Tell Your Story: How to Stand Out During Your Next Job Interview

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Graduate Division

Breaking into a new field can seem daunting, especially since academic training rarely prepares trainees for anything beyond the tenure track. However, the good news is that the skills you already have from years at the bench are actually transferrable to many fields outside academia. Whether you’ve got your eye on that industry research position, or think you could be successful in business development, you’ve got some explaining to do first. Getting hired requires the ability to craft a compelling story, with you as the protagonist.

To learn how to create a personal narrative, local groups Biotech Connection – Bay Area and Curium recently hosted a workshop for grad students and postdocs at all stages of their career search. The workshop was led by guest instructor Luke Kreinberg, Associate Director of the Career Management Team at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. Kreinberg also has years of experience working in industry, and has served as a business coach for Bain, McKinsey, Google, and Yahoo. More than 50 attendees came to UCSF Mission Bay Campus to network and listen to Luke speak about how to tell their story to prospective employers.

Starting your journey

Before you can tell your story, Kreinberg says you need to have a good idea of where you’re going, which he calls “your North Star.” Your North Star is a career goal that drives all of your other decisions along the way. It’s not necessary to know what your North Star is when you first start your career search, but the sooner you identify it, the easier things will be. Try these steps to get started:

Self-assess honestly: Start with an honest examination of your values, as well as the skills and competencies that you possess. What makes your heart beat faster? What are you good at? These answers will help define your ideal career.

Demystify your career choice: Early on, many people tend to hold an idealized view of their dream job. Reach out to people with your dream job and demystify the role, learning the reality of it. Treat researching future jobs as a scientific experiment – talk to as many people as you can to collect multiple data points. During this process, you will organically move from a romantic theoretical notion of your desired career path to a real understanding of skills, competencies, and experiences that you will need to succeed.  You will start seeing gaps between you and your dream job, which in turn will inform you on how to best use your time to fill these gaps.

Meeting with people also expands your network. Like it or not, your next job offer is likely to come through a personal connection.

Define your message: Now that you have carefully looked at your skill set and gained an extensive knowledge of the field, it is time to develop your message. What do you have to offer? What is that you have that can be of value to a future employer?

Don’t make people guess, explain how what you have done in the past connects to what you want to do in the future. Equally important, what is that need, what are you asking for? Being specific about what you want creates a very strong impression.

Get the gig: Don’t be timid about asking for mentorship or advice. Don’t shy away from asking your advocates to help you, whether through making phone calls or by forwarding your resume to a hiring manager. Get people on your side. Remember, many people are genuinely happy to help someone in need, especially if some time ago they were in your exact shoes.

Tailor your story to your audience

Now that you’ve identified your dream job and gotten your foot in the door, convince your listener that you are a great match for this opportunity. When crafting a story, the first thing to consider is: who is your audience? Whether you are facing an informational interview or an employment interview, always do your homework and come prepared. Kreinberg recommends making sure you know enough about the person sitting across from you that you can tailor your narrative to make it interesting and relevant to them.  Make sure that your questions are thoughtful and demonstrate that you have done your research. 

Stand out from the crowd

Kreinberg says the last thing a recruiter wants to hear are platitudes like ‘I am very innovative and I believe in collaborations.’ Recruiters don’t want key words; they want stories that describe your unique journey. In academia, it is easy to feel that you are no different from anyone else. It can seem like everyone comes from the same background, and has more or less the same interests. Learn to tease out the interesting details of your biography; these will spice up your story and make you memorable. Your goal is for a recruiter to look at your name at the end of their day and remember at least one thing about you.

Help your listener understand the context and impact of your narrative

Focus on details and be specific, but give the right amount of detail. Even if your CV is ten pages long, don’t try to unload all of its content on an interviewer. Instead, Kreinberg recommends highlighting just a few items from your professional experience and expanding on each of them following a simple framework:

  • Own it – describe your longstanding passion for something
  • Ground it – add specific information (numbers, names, details of a project, etc.)
  • Point to impact – explain how what you’ve done impacted you or your organization

Let’s say you are talking with somebody about your interest in science education. To demonstrate this, you could say:

  • Own it: ‘Since junior high I loved working in science education.
  • Ground it: ‘Over the last six months, I’ve worked with high school students, as well as undergrads on an initiative that was funded by the NIH.’
  • Point to impact: ‘At the end of the day, I am known in my organization as someone who is not only advocating for science education, but takes action. And that’s why I went back to school to get my PhD.’