of your target companies announces a major supply agreement of their products or services with another, that new supplier or customer may now have a need to hire someone with your expertise.

3. Limit the amount of jargon on your resume.

I landed at a company that was commercializing miniature infrared and Raman sensors for use in defense and security applications. My research experience was in an advanced spectroscopic technique that combined infrared and Raman measurements and was very relevant to what the company was doing. However, you wouldn’t have known that from my resume. I cited my experience as “studying the structure and dynamics of phospholipids surface monolayers using ultrafast sum frequency spectroscopy.” This language was foreign to the hiring manager.  Luckily, that individual’s boss was an expert in spectroscopy and one of the few at the time who knew what sum frequency spectroscopy was and how it was relevant to the company. He happened to see my resume and recommended me for an interview.

The lesson is to write your resume in a language that is consistent with how your target company talks about their own technologies, products, and services.  This will maximize your chances of being selected for an interview by the human resources department and hiring manager. In my case, had I become aware of Smiths Detection through informational interviewing and researched their company website, I could have changed my resume to say “analyzing trace materials using a combination of infrared and Raman techniques.” This language would have been recognizable by the non-experts reviewing my resume. Had that one expert not been involved with the evaluation process, I would have missed out on what became a great first step in my professional career.

With any type of communication, it’s important to use language that can be understood by experts and non-experts. This maximizes your chances of connecting with the entire audience, and in the case of a job search and interviewing, you will likely be evaluated by a committee of people with varied levels of expertise. Be sure that your resume has a balance of technical language and relatable language that will be understood by all.