Question

get your foot in the doorHow do you get your foot in the door without the necessary degree (yet)? I’m changing careers from computer programming to bioinformatics, which is a field that uses computers to answer biological questions. Most bioinformaticians I’ve spoken to consider computing to be a more important skill than genetics. While I’m almost finished with a masters in the field, I really need to get a job, but most jobs list a degree as a requirement.

I’m considering selling my lack of a completed degree as an opportunity for the employer to snag an experienced programmer who’s new to bioinformatics at a discount, if they hire me now vs. waiting until I finish my degree when I’ll be more marketable.

Is this a good idea? I know it will have an impact on my ability to negotiate a salary, but 2020 has left me in a position where I simply must have an income. So my concern is more about whether it will look bad, or presumptuous.

If you think it’s a good move, how should I phrase this “value proposition?” Thank you.

Nick’s Reply

I don’t think we have many bioinformaticians in our community, but your question is a good one for us because it would be relevant to anyone contemplating a significant change in careers. The words “degree required” often stop talented people dead in their tracks when it should just make them find a way around that obstacle.

Paying to get your foot in the door

While I like your “willingness to deal” to get hired, I’m not sure the savings would mean enough to an employer to affect their decision to hire you now one way or the other. In fact, making your discount offer to help you get in the door might complicate the calculus. Getting a discount could actually put an undue emphasis on the risk the manager feels they’re taking. Make sense?

“Degree required” is often negotiable if the candidate can show relevant experience or related education (or potent, relevant references). You could easily submit an application that notes “degree expected Month, 2021.”

Networking to get in the door

This is a case where I think my general advice to avoid applying with resumes and forms is all the more important. Resumes and forms cannot defend you or explain the valuable trade-off your computing skills represent. If you had a personal referral to the hiring manager, you could reduce the risk of being rejected out of hand for lack of the degree. A good word from a trusted contact could lead the manager to take a chance on you. I really think investing time and effort to identify and quickly develop such a contact could be invaluable.

My guess is you have some companies in mind. Start mapping out the network of people who might help you —  people connected to each company and others associated in turn. It’s a little-known fact that the nodes on the periphery of a network are often the most useful and productive (cf. Six Degrees: The Science of A Connected Age, Duncan Watts). This means the person that will ultimately help you is probably unknown to you today. Map out that network exhaustively. Start dropping notes to people you identify that might provide you with insights, advice and introductions. If networking like this makes you shudder, learn how even shy people can network.

The ideal referral or introduction would come from someone who connects the dots for the hiring manager about how your programming expertise would benefit the manager.

Think like the manager

If I were the employer you approached, a lot would depend on the specific job I was trying to fill. If it’s standalone (vs. working on a team) or a senior role, I might really want at least a couple of years hands-on experience in bioinformatics specifically. But if all the weight of that specialization is not going to be on the new hire, I’d probably consider a sharp new grad who shows me they can ride a fast learning curve without falling off. I think you need to appeal to the latter kinds of managers.

To get your foot in the door without the degree it’s crucial for you to glean insights from people in bioinformatics who know and work for managers you may want to work for. So making such contacts is all the more important. They will hopefully influence a manager and also provide you with insights so you can choose managers and companies wisely. (These folks might also help you with your question about offering a salary discount.) You need that extra edge.

Get an edge to get that foot in the door

Gene Webb, my mentor at Stanford, was a biz school professor whose research was in decision theory. He taught all his students this: If you’re going to take a bet, any marginal bit of information you have that your competitors don’t have makes the bet worth taking. Employers are so reliant on keywords in resumes and job applications that any candidate’s odds of success are — in my opinion — about the same. They’re all tiny! The recruiting process reduces even the best candidates to even odds of being brought in for an interview. The marginal advantage, which is always worth cultivating, is a personal recommendation. It raises your odds of getting a meeting dramatically. (Here are some ways to get an edge.)

I wouldn’t sell myself short by offering a pre-emptive discount to get your foot in the door. Even if you’re going to make the offer, it should be via personal conversation or via a referral the manager trusts. There’s just too much chance such an offer on a document (that can’t defend itself) will be read the wrong way. I would not do it. That said, if your interview goes swimmingly but the manager seems hesitant about that degree, well, then you might play the discount card. Now you’d be doing it the right way – face to face, and you’d be able to answer any questions the manager has about your offer. However, how you play it would depend on any new information you gather in that interview.

Would you offer a salary discount to get a job — regardless of your line of work — when you don’t meet all the requirements? If you’re a manager, how would you regard an applicant that offers to accept a lower salary in exchange for a shot at the job? What other clever methods can this reader use to get a shot?

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25 Comments
  1. If I wanted to be a Rockstar(insert your desired position), I would get my foot in the door by:
    1. Read… Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.
    2. Think like a Rockstar.
    3. Dress like a Rockstar.
    4. Use 2 and 3 above and go where the Rockstars go (conferences, conventions etc.)
    5. Use 1-4 above and be the Rockstar. Note that direct talent is not always necessary at first.
    6. Write a song. That means publish something, even online, that is related to your desired position.
    7. Be enthusiastic in your pursuit. You will get there.

  2. Hard pass on offering a salary ‘discount.’ That assumes the potential employer is focused on price. If a buyer has no need for your product, offering a price cut is irrelevant and can raise flags as Nick mentions. Your top priority, and what will get you in the door, is to formulate and communicate the value you will bring. Through your networking and research, what problem is the employer likely to have that your skills can help solve? Are they considering taking on a new project? Is there a staffing issue? If you’re able to identify needs and how hiring you can address them, successful conversations and offers should follow.

  3. My company employs top level bioinformatics pros, many PhD level, a lot of master’s. They look at huge gene sequencing data sets to detect small differences in the way genes are expressed. Don’t worry about the “discount,” that’s not what they are looking for. Someone who can dive into current systems and figure out stuff, and is willing to learn the arcane field is really valuable and they will pay for it. The director of one area regularly asks people from the IT area to consider moving over. But there is really a lot to learn beyond computer science. Statistics is valuable. Consider getting an online certificate in Genomic Data Science from Johns Hopkins via Coursera. I have found that useful. Plan to spend a few years learning the field but once you know the stuff you can go a lot of places.

    • @Carl: Thanks for the insider’s view and advice!

    • Carl, thanks for the insight! Can I ask what your background is, and whether you consider biology or computer science to be the more difficult skillset to acquire?

  4. Bioinformatics is a great space to get into. When I was in biotech there was a real shortage of these folks. Back then we were looking for degrees and bringing in the tried and true. From a succession planning perspective these were critical roles that could have a longer time to fill. We knew that we needed to plan in advance and have backups for the positions.

    The way around this is to get your skills up via some non degree coursework. It might also help you to get active in the biotech community and start building a strong network of those already in this area. If THEY KNOW you can do the work, they will want to hire you. As others mentioned offering a price cut is not very relevant. You could, however, be open to working at the lower end of the market range to to get some initial experience. Please do not mentioned this when interviewing. Just take a look at payscale.com or salary.com to benchmark for your only personal information.

    To start I would look at the Mass Biotech Council sight and sign up for some of their programs.
    MIT also has some remote Biotech coursework I believe. It might be work the investment and contacts you would build. Good Luck!

  5. Long-time lurker, first-time commenter. OP, I am an informatician (not in the bio space), and everyone I know with a background like mine loves talking about informatics and related subjects in computing, logic, information representation, etc. in and out of work—passion and engagement are hallmarks of this relatively small field. Perhaps you didn’t go to an I-school or finish (or start) your PhD or whatever, but if you show the hiring manager that you think and feel like a practitioner, they will be more likely to treat you like one (I’m willing to hire people from ‘outside the field’ who show me this, at least). Don’t sell yourself at a discount!

  6. I wouldn’t offer a discount on salary, not until and unless you know that the hiring manager is willing to hire those without the degree and substitute experience for the degree (e.g., I sometimes see job postings that will state a master’s degree in x field is preferred, but will consider someone with a bachelor’s degree AND at least 5 years relevant experience).

    Sometimes the degree is something on an employer’s or hiring manager’s wish list, and sometimes it is an absolute requirement (as in that’s what’s required for you to work in that field). You’ve got some research to do. Figure out which employers are willing to hire someone without the degree and train you, and which ones are unwilling to do so. Then, as Nick et al. have written, develop contacts and your network, as those are the people who will be able to get your name to hiring managers.

    If you’re in school now, take advantage of any contacts and connections your professors have (ask them) and make good use of the alumni network (many colleges’ and universities’ career development offices will have lists of alumni who currently work in your future field who are willing to be contacted by current students–they’re often a wonderful resource that many students overlook).

  7. To start your networking, why not start with your professors?

  8. Pass on the discount…Propose a entry starting salary AND a ramp up. By ramp up propose a timeline along with it.
    A bump when you get your degree.

    You said you almost have the degree. Think like a manager. As a manager I’ve leveraged “almost” and I’ve leveraged “going for it” Leverage with who (or is it whom?) HR or the hiring managers manager. People who are likely to be anal about dotting all dots, and crossing t’s

    If I’m sold on someone, the fact that they don’t hit some requirement is just an obstacle. If the person has demonstrated they have in process some needed thing in a job description…that should be enough for a serious discussion. a plan.

    Plus I think you’re inferring you’ve got the computer aspects of the job nailed down.

    So I could take a plan like this to my boss and thence to HR or visa versa and say He’s not yet got the degree, but its’ pretty much there. So let’s bring him in as an entry bioinfo person or a sr programmer, and when he gets his degree promo him into place.

    Don’t over-engineer it. This isn’t a discount…that’s just bald face money. You are thinking. You are doing something right in mgmt 101. You aren’t bringing a problem to a hiring manager. You’re bringing the solution, except bring a solution away from a focus on money. turn it toward the job. Treat degreedness as a minor detail, and focus on job content & your value add.

    A manager with a brain will be receptive and run with it. If the company is so anal that they have to have everything exactly to their job description, you’ve learned something useful to know. aim at another company. Working inside this one will be a pain in the ass

    • Re: who vs whom, if you could replace the article with “her” or “him” then use “whom.” If you would use “he” or “she” use “who.” I find it’s easiest to boil it down to “him = whom,” because they both end with “m”.

      • @Dan: You made my day with him=whom. I can NEVER remember the rule.

  9. My father had a used furniture business where his axiom for setting prices was that, “something is only worth what someone else is willing to pay for it.” There are times when you sell the top-grade refrigerator at a discount because the customers in the store just won’t spend that much money.
    When I was out of work as a software developer in 2009, I acquired some intensive training in some additional technology (same job description, different technology.) I willingly took the same salary that I had 10 years prior, BUT it was a recession and I had been out of work over 1 year and I knew I could live on the lower salary. That was a great decision at the time. No one was being offered 1999 pay in 2010 for newly acquired skills.
    HOWEVER, I doubt that this case is not that situation. The degree that the OP almost has plus the skills that the OP already has are so desirable that I doubt there is a need to offer any discount. My gut feeling here is that the OP is going to very very please with what the customer is willing to pay for these skills.
    The important lesson here, is make sure to find out what the customer is willing to pay, before you preemptively offer up a lower figure.

    • Mr Tanenbaum, you well point out your humble roots from your father having a used furniture business. I can tell people like you as I too come from humble roots, my late father was a machinist. I appreciate a poster like you on here sharing this too.
      What you point out in taking a pay cut in the throes of a recession, and after being unemployed for a year (been there, done that myself) is the axiom I ascribe to “sometimes the best job is the only job”. While I had to accept pay cuts going back much further than the previous 10 years, after 6-13 month stints of unemployment, needing health insurance, needing a paycheck, and needing to keep food in my belly, and a roof over my head, I bit my lip, rolled up my sleeves, and took the offers. Some were a nightmare, while one was a bed of roses (sadly, was laid off after 6 years in a major down sizing after a buyout), but it all ended up being a roll of the dice.
      Your analysis (unlike some of the triggered and knee jerk analysis I see posted on here) not to offer yourself up for a bargain basement wage is also spot on right.

      • Thank you Antonio. I should add that I am still happily with the company that hired me in 2010. I wish you all the best.

        • Absolutely, Mr. Tanenbaum. It’s good to hear success stories playing out well for older workers like us (I’m 63). If I may kindly ask, were you able to get your wages back up to a respectable level?
          With myself, and other older workers in this boat, it seems like many of us take a hefty pay cut for the sake of getting reemployed, but our wages never go up.

          • The simple answer is yes it did. The longer answer is that even with cuts because of Covid, I am still better off plus benefitting from $0 commuting costs. One benefit of being older is the development of an attitude of gratitude that finds self-satisfaction more important than being worried about what other people might or might not be paid.

            • Mr. Tanenbaum-
              For me, age and self-satisfaction, as you described (valid point), with all due respect, it just doesn’t pay my mortgage. Nor when employers tell my colleagues and I “you’re lucky to have a job”, “we’re doing you a favor by hiring you” (yes, I’ve actually been told this, and by lackluster employers too), or “your job is reward enough”, but (true story) then pull into the parking lot the very next day in a brand new Range Rover, or display pictures in the lobby and break room of their vacation home in Florida they just bought, or of the airplane they just bought, then it stands to reason that the old adage “virtue is its own reward” starts to wane with their workers.

  10. Is there any evidence to suggest that offering a discount, accepting a lower than ‘going rate’ or failing to negotiate at least ‘the going rate’ can be remedied in future negotiations or does this situation mark a short tenure?

    • Oh, it can be remedied…but it can be heavy lifting

      Assuming worse case..the large regimented corporation. The starting salary & placement is very important. As it places you at a certain place within a rigid structure of job classifications and pay ranges for them.

      This works in tandem with salary plans which dictate the allowances for changes in pay & policies as to when changes can take place, (usually a minimum of a year from a previous change).

      You have to understand this, because this is what your manager has to work with.

      In these kinds of corporate worlds, the concept of walking in & asking your boss for a raise and certainly “negotiating” for one, is far fetched. You’re basically asking your boss to change the whole corporate compensation structure …just for you.

      In this world the optimum word isn’t negotiating, it’s planning. A manager has to think ahead, and so do you. One way to break out of the slow moving compensation sidewalk is a promotion. So one doesn’t walk in & say I want a raise…but rather say “what do I need to do to get promoted?” And he/she can work with you and come up with a plan to make it happen. What they bring to the party is work assignments, which you can do and in so doing demonstrate readiness to move up. Readiness to the boss, his/her boss..and your peers. HR typically is not in a position to challenge or approve well planned promos. The only thing HR can bitch about is if it looks fishy (e.g complete absence of outstanding performance making it look like the manager is rigging the system..or short longevity in your current role) This is where a good plan comes in. Because rock stars can move up fast..but that kind of work has to be evident, and recognized by your peers.

      Promos are your manager’s best tool to break free of comp as usual. I’ve worked in some of the worst situations with raise’s frozen in concrete, where a well justified promo was still alive.

      Promo’s aren’t the only means to effect exceptions to anal rules. As in my previous input, you can work out an onboarding plan, a deal, that can be agreed to up front by HR & Management. In my experience it’s always honored.

      There are also “one offs” out of policy corrective action plans. For example. I had a # of people, tech writers, who were brought on board by a previous manager, with low starting salaries (nice bumps to them per previous employment..but low per the company’s structure) and once in, as I said, stayed low per SOP salary actions. I gathered the data, showed it to HR, noting they were beneath the company’s own standards. And we worked out a plan to move them to where they should be..by some out of policy actions.

      In smaller companies things are much more flexible. As most likely there isn’t that kind of aforementioned rigidity. There, you and/or your boss can walk in and say ..”he/she deserves a raise..starting next week..or a promo. Even so, best done backed up by forethought and a plan. In this world, it’s going to be very close to asking to be hired..when you had to pitch WHY hire me? It’s just shifted to WHY pay me more? WHY promote me? You’re basically making a claim that your value to the company has increased. So plan on how and when to answer that and most likely you’ll do fine.

      • A year and a half ago I did it because I went from an awful no-name company to a great big-name company, i.e. the kind that instantly gets attention from recruiters on LinkedIn.

        I got a big pay raise relative to the old job, but the problem is that I was massively down leveled on the way in. I plan on leaving in a few years if another big name company has a role that is attractive enough and appropriately leveled for me to leave. With that said, I went from managing teams of people to being a small fish in a big pond, but I probably work 15 hours a week because it’s so easy, and I’m building a business on the side, so it’s working out well for me as of now. There is no way I’d do 40 hours of work at my full capability for the salary that I’m getting, knowing what everyone else is getting and what they’re contributing, and knowing that there is no fair mechanism for correcting a down-level on the way in. I’m literally N-2 levels down from people with similar experience and quality of work, but it would take me 5 years to get to where they are today.

  11. I would like to add an additional comment. Too often the job seeker approaches the negotiation as a supplicant trying to figure out what they can get. In the process they either act fearfully that they won’t get what they want or act over-aggressively making unrealistic demands. Instead if the job seeker adopts the attitude as a service provider to the company as their client and the job seeker does an honest assessment of what they can provide and what value they are giving to the company, the negotiation becomes much more evenly matched and both sides come out feeling like winners.

    • @R. Tanenbaum: What you’re saying bears repeating. You cannot negotiate if you’re a supplicant begging for a job. Don’t go to the interview (or apply for the job) until you’re ready to show the employer why THEY need YOU. An employer can smell a nervous candidate from a long way.

  12. I’ll recommend it again, the great book “Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It” by Chris Voss, former FBI crisis negotiator.
    (Voss’s personal story about how he made the transition into the negotiation unit pertains directly to this week’s question, btw.)

    Many of Voss’s ideas will be very familiar to AtH readers:

    Be pleasantly persistent on nonsalary terms.
    Salary terms without success terms is Russian Roulette.
    Spark their interest in your success and gain an unofficial mentor.
    Ask: “What does it take to be successful here?”

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