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8 Corporate Buzzwords And What They Actually Mean On Job Postings

Most PhDs fail to understand something extremely important about their job search going in.

I certainly did.

Your PhD is incredibly valuable, and so are you…

… but your degree does not put you above the job search process. 

Your PhD is not a free pass to skip the leg work that every other industry job seeker has had to learn through their own trial and error. 

You have to learn to speak the language of industry.

You’re not above following up with employers after you apply.

You absolutely need to emphasize your transferable skills along with your technical ones.

You’re going to need to practice behavioral interview questions. 

Being smart, proven, or successful in one area does not make you any of those things in another area. 

If you think you can skip any parts of a job search because you spent the last decade in academia, you need to get over yourself. 

And the most important place for any PhD to start their industry education is with industry-specific language.

If you don’t, you’ll never get hired. 

How can you show employers that you have what they’re looking for if you don’t understand what that is?

The Language Industry Leaders Use In Their Job Descriptions Is Intentional 

Too many PhDs make the mistake of taking industry job descriptions at face value. 

This is a big mistake, for two reasons. The first: PhDs are interpreting job descriptions based on their academic viewpoint.

Take teamwork or collaboration, for instance. 

Working as a team isn’t completely different for industry employees and academic researchers, but there are a few distinctions. 

Individual contributions are a large part of collaboration in academia. Everyone may be working toward a common goal, but individuals complete their parts independently as a rule.

In industry, standard operating procedures are meant to streamline and simplify. One person owns a particular aspect of an assignment, making a small contribution to completing a large project.

Industry operates interdependently, much like an assembly line. If any one person doesn’t complete their part of a project, the next person cannot complete theirs.

Academia’s products and outcomes are the result of many one-man operations. Timelines are longer and deadlines are more flexible for a team of one.

You can use buzzwords verbatim in your resume or cover letter to get through the applicant tracking system. 

But if you want to show hiring managers that you have what it takes to succeed, you need to understand what these buzzwords mean – and what they don’t. 

That’s how you’ll be able to tell the story of your career and your candidacy. 

You need to be able to analyze and interpret the buzzwords in job descriptions. 

This is the only way you’ll be able to understand what problems the company you’re applying to needs solved, what goals it needs to achieve, and how you can show employers how you fit into that equation.

8 Industry Job Descriptors And The Hidden Message Employers Are Conveying

It’s impossible to fit every industry buzzword into just one document – new ones pop up every year and meanings are always evolving.

But there are 8 industry job descriptors that you’re sure to see in just about every job description you apply to. 

Here are the most common ones, along with what they mean – and, just as important, what they don’t mean.

1. Dynamic 

This hard-to-pin-down descriptor is becoming more and more common in industry job descriptions. 

It can mean a few things. Look to the definition of dynamic for your first clues. 

Dynamic (adj): marked by usually continuous and productive activity or change; (noun): a force or factor that controls or influences a process of growth, change, interaction, or activity.

Productive. Controls. Process. Change. Growth. 

These words are very telling. 

It all adds up to progress. 

Dynamic means that the job in question requires someone who is adaptable, energetic, and always willing to learn new things. 

If you’re a savvy PhD, you can go a step further and ask yourself, “Why would this be important in this role?” 

The answer is that the job you’re applying to most likely has fluid responsibilities. They may change often and be prioritized differently from day to day.

The person who will succeed in this role can rise to the challenge of a fast-paced environment. 

The employer needs someone who won’t say, “That’s not what I was hired to do,” in a few weeks when new challenges arise.

It would be easy to mistake driving progress for forward momentum, but that’s not what employers are looking for. 

Dynamic does not mean that employers want someone innovative who is going to bring new ideas to spark change. 

Instead, it means the opposite. 

They want you to be willing to do what they need you to do – whatever that is. 

Especially at the start. 

You can be innovative. You can be an agent of change. 

But not yet. 

The dynamic employers are looking for needs to be able to demonstrate a willingness to be flexible in the direction they need you to be.

2. Results-Oriented

Something I talk about often is how powerful results are – especially in industry. 

Whenever you see words like “results-oriented” or “data-driven” in a job description, employers are telling you that they value productivity. 

This is a roundabout way of saying that you will be expected to meet productivity goals and that your performance will be measured by how productive you can be. 

They are also going to ask you about instances where you had to meet deadlines and how you met them. You are going to want to choose at least one example that demonstrates you can work quickly or on a tight deadline.

If you want to impress employers, go beyond quantitative results and highlight that you understand the process behind achieving results.

Someone who is results-oriented is focused on achieving specific goals and producing measurable results.

They are able to create a strategy to accomplish their goals, prioritize tasks, and keep themselves on track.

A common misconception among PhDs entering industry is that, in order to be results-oriented, you need to be willing to go the extra mile. 

They will say, in interviews, that they don’t mind working late, coming in on weekends, or showing up early. 

You probably think that employers will appreciate this kind of dedication, but you’re wrong. 

The truth is that employers want to hire employees who can manage their time and resources effectively and get business done within normal business hours.

The ideal hire is one who can achieve results in a reasonable amount of time. 

3. Team Player

Describing yourself as a team player is problematic, and data strongly suggests that this is a bad idea. 

I recommend that PhDs use terms like “collaboration” in their cover letters, resumes, and LinkedIn profiles. Industry employers are embracing this skill over outdated terms like “teamwork” more and more.

Why? Because “team player” is a filler word. It is extremely vague and doesn’t say anything about what you did or how you did it.

Without data to back it up or any context, claiming to be a team player is the job skill equivalent of earning a participation trophy. 

Having said that, it’s important to take your cues from each individual job description. If the job listing explicitly uses that term, so should you.

Some employers do, in fact, place effective teamwork on a pedestal. 

This could be because they’ve had a bad experience with someone who didn’t pull their weight. Or – equally as destructive – they could be replacing someone who allowed others to skate along and burned themselves out as a result.  

A good team player contributes reliably as an individual. They bring out the best in others, embody a company’s core values, and contribute to the success of the team.

A savvy way to signal you’re a team player is to list cross-functional collaboration on your resume. This means you can get things done with people you have no authority over.

But it is absolutely a mistake to position yourself as just a get-along, go-along “team player” who doesn’t have any original thoughts and won’t speak up if they disagree strongly enough. 

Part of what makes a team successful and balanced in the modern workplace is diverse perspectives. 

4. Problem Solver

There are two kinds of employers: ones who have clearly defined processes and standards and ones who have a system in place that hasn’t worked out all the kinks yet. 

The first kind of employer probably does not need a problem solver on their team. They need someone who can closely follow instructions and execute their existing workflow.

It goes without saying that an employer looking for a problem solver obviously has a problem to solve. Their ideal candidate is someone able to identify and correct problems – the quicker the better.

This type of person is typically good at critical thinking, analysis, and decision-making. They are likely to be resourceful and creative and are able to think outside the box to find solutions.

Problem solvers are not considered key decision makers or leadership, however. It’s a mistake to position yourself as one unless you are explicitly applying for a supervisory position.

PhDs who want to demonstrate their strength as problem solvers should study the STAR method

The STAR method is a behavioral interview strategy for job seekers. 

The acronym stands for situation, task, action, and result. Those are the four points you need to address in order to provide a thoughtful, complete answer to industry interview questions. 

The ability to make decisions that impact the success or failure of a complex project is proof of your commercial or business acumen, too. Don’t miss the opportunity to paint yourself as an effective problem solver.

5. Excellent Communication Skills

This requirement is an easy one to misunderstand.

Depending on the job description, it could mean that the job requires someone who is able to communicate clearly in person and on paper. 

The unspoken implication is that industry employers are expecting you to be able to communicate effectively, respectively, and completely. 

When you highlight this skill to employers, you’ll emphasize that you can express ideas clearly and concisely. 

You’ll also want to indicate that you’re good at listening to and understanding the ideas of others. 

Mentioning you’re able to adapt you communication style to different audiences is a big plus as well.

A big concern that industry employers come to me with often is about the way PhDs communicate. 

They tell me that PhD applicants sound robotic. Too formal. Awkward.

This is not how you want to sound. It is very off-putting.

Complex language and a formal tone can come across as condescending or rude – two stereotypes PhDs definitely don’t want to be saddled with.

It’s impossible to know precisely what the best, clearest form of communication is from company to company.

For a little insight, however, look to the tone and language on your target company’s website.

6. Attention To Detail

Attention to detail probably feels like it goes without saying. 

Academia has trained you to check, double-check, and then check again to ensure you’re 100% accurate. 

But in industry, paying close attention is not a strength that everyone possesses in equal measure.

Employers value this skill highly, especially in roles where PhDs are highly sought after. 

Mistakes slow down productivity and slowed productivity correlates to wasted resources. Wasted resources in industry translate to lost revenue. No employer is looking to hire the employee who is going to cost them the most money. 

Attention to detail can mean many things, depending on your industry. It could mean spotting errors in written documents or spreadsheets. The ability to follow instructions carefully and produce error-free results might be another way to demonstrate your attention to detail.

Employers are looking for proof that you take the time to do things correctly, and that you’re capable of keeping track of information and staying on top of tasks.

They want someone who is going to turn in steller work that doesn’t need to be checked by management. They’re looking for trust.

They are also looking for someone who will go the extra mile and do extra work – someone who will get their hands dirty and dig into problems not just try to delegate and play manager.

Unfortunately for PhDs, paying close attention to details can sometimes devolve into analysis paralysis

Being static or stuck in place is worse, by far, than being disorganized or making frequent mistakes. 

Emphasize to employers that you are fast but thorough. Mention that you always met your deadlines in academia and consistently produced error-free work.

7. Proven Track Record

Employers asking for a “proven track record” are looking for a candidate who has a history of success in a similar role.

In this context, “track record” is synonymous with results. This is an explicit ask for proof of a job well done.

A proven track record doesn’t mean that you’ve worked in the exact same role that you’re applying to. But it does mean that you can demonstrate you’ve done the same job.

This could mean having a history of meeting or exceeding sales goals, successfully completing projects, or consistently providing high-quality work.

Hiring someone with a proven track record is important to employers because it reduces the risk of hiring someone who will not be successful in the role.

There are a few different ways to highlight your proven track record in a job description. 

One way is to list any relevant experience you have in the “Experience” section of your resume. For example, if you are applying for a job as a sales representative, you could list any sales goals you have met or exceeded in previous roles.

Another way to highlight your proven track record is to use keywords related to success in your resume and cover letter. 

 Be prepared to talk about the metrics you’ve used to define your success in academia. Try your best to choose examples that are relative to industry, such as grant funding raised or number of patents secured.

Don’t make the mistake of trying to hold your academic accomplishments up as relevant in industry. Unless you are applying to be a technical writer, for instance, your publications do not count. 

8. Self-Motivated

Being self-motivated may as well mean “not lazy.” Employers who are seeking out a “self-motivated” employee are hiring for a role with very little close supervision. 

That means that the job requires someone able to work independently and stay on task.

Employers need to know that you aren’t going to require months and months of hand-holding. They want someone who is self-aware and can be self-sufficient.

It also means that employers are looking for someone comfortable enough to speak up if they have a question. 

They need a person in this role who is self-aware enough to know when they need help and who can empower themselves to find the answer themselves.

Being self-motivated DOES NOT mean they are looking for a PhD who is going to jump in headfirst and start overhauling everything that isn’t running efficiently.

Employers in industry value your opinion. If you have a real concern, they will listen and they will address those concerns that warrant addressing.

But when you first start working in an industry role, employers are looking for someone who will do the job they were hired to do. Master the position you’ve applied for before you start trying to reinvent it.

Not Sure What Something Means? Just Ask

I’ll tell you a secret that deserves to be much more out in the open:

Job applications and interviews are all open-book, open-note.

Sites like LinkedIn make it simple and relatively painless to connect with industry professionals who are already working in the roles you want to work in. 

Connect with these mentors and peers – you can ask for their insights. You are not bothering them (if you observe proper networking etiquette) – that is exactly what LinkedIn is for. 

Employers won’t think you’re cheating if they learn you reached out to one of their employees for a referral or insight about a position. 

Instead, they’ll be impressed. 

From an employer’s perspective, you identified an area where you needed to improve as a candidate and you found the solution to your problem on your own. That’s the textbook definition of a highly motivated go-getting problem solver.

And that’s the kind of candidate they won’t want to let walk away.

PhDs also overlook the most obvious resource they have in their industry job search: the recruiters and decision-makers who reached out to them in the first place. 

“Do you have any questions?” is not just something employers ask as a formality at the end of emails or interviews.

They are giving you the opportunity to clarify, gain insight, qualify what they’re looking for. 

Don’t squander this generosity by trying to be polite. 

If you really want the job you’re applying for and you’re unsure what the employer is looking for, what they mean by a specific qualification, or if they have any doubts about you that you can assuage, ask away. 

Concluding Remarks

One of the biggest challenges that PhDs face when they start planning an industry transition is that they don’t know how to position themselves in an industry setting. They think that what makes them valuable are their technical skills and believe that transferable skills are way too simple and not worth mentioning. This keeps them stuck in academia. The transferable skills you developed during your PhD and postdoc are your biggest asset in the eyes of industry employers. So, take a look at this list of transferable skills you probably already have and make sure to mention them at all steps of your job search process to show employers that you understand what you bring to the table.

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Dr. Isaiah Hankel is the Founder and CEO of Cheeky Scientist. His articles, podcasts and trainings are consumed annually by millions of PhDs and other professionals in hundreds of different countries. He has helped PhDs transition into top companies like Amazon, Google, Apple, Intel, Dow Chemical, BASF, Merck, Genentech, Home Depot, Nestle, Hilton, SpaceX, Tesla, Syngenta, the CDC, UN and Ford Foundation.

Dr. Hankel has published 3X bestselling books and his latest book, The Power of a PhD, debuted on the Barnes & Noble bestseller list. His methods for getting PhDs hired have been featured in the Harvard Business Review, Nature, Forbes, The Guardian, Fast Company, Entrepreneur Magazine and Success Magazine.

Isaiah Hankel, PhD

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