Be the solution: how to really articulate your PhD (and other) skills to employers

‘Change your perspective from “how can I beat the odds and win the tenure-track jackpot prize?” to “how can I be the solution to a department’s hiring problem?”’

Dr Loleen Berdahl & Dr Jonathan Malloy

Be the solution…

There’s nothing like friends sending you photos of their home-baked halloumi and mint focaccia to make you feel inadequate. But, having been peer-pressured (I mean… inspired) into more home cooking during lockdown, I decided to invest in a hand blender for all my soup- and sauce-making needs.

Never did I think this wholesome pursuit would be such a minefield. No sooner could I say ‘purée’ than I was overwhelmed by lists of 1000W power ratings, 20 speed settings, 0.5-0.8l capacity… it was like another language to me. Then in stepped one product ad, telling me that their sleek, white offering changes from mixer to chopper in one easy click, saving me time, workload and kitchen space. SOLD.

The offending, aforementioned hand blender

In some ways, these blender descriptions reminded me of some PhD researchers’ job applications. Academia persistently encourages us to judge our value on our subject-specific knowledge and skills and our outputs: theses; papers; articles. So, when it comes to trying to impress an employer with our credentials, we often emphasise this knowledge and these outputs (or feel inadequate due to our apparent lack of such outputs) to try to make our case.

There are two risks here. In academic job applications (for example, for a Research Fellow position), going into detail about the technical ins-and-outs of your PhD may reflect what you’re most proud of, but it often doesn’t clearly indicate to the hiring supervisor how that PhD experience will help you to make their project a success. For jobs in other sectors, the risk is even higher. It is likely that employers in different sectors will have different value systems to academia, so telling them lots of things about our academic interests and outputs is unlikely to resonate or impress.

That’s where the blenders, and Berdahl & Malloy’s quote above (from their book Work Your Career, 2018) come in. Ultimately, in the chosen quote, Berdahl & Malloy take us back to Marketing 101: the difference between features and benefits. Whilst features are objective facts about a product or service (the 100W, 20-speed, 0.8l-capacity what-do-you-call-it in the blender ads), benefits are what give people a reason to invest in that product or service by explaining how it will help them to achieve what they want to achieve. The snappy description in the ad that I went for translated the features of the product (which meant little to me) into benefits… and I went for it.

This act of translation is what Berdahl & Malloy mean by transforming your job applications into evidence and arguments that you can solve the employer’s ‘hiring problem.’ What’s useful (almost empowering, I’d argue) about their approach is that it takes emphasis away from feeling like you need to hit every single criterion in a person specification. Instead, they suggest focusing on building a case that you can do what the employer needs you to do, even if some of your experience and evidence for this comes from a slightly different place to some of the other applicants.

They’re saying that every job that comes up does because the employer has a set of hiring needs: a set of things they need doing or problems they need solving. Your goal in applications and interviews is to present yourself as the solution to these needs or problems. Even in academic jobs, not all positions are equal. Depending on who’s paying your salary and how a department is pressed, the ‘need’ may be someone who can teach specific modules or diversify the department’s current teaching portfolio. In other cases, the ‘need’ may be for someone who is going to submit 4* publications for REF or increase industry collaborations in their department. Tapping into the ‘need,’ in each case, is crucial.

Let’s turn briefly to what this might look like in practice. I read a lot of cover letters and supporting statements that sound a lot like this:

My research is focused primarily on electrical power systems simulation, energy optimisation and power electronics. I have a strong interest in the integration of low-carbon electrified transportation and power systems. I have participated in a development challenge with the Institute of Mechanical Engineers to develop and demonstrate a hydrogen fuel cell locomotive.

In other words, paragraphs that tell me features rather than benefits. I probably already know these things from this person’s CV: there’s no argument here as to how they can do what the employer needs them to do in the advertised job.

With a bit of work, we can turn this into something like the following:

I am impressed by the strength of railway and power system research at X University, and believe my research would contribute well to the existing strengths and aims of X department. For example, my research in transportation electrification and integrated low-carbon energy systems will help to develop novel topics in low-carbon transportation such as Y, which will feed into the department’s aims to expand rail research into the area of climate change.

In this version, we’re directly addressing how our interests and experiences will help the department to achieve one of the goals that they’re trying to meet by employing someone in this role: one of the reasons this job has come up.

You’ve probably already figured out the catch here: that to do this effectively, you need to know as much as you can about the employer’s needs or problems in order to ‘sell’ yourself as the solution to those needs and problems. This therefore seems to leave you with two options:

  1. Focus your job search on applying for positions where you know what the job is about, either through past experience or people you know
  2. Get to know what jobs you are drawn to are really about, by talking to people who do them and starting to integrate yourself into their professional communities

Regarding point 2, I recently heard Christopher L. Caterine, interviewed by Chris Cornthwaite, describe this process as akin to anthropological research: a process of understanding the language of your potential audience, how they think and what they value, so that you can present yourself in a way that ‘speaks’ to this and addresses their values and needs.

In many cases this sounds easier said than done, especially if you’re feeling the pressure to apply for anything and everything to get off your parents’ sofa or to contribute to your family’s upkeep. Ideally, it would mean putting the research in before you start applying. But even if you’re at the pointy end of needing a job, Berdahl and Malloy’s quote made me think: what if doing some of this leg-work research could actually save you time in the long run, rather than it ‘wasting’ time that could be spent applying for more jobs? You could put all your time into sending out more and more applications, but as the saying attributed to everyone from Einstein to Henry Ford to Mark Twain goes, ‘If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.’ And if what you’ve got is a heap of automated rejection emails, then maybe it’s time to switch things up.

Berdahl & Malloy suggest starting simply with the job description and the organisation’s or department’s website: have they set out a strategic plan, or talked about their wider goals at all? Google ‘[organisation name] strategic plan’ if you can’t find it, and think about how the role you’re going for supports their wider objectives. All stuff you can do in your pyjamas. If you have more time though, take it off the page. Start with people you know: do they, or anyone they know, work in the area(s) you’re looking at? Then take it wider: platforms like Smart Tribe are designed to connect people in academia and industry. You can specify the type of person you want to connect with, and get a certain number of ‘introductions’ for free. For wider coverage, there’s always LinkedIn. Ask questions to get an idea of how their roles fit into the bigger picture of their company or organisation, and the targets they are responsible for meeting.

The good news here is that we’re talking about a research process, and you’re a researcher. Trust your ability to close read, analyse and draw conclusions. Your research skills are applicable to the process of job hunting. As Berdahl and Malloy sum up: ‘do whatever work you can to assess the hiring department’s needs. Research is your thing, after all’ (2018: 187).

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