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Are University Career Services Worth Their Weight in Gold?

Suddenly it’s time up, write up, and make room for the next batch of PhD students in the lab – so how do you find that first job?

OK – so now you’re finishing your PhD or graduated already, and it’s time to look for that first job.  Maybe you’ve already started endless hours of pouring through databases and well-known publications – maybe you’re one of the lucky few and landed a job offer without trying too hard. Congratulations!   For most people it’s much tougher than that.  Jobs are scarce and competition is high – so where do you turn for help?  Rejections and worse still – no answer at all – leave you despondent and worried about the future.  Why is it that employers don’t see that you’re obviously the best person for the job – your CV makes that plain doesn’t it?  Read it again, read the last cover letter you sent for a job and ask yourself whether it’s really the best effort you could have made – is it tailored specifically for that job, or does it sound a bit generic?  Are you even committing the worst sin of all – using the same letter and CV for every application you send!

Anyone can find a job – the ads are everywhere you look, but only specific tailoring of an application will give you any chance of getting past the “possible interview pile” on that employer’s desk right now.  Nobody entertains an application that’s obviously ‘doing the rounds’.  Even speculative CVs need to be specific and tailored if you’re going to convince a company you only want to work for them – not the competition.  If you’re the buyer, then it’s a sellers’ market now, and you need to up the stakes to make an impression.

What do I do first?

So how do you start?  What job market are you aiming for?  Academia or industry?  How do you write that winning CV that shines out over the other 199 CVs on the employer’s desk?  Rejections for jobs I knew I could do standing on my head got me so frustrated!  Why was this happening?  Why didn’t they want me?  I had to rethink how I was coming across on the application form, which is when I visited the university careers office.  Looking back, I should have done that first.  Many people don’t use the services provided by their own university and for some reason, the careers service seems to be a last port of call for a lot of us.  This is quite bizarre as these people should be the first helping hand you seek out.  Advice from employed friends and family is valuable – they have jobs after all!  But a careers adviser is qualified to guide you and they know exactly what an employer is looking for – remember markets change and approaches to job applications change with them.  These people know what’s required and expected as a minimum – fail to meet the minimum and you don’t get an interview.

What should my CV look like and do I need a cover letter?

From the many different styles of CV around, the job you apply for will suit one style more than another will.  So which style do you use?  Look at your current CV – does it emphasise qualifications first?  How about experience?  Maybe techniques?  All of these are important and specific to particular jobs.  Put yourself in the poor employers’ position with over 200 applications to plough through.  How would you do it?  Personally, I’d get rid of any with spelling mistakes and typos and I don’t think I’m alone.  So that probably reduces the pile by about 10% but the pile is still too large.  Have a think about what else you would do to get that pile down to a manageable size that’s not going to ruin your weekend completely!  The obvious one is to list all the essential criteria in the job application on the first page on your CV.  If an employer sees straight off that you can do what’s been asked for, you’ll automatically go into the “to read” pile, hopefully making it on to the “to interview” pile, bypassing the “don’t waste my time” pile.

Then there’s the matter of the “cover letter”.  If asked for one, remember to give a reason (or several reasons is much better) why you want that particular job, and do this somewhere around the 1st or 2nd paragraph.  DON’T be generic – the employer is ONLY impressed if you actually take the time and trouble to find out about the company – make sure this is evident from stating your reasons for applying.  Saying that you have always wanted to be a scientist, or always wanted to work in the pharmaceutical industry is not going to make you stand out, is it?  An employer might not even get to your CV if your cover letter is of no interest to them.

For scientific positions, it is worth redesigning your CV to highlight your skills (both technical and organisational) on the first page. Employers don’t need to see a list of qualifications as the first thing they read – that is evident from the fact that you have applied for the job!  When I did this – a wonderful thing happened!  I got interviews!  Great – But then I didn’t get the jobs, only the interviews, – I knew then that I somehow needed to prove that I was the person to hire – not the person before me, not the person after me or later on that day, but only me, the best person for the job and by a long chalk!  Don’t’ forget – to get an interview means the employer thinks you can do the job.  Don’t waste the opportunity you’ve just been given!   It’s just up to you on the day, to show them how well you can do it.  Problem is I didn’t realise what my skills really were, or how to give examples when asked specific questions by an employer – so I went back to talk to the careers service people.  They gave me mock interviews for jobs prior to a real interview and this really helped.  Because it wasn’t real, it didn’t matter about not being able to answer something with a clever and polished reply.  What it does is give you time to think about how you would answer that question if asked, and how a particular answer might be the interview clincher OR your downfall!   The careers adviser won’t hesitate in telling you where you might be going wrong – done in the nicest possible way of course.  They also know what type of questions are likely to be asked by people in the interview panel e.g. HR personnel, technical expert, business development expert, etc.  After all, there’s only a finite number of relevant questions and once you understand what these are likely to be, it becomes a bit easier.

After one session with an adviser, I had 3 new ways of writing my CV to bring the relevant information (and the key word here is ‘relevant’) to the forefront, a great cover letter with an introductory paragraph that encourages an employer to read on, and some mock interviews set up.  This was a great service I thought – and still do – it worked for me.

Preparation is key – make it easy for others to help you

The reason I received such a good service is quite easy to explain:  I gave them materials to work with.  Just as in the lab, we scientists need materials to allow us to do our job – well, so do they.  When I had a mock interview set up, I made sure that the careers adviser received a copy of my CV and cover letter for the job in question a week before our meeting.  This allows them to do their homework on the company concerned – remember they won’t know every single company that is out there, so they need your help first, before they can help you in return.  The adviser can then take on the role of interviewer for that company if they have had the materials to work with.  Something worth mentioning here is that different advisers I met, for different mock interviews, all thanked me for getting my materials to them so quickly, allowing them time to do the necessary homework.  They do have other work to do after all and are not your personal career adviser!  It seems that some graduates turn up for a mock interview having given them nothing to work with – or send it the day (or even night!) before!  Others arrive not even knowing what it is they want to do – where they want to go – what they want to be.  That’s just not fair – nobody I saw there was a magician and I don’t recall ever seeing a crystal ball.  So this means you are required to do a bit of the legwork first.  If you want results and a good service, provide them with the materials to work with.

Some people (alumni as well as existing students) see it as the responsibility of the careers office to help you find a job.  Yes, they are indeed responsible to you as a student of the university that employs them, to help point you in the right direction, give you advice based on their knowledge and experience and that of past students, and make sure you are presenting yourself in the best possible way to your prospective employer.  They actually go much further than this of course, providing folders upon folders upon folders (and even more folders) of potential careers/interview tips/students’ interview experiences/typical questions, the list goes on….

But – at the end of the day, the only person responsible for you as an adult is you!  Nobody can get that job for you, that’s your job.  You have great qualifications and skills – so go use them!

Today’s job market is definitely a tougher nut to crack, but saying that there are ways and means available to you that didn’t exist a decade ago.  I’m talking about social networking arenas – we all use them for friends and family, but what about for business.  Get yourself involved in networking and learn the skill – As a PhD student you really should be looking to have a LinkedIn profile – it’s invaluable as a source of making contacts and finding out all the things you need to know from experienced people.  You should also be aware that not all job vacancies advertise through the “normal channels”!  Set yourself up with a profile and start by joining different groups and forums, such as the alumni group of your existing (and previous) university.  People help people – spend the time looking through the ads in the relevant publications, but don’t limit yourself to using only that method.  Use what’s out there and ask for help!

What’s your experience of using university career services?  It will perhaps be interesting to compare USA with UK career service expertise.  For instance, I understand that in the USA former students can use this service indefinitely, whereas in the UK we are limited to 3 years after graduation.  Is this correct?

3 Comments

  1. Amelia S. Silva on May 13, 2017 at 1:59 pm

    Thanks for the article, spot on! And you’re right, in the UK usually students have access to the career services for up to 2 or 3 years after graduation. I’ve done a short Postgraduate course at City University London and their career service is outstanding, far better than any other university I’ve attended.
    I believe that too much importance is placed on the careers service when you finish your degree and need to find a job, I think if you have a good service they can be a lot of help in shaping your career plans and it’s useful to start as soon as possible. I’ve realised this a bit later on and thanks to City University Careers Service. Better late than never.

  2. Allison Ross on December 10, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    Thanks for the comment – hope it will be useful to those at this stage in their career.  You’re definitely right about the photograph privacy settings for Facebook etc.  I’ve heard some stories about employers making judgement calls on potential interviewees because of what they’ve seen on these sites. 

  3. micronaut on December 10, 2010 at 1:26 pm

    Good article.  I would definitely recommend custom CV’s for each job application.  Generic CV’s look generic, then they think you’re generic and you get forgotten in the pile.

    I would also recommend Googling yourself from time, if you’re active on the internet.  Many employers might dig around when it comes to the later rounds of recruitment.  Check what’s out there on you.  Check your facebook privacy settings too.  You might not want your potential employer finding photographs of you passed out on the floor of your local.  All the search engines and social networks are connected these days.

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