The Job Search

Information on this page includes:
 

Research and Self-Assessment

A variety of techniques and strategies facilitate job searching outside of the academy.  One strategy may work better for you than for someone else as success varies by individual and by industry.   The key is to employ multiple techniques and strategies.  Keep in mind that finding a job requires a big time commitment.  The more dedicated and diversified your job search is—and the more cleverly you apply these techniques to your advantage—the more likely you are to find opportunities.

Often the biggest challenge for graduate students who wish to explore career options outside of the academy is overcoming the fear of the unknown.  Regardless of whether or not you like academe, you are familiar with the language, people, and culture of the academic world, and there is a certain degree of comfort in that familiarity. 

Academic Job Searching versus Job Searching Outside of Academia

Academic Search Search Outside of Academia
Structure, relatively clear timeline Less structure, often you set the timeline
Departmental support You must usually look beyond your department for resources and support
You know the language, culture, and people of academe You are venturing into new and perhaps unknown territory

Decide What Interests You Most—the Job or the Employer

Sometimes job seekers are more interested in working for a particular employer than the function they will perform, whereas other job candidates primarily value the job itself.  Determine what matters most to you: gaining experience at a certain type of job/function, or getting your foot in the door with a certain employer.  Jobs change, and satisfaction with your environment can be just as important as your actual responsibilities.  If a position becomes available with an attractive employer, but the job is not exactly what you had in mind, you may not want to rule it out automatically.  That position could be a stepping stone to a better future with your preferred employer.  Job mobility within an organization is relatively common.  Conversely, if you want to break ground in a particular field and you are offered a position with a company that is not among your Top 10, keep in mind that a few years on the job there could position you well for future, more competitive opportunities.

Research is where graduate students shine!!  Play to your strengths.  Researching career options and employers is the first step in any job search.  Doing so will enable you to identify opportunities that hold the most potential for satisfying your goals.  You should return to the research process at all subsequent stages of your job search.

  • Step 1: Identify Careers and Employers
  • Step 2: Identify Transferable Skills and Qualities

In many studies, employers across the board (including those in academe) report that one of the most common and costly mistakes job candidates make is failing to do their homework.  Only by informing yourself thoroughly can you:

  • Gain a reasonable sense of which career and employer is right for you
  • Persuade an employer that you are right for the job
  • Assess the particulars of the opportunity before accepting

Identify Careers and Employers

In the early stages of your job search, you will gather general data to create lists of careers and employers of interest to you.  You will then narrow these lists to specific targets.  An especially useful tool for this step in the process is the CareerShift database available to U.Va. students, faculty, and staff.  CareerShift is a catalog of more than 4 million employers (not jobs) in the US, and it is searchable by industry, geographic location, and key word.  This tool provides basic information about each employer, which may include any or all of the following: contact information, web address, size, budget, year founded, description.  Another approach is to identify job opportunities by industry or by discipline.. These listings include the major  fields in which graduate students may want to conduct job searches grouped by industry and academic diciplines.

Which careers interest you?  It is critical to pause and engage in self-assessment before you begin any job search.  What skills would you like to offer to an employer?  What characteristics do you value in a job?  Naturally, you do not want to waste time pursuing jobs that are ill-suited to your skills, interests, and values.  For example, ask yourself how important the following factors are to you:

  • Intellectual stimulation
  • Autonomy versus teamwork
  • Flexibility versus structure
  • Salary and benefits
  • A sense of purpose
  • Geographic location
  • Degree of human contact
  • Work environment (pace, size, reputation, etc.)
  • Family considerations

Identify Your Strengths

Graduate students sometimes wonder, “But what do I have to offer the world outside of academia?”  The answer is: lots, but you will need to rethink your accomplishments and abilities from the perspective of a different kind of employer.   While this effort may constitute somewhat of a paradigmatic shift in thinking for you, it could also give your confidence a much-needed boost.  
Anyone enrolled in advanced degree program at a top-tier research university such as U.Va. possesses most, if not all, of the following skills and qualities that are valued by virtually all employers beyond academe:

Graduate Student Skills and Qualities

  • High achiever
  • Self-motivated, initiating
  • Dedication, stamina, discipline, focus
  • Intellectual and personal maturity
  • Excellent track record of meeting high expectations
  • Focused on defining problems and finding solutions, problem-solving
  • Full engagement with projects from inception to completion
  • Ability to reach and defend conclusions
  • Power of persuasion
  • Ability to deal with ambiguity and to think on your feet
  • Analytical
  • Leadership
  • High performance under pressure
  • Clear and concise writing, editing
  • Learning and adapting quickly
  • Ability to meet deadlines
  • Strategic thinking
  • Project management, organizational skills
  • Presentation/public speaking skills
  • Ability to convey complex information to a variety of audiences
  • Thorough and efficient research
  • Extracting relevant material from large bodies of data
  • Breaking down and interpreting complex content
  • Multi-tasking
  • Translating jargon into non-technical terms
  • Adept at using specialized research tools
  • Independent thinking/collaboration
  • Autonomy/teamwork
  • Effective synthesis of details and broad vision
  • Evaluation of individual and group dynamics and performance
  • Obtaining funding/writing grant applications
  • Ability to deal with complex personalities
  • Successful in competitive environments
  • Comfortable navigating bureaucracy

In addition to the skills and qualities listed above, depending on your field you may have marketable specialized skills, such as:

  • Quantitative/technical/computer skills
  • Mastery of equipment
  • Data/statistical analysis
  • Fluency in foreign languages
  • Cultural sensitivity
  • Analysis of demographic data
  • Econometrics
  • Public opinion analysis
  • Survey design and analysis
  • Analysis of primary sources

Self-Assessment Worksheet

 

Approach and Organization

You will feel more in control and proactive if you impose your own structure on your job search.  Have a plan.  Break up the process into manageable parts.  Begin early and set aside blocks of time, ideally every week, to focus on your objectives: researching careers/employers, seeking ways to gain experience, writing resumes and cover letters, contacting people in the industry to gain their insights, following up on applications submitted, etc.  Manage your efforts and monitor your progress.  Set incremental goals with realistic deadlines. 

Keep Records

Keep records of your job search efforts.  Below is a list of information you may wish to record:

  • Industry information
  • Employer information and contact info
  • Position announcements
  • Application submission deadlines
  • Application materials submitted, date
  • Acknowledgements, dates received (if applicable)
  • Notes from interviews (informational, conference, phone, on-site, etc.) and other relevant exchanges
  • Names of interviewers/contacts
  • Date thank-you note sent for each interview
  • Record of travel arrangements for on-site interviews
  • Offer/rejection notifications, dates received (if applicable)
  • Your acceptance letters/letters of decline, dates sent

Additional Resources for Industry and Organizational Research

Most employers have websites that provide information about their mission, history, current endeavors, products and services, departments, structure, and so on.  Digest this material thoroughly and do not limit your interest to the “careers” or “jobs” pages.  Nor should you restrict your research to the information employers themselves provide.  Look for other sources of information, several of which are listed below:

Manage Your Expectations

Depending on the industries that interest you, you may be at a disadvantage for advanced positions without tangible, related work experience.  This does not mean that the employer undervalues your skills and qualifications.  You may simply need to begin at an entry-level position to gain work experience and then rise from there.  Your maturity, dedication, refined skills, and ability to learn quickly will very likely be recognized and rewarded.  Employees with advanced degrees typically rise more rapidly within an organization than their less sophisticated peers.

 

Timeline

There is a considerable degree of structure to the timeline and application process in the academic job market.  By contrast, job markets outside of the academy are much less structured; turnover and growth occur throughout the calendar year.  That being said, some large companies in certain industries (e.g. finance) conduct a great deal of hiring in the fall, especially for entry-level positions, with the goal of bringing new hires on board for formal training programs in the summer.  Varying hiring patterns give you all the more reason not to put off researching careers and employers that may interest you. 

Beyond the Academy Job Search Timline Visual

 

 

Networking and Making Connections

Networking is the most effective way to find a job outside of the academy.  Between 60-80 percent of all jobs are acquired through people connections.

Graduate students inhabit a relatively closed environment.  Intensive research leaves little time and energy for connecting with people outside the library or lab.  And yet perhaps the biggest obstacle to networking for most graduate students is simply a lack of experience and practice.  Get started early and break the process into manageable parts. 

Networking is an effort to connect with as many people as possible who can assist you with your job search.  Try to put yourself in a frame of mind that will allow you to recognize networking opportunities in a wide array of social and professional contexts.  Talk about your career interests with friends and family in addition to seeking connections beyond established social circles.  According to the Six Degrees of Separation theory, a simple mathematical formula proves that all inhabitants of the world are connected to one another by no more than five separate individual connections.  This means that you should be able to connect rather easily with people in the career fields that interest you.   

To begin networking, compile a list of your contacts, including current and former classmates and co-workers, faculty, members of organizations you are involved in, U.Va. alumni and alums from your other alma maters, friends, relatives, neighbors, and so on.  Many academic departments also maintain databases of “placement” information on the professions of their PhD graduates (ask your department’s graduate secretary).  Initiate conversations with these people, express your career interests, and see if they have any connections in that field.  You will likely be surprised to find that some people can put in you touch with others who may be helpful to your career pursuits.


Why network?

Most jobs are never posted to the outside world.  You can tap into the “hidden market” by letting people know that you are interested in a particular job or field.  People often hear of job opportunities and quickly forget them unless they know of someone who may be interested.  Sharing that information with grateful job seekers is very satisfying.  Moreover, employers are much more likely to interview a job seeker who comes recommended by someone they trust.  

Good Networking Practices

  • Keep good records of your networking efforts.  Jot down notes about who referred you to whom, who they are and what they do, what they said, etc.  You may be able to remember this information in the beginning, but if your efforts are fruitful, you will need more than your memory. 
  • Networking is not finite.  Keep connections going by asking for permission to follow up with additional questions, etc.  Send thank-you notes to the people who helped you and stay in touch with updates on your progress.
  • Networking is a two-way street.  If you seek help, be sure to reciprocate when someone wants to make contact with you or your network.
  • Create a “personal pitch” (a.k.a. “elevator speech”) as an opener for your initial contact with people of interest.  Below is an example:

Example Personal Pitch (in person)

Hello, I’m Jefferson Thomas.  I’m working on my PhD in financial mathematics at U.Va.  I’m interested in pursuing a career in quantitative analysis, and I’ve been following Capital One’s recent ventures in The Wall Street Journal and Fortune.  I’m very interested in what you’ve had to say about the company’s new direction, and I have qualifications that I think could contribute to that end.  I’d really like to meet for coffee or lunch or stop by your office at your convenience.  Would you have time next week?

Informational Interviewing

An informational interview is a pressure-free conversation you conduct with people working in a target field to gain insight into a field or employer and advice on job search strategies.  You will first need to conduct research andnetwork to identify professionals you wish to contact.  You may feel shy about contacting them, but rest assured that most people are very willing to help someone by talking about what they do and sharing their opinions during a welcome break in the day.

An informational interview is not a job interview, and this sets a relaxed stage for open and honest communication (neither you nor your contact is selling anything).  When you conduct an informational interview, you will ask questions, gather information, and make contact with someone who is knowledgeable about his or her field and connected with other professionals.  People—not company websites and job postings—are the best sources of information about what their work is really like.    

Ten Benefits of Informational Interviewing

  • Gaining a better understanding of a particular field/job/employer.
  • Narrowing your target.
  • Learning how to apply for a position most effectively.
  • Learning how best to present yourself.
  • Making professional connections.
  • Potentially tapping into the hidden market.
  • Showing your interest and enhancing your chances of getting a job.
  • Becoming fluent in the language of the industry.
  • Gathering inside information that will impress an employer.
  • Building confidence in your career plan and ability to discuss your interests… which will help you in job interviews.

You may want to conduct your first informational interview with someone who will make you feel at ease (e.g. a U.Va. alumnus).  Prepare for the conversation by identifying your goals.  What is this person particularly well-suited to shed light on for you?  Below is an example of an email request for an informational interview:

Example Request for Informational Interview

Dear Mr. Smith,

I am a graduate student in the English Department at the University of Virginia, and I am very interested in the field of advertising.  I found your name in the U.Va. alumni database, and I would be delighted to hear about your work with Time Warner.  Last summer I interned with NBC 29 in Charlottesville and realized that my strengths in communication and writing can be best applied to a fast-paced news environment.  I am especially intrigued by Time Warner’s recent financial news company acquisitions.  Would you be willing to speak with me for 20-30 minutes about your company and your work?  I will be happy to come to your office at your convenience.

Sincerely,
Your Name

Following is a list of tips for conducting informational interviews:

  • Have your resume/CV ready to share.
  • Prepare questions in advance; do research and customize questions.  Good questions begin with who, what, when, where, why, and how. Beginning with these words leads to open-ended responses.
  • If you get no response to your initial request, try again.  Do not to read too much into silence.
  • If, for some reason, your target declines, ask for the name of someone else with whom you could speak.
  • You may contact your target by email, phone, or mail, but only conduct the informational interview by phone or (preferably) in person.
  • Make the informational interview as easy on the interviewee as possible—he or she will be impressed.
  • Be prompt for both phone and face-to-face interviews.
  • Take notes during the interview.
  • Keep to the time limit agreed upon in conducting the informational interview.
  • Ask for suggestions of additional contacts.
  • Keep records.
  • Keep the connection going by asking for permission to follow up with additional questions, etc.

Your customized questions for the informational interview will probably fall into three categories: questions about 1) the occupational field, 2) the employer, 3) advice.  Below are general questions:

Occupational Field

  • What credentials or degrees are required for entry into this kind of work?
  • What types of prior experience are absolutely essential?
  • How did you prepare yourself for this work? 
  • How do you occupy your time during a typical workweek?
  • What skills or talents are most essential for effective job performance in this job?
  • What are the toughest problems you must deal with?  Apart from external motivators such as salary and fringe benefits, what do you find most rewarding about your job? 
  • What do you enjoy the least?
  • What obligation does your work place upon your personal time?
  • How much flexibility do you have in terms of dress, hours of work, vacation schedule, place of residence?
  • How often do people in your line of work change jobs?
  • How rapidly is your present career field growing?
  • How would you describe or estimate future prospects?  Where do future personnel needs lie?
  • If the work you do was suddenly eliminated, what different types of work do you feel that you could do?
  • What types of employers hire people with your background; what are some representative job titles?
  • Which related fields would you explore if you were in my shoes?
  • How do people find out about these jobs?  Are they advertised in the newspapers (which ones?), by word-of-mouth (who spreads the word?), by the personnel department?
  • How does one move from position to position?  Do people normally move to another agency (company, division), or do they move up in the agency (company, division)?
  • If you were to hire someone to work with you today, what factors would be most important in your hiring decision and why (education, work experience, personal attributes, specific skills, etc.)?

Employer

  • What is the size of the company/geographic locations?
  • What is the organizational structure?
  • How does the size and structure of your company compare to that of others in your field (in this city and/or nationally?)
  • How does the work of your division or office fit into the work of the organization as a whole?
  • What is the organization’s commitment to diversity?
  • What is the average length of time employees stay with the organization?
  • How much freedom is given to new people?
  • Does the employer provide opportunities for professional development?
  • How often are performance reviews given?
  • What are the arrangements for transferring from one division to another?
  • How much decision-making authority is given after one year?
  • What new product lines or services are being developed?
  • Where is the organization expanding? How does it compare with its competitors?

Advice

  • How well suited is my background for this type of work?  Would you look at my resume/CV and offer me feedback?
  • Would you suggest other related fields?
  • What types of experiences (e.g. volunteer work, part-time jobs) would you most strongly recommend?
  • If you were in my position, how would you pursue this line of work?

Following the informational interview, be sure to keep records.  Send a thank-you note to your contact:

  • As a courtesy
  • As another pretext to send your name/contact information
  • As a means of showing what you got out of the interview

Also remember to keep your contacts informed of your progress and let them know when you accept a position. 

Mentors

Mentors share their knowledge, experience, and expertise with less experienced individuals to help them advance their careers and build their networks.  A mentor is someone you trust—one who has interests similar to yours, who is further down the professional path and willing to offer you guidance.  As you network, be alert to identify people who may fit this role for you.  Mentoring relationships can be lasting, mutually rewarding, and invaluable to you in your career.

Gaining Experience

Experience is often a weak point for graduate students as they embark on the job market.  Most employers value hands-on work experience, and many graduate students have little to none outside the academic environment.  Gaining work experience—even in small doses—is a great way to enhance your marketability beyond academe.  Although doing so requires an investment of your time—a commodity of which you have little to spare in graduate school—the return on that investment can be well worth your effort if you have serious career interests beyond the Academy.  Experience will give you more credibility and will demonstrate your interest and commitment.  It also builds your resume, helps to broaden your perspective, and eases your transition into the working world beyond academe.

Studies show that most employers fill vacant positions internally.  Hiring someone from the inside can be done in several ways: by promoting a current full-time or part-time employee, by laterally moving an employee from one department to another, by rehiring former workers, or by hiring interns, volunteers, contract workers, or temporary workers.  This strategy is low-risk for the employer.  A working relationship has already been established, and the employee has demonstrated a certain potential and quality of performance. 

Internships

An internship is one of the best ways to gain work experience.  Internships are short-term work commitments that may be paid or unpaid.  Often they occur during the summer, but full-time and part-time internship opportunities are also available during the academic year.  Internships enable the intern to "test-drive" a particular field and acquire valuable work experience.  By the same token, employers get to “test-drive” the intern to evaluate his or her potential fit if the intern is interested in pursuing permanent work with that employer.  Seeking and obtaining an internship is a good way to practice your job searching skills.

Develop a plan for your internship to ensure that the responsibilities and exposure you are given suit your career goals.  Some employers allow flexible hours, particularly for unpaid interns. Work experience is very valuable on the job market, so take advantage of these opportunities, learn as much as you can from them, and make as many connections with people as possible.

Job Shadowing

If an internship is not a possibility for you, shadowing someone on the job can also serve as a way to demonstrate your interest in a particular line of work.  Job shadowing is somewhat of an extended version of an informational interview and can range in length from a morning or afternoon to several days.  The advantage to job shadowing is that it gives you an insider’s view of a typical day in a particular field or with a particular employer.  It will also likely provide you with good topics of discussion for job interviews. 

The Jefferson Extern Program through University Career Services assists students in arranging short job shadowing experiences. 

Gaining Experience in Other Ways

Be creative in seeking other ways to gain work experience.  You may want to consider:

  • Find a part-time job in a career area that interests you.  Even what you might think of as a menial job can often provide an opportunity to make valuable contacts. 
  • Volunteer, especially if employers in your career area of interest typically cannot afford to pay interns.  Volunteering is usually less structured than an internship. 
  • Keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to do short-term or long-term paid or unpaid consulting, special projects, etc.

Cold Contacting

Cold contacting is the process of taking the initiative to inquire directly with an employer about job opportunities.  You are not applying for a specific job opening; instead, you are expressing interest and proposing your candidacy more generally for work that interests you.  You can “cold contact” an employer in a variety of ways: by mailing or emailing your resume and cover letter, by telephoning, or by approaching the employer in person.  There is certainly no guarantee that the employer is hiring (or will be), so it is best to cast a wide net with this method—contact as many employers as possible and follow up on your initial introduction, perhaps to suggest a brief meeting to discuss possibilities. 

Cold contacting takes time but can be very effective.  If you do your research and tailor your materials as you should, you will send the message to employers that 1) you are resourceful, and 2) you take initiative—qualities that virtually all employers value.  Cold contacts followed by a personal connection can be as effective as networking.  Like networking, cold contacting becomes much easier with practice.  Keep in mind that after receiving your initial inquiry the employer is not yet invested in you, so it will be up to you to assume the proactive role.

Targeted Mailings

In a targeted mailing, you contact an employer directly with a tailored cover letter and resume inquiring about employment possibilities.  Your goal is to tap into the employer’s hidden job market.  To maximize the effectiveness of this strategy, you must devote time and careful thought to identifying employers and researching them.  Be proactive to find the name and address of someone in charge of your area of interest and send your inquiry directly to that person.  Request a meeting (if possible) or telephone conversation and indicate that you will follow up with this person within a reasonable timeframe or by a certain date (e.g. within two weeks).  Always follow through on your plans. 

Telephoning

Conducting a telephone campaign to find out of an employer is hiring can save time.  Be sure, though, that the person you speak with has the knowledge and authority to answer that question. Prepare a concise personal pitch [can we imbed a cross reference back to the “Example Personal Pitch” in “Networking” above?] to present with your inquiry.  If you are told that the employer is not hiring but your interest is strong, you may still wish to send a resume and cover letter or visit the office in person.  If you are advised to submit a resume, do so promptly, and in your cover letter refer to the person with whom you spoke.

Paying Visits

Visiting employers’ offices in person to inquire about job opportunities can be effective, especially at small businesses.  Sometimes this may be impossible or at best inconvenient, but taking the time to pay an employer a visit demonstrates your dedication and interest.  If you happen to know that an employer is hiring, ask to speak directly with the person making the hiring decisions.  This approach works particularly well for small operations.  Although it can be intimidating to walk into an employer’s office and ask a stranger about work opportunities, this strategy really can work.  Naturally, you should arrive with your resume in hand, prepared to make a case for yourself.

Career Fairs and Other On-Grounds Activities

At U.Va., University Career Services (UCS) and its Affiliate Career Services offices organize a variety of opportunities for students to come in contact with employers: career fairs, employer information sessions, panels, mock interviews, etc.  Many of these events are geared toward the large undergraduate population at U.Va. but are open and useful to all students.  They are convenient and efficient, offering students easy opportunities to hear from employers directly and to meet them face-to-face.  Check the UCS calendar and Affiliate Career Services links for information on upcoming events.  Alternatively, you may wish to look into national career fairs run by professional organizations. 

Finding Jobs