Managing your job search messaging from the conscious to the subconscious

The career exploration and job search processes are very active, fully-conscious experiences. It is important to be intentional, proactive, and to communicate in very direct ways your career goals to yourself (yes, sometimes you still need convincing too) and others. Throughout the process, however, there are some occasions when paying attention to communication happening at a more subconscious level is also important. Sometimes you can use this to your advantage, other times, you want to make sure that it is not putting you at a disadvantage. Here are some examples:

Networking

When you reach out to someone to request an informational interview (an opportunity to learn form them about their job and experiences getting to where they are today so that you can use this information as you possibly apply for similar jobs), there are a handful of reasons why they may say yes to your request to chat:

  1. They are an awfully nice person, and love chatting with new people
  2. They benefited from someone helping them in a similar way in the past, and are happy to pay it forward with you
  3. They are actually looking for a possible candidate for a role that might match your experiences and interests
  4. Someone has recommended them to you as a great person to speak with

Points #1-3 are specific to your contact’s needs and interests – you won’t have any influence here. Point #4 involves an external party, however, and this begins to create a situation where you can have an impact. In terms of networking, if I can reach out to a contact and bring in a third party into my introduction (e.g., Julie says that you will be a good person to reach out to with my questions), then I am giving my new contact a good reason to respond to my outreach because they probably don’t want to lose any of the social reputation that they now feel that they have (albeit at a subconscious level). After all, if Julie recommends them as a great person to talk with, she can also change her opinion and feel the opposite if she hears that they don’t actually take the time to chat to people she recommends. Leveraging this type of subconscious social pressure by reaching out to people you know so that you can then reach out to people that they know is an effective networking strategy. This won’t guarantee that people will respond to you, but it certainly increases the likelihood that they will.

Resumes

Most of the resumes you send when applying for jobs will first be “read” by Applicant Tracking Software (ATS) that matches your keywords to those from the job description to determine whether there is a high enough match for your application to be passed on to an actual human. For the time-being, it is likely that these robots are just doing their tasks in an objective manner without too much of a subconscious to worry about (at least I hope so!). However, when your resume makes it through to an actual person (thanks to all of the customizing you did before submitting it), it is time once again to think about how your language and formatting can affect what they think about you.

Small fonts and margins, and a lack of any white space in your resume will make it feel cramped, slightly intimidating, and possibly overwhelming – not concepts you want associated with you. On the other hand, resumes with too much spacing between lines, excessive margins, overly large fonts, all spread out over multiple pages will make it hard for the reader to picture all of your experiences at once. It will feel as if you are communicating too slowly and inefficiently.

Your resume will have an experience section. If you call it “Work Experience”, you may be limiting what you talk about to formal, paid positions. However, if you call it “Relevant Experience”, then not only do you create a subconscious signal to the reader that what they are going to being reading is relevant to them (you still need to make sure it is), but you can also include experiences that are not purely employment related. For example, you can talk about your research as a student or postdoc, or an independent project you worked on with outside collaborators, or the role your played as part of a student group or club. So long as the experience is relevant to the job you are applying to, in terms of the skills you are illustrating, then they can be concentrated together in this one section.

Occasionally, people will create a section in their resume that is called “Other Experience”.  The term “other” doesn’t leave the reader with much in the way of exciting imagery to associate with the experience or skills. Indeed, if the writer doesn’t know what these experiences or skills represent, then the reader is going to have a much harder time deciphering the value of a section that feels a little like a “stuff” section.

When it comes to writing bullet points in the resume, a commonly used phrase to describe experiences is “responsible for…”.

Responsible for coordinating a 300-person professional development event in coordination with 4 local universities

The challenge with this phrasing is that the reader has a couple of options in terms of what they will take away from this. If they, and their subconscious, are feeling generally optimistic, then they may feel that you have successfully taken on lots of responsibility – which is a positive. Alternatively, if they are feeling more pessimistic, they may note that while you were responsible for doing this, you didn’t actually state that you did it. Yes, you were meant to have done it…, but that is not quite the same thing. A more direct approach that minimizes the ability of the reader to take away alternatives meanings from the bullet point will be to focus on the actual skill used, and how successful it is.

Coordinated a 300-person professional development event in collaboration with senior administrators at 4 local universities, bringing in 14 employers and 22 alumni

Overusing verbs such as “helped”, “participated”, and “worked on” will also create a less tangible image of you in the mind of the reader, because it is hard to picture exactly what you may have been doing when you say “worked”. What specific images to these bullets create in your mind?

Worked on key projects that resulted in 20% increase in revenue

Participated in group projects related to research and development

Interviews

Being the most confident version of yourself is a great goal to have during job interviews. One way to communicate confidence at the subconscious level is to ensure that you have strong beginnings and strong endings your answers. This is a common beginning of an answer people give to questions I pose in mock interviews:

“Ummm…., I think…”

Both of these utterances drain the impact that your answer will have. Here are some better responses:

“Yes…, I…”

“That’s a great question…, I…”

“I was actually thinking about this question this morning, and I…”

The questions you will ask during an interview are also important (because you are definitely going to ask some questions, right!?), and should be framed from an optimistic standpoint. Some students are tempted to ask a positive/negative question:

“What are some of the best and worst part of this job/employer?”

This might be a question better suited to an informational interview, rather than a job interview. In a job interview, none of your interviewers are likely to want to paint the job or their company in a negative light, and so you wouldn’t get valid information anyway. However, making people think about the negative aspects of their work life will make them experience a wave of negative emotional states inside, and your interviewer’s subconscious might associate you with these negative states since you were the one who triggered them. As the interviewers gather to discuss the final candidates, any negative feelings associated with you, even at a subconscious level, are not going to help your cause.

I have seen advice that asking the “what does an ideal candidate look like from your perspective?” question at the end of the interview gives you a last chance to convince the interviewer that you can be that candidate. There is certainly some truth to this. There is also a risk that by answering the question out loud, the interviewers create an ideal image in their head that no longer matches you and your skills and experiences. Asking this question may undo some of your hard work from the interview, and leave the interviewer wishing for more – even if they had been happy that you could do the job based on what you had already answered moments before. They wouldn’t be interviewing you if they thought you couldn’t do the job. You should spend the interview providing illustrations of your skills in use so that they can see what value you bring, and then skip this question.

And asking questions that force your interviewer to do some of your work for you will also leave them feeling a little deflated about the experience. For example:

“What questions haven’t I asked that you think it would be important for me to ask?”

The job search process is a great time for you to market the best, most confident version of yourself with dynamic examples, lots of energy, and good dose of optimism. Doing this in the right way will ensure that you are leaving the best impression on the conscious and subconscious of your future employers.

By Joseph Barber
Joseph Barber Senior Associate Director, Graduate Students & Postdocs Joseph Barber