Job-Hunting Advice from Human Resources Professionals

 November 16, 2016



On September 22, 2016, human resources managers from EPA, RTI, and SAS participated in a panel discussion to help attendees understand how job applicant screening works. As someone who worked for four years before coming to Duke, I noticed that some of the more subtle points the recruiters made lined up exactly with my experience in industry, and deserve further emphasis – especially for anyone who is applying for their first job or who may feel unsure about how to communicate professionally with a contact at a company. Note: The panel was focused on STEM-related jobs, but the advice below may be applicable to non-STEM jobs, too.

There were two main points that I took away that were advertised as part of the event. First, “required skills” means “required skills!” Read the job description carefully (including fine print at the bottom), and be honest with yourself. Do you have the skills required for this job? What classes or other experiences can prove that you’ve built these skills? Recruiters know that valuable skills can be learned outside of the classroom these days. Thus, Coursera-type experiences, a Github profile, and other portfolio-type material can make you more attractive on the job market.  Moreover, emerging technologies (e.g., Hadoop) are often self-taught or otherwise learned informally. If you did any kind of independent learning and gained real skills relevant to the job application, include it! Don’t omit it just because it wasn’t learned in a class you took. Second, the panel helped me understand that it is imperative to add technical terms/keywords to your resume. At times, HR personnel can search automatically the text of resumes. Capitalize on this technology by incorporating keywords in your skills section that speak specifically to your field. Again, don’t over-inflate; if it’s in your resume, you'd better be able to talk about it in the interview.



During the discussion, I also noticed some recurring themes that matched up well with my experiences in industry. My first piece of advice would be to “be concise.” In any email correspondence, get to the point. Those friendly folks would like to find out what you mean in four sentences rather than fifteen. The second theme was to “be open.” It is important to be open with each of your job leads on where you are in the process with other companies. If you’re talking with XYZ, Inc. and they know you’re also getting interest from three other companies, then they know you’re valuable and your contacts at XYZ can potentially speed up your application process. If they don’t know, they can’t help.

Another theme was salary negotiation. Since we’re all coming straight from graduate school, the salary may be hard to negotiate. Nevertheless, keep in mind that your first point of contact may be the recruiter (who finds candidates for hire) who is somewhat of a firewall between you and the hiring manager (who hires a candidate). You can discuss salary ranges with industry recruiters (or schools!), but do some research and try to understand how to do this carefully. In negotiating your salary, you can potentially ask for a small bump, but have a reason. For example, you learn while interviewing that you’ll need to travel or work on weekends. The recruiter now has a reason that s/he can take to the hiring manager to request the increase. Don’t say you need between $x and $y just because that’s what you found on Glassdoor. And what if you prefer ABC, Inc. but the offer from XYZ, Inc. pays a few thousand more?  Remember: salary isn’t everything. A slightly higher salary can’t always make up for dissatisfaction you might have with other aspects of the job. Besides the job description itself, you should consider benefits, colleagues, commute, living costs, bonuses, 401k match, opportunity for advancement, etc.



Finally, be professional, courteous, open, and assertive. Taking my first step into the workplace made me unsure of how to balance these qualities, but don’t despair. You can be professional, courteous, open, and assertive all at the same time! When I applied for my first internship after college I was told I’d hear back within two weeks. At day fifteen or so, I debated calling the office to ask about the position. Would it be pushy to call? Technically, I’m still in the application process...should I “interfere?” I decided it was perfectly reasonable to call—they said two weeks, and it had been two weeks. So I called. They said, “Oh, ok, let us check on that.” Later that afternoon, they called back offering me the internship. I always had a weird feeling that I might not have gotten that internship if I hadn’t called. Sometimes, strangely, it might just be that easy. Good luck (to all of us)!


Gary Larson

Ph.D. candidate, Statistical Science

Gary Larson is a Ph.D. candidate in statistical science. Prior to graduate school, Gary worked as an actuarial analyst and pension consultant in Charlotte, NC and Shanghai, China.