The Start of a Job Search

As many of you may know, I am in the process of looking for a job at the same time as I am finishing my thesis.

I am still in the process of looking, but I thought that I would report on a few simple things that I’ve learned so far while exploring.

While there are a lot of soul-searching elements involved in a job search – you know, the philosophical, self-exploration musings that may come out as a result of having your very essence displayed out to the world to see, in a hope that there’ll be a perfect match for you, I’m going to stick, for now, with a few concrete, solid tips that I wish I knew before starting.

These three things are:

  1. Assemble your references
  2. Create a plain-text version of your resumé
  3. Keep a copy of your transcripts

 

1. Assemble your references. People are going to ask for references, especially in an academic position, but it’s increasingly common to have references requested up-front by industry as well. So, make sure that you get references assembled.

There’s some kind of voodoo around references. I’ve had a few people politely refuse to write letters for me because, though they have worked with me in the past, they felt that their reference would not be a strong one.

Thus, if possible, get yourself into a position where you can request letters from people early. If you’re doing a Master’s or a Ph.D and are just starting out, be sure to get yourself well-known by not only your supervisor. Do internships off-campus, work with others in teaching assistantships in the department (preferably for more than one term), and try to engage yourself in research projects with others. Be ready to keep in contact with these people.

In addition, inform your references ahead of time that you are on a job search and that they may be contacted by multiple people over the course of the next few months. Keep them reasonably up-to-date on the course of your job search as well. If you request a reference, it’s a good idea to ensure that it will be a good one – so ask specifically if they can give you a “strong reference”.

I’ve found that there tends to be two “types” of references, so to speak (three, actually, but only two are relevant for reasons I will explain below). These two types are:

  1. Research-contribution based letters
  2. Work/project/team based references

The first type, research letters, are the same kinds of letters you might have requested when you applied for graduate school or for scholarships. They are letters that are written by respected professors in the field that describe your ability to perform research and to write good contributions. The people who write on your work should be writing about your recent work. They do not necessarily have to had worked with you in the past! They just have to be familiar enough with your work (perhaps because you talk with them frequently, or they’re on your committee) to recommend you based on it. These kinds of letters are needed for any kind of academic work you might do, whether it be an industrial research lab, an academic position at a University, or a postdoc. They are required for scholarships as well. In addition, they appear in “letter” form. Be sure you inform your references ahead of time so that they can have a letter prepared.

The second type are work-related references. These tend to be more about how this person works in a team, does he do good work, have weaknesses, communicate well, and so forth. I find that the requirement for these kinds of references is that you’ve worked closely enough with the person such that they can say good things about your style of working. When doing a Ph.D, it’s more difficult to get these kinds of references overall especially because you tend to work closely with your supervisor only for the five or so years as a student. If you can, do the internships and T.A. work so that you can get this type of reference too.

The final type of reference which doesn’t need a lot of explanation is simply the “confirmation reference” where someone confirms that you in fact worked in a particular position. I’ve heard that some companies are actually concerned about legal issues when it comes to references and therefore are not allowed to get information about an employee’s working behaviour in the past. However, any of the references above should be applicable as this kind of reference as well. If someone can say something good about your work, then they can certainly confirm facts too.

 

2. Create a plain-text version of your resumé. I last had to go on a serious job search in about 2002 or so. The world was very different back then – you created your resumé on a single piece of paper (or two pages) and handed it to people in person much of the time. While this is still applicable, I’ve found that a large number of places do online applications only. You go to career fairs nowadays and they now say, “Apply online”.

The issue with applying online is that every single site out there requires a login and a password now, and require you to use their web-based resumé builder now. Remember when you were first making your LinkedIn profile and had to select from the drop-down boxes every position that you were in, putting in the years, the job description, the city, and so forth? Imagine now doing this for every single company for which you want to work.

The only saving grace of this process is that many (but not all) of the sites offer a way to automatically scan your resume and fill in some of the information for you. Previously, I had a PDF version of my resumé (generated by LaTeX, of course), and the online scanners would scan it all wrong. I’ve since made a plain text version and now the scanners are doing a much better job at recognizing what education is. This saves you a lot of time since you only have to fix one or two things now. Of course, not all of the sites are well-constructed and many require you to enter your information and don’t have resume scanning at all.

You also need a Microsoft Word version too, just in case the place doesn’t take plain text. Most do but not everyone does.

 

3. Keep a copy of your transcripts. If you are a student and are finishing, be sure to keep your GPA and transcript copies on-hand. Many employers ask for GPA. Some ask for unofficial transcripts. It helps to have this with you in advance, in soft-copy that is appropriate for emailing.

 

Anyway, in summary, I’ve talked about three things here: Assemble your references and how to get and sort them, and create plain-text resumés, and keep a copy of your transcripts. These are a couple of the concrete things that you can do to enable your job search, though, quite frankly, getting the materials together is the easy step.

The hard step, of course, is figuring out what you want to do, what to apply for, and figuring out how you make yourself lucky enough to get that job. Because, of course, “Luck favours the prepared”.

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