On jobs and job-seeking

Do you know the best time to be looking at open positions in your field? It’s ALL THE TIME. Whether you’re actively job-seeking or happily occupied in a position that’s perfect for you, ads for jobs like the one you have (or want to have) should be among your regular professional reading. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Recognize that things change. Your current job may be great, but what if your boss leaves and their replacement is a monster who makes your life miserable? What if some aspect of your adult life (elderly parent, kids, partner’s new job, your own health) requires you to change where you live or take some time off? What if funding for your position doesn’t get renewed next fiscal year? The job you’d never have considered applying for because it was part-time, in another state, or perfect if you weren’t happy where you are can quickly become your next best prospect.
  • Gauge your value. Whether you’re negotiating a starting salary or thinking about next steps in your career, you should have realistic sense of what your skills and experience are worth on the market. Job ads help convey how much demand there is, and where the open jobs are. You might also read recent job posts to get a sense of the current pay range for jobs like yours, or see what you might get paid if you took the next step up the ladder. That can motivate you to keep adding to your c.v., rather than getting complacent!
  • Get what you need to succeed. You can also think of job ads as shopping lists for skills development. If every job ad you’re interested in asks for experience using a particular software application, familiarity with a specific data standard, or ability to lift 30 lbs, well…that should be incentive for finding internships, classes, or other opportunities to acquire those essential skills. (Maybe start working out, too.)
  • Know yourself. What do the jobs that appeal to you have in common? What might be off-putting about an otherwise exciting prospect? Figuring out what you do and don’t like about past, present, and prospective jobs can help you recognize patterns, ask good questions during interviews, and make choices that increase your job satisfaction. Also, giving careful consideration to jobs you don’t want–and understanding why you don’t want them–will make it that much clearer when a job you do want comes along.
  • Understand the literary form of the job posting. Just like press releases, recommendations, résumés and cover letters, job postings are their own genre of microliterature. As with all of those examples, you’ll more than likely have to write one yourself at some point…and it’s possible to write a really good one if you know the form well. Read job postings for their style, organization, and content; keep a particular eye out for striking features, or places where a post clearly departs from boilerplate language. Posted positions can tacitly or overtly express key organizational values that might resonate with you–like the fact that it’s a dog-friendly workplace, or that there are matching programs for charitable giving.
  • Be on the lookout for red flags. In my experience, if a job title has a slash or ampersand in it (like “Editor/Applications Analyst” or “Reference Librarian & Instructor”) and the description indicates that the position reports to the heads of two different departments, that often means this is actually two full-time jobs they’re hoping to hire one magical, superhuman person to do. Does the salary (if one is given) seem way too low for all the qualifications they’ve listed? Then you might be looking at what my good friend Lynn Boyden calls “a letter to Santa Claus”–a job posting where most (if not all) of the preferred characteristics are nice-to-haves rather than have-to-haves. That’s not always a bad thing, either! Letter-to-Santa-type jobs are often ones you can successfully apply for if you have only some of the things on the list–either because they’re not sure what they need, or they’re willing to work with whatever skills the candidate they like most actually comes equipped with. Last but not least, if you see the exact same position posted over and over again, approach with caution! There might be good reasons no one stays in that job for more than a few months (terrible boss, terrible workplace, duties not as described…the list goes on). You’ll be far more likely to notice that sort of thing if you’re keeping track, and you can ask around to get the inside scoop.
  • Keep a lookout for others, too. One way you can build social capital is to forward postings to people you know. Sending someone a quick message–“I don’t know if you’re looking for something new, but I saw this position opening and I thought it was perfect for you. Hope you’re well!”–is a thoughtful gesture that really takes minimal effort. It also lets you be in touch with folks from time to time about something other than a favor you’re asking, which might make you feel better about leveraging your network when you do need something in the future. (For more on social capital, check out this toolkit (PDF link) from some folks at Harvard.)

Whatever your reason for monitoring the job market, try to be systematic about it. Always download and save the full text of the job description when you first see it; bookmarks won’t be helpful after the application period closes and the posting comes down. You can print out hard copies and keep them in a job binder, or just save electronic versions in a folder on your computer. Annotate saved posts with highlights or marginal notes or Post-its, or keep a separate file with your notes–key qualifications you might have (or need) for each job, salary ranges, contact name(s) or connections you might have at the place that’s hiring, or even the name of whoever eventually gets the job, if you happen to know. You might also keep a running list of keywords that stand out among job descriptions you like, so you can include those terms in your searches whenever you’re job-hunting more actively. That could turn up a job you wouldn’t have found otherwise, because it’s in a different industry or has an unusual title.

This doesn’t mean you have to read every last job post that hits your inbox. We’re all looking for ways to cut back on the number of irrelevant messages we have to slog through, and one way to do that is to delete job postings unread if we’re not actively looking. But do consider checking the job boards or searching list archives for recent postings every few months, at least; that’s frequent enough to keep you current. It can give you something to do on a slow afternoon, confirm that the job you have now is pretty decent, or be the reality check you need to realize you’ve got to retool your skill set to remain competitive. It might even be fun to imagine yourself doing something new and completely different…perhaps in a dog-friendly workplace, in a town hundreds of miles away, and for ten percent more money than you’re getting paid now!

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