Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Eliza’s Lessons for Job Applicants

A guest post by Eliza Perry, one of our Hubbard Fellows:

For the past few months, Anne and I have been helping with the process of selecting the 2014-2015 Hubbard Fellows. And OH MAN, being on the “other end” of employment seeking was incredibly enlightening, and I wanted to share with my fellow job-hunters some of the key things I learned that I’ll be keeping in mind during my own upcoming job search. Below these you will find Chris’ response to what I took away from my experience.

Eliza contemplates the complexities of the job application process.

Eliza contemplates the complexities of the job application process.  Photo by Eliza.

1. Get relevant experience. FIND A WAY! Find a way to get relevant experience in whatever direction you hope to pursue after your schooling. That might mean relocating for a summer or volunteering during your already super busy school year.

2. Enthusiasm for every aspect of the position. Especially if you want to work for The Nature Conservancy, chances are your position will include a broad variety of responsibilities. Articulating your knowledge of and enthusiasm for each of these is very important, and shows that you specifically want this position, in this place.

3. Leadership capabilities. Yes, being the head of the outdoors club or the founder of an environmental group is a plus, but it turns out leadership capabilities can be demonstrated in less obvious ways too. It’s easy to assume that only presidents of clubs and captains of teams truly have leadership experience. However leadership, especially in relation to this fellowship, means taking initiative and being the type of worker that others can successfully model themselves after. Both of these abilities can be demonstrated in almost any setting/situation, and both indicate you are equipped to contribute meaningfully to your employer.

4. Don’t be self-serving. Don’t get me wrong, it is really important to ask yourself “What am I hoping to take away from my experiences on the job?” Defining goals and a tentative metric of success and articulating these during all stages of the application process can really make an applicant stand out. However, and this is a big however, there is always a danger of focusing too exclusively (in cover letters and interviews) on what we would get out of the experience, and neglecting how we’d contribute to the employer. Coming off as self-serving, even if inadvertently, can definitely work against you.

5. Engage with your hiring committee and show your personality. Don’t treat the interview process like talking to a wall. Awkward as it can seem sometimes, hiring committees are actually composed of other members of the human species who can laugh at your jokes, respond to your inquiries, and judge your demeanor. There’s no single right way to go about it, but find ways to be who you are while also taking full advantage of the opportunity to hear about the position and show your enthusiasm. Doing so shows your personality, which is a big factor in deciding whether a candidate is right for the job and shows that you are a fellow thoughtful human being.

6. The Hulk Effect. We applicants can get caught up in the job-hunting stress and try to morph into exactly what we imagine employers want. We shed our own skins and turn into The Incredible Hulk, flexing our pumped-up resumes and bellowing “PICK ME!” We’re not meant to excel at every job because we all have different strengths and weaknesses. So the reality is you might not be the best fit for a particular position. If this is the case, it doesn’t necessarily reflect poorly on the merits of your application. Instead, it might mean the job isn’t right for you (but plenty of other jobs will be). I did not hear this often, if at all, from career counselors or while I was job hunting. I think rejection of this sort tends to make us feel like we’re inadequate in general, but that is simply not the case. What’s more, career counseling can make you feel like you should avoid being yourself, and instead be universally appealing—be The Hulk—but that can be spotted easily in interviews and reference checks.

.

From Chris:

I think Eliza did an excellent job of capturing some key points.  Everyone evaluates candidates differently, so it’s hard to know what a particular hiring manager is going to be looking for, but I think Eliza’s point # 6 about avoiding the HULK syndrome is really good.  At least for the kinds of positions I fill, I’m not just looking at qualifications, I’m looking for the right fit – in both directions, for us as an organization, but also for the candidates in order to maximize the likelihood of a successful experience.  That “fit” can include a lot of intangible aspects related to personality and interests and how those attributes correlate with our culture and values.

When it comes down to a group of finalists, it’s rare that one person stands out in terms of their experience or other qualifications.  More often, I am left to choose between several very qualified people and I have to try to figure out who is going to meld best with our team in both complimentary and contradictory ways.  As part of that, I have to judge how well each candidate will likely get along with other staff, which is why Eliza’s point about interacting in a genuine way during interviews is so important.  The final stage of the selection process is when someone’s enthusiasm for the position (Eliza’s Lesson #2) really comes into play.  I will almost always choose someone who has the skills to do the job but also REALLY wants to be here rather than someone who might have more experience but sees this as just one of many options.

Having said that, experience is also really important, and I’m astounded by how many college students finish school with almost no relevant job experience.  Especially in the conservation field where there are far fewer jobs than candidates, the idea that you’ll get a good job just by taking classes is ludicrous.  As an employer, I’m looking for people who have the kind of real world experience they’ll need if they work for me.  Often, in my particular case, it’s experience with tools (ATVs, chainsaws, fence repair tools, etc.) or skills (plant identification, herbicide spraying, seed harvest, etc.)

When I’m hiring entry level or stewardship positions, I assume that I’ll need to train a person in the way we do things locally, but if they have at least some experience somewhere else, our training process becomes much easier.  More importantly, if a candidate has gained relevant experience elsewhere, I feel comfortable that they’ll enjoy working with us because this won’t be the first time they’ve spent long hours doing that kind of work.  If they’ve never actually done the work before, there’s a decent chance they’ll find out that it’s not as much fun as they’d hoped, and then both of us will be miserable.

Lastly, when I look at someone’s experience, I’m often willing to forgive a lack of comprehensive experience if it’s clear that they’ve taken full advantage of their limited opportunities to gain experience.  For example, I don’t expect someone just graduating from college to have 2 years of field experience.  But if I look at their resume and see that they’ve spent their summers doing construction work or waiting tables instead of finding work in conservation, I assume they’re not really serious about working in this field – especially if they haven’t compensated by getting conservation experience in other ways, such as through volunteering on weekends or evenings.

Again, not everyone thinks like I do, and hiring decisions are made for lots of different reasons, so Eliza and I would both be curious to hear from both employers and job applicants about your experiences and suggestions.  Thanks!

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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16 Responses to Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Eliza’s Lessons for Job Applicants

  1. This goes to show how complicated hiring is. It’s hard not to take it personally. All you can do is follow your passions no matter the cost and believe. Yes, it might not work out, but it certainly won’t work out if you don’t push for it — on weekends, on weeknights, however and whenever. Goes for any job and vocation. In fact, I now feel slightly better about my own job hunting failures, sort of. :)

  2. Charlotte Reemts says:

    Having screened over 200 resumes in the past 12 months, I have a few tips for getting TO the interview:
    1. Make your resume easy to read and understand. Organize your experience by relevance (not date) if you have too.
    2. Explain how your experience matches the job qualifications. Don’t hide your plant classes at the end of your resume for a botany position!
    3. Use spell check (grammar check will often lead you astray).

    I would definitely second Eliza’s 4th point (know what you can contribute to the employer), and would add that you need to know something about the employer to address that point. Use Google and learn about the organization so that you can show how your skills can be useful.

  3. Brodie says:

    I wish that all students from middle school on could read Eliza’s and Chris’ post. I spent 50 years as a writer-editor for several organizations, beginning with part-time work, as an undergraduate, for a university press. The part-time work gave me relevant experience, helped make me visible to the next employer, and was well worth the time “snatched” from my university course studies.

  4. Steven Rodie says:

    Great post Eliza! As someone who has hired in the private sector (landscape architecture) as well as advised many students over the years, I think your points summarize some key issues that often times get overlooked in a job/position search — I’ll be saving this for forwarding to students in the future. Thanks!

  5. Tracey Nelson says:

    Great comments and points you made, Eliza, and Chris! Charlotte made some important points as well. Above all, BE YOURSELF and be passionate! Great advice for job-hunters!

  6. bradfreidhof says:

    Great Job! Young adults and students need to hear more of these comments. I think a lot of college age adults assume that they will learn everything they need in college…wrong (see Eliza’s point #1). Eliza and Chris I would like to ask permission to share this will other. Thanks.

  7. Al Roloff says:

    Eliza and Chris- This was a timely and quite useful post for us here at the DeKalb County IL Forest Preserve District (we have a good amount of grassland, too). We have expanded our internship program the last few years, as well as our relationships with the local college and university. This year we expect many more applicants than in the past, and I had begun to wonder about how to evaluate and choose from a much larger group. This post is already forwarded to those of us who will make choices, and I intend to re-read it several times.

    I greatly appreciate posts like this and Chris’s description of what kind of conferences he prefers. They add even more dimension to the informative and enjoyable discussion and photos regarding the grasslands.

  8. Bob Stine says:

    Chris — what an excellent experience builder for your Fellows! I’ve been on both sides of the table numerous times. Accurately evaluating job applicants is very difficult.

    Eliza — I’d add that the applicant ought to research the position for which he/she is applying, and make sure to point out how experience, education, interests and goals make him/her a good fit. If you make it to the face-to-face interview, be ready to volunteer pertinent facts about yourself rather than making the interviewer drag them out of you.

  9. James McGee says:

    So, eh um, Chris … what are my chances of getting a job with The Nature Conservancy?

    James

    • James McGee says:

      All joking aside, I think the best employees of local conservation organizations were not found through a hiring process but instead they were developed through volunteer programs. Often great talent is grown, not gathered. Conservation agencies are usually at a competitive disadvantage when only pay is considered. The ability to attract talented people to conservation depends on a love for the work being accomplished. Discovering why an applicant loves local nature would be my primary goal when interviewing people for positions in conservation.

  10. Sara McClure says:

    Nice job you guys! Eliza, glad you got to be on the other side of the table a mere year after going through your Hubbard Fellow interview. I am amazed at how different a candidate can be on paper and then in person. If you’re applying for a job at a big place like TNC just make sure you take key words from the job description and put them in your cover letter and resume. Sometimes applications are auto screened and if you can’t even make it past the 1st round because you went crazy with your thesaurus then that’s a shame! Just to make you feel better because everyone loves a job search train wreck: I was asked to interview a guy who would be a fundraising peer (I was not on the search committee) as an informational interview for him. This was in Albuquerque and he was applying for a pretty senior job. He flew in the night before and I was his first interview. He started off thinking he was in Arizona. He asked what kind of car allowance there was. He presumed the salary to be something akin to what the university president made. And then he hoped he’d be done in time to do a personal thing in Santa Fe and call it good. I can’t believe the actual search committee didn’t vet the guy better (he had no intention ever of coming; he wanted the free trip). He knew nothing about the organization and obviously the search committee hadn’t bothered to ask him what he knew when they did their phone interview. What an expensive waste of everyone’s time (except the applicant who was enjoying his mini vacation to the desert southwest).

  11. This was great, Eliza. You make excellent points, as did Chris. But my favorite tip is Charlotte’s – know something about the organization that’s interviewing you. it’s really easy to google info on TNC and sprinkle that information in the interview to show that you did your homework but almost no one I’ve interviewed in the last five years has done that. I take someone much more seriously if they know the basics of our mission and are able to articulate it – and it’s all right there on the website!

  12. The AZ Curmudgeon says:

    And for me the photograph – depicting angst, exhaustion, perplexity, a forlorn-ness – pretty much sums things up. From both sides of the table. I wish humanity had produced a less consternating method for accomplishing the end. But what I really wish for is that Chris/TNC are as lucky in Year 2 of the Hubbard Fellowship as he/it was in Year 1. ;-{)>

    • The Angsty, Exhausted, Perplexed, and Forlorn Girl in the Photograph says:

      You don’t seem like a curmudgeon to me! Thanks for your kind words.

  13. Thank you both! This was the best job advice I’ve ever read.

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