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October 20, 2002

Tips, Pointers, and Trivia I Hope You Don't Need

The first Barenaked Ladies song I ever heard was their cover of "Lovers In A Dangerous Time", the original artist(s) for which I do not know. I really enjoyed it, and even to this day it rings with the distinctive early BNL feel. Certain lyrics have always jumped out at me, and as of this week they quite directly apply to me. For some reason the phrase "gotta kick at the darkness until it bleeds daylight" has always stuck in my head. It's philosophical, metaphysical, and metaphorical all at the same time.

Those of you who read this column know I've been unemployed for over six months now. And you're probably sick of me reminding you every two weeks or so. Well, this prolonged unemployment spell has been my darkness, and finally after poking, prodding, kicking, and all-out apeshit booting the hell out of it, daylight is finally flowing. That's right - I'm going to work on Monday. Hallelujah! It has been a long six months, and despite the silver linings I have found I will be quite glad to once again apply my skills and earn my keep.

Nothing is for sure, and this long-sought-after position is no exception. The company really wants me, and I'd like nothing better (thus far) than to work for this company, however I will have a "probationary" period, for lack of a better word, and will have to meet a performance target, something I've never had to contend with before. An offer has been made, however there are still holes that need to be filled and items that need to be negotiated. A common goal is being shared, but with so much still to be nailed down, I'm not going to put all my faith in this position just yet. Likely 95% of my concerns will be cleared up by the end of this week, but if nothing else I've learned that hope can be a dangerous emotion when you're on the edge of desperate.

Despite the above, I am also going into this with a great deal of both enthusiasm and optimism. With this in mind, one could assume that my job hunting days are over for the foreseeable future. As such, I can now look back on "that time I was unemployed" and think about it. If any good is to come of this thinking, I need to share what little I may have learned during this time with anyone who may be or knows anybody in the same boat. To that end, here is what I have learned about searching for a job in 2002:

1. Your cover letter needs to be different. I realize that in a previous column I bitched long and loud about how inherently unfair cover letters are. Sadly, I am not in a position to change the way jobs are advertised and positions are filled, so I have to work within that framework. With that in mind, you have to realize that there are a lot of people applying to the same jobs that you are. I don't mean 50 or 80, either. For some of the jobs in my field that I applied to, the advertising company received between 200 and 300 résumés for one position. Yes, 300-1 odds right off the bat.

As long as you have a good grasp of the English language, you'll be ahead of the game already. However, you'll still be competing for eyeball time with everybody who can write and spell properly. The thing to do is not churn out the same "I am submitting my résumé blah blah blah thank you for your attention" crap that everyone else is. I still did a lot of that, but for jobs I was truly fired up about I crafted seriously different letters. Whether they were good or bad, I'll never know, as I didn't get any calls back about them. I'd be willing to bet that I was noticed, however.

2. One page résumés don't always cut it. If you're like me, you may think that having a one-page résumé is the end-all and be-all of résumé authoring. I would spend hours tinkering with precise wording to ensure that my résumé contained all the information it needed without being over long. Even with six internships and now three real positions under my belt, I managed to keep everything to one page. It wasn't until a few weeks after a family member mentioned a multi-page résumé that I decided to even try it.

After having my résumé misread for the nth time I was exasperated. My formatting was so clear to me yet it was being misinterpreted at every interview. I sat down and decided to give a two-page résumé a try. Sure enough, only a couple hours later a far, far superior résumé was produced. I had plenty of room to document my past deeds and accomplishments with room to spare, and managed to turn my Interests section from a measly four-line addendum into a half-page essay about who I am and what turns my crank. I added a career objective statement, bolded key words and even added one-line keyword summaries for each of my previous positions, all to enhance the readability and presentability of my résumé. I believe it worked wonders. (If you're interested in a before and after, e-mail me at

3. Get some focus, or at least an objective. As I just mentioned, I added a career objective statement to my résumé. I was prompted to do this because of a fairly typical question I was asked in a number of interviews that I simply did not have an answer to. "What do you see yourself doing in 5 years?" Simple enough, maybe, but I didn't have a good answer. I found No Parachute Required at my local library, and doing the exercises in the first part of the book really helped me realize what I love doing, and what I want to do in the next 5, 10, or even 20 years. This helped me in two ways.

First, I no longer applied to any job that I was qualified for. After all, if I'm not going to enjoy doing a job, why apply? I now know what I like doing (it should have been obvious, but it wasn't) and if a job would not allow me to do that, I'm not going to be happy there, so I may as well keep looking, as I'd probably leave in the next 18-24 months in any case. While this cut down on the number of positions I applied to, it also allowed me to spend more time on each submission I did do - more time to craft that special cover letter.

Secondly, this also gave the would-be employer and/or recruiter an idea of what I want to do, which would help them decide if my objectives meet with their job description. Chances are, if I've already applied to the position it means that in my estimation their job description meets my objectives, so it can add a level of confirmation, letting whoever is reading your résumé that yes, you really do want this particular position.

As simple as it sounds, I really think an objective statement was one of the key aspects to not just my résumé, but my entire job search process. If you don't have one, I can highly recommend it.

4. Keep notes of everything in a dedicated notepad. The day I was fired was pretty rough for me (as chronicled in yet another article 5 months ago). However, I was fortunate enough to have the presence of mind to find a large blank spiral-bound notepad and pen in which I religiously chronicled everything relevant to my job search each and every day. That first day I wrote the four people I called to tell that I was on the job market, along with their phone numbers and any other pertinent information. Each day has it's own entry, and I never go back to make notes, only to reference what I've already written. Although this has made for a rather thick and unruly hodgepodge of notes that can be sometimes difficult to go back through, it has been a resource I'm glad to have started.

Any time a recruiter or interviewer called me, I knew that all I needed to do was grab that one notepad and I 'd be set. I had one pen that lived in the spiral of that notepad, and I've given my wife heck more than once for stealing my pen. It's my one-stop for all my job hunting needs. It stays open to the current page, so the only thing I need to do is open the pen and start writing. Names, phone numbers, company names, e-mail addresses, are all at my fingertips.

Am I making a big deal out of this laughably simple concept? You bet I am. I normally live life with notes scribbled on a half-dozen pieces of scrap paper jammed in my wallet, and I know from first-hand experience that it's not a good way to be organized. I'm still not a Daytimer kind of person, but that one notepad came in very, very handy.

To boot, I've been toying with the idea of creating a faux blog out of the whole mess. Just sit down and type a blog-like entry for each day, telling how things are going, how I'm feeling, and what's what. It would be a pretty long task, and I'm not sure who would benefit. This article seems much easier instead.

5. Don't hold your breath. I mentioned at the beginning of this article that hope can be a dangerous emotion. There have been many a time that I found what I thought could have been The Perfect job advertised. I would apply to it using my finest cover letter hand-crafted for that particular position and wait to hear back from an enthused employer begging for an interview. More times than I care to count, that call or e-mail never came. Part of being unemployed is playing the waiting game, or more specifically, playing the I'm-not-waiting game.

At one point, I thought that I might have the choice between a great position in California with excellent professional growth potential and a mediocre yet passable position locally. What a choice - do I stay close to friends and family and find something better in two years, or remove my wife and child from everyone we know and really kick-start my career? As it turns out, it was a decision I did not need to make, as neither company wanted me. Although it sounds mildly anticlimactic, playing such mind games with yourself and your family can be rather brutal.

As you can tell, I'm not even assuming that this position I'm going to on Monday will pan out entirely. Far from putting my eggs in one basket, I'm holding my eggs close and trying my best not to let myself start wondering which basket I'd rather put them in. It is really hard to do at times, especially when you receive some form of encouragement like an interview or a really positive phone call, but it must be done. Be enthusiastic, by all means - I've lost at least one possible job previously due to a lack of enthusiasm for the company I was being interviewed by - but don't be overly hopeful. Even this weekend I picked up the Saturday classifieds, and I'll check the job boards later as well.

What I'm trying to say is don't let yourself cycle emotionally. If you build yourself up based only on an interview or a phone call, you'll be ripe for a fall. Deal with everything on an as-it-comes basis, and don't anticipate. It's a sure recipe for some unnecessary aggravation.

Is this everything I've learned? Probably not - six months is a long time when you've got nothing but free time, and after 20+ interviews and over 200 applications I'm sure there's more hard-earned nuggets of knowledge hiding in my head. I hope that what I've been able to gather up for you right now will be of use to you, or someone you know, if they happen to need this kind of insight. Having been on the wrong side of the employment fence for so long, I sincerely hope that nobody needs to read this.


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