Are You Sabotaging Your Career Search?

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The career search is a mysterious process, and as the seeker it is easy to feel as if you have no control. And the longer the search goes on without a positive outcome, the more you can feel like the system is rigged against you.

But having been on both sides of the hiring equation myself, and through my work coaching others through the process, I know that sometimes job candidates sabotage their own success. My point is not to cast blame, but to provide you with some insight into the perspective of the hiring manager so you can evaluate and reassess your approach. Following are some areas to consider when analyzing your process.

Do You Have a Clear Career Focus?

It’s not surprising that career seekers make mistakes, as most of us were never taught how to conduct a career search. It is helpful to distinguish between searching for a job and searching for a career. Jobs are work you can get without much investment of time and generally aren’t the types of positions that have long-term potential.

For example, I took a job in a floral shop to pay my bills while I was launching my first nonfaculty career search. I filled out an application, was interviewed on the spot and began work the next week. All that mattered in that “search” was that the location was close and I would get a regular paycheck.

In contrast, for my career search, I had to figure out what industry I was targeting, what positions within that industry were a match and what argument I could make to demonstrate that my academic experience was transferable. I’ve met with students who haven’t thought about the industry or the position they want and haven’t identified relevant transferable skills. In recent searches I participated in, I saw résumés from candidates who knew their target industry (higher education), but it was obvious they gave no thought to the functions of the position or their skills. In fact, at my former university I discovered that, within one hour of posting, any position drew close to 30 applicants, most of whom were not at all qualified for the position. That approach will not endear you to employers.

A career search takes thought and planning. If you are targeting a specific geographic area, you need to know what industries are located there. You need to conduct a thorough skills/interests/values assessment so that you understand what you want and what you can offer. You also need time to build a network in your chosen field.

While still working at the flower shop, I joined a professional association for training and development (my target career), began conducting informational interviews, and attended networking functions hosted by the organization. Those interactions helped me determine which of my skills would be most relevant to the positions I was seeking as well as what trends and key terms I needed to know so I could demonstrate knowledge of the field. Such research will endear you to employers.

Did You Read the Position Description?

Position descriptions are not easy to write, usually involve input from many voices, are a combination of needs and wants, and often take longer to get posted than the hiring manager would like. By the time you read one, the person hiring probably has been without someone in that role and is really hoping to find the ideal candidate quickly.

As you read it, please keep in mind what went into writing it. If the description is lengthy, look through it and determine the employer’s must-haves. The number of mentions and location in the description are indications of the importance of that item. If the description is short, find people on LinkedIn who have similar titles to see what duties/skills they list to give you a deeper understanding of the position. Look at the company’s website to see what additional information you learn about the role of the department and its people in the organization.

Most important, no matter the depth of the description, check with your network to see what insights they can provide. I’ve read résumés and cover letters detailing all the wonderful accomplishments of candidates but nothing related to anything the description asked for — which leaves me wondering if they even bothered to read past the position title.

Consider the issues in the job applications of candidates who apply to too many positions at once and obviously have not read the descriptions. Candidates using such an approach often reuse their materials for every position, which causes many oversight errors. I’ve seen candidates use the wrong position title or company name, and their résumés and cover letters are very general. I saw a candidate apply for two very different jobs using the same résumé and cover letter. I also had a candidate address the cover letter to “Dear sirs” when the position description specifically mentioned the name of the person hiring. (It was me, and I’m not a sir, and if the name isn’t a giveaway, a quick look at my website with my photo and bio should remove doubt.) Please make sure you read your materials carefully and have someone else do the same.

Some candidates seem to try but miss the mark. Oftentimes you can avoid falling into that category by researching the organization a little more. For example, I’m at a graduate-only university, so candidates applying here should not talk about all the work they’ve done with undergraduates without explaining how that translates to graduate students.

You should also make sure your cover letter follows industry expectations; outside academe, letters are rarely longer than three-quarters of a page. Proofread to eliminate typos, incorrect word use or other evidence of a lack of attention to detail that may sink an otherwise excellent application.

Don’t draw attention to areas where you don’t match the description; focus on where you do. And, most important, express enthusiasm for that specific position with that specific organization. I’ve read too many lukewarm letters that make me wonder if the applicant really wants that position or just any position.

Did You Prepare for the Interview?

Looking good on paper will only get you so far. If you don’t perform well in the interview, you won’t get the job. Most interviewers can distinguish between a candidate who is nervous and one who didn’t prepare, so a little shakiness does not usually sink your candidacy. It’s the big things you need to guard against.

For many candidates, your first interview will be a video interview, so it’s important to consider how you look, where you are and if your technology is adequate. I’ve seen candidates in video interviews forget we can see them when they are in an unprofessional setting, like a bedroom, or they aren’t dressed professionally or didn’t test their technology before the interview.

A colleague of mine told me she had a candidate reclining in bed without a shirt for a video interview. I was involved in one where another person came into the shot behind the candidate, one where the candidate stood and looked down at the computer, and a few where the rooms were very dark, with only a single light shining, so they looked like interrogation rooms. Consider what the camera can see, and then conduct a practice run with someone who can tell you what they see.

Interviewers may cut you a little slack for some issues mentioned above if you have strong responses to their questions. But this is where candidates frequently fall short. For example, many candidates don’t demonstrate enough knowledge about the organization or the position. “What interests you about us/this position?” is a common question, and I’ve heard weak responses to it. One candidate said the location was close to where she lived and that she was looking for an encore career since she was close to retiring, and nothing beyond that. Another one said he was interested in the stability of the position because he was currently a consultant and then revealed personal information about his marital situation that made the committee members very uncomfortable. Yes, I really heard both of those responses, and they did make the search committee members look at one another with surprise.

Remember, during an interview you should not say everything you think, and what you do say should be professional. There are ways to leverage your location as a benefit to the organization and a move from being an independent consultant to joining a team without discussing personal information.

Always remember: your future employer is more concerned about what you have to offer the organization than what you get out of it. Before the interview, conduct more company research and reread the documents you sent and the job description. And when answering questions, make sure you answer the one asked, use examples and never throw current co-workers or your employer under the bus. Bad-mouthing a current employer puts you in the do-not-hire pile.

The examples of self-sabotage I have mentioned are fairly common issues, and everyone who has applied for and interviewed for a position has probably committed one of these errors at some point. One way to discover if you are self-sabotaging and to prevent making these errors in the future is to work with other people on your search. Go to your career center, ask your friends and family, find others who are also searching and create a support group. Their feedback can help you avoid these pitfalls. The note on my office door says, “It takes a village to build a career.” Find your village.