In the job search, it pays to take the difficult path


You’ve heard this line a dozen times in B-grade crime thrillers: “OK, what’s it gonna be—do we do this the hard way or the easy way?” In those films, there’s always a gangster thug standing there with a pair of pliers, ready to yank some teeth. And while many choose the easy way to avoid the pain they see in their future, there’s an occasional hero who is ready to take whatever punishment the bad guys can dish out.

It might seem like a stretch to draw career lessons from cheesy action films, but there’s actually an important parallel. When it comes to the job search, sometimes you need to suck it up and do it the hard way. (Don’t worry, you won’t need to risk your teeth.) If you put in the work, I guarantee that you’ll be in a new job ahead of your colleagues who opt for what they think is the “pain-free” approach.

Why take the hard road?

Sure, going the easy way is much, well, easier. And in the job market, the great bulk of job seekers choose that route. There’s a job being advertised and a link on the company’s website. Why not? It’s only a click away! Just plug some info into an online form and you’re in the running for your dream job. 

Not so fast. The person who comes through the online application process is rarely seen as an individual. That applicant is a part of a herd, a renewable commodity, and companies value that person less because of this phenomenon.

You don’t want to be an applicant. You want to be a candidate—someone who has been identified by a recruiter, hiring manager, or internal employee as worthy of serious consideration for the position. But how do you make that happen? Sometimes a candidate comes out of a pool of applicants, but it’s rare. More commonly, candidates are the ones who have put in the extra work to be known and recognized. Those people have chosen the longer, more difficult path, putting in a bit of extra work or some special creativity right from the beginning. And it ended up getting them to the right place at the right time.

The hard road isn’t always that tough

Years ago, a friend and I got into a big concert by approaching the roadies hanging out by the side door of the venue, grabbing a smoke. I walked up, showed them my festival pass, and asked if we could get admitted. They let us in with a wink and a nod—which meant that I got to watch the Rolling Stones from just a few feet away instead of waiting with thousands for the front door to open.

Sometimes, doing things the hard way just means that you need to be a bit more daring. It’s not always more difficult. But it requires you to think in unconventional terms, which is what makes it hard.

Just like my concert experience, the company you want to work for has a front door—their website—with thousands of eager applicants lined up and wanting to get in. The front door is the easy way, of course. Just wait your turn. You might get in—but you could end up with an obstructed view or miles from the stage. In job search terms, your application has been submitted, but there’s a very good chance that it won’t get serious consideration. 

But if you look for the side doors—the unconventional ways to get yourself in the running for a position—you’ll discover that there is an entire world of jobs beyond the single posting that first caught your eye. The ultimate prize is the position that’s been tailor made for you, and you sure won’t find that advertised with a “click here” link!

Finding that side door

Employers pay their people to be the “side door,” offering employee bonuses if a candidate they identify is hired. It’s a win-win situation for the employer and the employee—and for the job seeker who is willing to take the more difficult path of finding these contacts and impressing them to the point of gaining their support in one’s candidacy.

It can be tough to find the names of helpful networking contacts. You’re certainly not going to see them advertised along with the position you are interested in. Instead, you’ll need to tap your inner sleuth to generate the names of people who might help you. You can find these people through your existing connections and in the attendance lists you pick up from meetings you’ve been to. Or you can find new (often “cold”) contacts on LinkedIn or the company’s website.

When you do reach out, follow a few of the rules for successful networking:

  1. Finally, of course, follow up with a note afterward to thank them.

Your biggest hurdle will probably be fear—the fear of talking to strangers, looking like a fool, or being embarrassed. But remember, companies pay their people to be the occasional side door. It may be a difficult path to find and reach networking prospects, but my experience is that they are likely to be more receptive than you thought—that is, as long as you sound and act professional and don’t ask for a job!

Taking the difficult path the whole way

Another important piece of taking the hard road is approaching job interviews in a completely different manner than the usual applicant. The scientist interested in taking the easy road will simply reread the job description, check out the company’s website, and show up on interview day. But that approach is unlikely to get the job offer.  

You should invest at least as much time in preparation as you plan to spend at the interview. In other words, if it’s an 8-hour affair, you need to spend 8 hours preparing. That includes preparing the written materials you’ll distribute, doing more sleuthing to learn about the backgrounds and interests of the participants, and more, which I’ll discuss further next month. It won’t be easy, but it will be effective.

I’ll leave you with a parting thought from one of my favorite authors, Jim Rohn, an American business philosopher. Rohn said, “We must all suffer one of two things: the pain of discipline or the pain of regret.” In other words, you can take the easy way—but you’ll face the pain of regret later when you realize you’ve just become one sheet of paper in a towering stack. Your other option? Decide to dig in and develop the painful discipline required to do it right from the beginning.

Want to avoid a ‘default postdoc’? Try an internship

An outer view of the interview