Mastering the Job Search Process

A Project Management Article by David S. Maurer, PMP

Few things in life generate as much stress as the job search! For those in the midst of the job search process – this certainly isn’t news. For those who have gone through it, and that would be most of us, it could be locked away and filed under “Experiences We Wish To Forget.” Realistically, most of us will undergo the job search process more than once in our professional lifetimes – voluntarily or not, so it’s a good idea to think about what this entails and do a bit of prep work – just in case.

I should stipulate that I work with this topic on a daily basis under a contract with the Department of Labor and in coordination with the Defense Department, the VA and the Department of Homeland Security.

We teach service members and their spouses the key aspects of the job search process as they prepare to retire or separate from the military and seek employment in the private sector or in government service. There is so much written on the topic and so much that can be said – this is my effort to cull all the advice out there down to the essential elements.

First Things First

I believe the successful job search begins with an “internal” analysis. We really should spend the time to think about ourselves before we start looking outward at industries and companies. The more we understand what makes us tick – or perhaps more importantly in the job search process, what makes us happy - the better our chances of landing the job that gives us the best chance at long term success.

Dealing with the additional stress factors associated with job hunting; thoroughly examining our professional selves and what we really want from a new job and; coming to grips with the facts about our true capabilities all warrant sufficient time at the outset of our job search program. Here are a few important elements to consider:

Manage Stress

It’s important to understand and acknowledge that the stress one feels when searching for a job, or a new job, is normal and palpable. My first piece of advice is to find a good stress reduction program that works for you – physical fitness, time away or spending time with “positive” people are some ways to mitigate the negative effects of this stress.

You won’t eliminate the stress – nor would you want to – but you can take positive steps to control it. Once under control, your confidence will rise and you will be in a much better position to attack the job market. You will still have butterflies in your stomach, but they will be flying in formation!

Assess Your Priorities

Conduct an internal or self analysis. Take the time – while at this significant juncture in your professional life – to really consider yourself and your interests and values.

What are your preferences in terms of where you want to work, what part of the country (or the world), indoors or outside; an office, a plant floor, or a classroom? Do you like to work alone or with people? Do you want to supervise or not? Be as honest with yourself as you can – this is no time to work hard to find the best job you really don’t want!

If you want to work outside then don’t spend your energies looking at companies or agencies that will have you in an office or a cubicle. Think long and hard about the environment that will offer you the most happiness and aim for that in your search process.

Know Yourself

Identify your strengths and challenges. Play to your strengths and look for opportunities in areas that fit your abilities. Unless you are very young and looking for our first job, you may not be too interested in going someplace to learn a new skill. In fact, most employers won’t be too interested in hiring you so they can teach you a new skill.

They will be interested in you for what you can do for them, not what they can do for you. If you have specific areas that need work and you know that those shortcomings may be holding you back, take the necessary steps now to overcome them and move them over to the strength column.

For example, maybe you are not as comfortable as you would like to be as a public speaker – investigate Toastmasters and have fun while overcoming a fear.

Get Organized

Get organized early. This will really speed up the process and can even help you land the job you want. I have seen so many job seekers NOT get the job they wanted because they were unable to produce the document or locate the information the prospective employer needed at the time of the interview. Don’t be that person.

Gather up all pertinent materials and create what I call an “I Love Me” binder. Start with a box and include copies of old employee evaluation reports, certificates, diplomas, transcripts, “attaboys” or anything else that tells the story of you. Once it’s all in one place, you can spend the time to get it well organized. This process is critical to the resume writing chore that awaits you, so start now. Yes, now.

Come back to this article once you gathered up all that material and started your “I Love Me” binder – I’ll wait…

Dealing With Finances During Your Search

OK, well done and welcome back! Now its time to think about money. It will be important to thoroughly assess your financial needs. If you have a family, this is best done in consultation with your spouse, and those of you with spouses will probably already understand that.

Consider what you need to maintain your current lifestyle or even improve upon it. What kind of income do you need to be happy and meet your financial responsibilities? Until you know that, it will be difficult to know that the job you are seeking is the one for you or the job you are being offered will meet your financial requirements.

Remember that pay is only part of the equation – benefits such as health care, time off and 401K options are also things to consider.

Learning the Marketplace

Now its time to look outwardly to the marketplace. Take the time to conduct research in the industries you are interested in pursuing and certainly in the companies you are considering. Research, research, research! Read the local papers (Sunday and Wednesday editions offer job opening information). Scour the papers for information and insight on what is happening in the business world in your area.

For project managers, read the papers and relevant magazine articles to see and understand what companies are doing well, who is in trouble, who is being bought and who is being sold. Why is this important during the job search process? First, you will probably prefer to land a position with a firm that is flourishing, not floundering. This requires a bit of homework, but there are many sources of information for you starting with the Internet. Secondly, this type of information can be most useful during the interview process. Demonstrating some depth of knowledge of the prospective company, its standing in the industry, its client list, and recent accomplishments will go a long way to separating you from your competition.

Preparing for an Interview

Once you decide on a company or government agency or a specific job announcement that interests you, get on their Website and start reading and taking notes. Find out who is who and what’s important to them and see if it’s important to you.

You can learn a lot from a company’s website, but that is just the first step. See if you can track down someone who works there and set up time to conduct an informational interview. Buy him or her a cup of coffee at Starbucks and ask them about life at company XYZ. If the company is publicly traded, you can find a wealth of information with some simple research. Look for information on company and industry websites, newsletters, reports, profiles, and certainly talk with people who are current or past employees or associates (suppliers, customers, clients, etc.).

Use this to determine if this would be a good fit for you and then use the information you have learned during the interview process – impress the interviewer by knowing more than what the company logo looks like.

But – before you get to the interview, you will need to do a few other things.

The Elevator Speech.

I know, you probably hate the thought of one of these, but I assure you – it is necessary to have one at the ready as a job seeker. Here is a simple way to prepare one and then hone it to your liking and more importantly – to the liking of the receiver.

Your elevator speech should include your name, that you are now in transition from ______ to _______, your passion, what you know you are good at doing and where you want to work.

Write it down on an index card and then test it out on a family member or friend. In either case – solicit their honest impression. Work on that speech over and over until it rolls off your tongue and sounds natural.

Here is a sample:

“Hi, I’m Joe Smith and I am so pleased to meet you. I’m currently looking for new opportunities in the health care industry after leaving my last position with XYZ. I really like working out in the field and with health care professionals and found that my real passion is working in an industry and with a company that helps others – and the healthcare field is certainly growing, given the advancements in medicine and increases in longevity. I would love to stay here in the DC area, but for the right opportunity, I am prepared to relocate.”

30 seconds.

In half a minute, you have established that you can speak like a professional and you know what you like and want to do. This is valuable information to a prospective employer or someone who can assist you in meeting the right contacts during your job search.

Preparing Your Resume

Write that resume. Oh the joy. Well, yes – it’s true that these are not much fun to write. If you prepared like we discussed earlier – (the “I Love Me” binder) – this will be a lot easier. There are dozens (maybe hundreds) or resources; books, articles, Websites, etc., that can offer excellent guidance on resume writing.

I would shy away from paying anyone to write your resume as this is something you can do on your own with a little research and good advice from friends and associates. You know yourself best – why pay some stranger to interview you and then present you with a résumé that you may not recognize? You will also be presented with a hefty bill for that dubious service. Do it yourself and save the $300.

The résumé is not going to get you the job. The resume can at best, get you an interview and at worst –screen you out of consideration. Here are a few tips to consider and then go look at all the resources available and get started:

  1. Keep it to 2 pages. As a hiring manager, I will lose interest after 2 pages, so say what you need to say quickly and save the rest for the interview. If your prospective employer asks for a CV (curriculum vitae), it can be longer.

  2. References go on a separate piece of paper. Never waste the space on the resume to tell me “references are available upon request.” I know that and you will have them ready anyway. I just saved you a line that you can use to tell me what you can do for me.

  3. Use real resume paper with a conservative color. Leave white space between lines and margins for ease of reading, but don’t overdo it. If you try to pack too much information into too a small a space, it will be difficult to notice the important details.

  4. Be sure your email address is professional. Don’t use something “funny” or suggestive – not while you are looking for a job. (Same goes for your voice mail, by the way).

  5. Never lie.

  6. Don’t list job descriptions. Quantify! Never use “responsible for…” Employers want to know more. How many? How much? How large was the scope? How often? Use percentages and numbers. Increased by 25%. Reduced by 12% saving the company $100,000 over 4 years. This tells me your impact and value. Project Managers have some advantage here – our projects are based on quantifiable metrics, so use that data to show how well you have done.

  7. Proof read and then proof read it 5 more times. Honestly, you would not believe the number of resumes I have seen with typos, misspellings and omissions. They generally go straight to the trash and the poor owner never even knows why he or she didn’t even get a call.

I could go on and on. Suffice it to say, put in the time to make your resume perfect. Be sure it says enough about you to make the employer interested in speaking with you. Also be sure that your resume contains as many of the key words and phrases as possible that are found in the job announcement, especially for those resumes being sent to large firms or government agencies. This is the initial screening method used to eliminate those who don’t match up well.

Cover Letters

Some say cover letters are not necessary but I disagree. The cover letter is the introduction of your resume. Keep it brief and crisp. Tell me how you learned of the job opening, if there is someone in the company you know (be sure he or she has not been recently indicted) mention that name. Don’t re-state what will follow in the resume but rather say something like “…as you will see in my resume, I have a strong background in XYZ…” The cover letter should make me want to read your resume.

Choosing a Resume Format

There are several resume formats from which to choose. Some prefer the traditional chronological – detailing by date, all the jobs you have had starting with the current or most recent.

I prefer a functional resume, especially as a project manager. This allows you to get credit for work you accomplished even long ago since the work is grouped by function. For example, a project manager could present information about working on IT projects separately from service delivery or construction projects. This allows you to highlight your experiences and successes that best fit the position for which you are interviewing. You can move these sections around within your resume, and show the most relevant positions up front, making it easier for both the HR department and hiring manager to validate your candidacy. This is also a way to avoid highlighting any gaps in work that may be common to project managers but misunderstood by someone unfamiliar with the project world. You can also opt for a combination resume that blends the chronological and functional aspects and gives a very thorough picture of your capabilities and the timelines of your professional career.

The Interview

So, your resume has passed the initial screening and you have been invited in for an interview. Let the ride begin!

The interview is really the fun part of the job search process. This is your opportunity to talk about yourself and not be concerned that the written word on the resume fails to tell the whole story. Be prepared, do your homework and research and be confident.

Arrive Early

Be on time. Actually, be early. Arrive in the outer office 15 minutes before the scheduled interview time.

Any later and you risk being late or giving the impression that you don’t care enough to be punctual. Any earlier and you become a problem for someone to handle. If you get there way too early, they might feel as if they have to take you in and get this interview underway. Now you are infringing on their time and upsetting their schedule. You are not going to do yourself any favors by being 30-40 minutes early.

Now, if you happen to get there way ahead of time, its ok to check in with the receptionist, let him or her know who you are, why you are there and who you are seeing and when. You can then excuse yourself to go to the restroom, or grab a cup of coffee until the prescribed time.

Attention to Detail

Try to avoid the “everything bagel” at breakfast or the onion sandwich at lunch just before your interview – “nuff” said.

Dress Appropriately

Dress for success! Take no chances here. First impressions are lasting and the interviewer will make his or hers of you in about 5-8 seconds.

Take the time and spend the money to dress for the part you want to play. Be conservative and save anything flashy for your second day on the job. Be mindful of how many employers view body art (piercings and tattoos) and try not to overdo the “bling.”

You really don’t want anything you are wearing to distract from what you are saying and your overall ability to fit in the company. Along those lines, I recommend that you not use cologne or perfume for the interview. Some people have allergies and some may just not like your chosen fragrance. You don’t want them deciding your fate based on their not wanting to smell your cologne all day.

Bring a Portfolio or Notebook

I suggest you bring a nice, professional looking portfolio with you. It functions as a security blanket in some ways and gives you something to hold on to. It’s a good idea to have some company information inside in case you have some time to review it before your interview begins.

Also, write down some questions you need answered (location of the actual job, travel, work hours, etc.) and refer to these at the end of the interview when asked if you have any questions. If they have been addressed, don’t ask again, but if you have 6 or 8 ready, odds are good that one or two will still need to be asked.

I would ask if it’s alright to take notes during the interview. Unless it’s for a classified position, this is rarely denied. Take brief notes without losing too much eye contact with the interviewer. You are not there to take dictation, so stay in the moment while you quickly jot down a note – maybe an item mentioned that you would like to come back to later.

Pay Attention to Body Language

Pay attention to body language. You should be able to tell how its going based on their eye contact with you, laughter, ease of the conversation, and so on. You will also be able to pick up the signals that the interview is nearing an end. When they put down their pen, close their notebook or look at the clock – its time to be ready to wind it up.

Handling Group Interviews

So, it’s just going to be me and an interviewer, right? Maybe.

More often than not these days, we see panel interviews or certainly more than one company representative in the room. I think when this happens; the advantage goes to the candidate.

I would rather have 3 or 4 people to impress than take my chances with just one. If 3 out of 4 like me, I have a good chance at getting the offer. If I fail to impress the single interviewer, I’m done.

If there is more than one person in the interview room and all are involved and asking questions, direct your answer initially to the person who asked and then make eye contact with each member of the panel during your answer. Close your answer by looking at the person who asked the question.

You never know who the decision maker is in such a setting. It may not be the boss or the most senior person in the room. Sometimes the boss is there, but the decision will go to the manager who will have to work with the selectee on a daily basis. Be nice to everyone!

While I am on that topic, be sure to be nice to the receptionist or whoever guides you into the room and through the process. I have always asked these staff members their impression of job candidates because how you treat them tells me a lot about you and how I could expect you to treat others in the company.

Write Thank You Notes

Write thank you notes. Don’t be the one candidate for the position who fails to be polite and does not send a thank you note. The interviewer devoted some time and attention to you and deserves to be thanked. This should be a brief and hand written note and sent the old fashioned way – through the mail.

You can get the appropriate contact information and name spellings from the HR staff or the receptionist before you leave, but be sure to send a note to anyone from the company that participated in the interview.

This is also a great way to add a nice touch like “… Thank you so much for your time during my interview last Wednesday afternoon. After our discussion, I am more convinced than ever that I am the right person for this job and I would be delighted to join your team at the earliest opportunity.” Nice! By the way, the handwritten note card gets on my desk and serves as a reminder that you were there. An email “thank you” is you checking the box and will get deleted.

Well, I hope this information was useful for you and your job search process. Remember that looking for the right job IS a full time job and requires a fair amount of homework, preparation and due diligence.

Now – go knock their socks off!

About the Author

David S. Maurer, PMP

Dave Maurer is the Project Director for the Continental United States Military Transition Assistance Program delivered by Inverness Technologies, Inc. through the Department of Labor. He is a former Vice President with Axiom Resource Management, Inc., a Defense Department consultancy firm. He served a full career as an Army officer and retired in 1999 following service as the Adjutant General at the United States Military Academy at West Point.


He holds degrees from Seton Hall University and Central Michigan University and is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP). He has served or continues to serve on several prestigious boards including the USO of Metropolitan New York City, the Washington DC Chapter of the Project Management Institute (PMI), the George Washington Chapter of the Association of the United States Army and the Heritage Chapter of the Military Officers Association of America.

As a public speaker and trainer, Dave offers a wide variety of relevant topics for diverse audiences and organizations. His clients have included the CIA, the FBI, the U.S. Marshals Service, the World Bank, the Department of Homeland Security, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service, the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Air Force, several PMI chapters, faculty members at West Point, the National Summit on Project Management Excellence, and large and small corporations within the private sector. He has also guest lectured for the University of Maryland’s MBA Program and the Virginia Tech Executive MBA Program. Dave is a member of the National Speakers Association, an International Writer for “PMForum” magazine and is the co-author of the book, “Are You the King or Queen of Conflict in Project Management?” published in 2008.

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