What I Learned in the Job Search

As I come up on my six month anniversary at my new job (surely that is worth blogging about, stay tuned) I’ve decided to dust off this post.  Parts of it date from nearly a year ago, as I was basically using it as a place to write down some of the random thoughts that would occur to me during my explorations into the employment market.   (I would always test myself by clicking “Save Draft” instead of “Publish” because I like living on the edge.)  I’ve cleaned it up because I’ve been sharing parts of it with people I know who are on their career paths, and figure it could be of use to others. Of course, this is written by someone who is on the higher education IT leadership track, but it should have some relevance for anyone in the job hunt.

A disclaimer:  I’m not looking for a new job at the moment.  Anything written here is from the perspective of when I was looking for a new job, which was before I had a new job.  I like my new job, a fact about which I’ll elaborate on in a few weeks.



  • A job search is its own part-time job.  If you’re currently unemployed it may be your full-time job.  You need to consider the time spent on the job search when you take on things like volunteer commitments, and in terms of the time spent on domestic tasks like housework, and if you actually enjoy spending time with your family, friends, and loved ones.
  • Remember to take care of yourself.  Exercise, diet, sleep are all extremely important.  Meditation or yoga would probably be a good idea too  (this is not however from experience.)  Also remember to spend time with your loved ones and time relaxing.
  • You need to give it the time it is due to ensure you’re doing it well, including such tasks as:
    • Writing (at least tailoring) your cover letter and resume/CV for each position.
    • Tracking all interactions with search consultants, hiring committees, and hiring managers.
    • Reading and responding promptly to any and all emails you receive concerning a position, even if it’s a simple “OK” or “Confirmed”.
    • Researching the details of a position, including information about the institution, the IT department, the staff who work there, and any information that shows what the institution thinks is distinctive about itself.
    • A note from the other side of reviewing resumes and cover letters for positions I have open: You need both, and your cover letter is what articulates your bullet points of your resume to the facts of the job.  It’s the narrative that makes everything make sense.  Without it the hiring committee has to guess–and in many cases, they’re instructed not to guess because that is fraught with unconscious biases. So write a good cover letter, one that shows you both understand the job as advertised, and how your background contributes to it.
  • Job searching, even if going well, is extremely stressful.  You have to be “on” all the time, you’re juggling meetings and interviews, phone calls, video interviews, etc.  If you’re doing this while you have a job and trying to be discreet, you’re sneaking out at lunchtime, taking random vacation days, or scheduling interviews and phone calls in the evening if possible.
  • You need to keep the jobs you’re applying for straight.  It’s an amateur move to describe a different institution when talking to a hiring manager, search committee, or consultant about their search and school.  This can be hard depending on how many jobs you’re applying to, especially if they’re at similar institutions.
  • Take notes.  Every phone call, interview, etc.  (Ask if it’s okay to take notes in an interview before doing so, and make very sure you’re not slowing things down by writing, or distracting yourself with it.)  You may never look at the notes again, but the act of taking them will help imprint them in your mind.
  • Get yourself a “professional” email address.  Gmail, Yahoo, and Outlook are fine (maybe not AOL, but perhaps it has a retro chic), but for around $10 a month you can get your own domain (like yourname.com or .net, or any of the gazillions of new TLDs that are out there too.)  The address can forward to your Gmail if you like but it will be hopefully easy to remember, easier to type, and makes you look like you know enough to get your own domain name.
  • Remember to frequently check your spam folder.  A lot of career- and job-related emails will look like spam, and even if you send a resume to a certain address, it’s usually an address that people won’t reply to.  Whitelist the email address if it belongs to a real person.
  • Keep track of what you’ve sent out, when, to whom, and what response(s) you’ve received.  There are tools to help you do this.  I’ve looked at a few of them, and they seem nice but haven’t found one I’d yet recommend.  A spreadsheet worked fine for me.  Maybe you can use OneNote or Evernote–a notebook per job, clippings of web pages and other files about the position, etc.
  • Reply to every email from everyone related to a new career opportunity, even if the answer is “No thank you.”
  • Write a thank you note for every phone call, video interview, in-person interview,  and finalist interview.  An email is acceptable these days but a handwritten note could have a significant impact.  In the note, make several references to specifics of your conversation and what you found memorable or significant about them.  This is both to show that you remembered and valued the conversation and to help the recipient remember and reflect upon you and your conversation.
  • If you really, really want the job, say that.  Perhaps not exactly that way, but it’s okay to use words like “enthusiastic”, “hopeful” and “excited” when referring to the challenges and opportunities of the position.  Most hiring managers want to hire people who want to work for them.
  • Most hiring managers also know that people who don’t really want the job might say things like that anyway.  Generally, though,  I’ve been able to tell the difference when I’m on the other side.
  • You may want to work with a career counselor.  They can spiffy up your resume and get a cover letter going.  They can do mock interviews with you.  They can help you make your story the best it can be.  Spending the money for professional services will likely be an investment that pays for itself many times over.  It puts you on a level above those who don’t do it and makes it easier to compete with those who do. Or perhaps you’re a prodigy who doesn’t need it (Hint: you’re not.  No one is.)
  • You will likely be doing some video interviews. Here are some pointers:
    • Make sure the room you are using is clean and doesn’t have a distracting background.  You don’t want a solid background (it will look like you’re in prison) but you don’t want too much going on either.  A good window view might work, or a tasteful bookcase or a nice wall hanging.  A little color may work but certain lighter colors may mess with your video camera’s auto white balance, so turn that off if you suddenly look sickly.
    • Make sure your lighting is good.  That window is great until the sun is streaming through and backlighting you.  You want plenty of diffuse, gentle light, illuminating you from all sides to avoid shadows.  Barring that, front lighting will be the cleanest.
    • Make sure your video camera is at or just below your eye level.  If you’re using a laptop, you’ll have to prop it up several inches.  A box is fine–no one will see it.
    • Dress exactly as you would for an in-person interview.  Yes, that includes your bottom half (what if you have to get up for some reason?)  Dressing for the part means you’ll act the part.
    • Practice–more than once–with a willing subject.  Make sure they think you look like you’re looking at (but not staring into) the camera.  Make sure they can hear you and aren’t echoing too much.  Make sure your outfit and background are professional and appropriate.
  • You will more likely than not being doing your job search with at least a modicum of confidentiality.  If your current employer knows you’re looking, you usually will have no leverage or credibility in your current role.   Be very careful about who you talk to about what and where.  You will have some confidants but you want to speak to them about your job in safe environments.
  • Be careful as well about social media “leakage” that something is up, such as changing statuses on LinkedIn, changes in the topics of your tweets or blog posts (for instance, this blog post was being written before I got a new position, but wouldn’t have been one I would post while keeping a search process confidential), adding new followers on Twitter or contacts on LinkedIn related to positions you’re seeing (especially search consultants, search firms, or prospective employers).
  • Don’t use your email address at your current employer for correspondence about new positions.  Nothing good can come of it.

Negotiating the Landscape

  • More and more CIO jobs in higher education are being handled by search consultants.  The consultants can be freelancers, but usually, they work as part of a larger organization.  There are companies that specialize in higher education or specialize in IT positions–and at least one that specializes in IT positions in higher education.
  • A search consultant will usually be the gatekeeper–they will decide who to reach out to for initial conversations.  Based on that conversation, they might have you interview with the firm for a slot on the list of candidates presented to the institution’s search committee.  The search committee will select candidates to further interview, and create their finalist list from those interviews.  The search consultant will be there along the way, helping with the process, checking references, etc.  (A search consultant can often ask questions or do things a search committee cannot, like go off-list for references.)
  • Search consultants also consult their professional networks (usually people they have placed, or people who they’ve worked for) for references for positions they are hiring.  It’s super cool if you know people who work with search consultants who are willing to refer you–it will give you a huge leg up on the competition.  You might even get a referral from someone who was placed by the consultant for a job to which you had also applied.  Better still if you can get multiple contacts to do so.  It matters. Top candidates will have multiple people mentioning them to search consultants.
  • Not that search consultants won’t look at every resume that comes in, but they’re going to put referrals in their lists first.
  • Even if you work with a search consultant and are not selected for a position, you might find yourself on their lists when they ask for help with new searches.  If you’re helpful with other searches–even ones you’re not interested in pursuing–you’ll have earned karma with that consultant when they’re running a search you are interested in.
  • Remember that when they’re “asking for suggestions of qualified candidates” they expect you to put yourself forward if you’re interested.
  • Search consultants will give you all kinds of advice on how to package yourself, how to frame interviews, etc. (I had a consultant describe a work situation I had in such a positive way that I started using how he said it in my own description of my work.) Take their free advice.  Just keep in mind that they don’t actually work for you, they work for the employer–like the time I was told “I am a lawyer, but I am not your lawyer.”–but that’s a story for another blog entry. (Actually, it’s not.)
  • Speaking of your network, you’re keeping that current, right?  You’re going to be asked for references.  Depending on your situation, your references might be superiors, colleagues, employees, or peers at other institutions.  Ideally, you’ve at least collaborated with them in the past if it wasn’t an employee/employer relationship.
  • No one expects to see your supervisor as a reference in most cases, but at some point in the CIO search you may be there–perhaps you’re working for a CIO (or VP) who understands your need to move on, and endorses you.)  You can have co-workers or even subordinates endorse you.  I wouldn’t make all your references from one category.
  • Think about your references applying for a job just like you are.   They’re interviewing with the hiring manager on your behalf.  You may want to pick someone who’s better at presenting themselves (and thus you) than someone who has known you forever but may not be engaging over the phone (where nearly all reference checks occur).
  • Also feel free to play the rank game.  Applying for CIO jobs?   Get at least one CIO as a reference, if not an even higher position.
  • My references rock.  Thanks, everyone.  You know who you are.

The Harsh Realities

  • Statistically, you will not get that job you apply for.
  •  Let’s run the numbers:  You apply for a CIO job at a small college.  There might be in the neighborhood of 50 or so “blind” applicants for the position.  The search consultants may have invited an additional 10 people to apply for the position.  Of those 60 people, they will prepare about 15 of them for presentation to the search committee.  The committee will pick about 8 of them for first round interviews.  Out of that pool, 3 finalists (maybe 4) will be selected for extended (all day) interviews on campus (which may or may not be confidential, meaning the name will or will not be circulated beyond the committee or campus).  Only one of those will be picked.  A person picked from a pool of 60 has a less than 2% chance of getting the job.
  • And that’s probably the best case scenario.  CIO jobs at larger or more prestigious schools get hundreds of applicants.  But I’ve never heard of people interviewing more people simply because the candidate pool was very large.
  • At least the odds of getting a job are better than winning the lottery.
  • You will have near misses, broad misses, close calls, and everything in between.  The same CV and cover letter language will impact different hiring groups in different ways, many of which you can’t control. You will have interviews that even though you’re well prepared for them, may as well be with Venusians for how little you connect with each other.
  • Again, most people won’t get the job, and part of a hiring committee’s job is to weed out the 80% or more of resumes it doesn’t need to consider, and then to evaluate the nebulous quality of “fit” in the interviews.
  • Your job search could take a while (several years, perhaps).  The best job performance (yours and your staffs)  comes from having fun, valuing others’ contributions, and supporting individuals in the organization. Don’t withhold these things waiting for an ideal future.
  • Don’t get attached to a potential new job.  For instance, I usually look at the real estate listings for the place where I’m applying to, to determine if the job is the right economic fit for my family, but I also find myself falling in love with a specific house or two, even though the chance that the house would still be available if I got the position are basically zero.  Or I fall in love with the pictures of the campus on the website (I can do this for rural liberal arts colleges as well as urban campuses.)   This is harmless if you can let it go when you need to, as you’re probably not getting that job (see above.)
  • While the call from the consultant saying you were referred to them as a candidate can be an incredible rush, it’s basically meaningless because you’re probably not getting that job (see above.)
  • If you’re good at this job (and you are if you find yourself in interview/finalist pools),  especially if it’s a job with regional or national status, and you’ve been maintaining your professional networks like you should, you will likely know some or all of the people competing with you for the job.
  • Even if you don’t know all the finalists, they’re almost certainly a 3rd degree LinkedIn connection from you.
  • This is okay.  You will be proud you know them when they get the position instead of you and vice versa, and you’ll be thankful you know someone who now may better be able to help you.
  • You will lose more jobs than you get.  In fact, for every n jobs you apply for you will end up not working at somewhere between n and n-1 of them.
  • If you don’t already know who was the previous occupant of the position, you will almost certainly be able to find them with a simple Google search.  Use social media to find out if they know people you do.  Explore your networks and try and learn the story.  In some cases, it’s obvious the person moved on to a better opportunity, in other cases you may be walking into something you might not want to.But you know what?  Your current institution has its issues too. (Perhaps that’s why you are looking.)
  • Your first CIO job will likely not be your last CIO job.  I know many people on their third or fourth CIO position.
  • There are different statuses of CIO jobs, related to such factors as academic reputation of the school, the size of the school, the size of the IT staff and the budget, whether you report directly to the President or to another VP, degree requirements for the position, and many others.  The status heirarchy may be different for different people, but it’s there.
  • Many of the aforementioned people have moved up in CIO job status.

Presenting Yourself

  • Know your story.  Know the elevator pitch, the phone interview, the extended interview.  Know it well enough so you tell the same story to different people.
  • Your story, without question, should be the complete and utter truth, but conveyed in the best way possible for you.
  • Nobody on a search committee needs to know the internal politics of your current position.
  • Everyone on a search committee knows that there are internal politics in your current position.
  • One of the best professional development activities you can engage in is a finalist job interview.  Think about it:  spending a half or a whole day on campus (and maybe the night before or after in a nearby hotel or guest housing), talking to faculty, staff, administrators (university presidents!) about their environment.  You need to learn all you can so you can weigh the offer if you receive it.  If you don’t (or don’t take it if offered) you’ve gained another perspective on how organizations work.
  • Here’s a somewhat strange suggestion: For any on-campus interviews (especially a second interview), try to work the school’s colors into your wardrobe.  This can usually be accomplished with a tie or accessory, perhaps matched with a shirt or suit.  The catch is you have to do it without wearing any branded merchandise–that would just be presumptuous.  This also may not work if you’re applying to a place with very bold colors (Princeton, for instance, but a tie with those colors could work.)  You might be also able to work it in with a muted version of an official color.    This might have more pull at big sports schools, but it works everywhere.  You’re basically looking for one person to notice your school spirit, and a knowing wink or nod; or perhaps a subconscious thought that you belong there because the colors you’re wearing are part of the school.
  • Even one hour interviews can be an opportunity for professional development.  Being interested in what people do is generally a good idea.
  • In an interview, you will make contacts that you will likely encounter again–so always be on your best behavior and try not to burn bridges if you’re not offered the position, or if you decide to turn it down for whatever reason.  Remember, you’re probably not going to get the job, and it may be not because they didn’t like you.
  • You know the most likely interview questions you’re going to be asked:  Why are you looking?  What about this job appeals to you? Explain a situation that you’re proud of.  Explain how you deal with difficult people.  It’s okay to have well-rehearsed answers to these questions.  You may even know the follow-up questions, and be ready to follow up.
  • They’re also going to ask if you have any questions.  You have to have questions.  This is when you get to highlight the things that are important to you.  You’re also showing how you elicit information from people, and how you engage them. Perhaps some of your questions have been answered in the discussion, but then ask them to elaborate.  There’s always more to the story.  I like to use this opportunity to present “big picture” items–it’s often illuminating to ask what they’re hoping the person who gets the job will work on first.  What are the issues?  What’s the work culture of the institution? What are they happy with in IT?   What are they most proud of?
  • There may come a point in the interview process where you realize this may not be the job for you, even if you were made an offer.  You need to be nice and play along.  You’re likely to give off cues that let people know you’re not interested, but at least continue to be polite and professional.  Still follow up with thank yous, and you may want to withdraw from the search at that point, or just politely say no to an offer if it does come.

Perspectives and Planning

  • Hardly anyone is a lone wolf.  You probably have a family, whether that’s just you and a partner, or children, or parents/grandparents/aunts/uncles who will be affected by your job transition, especially one involving relocation.
  • You all may be itching for a new start and the opportunity to reinvent yourself (I moved several times growing up and that was surely the best part of it, the idea that I was an open book to a new set of people.)
  • Maybe social media blunts the sting of leaving old friends and family.  Maybe not. I’ve reconnected with old friends from all the different chapters of my life on Facebook. (Someday I’ll write the “Facebook is Tralfamadore” post that has been rattling around my brain for years.)
  • If your new position involves relocating, you’ll have a huge spreadsheet to work on.  Pros/cons, sure, but a calculation of your new salary, living expenses, the cost of commuting, trips back “home” if applicable, etc.
  • Even if you’re not relocating, your commute will probably be different.  Maybe better.  Maybe you’ll be taking public transportation and need to consider the cost of that. Maybe toll roads and bridges are involved.  Gas, insurance, wear and tear are also all factors that make the pay raise you’re (hopefully) getting not as big as it first appears.
  • Also, consider (and this is especially true as you climb the executive ladder) that your wardrobe might have to change.  If you have to wear a suit to work every day you’ll be spending thousands a year on new suits and dry cleaning.  You might find yourself polishing your shoes more (and maybe wearing out your shoes more.)   For my new job, I added several suits to my repertoire and bought 4 pairs of comfortable work shoes that were great for my walking-cycling-train-driving commute.
  • Your job is not your career.
  • Your career is not your life.

Closing thoughts

You’ve got this.  You’ve done good work.  You’ve prepared yourself–your resume, your wardrobe, your interview skills, your references, your complete package.  You’re heading off on a great adventure, one that you don’t know where it will lead.  But hopefully someplace better.

One last piece of advice:  Have fun.  Why not?  Don’t let the slog grind you down.  Enjoy every interaction–they all have something to teach you.  Laugh off the weird experiences, don’t let rejection get you down, and just stay sharp.  You’ll get that job.

Published by

Mike Richichi

I'm an inveterate geek who's somehow become a leader in higher education information technology. These are some of my thoughts.

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