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Deciphering job descriptions

9/12/2014 3:41:52 PM

Last week, this post on Twitter popped up and seemed relevant to my last blog post about faculty positions. The Twitter conversation was spurred by an academic institution posting a very specific job description that included a desire for its future faculty member to be an expert in specific techniques and methods.

The author of the Twitter post asked: “What happened to hiring junior faculty for their ideas and research programs rather than techniques they use?!??”

We saw cases in our own set of faculty positions where specific skills were desired, but we also found very general, open-ended calls for applications. Do you think universities have the right to narrow their applicant pools through job ads?

Perhaps the really important question is this: How do you, as a job seeker, decipher the needs and intentions of the person who wrote the job post? 

Is the hiring manager looking for someone specific? Could your similar skill set work in that job, even though you can’t check all the boxes of qualifications? It’s sometimes hard to gauge which job posts are worth your time and which are not.

This week’s post is a handy guide on how to interpret job ads, along with some tips and tricks to make your search easier.

Look for field-specific terminology and keywords

Oftentimes when I see job posts that require highly specialized skill sets, I can tell that they’ve included lots of field-specific terminology to “scare away” people who are not appropriately versed in the language of the trade.

For example, this post for a research associate for Regeneron (Tarrytown, N.Y.) asks for knowledge of multicolor and intracellular flow cytometry, data analysis using FlowJo, MLR cell-based assays, and ELISA, ELISpot and MSD immunoassays, among other skills!

Maggie Theisen, a recruiter with AccruePartners, suggests that you need only 75 percent to 80 percent of the specialized or technical requirements listed. Often, this is a laundry list of skills; pay more attention to keywords to get an idea of the most important requirements. For the Regeneron post, for example, flow cytometry and immunoassays are the keywords to focus on in your application.

Another thing to keep an eye out for in a job post: acronyms. Every specialty has its fair share of acronyms, and, if the post does not deign to spell them out, the hiring manager is probably interested in only candidates who know what they mean without being told.

For example, this post for a regulatory affairs associate with CareFusion (Vernon Hills, Ill.) wants to see an applicant with experience in QSR, 21 CRF 820, drug cGMPs, and ISO/EC requirements, including MDD, CMDR, ISO 13485 and ISO 14971. Say what now? All of these acronyms are known by individuals in the regulatory affairs field, so this post is trying to ascertain if a potential applicant has regulatory affairs knowledge. Someone who does not understand this language will not likely apply.

Sometimes Google can help circumvent the roadblocks of technical lingo and acronyms, and it’s worth your effort to look up unfamiliar words. You never know:  You may be familiar with the concept and be able to discuss your relevant experience in a cover letter. Reiterating the language used from the job post in your resume and cover letter is wise, says Theisen.

What if a post has general, easy-to-understand terms? Then the employer is probably less concerned about having a specialist and more concerned about finding someone who is the right fit for the job.

For example, this posting for a senior scientist/principal scientist with MedImmune (Gaithersburg, Md.) seeks a Ph.D. or master’s candidate with experience in biology, biochemistry, pharmacology or a relevant discipline and with specialization in oncology. The skills listed include experience with biomarkers and translational science – much less specific than the two jobs discussed above.

Check out other posts from the company

It can be tricky to tell which skills on a job post are specific to the position versus generally desired by a company. Try searching the company job site for positions in the same department or similar ones, and read a couple to get a feel for the stock language.

For example, this post for a biochemical and cellular pharmacology research assistant/associate and this post for a biosample analysis and technology research assistant/associate at Genentech (San Francisco) have similar structures, but the slight differences help you see the keywords that are important. The pharmacology position specifically asks for strong mathematical skills and an ability to analyze quantitative data, and the biosample analysis post requires the ability to assess the performance of assays.

Phone a friend

When in doubt, you always can use your network to find someone to give you the inside scoop on the job post. Call, email or use LinkedIn to get connected with someone at the company or institution, preferably in the department that posted the position.

For example, this job found on LinkedIn from Bristol-Myers Squibb (Seattle) for an SR QC specialist in microbiology is perfect for someone who has a networking base at that company or in Seattle. Searching LinkedIn for a company name will show you who in your network is connected to that company. In this case, a search of my network for Bristol-Myers Squibb turned up a few people connected to me through groups or through a second degree connection (a friend of a friend), even though I have never lived or worked on the West Coast.

Preemptively getting to know people at a place where you want to work is a smart way to make your job search easier. It also will help you get an idea of the qualities that the employer seeks as well as the company culture (to see if you’d be happy working there). For academia, try going to conferences and identifying people ahead of time with whom you’d like to speak. Many collaborations and mentoring relationships have been forged over a good poster session. 

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