I was in graduate school, working towards a master’s degree in Human Factors Engineering, which is the study of the interaction between man and systems. My goal in life at that point was to go work for NASA and help design spaceships that people could live on happily for long periods of time. Yes, I was a Trekkie, and that was my dream.
If you knew me at the time, you would have described me as proactive, ambitious, motivated, and confident. And I was.
But one thing was bugging me while I was in graduate school. I really had no idea what it was going to be like to get a job in my field. I was learning theories, but had very little application experience. I wanted to know what I was getting myself into before committing wholeheartedly to the path.
I knew my fellow grad students felt the same. Going to school was great, but what was it going to be like in the REAL world?
Then I got an idea. Why not find out ahead of time from people who were currently doing the jobs we were all interested in having?
I approached the head of our program and told him we wanted to know what it was like to have a human factors job in the real world. I asked him if he would help us connect with his previous graduate students who now had full time jobs so we could ask them pertinent questions about life beyond college. He thought it was a fabulous idea.
Not only did he reach out to some great companies, they agreed to send a panel of their experts to our class so we could ask them questions.
The first to arrive was Kaiser Permanente. Human factors positions inside Kaiser Permanente pertained to designing medical instruments and improving systems within the hospital, especially the ER. This was third on my list of areas I wanted to go into when I graduated.
The panel showed up with the head of their department plus 4 or 5 other employees. Me and 12 grad students sat down across from them and they invited us to ask questions. I asked the first question. The panel answered. I waited but no one else had a question so I asked another. They answered. Hardly any of the other students asked questions, but I was firing them off like a machine gun.
“Did you feel you had enough training when you graduated in order to do your job with Kaiser, or was there a learning curve?”
“Was there anything you found you weren’t prepared to do? And if so, what do you recommend we study to supplement our education?”
“Do you enjoy your position? Was it everything you thought it would be?”
“Do you work alone or with people on projects?”
“How quickly can you advance in the company?”
“How much does an entry level job pay and does having a PhD matter or was a Master’s degree enough?”
“Where do you see the industry headed in the next 5 to 10 years?”
“What qualities do you look for in a potential candidate for employment?”
And on and on I went. After a while, the head of the Kaiser Permanente Human Factors group turned to my professor and said, “Send us this one when she graduates.”
The exact same thing happened the next week when the IBM panel arrived. At IBM we would be heavily involved in designing interfaces for human-computer interaction. At the time, this was a huge field that was growing rapidly. I wasn’t as interested in this, but most of the other students in my program were, so that’s why we invited IBM.
I fired off similar questions to IBM. I am a naturally curious person and I like to know what I’m getting into before I get into it, just to make sure it’s going to be what I expect.
After these two panels, my professor took me aside and said, “Erin, both IBM and Kaiser were very impressed with you. Both of them have asked me to make an offer to you for employment on their behalf, if you’re interested. IBM is offering you a position in their department with a starting pay of $50,000 when you graduate. Kaiser is offering you $40,000. These are both fantastic companies to work for with great programs and benefits. I told them you were my best student and they’d be lucky to have you. Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll arrange a private meeting.”
I was shocked! I thought the guy at Kaiser was kidding when he said what he said. I felt really humbled and grateful. I ended up declining both positions because I decided to go for my PhD and hold out for a job at NASA or with the military.
But do you see what happened here? Instead of sending a resume to a company and hoping to get an interview, and be in competition with everyone else applying for a job, all I did was show proactivity, interest, and I asked intelligent questions.
Remember what I wrote in my other article, How I Got Every Job I Ever Wanted that the way to get a job was to be a personal solution to the interviewer’s problem? What were these people probably thinking when they sat across from a group of 12 students and only one of them seemed interested in really understanding the inner workings of their company? Instead of them interviewing me to see if I was suitable for them, I ended up interviewing them to see if they were suitable for ME.
In the process I showed confidence, interest, proactivity, discernment, and I didn’t come across as needy. I stood apart from my fellow students.
You can use this very same technique to get a position with the company you want. Here’s how to do it.
If you’re in college, contact a few companies you’re interested in working for when you graduate. Tell them you’re studying and want to make sure the field is really going to be a good fit for you, and ask if you can set up a meeting with someone in the company for a chat. Offer to take them out to lunch. Or arrange a panel like I did and let them come to you. After you’ve impressed them, what do you think they’re going to think when they need to hire someone? They’re already going to know about you.
If you’re out of school and want to work for a specific company, you can do the same thing. I once contacted Dr. Thelma Moss, who was a parapsychologist featured in the movie, “Poltergeist.” Imagine my surprise when she answered the phone herself. I simply told her I was interested in becoming a parapsychologist and wondered if she had any advice for me. She spent 30 minutes talking to me on the phone and answering all of my questions. You don’t know until you try.
If you work for yourself, this works too. Simply present yourself to a company and let them know you’d like to know more about what they do, what they offer, how they serve their clients, etc. You’re not asking for a job, you’re getting to know them. Surely during the conversation they will want to know why you’re asking and you’ll mention what you do for a living and, now that you’ve built some rapport and shown interest in their work, they will be more likely to give you their business.
The point is… people hire people they want to work with. People hire people who are a solution to their problem. People hire people who show enthusiasm and interest in their company. People don’t hire paper. Stand out from the crowd. Do it differently. Make them come to you with an offer. It works.