“I don’t mean to be offensive or anything about your workshop, but getting that job, for me, was just pure luck.”

Nadia looks at me with the unapologetic expression I remember from the last time I saw her, almost a year ago. Back then, we had a one-on-one session on her CV and cover letter, which was part of the workshop I gave at her research institution. The participants were PhD candidates and postdocs, almost all of them natural scientists. Nadia’s target job field was quality management in the pharma industry. I remember pointing out the requirements of the job ad we analysed and trying to find possible overlaps between her current and past roles and the new ones she was applying for. I also remember her frustration about hardly ever getting invited.

Now we are talking again. I have reached out to her because I saw on LinkedIn that she has a position in a clinical contract research organisation now – and because I am always curious about how people with a PhD make that change from academia to industry or another sector. Whatever I learn from my past participants and coaching clients is immensely valuable for my future workshop participants and clients.

When I say ‘curious’, I mean it. I genuinely want to know what people find useful in order to break into a new field. And for Nadia, my workshop was not useful in that sense, at least not directly. If I zoom into our conversation, however, I do find that she has taken some advice to heart, such as putting an effort into establishing a connection with every single interview partner she met during the recruitment process by researching them beforehand and preparing every conversation in depth. But that is not the point I want to make here. The question I find interesting is this:

How much can we actively increase our chances of getting a new job if so much of it seems completely outside of our control?

For Nadia, her job search went like this: she wrote tons of applications, got rejected most of the time, invited to a few (but never with an offer at the end), until she happened to see another job ad on LinkedIn and applied again, this time with success. Of course, she admits, doing this three-months qualification training in Clinical Research Management paid for by the Arbeitsamt might have helped (even though what she learned there has nothing to do with her role now). And in a way, she is right. It is impossible for her to tell what ultimately got her the job (unless she asks the decision makers, of course). Was it her PhD in chemistry and experience with the conducting of trials? Was it the fact that she had proven her ability to work well on her own just as well as with a multinational team? Was it the fact that she had changed the layout of her CV for the hundredth time? Or was it the fact that she started one of the interviews in Spanish (not her native language) because she knew that her interviewer was from Spain? Or that she chose to do one of the other interviews in German (not her native language either) although German is not required for her role?

We just won’t know for certain and it’s worth taking a glimpse behind the scenes of the recruitment process. I recently came across this post on LinkedIn and I think it’s worth sharing:

 

Chris, the author of this post, emphasises the role of luck. And in a way, that is really helpful because dissociating the outcome of an application from your own self-worth is absolutely crucial for your mental and emotional wellbeing. But just slightly shift your perspective, and the same thing (luck) can also become quite a downer: If your success depends so much on luck, doesn’t that mean that all your actions are ultimately a waste of time?

Well, here is where I don’t agree and why I decided to join the conversation:

 

What I’m taking away from this is the following: It’s never black or white. It’s never only pure luck and it’s never only the geniality of you as a person and/or your job finding strategies. For an organisation to hire you, you need to fit in terms of your expertise and experience, but also in terms of your personality, your motivation and your goals. This is true the other way around, too: for you to find an organisation where you’d like to work, you need to be looking, searching in a smart way, putting yourself (in the form of CV, cover letters, and also personally) out there again and again and again – and, as is true for many applicants, getting over rejection again and again and again. 

When you have finally found your match – and your new organisation has found theirs, is this because of luck or because of merit? 

In my view, it’s always both and you can’t have either of them if you stay in your room doing nothing. So get yourself out there, be active and DON’T GIVE UP. (That was Nadia’s one recommendation, by the way. I couldn’t agree more.)

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