Go to Menu Breaking Ranks & Rules:
How academics can avoid
5 fatal mistakes in the job hunt

By Nick Corcodilos

If you are an academic who wants a career in the business world, you are likely to feel at a disadvantage. After all, your competitors in the business community are "insiders." They know how to hunt for a job and win it.

Still, your business competitors don't really have an edge over you. If anything, the job-hunting protocol they follow -- want ad/resume/interview -- hobbles them. It's a rare person who knows how to walk into an employer's office and demonstrate his ability to do the job profitably.

Whether you're an academic or a business person, your edge lies not in how well you follow the rules, but in proving your worth to an employer. That's what a good headhunter coaches his candidate to do.

Focus on skills, not myths.
There is nothing mysterious about this approach. You can be your own headhunter, if you can get past the myths of the employment system and understand the fundamentals of how to select the right employer, "map" your skills to the employer's needs, and present yourself as a person who can do the work.

As an academic, you already grasp the essentials of the business world: You know how to research a subject (in this case, a company and the work it needs to have done), you know how to organize a case to make a point (map your skills to the work), and you know how to present your case in a way that compellingly proves your point (interview like it matters).

Start thinking like a headhunter: research, prepare, research, prepare, and damn the rules. All that matters is that when you get in front of the employer, you are right.

Get ready to demonstrate your value.
Still, you are very likely to make mistakes as you change careers, just as I did. When I left the graduate program in cognitive psychology at Stanford University to pursue a business career, I started replying to ads that sounded interesting. What was truly interesting is that I expected the interviewer to do the hard part for me: fathom my great skills and apply them to the work he wanted done. I failed in interview after interview not because I lacked relevant skills, but because I couldn't articulate them properly. I wasn't doing my homework.

Years later, when I applied for a management job in a computer company (having no corporate experience), I went to the whiteboard and outlined a business plan for doing the job. It wasn't perfect but it showed the manager that I had thought long and hard about how my skills would pay off if he hired me. He made me an offer on the spot.

Here are five job-hunting mistakes that are very common among academics. I'll try to show you how to avoid them.

1. You will pursue the wrong job.
Having never worked in the business world, you haven't a clue what certain jobs involve. This simple truth leads most academic job hunters to pursue only what seems familiar to them. That's why sociologists pursue "people-oriented" jobs like human resources, counseling, and so on, and why biologists pursue jobs in laboratories and medical offices.

Forget about your skills. Pick your jobs by focusing on the work an employer needs done. That may sound odd, but it makes tremendous sense once you realize how important it is for you to understand the work before you pursue the job.

Never start a career change by focusing first on your skills and trying to map them to a job. Start instead with industries, companies, and businesses that you'd like to work in. Study them in excruciating detail. Learn what makes them tick and what makes them profitable. Learn what tasks are performed in various departments, and then start thinking about which of your skills you can map to those jobs.

As you prepare, odds are good that the skills you start mapping to various jobs will be fundamental ones, not ones necessarily related to your area of academic study. What will come into play are these skills:

  • Defining problems
  • Creating processes to solve them
  • Exploring options that might yield efficiency
  • Communicating progress to management
  • Testing options
  • Choosing on a course of action
  • Assessing the outcome
  • Learning how to do it better next time

If you can apply these fundamental skills, which you honed in your academic career, you could just as well win a job in a social-services office as in a stock brokerage.

Career change is daunting only when you don't know enough about the work you think you want to do. Learn about the work first, and you'll be better able to marshal the skills to do it.

2. You will reply to want ads or job postings on the Internet.
Ever play the lottery? The want ads are the lottery. How are you improving your odds of landing a job when you add your application to a stack of 7,000 others? (That's how many applications one company I work with received in response to an ad it recently ran.) As an "outsider" who needs to go a few extra steps to show how his skills can transfer to a business job, do you really want to trust your next job to an essentially blind review process?

Try this. Write what I call The Working Resume. Don't list your academic credentials, past job titles, or work you've done. Instead, describe your understanding of the business of your target employer; outline how you will do the work he needs done; and explain how you will do it profitably.

In producing The Working Resume you will have talked with (and gotten to know) the people who can get you in the door without a resume. You will also have produced the perfect script for your interview, and you will have so many useful things to say about the company, the job, and your potential contribution that your palms won't sweat when you walk in the door for your interview.

3. You will use a resume.
Contrary to the wisdom of the "career experts", resumes are the absolute worst way to market yourself. Here's why:

When you mail a resume to someone who doesn't know you, you are in the junk-mail business. Kevin Brennan, a former human-resources manager at Sony Corporation, received over 100,000 resumes from applicants in one year. Only about 8 per cent of the people his division hired came from those resumes. Where did he find his new hires? "I call people I know and ask for referrals. That's how you find good people."

Rely on people to introduce you to the manager you want to work for. Don't know the right ones? Invest the time you'd spend mailing resumes in finding and getting to know people who know the company. Start with your friends and track down someone who works at your target company. Talk with the company's customers, read industry publications, and ask everyone you meet for the names of people who can give you more insight and advice about what it's like to work there. (Never ask for a job lead; that turns folks right off.) Build your contacts until one of them helps you get in the door. Does that sound like a lot of hard work? So is that special job you want. Start working hard at this now.

4. You will trust the human resources department.
When you approach a company through its human resources office, you submit to an administrative process that is once removed from the hiring manager. While you're being processed by that first-year personnel clerk who has zero expertise in the work you want to do, the candidate I referred directly to the hiring manager is already having his second interview.

Human resources is a graveyard of job applicants. Never let human resources be the main conduit of information between you and the hiring manager. You will lose control of the process, and the likelihood that you will be dropped from the running increases dramatically when human resources is in control. Insist on dealing with the hiring manager directly. Remember: The goal is to avoid the competition and the "process," not to get stuck in it.

5. You will act like an applicant in the interview.
After interviewing five candidates in the course of a day, managers commonly cannot recall much about any of them. That's because the interview protocol is the same for everyone, and the questions and answers are repetitive. Most job candidates sit like a polite bump on a log and try hard not to say the wrong thing. When you're coming from academia, there's an even greater tendency to adopt a meek demeanor -- you feel like the odd man (or woman) out, anyway. The protocol is so comfortable, you stick with it.

Don't act like an applicant. Act like an employee. Do the job in the interview.

When the employer asks questions, answer them, but then offer to demonstrate how you'd actually do the job. "I'd like to ask you to lay out a 'live' problem you're facing in your business -- work you'd want your new hire to do. I'd like to give you a chance to see how I tackle problems and how I work. When I'm done, I'd like you to review me the way you'd review an employee. I can take it; please don't hold back. My goal is to make sure you know what it would be like to have me on board."

Why should you make the interview so tough for yourself? Because other candidates won't. If you want a profound chunk of "headhunter's wisdom", this is it. Your challenge is to help the manager see that you are focused on the work, and that you are ready to stand and deliver. That's what will set you apart even from "experienced" applicants.

Don't make the mistake of acting the way companies expect academics to act. Don't make the mistake of relying on archaic "interview skills." Break ranks with other academics, and break the rules of the employment system. Apply the considerable work skills you've developed in your academic career. Focus on the company you want to work for, do the research, prepare a presentation, walk in the door, and do the job to win the job. It's what you've been trained to do.

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This article was commissioned by and originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

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I just downloaded
How to Work with Headhunters. Excellent! I will recommend that each of our Executive MBAs get this book. It's a very comprehensive treatment of every aspect of recruiting, search firms, career management firms and more. I especially like the Back of the Napkin section at the end. Looks like you thought of everything!

Susan Dearing
ProMBA Career Management Center
Anderson School of Management