Job searches in Covid times

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Manisha Bolina and Heather Staines

Manisha Bolina and Heather Staines share some insights about looking for scholarly communications positions in a pandemic

Manisha: changing things up

Towards the end of 2020 I found myself thinking about a new job. Some people would think I was crazy to look for a job during a pandemic – especially when I already had one that was amazing. However, I started to think about the companies I had always had at the back of my mind that I wanted to work for – Digital Science was one of them, a hub of cutting-edge technology for academia and a place where innovation happens from a needs-driven environment.

Curiosity drove me to the LinkedIn page, where I saw an interesting position for a Dimensions Product Solutions Specialist –driving AI solutions for libraries and the research office, perfect! My background working with AI discovery tools at Yewno and 10 years of experience selling into libraries globally would hopefully get me an interview.

Now, I have been the interviewer and the interviewee and usually it starts with a short phone call and then one to three face-to-face interviews. I always liked the phone interview as, being a sales person, the phone has always been a ‘comfort zone’. But with the pandemic in play, all parts of the interview process have become virtual. After sending my application in I had three virtual interviews at Digital Science before the job was offered to me.

I recall that a few years ago I was invited to interview for a very prestigious publisher, I remember having to think about one of the most important issues – what am I going to wear? I needed to book an eyebrow and nail appointment asap! In a virtual interview these were two things I didn’t really need to think about (not that I was going to turn up in Zoom with my PJs on, but you catch my drift). I also realised that, though small considerations, they actually resulted in increased levels of pent up anxiety – which is not needed when you are going for an interview with your dream employer. All this meant was that I was able to spend way more time practising my demo of Dimensions and learning about Digital Science. Result!

I do not live in a publishing hub like Oxford, London or Cambridge. This meant that if I had to go for interviews it would inevitably mean a long car ride or train journey. Car journeys can be infuriating; if you get stuck in traffic and if you arrive too early you have to sit in your car for ages or go to a pub (eeek, no wine!) for revision. All of this results in more anxiety and potentially forgetting things I definitely know!

The best thing about the virtual experience of interviews was that I was in my comfort zone; I was in my house with my favoruite cup, my own computer, my own space and no technical glitches due to hardware/software not being compatible. My feet were not aching from wearing heels running from platform to platform. Nor was I drenched from the “short walk” from the station to the offices if it was raining. I didn’t have the dreaded wait in the reception area or fear of being too late or too early. No need for last-minute bathroom visits where I may forget my way back to the reception waiting area. Nothing that could lead to more anxiety for my interview with my dream employer.

Digital Science uses Zoom - brilliant! I don’t have to download any new weird software, and I was using my own computer. I also didn’t have to worry about having a USB stick with me, back-ups on a cloud or also on my phone, just in case I had a technology meltdown.

The truth is, I felt at ease. I didn’t have people physically looking at me, it actually felt more like my day job – which at the moment is Zoom meetings with web demos. Sure, I was still nervous as I met the C-level management at Digital Science but I didn’t have all the other worries on my mind - I could just focus on the interview.

So would I go back to in-person interviews? Never say never. There is something about noticing body language, and the ‘chit-chat’ pre- and post-interview, which I think is rather nice. A day out to London is always a treat, especially when you can roll in a lunch or drink with a friend. I know for some, interviews at home can be hard with so many distractions in place – kids and pets making an appearance, or Amazon coming to deliver something at an awkward time. But I would encourage people to embrace the Zoom interview and enjoy how much you have control over it, because it can work in your favour. I’d like to think I would still have the job even if I had the in-person interview, but I think I definitely performed better without it. That’s my two-pence worth.

Heather: when you find yourself out of a job

Changing jobs in the middle of an already scary time certainly adds additional complexity. The good news is that companies are continuing to hire, and I’m noticing an additional willingness to consider employees who live too far away to be always on site. Like Manisha, I don’t live in a publishing hub, and I’ve done the commute into New York City (spoiler: It wasn’t fun).

Some job changes can be planned, but others can’t. Reorgs, pivots, and economic crises can be unwelcome surprises. The lesson I take from this is that you always need to be working on your network, so it will be there when you need to rely on it. It’s possible to play catch-up, but networks are valuable for so many things, not just a job search.

Make a list of the folks you want to talk to first, then contact people in groups. Let them know that you’d like to have a chat about trends they are seeing in the industry. (Don’t email 100 people all at once, as you won’t be able to schedule those calls in a timely manner.) Setting up catch-up calls can provide structure to your day. Take notes on folks your contacts suggest you reach out to, and follow them up.

One benefit from the impact of Covid was conferences moving online. I took advantage of this shift to attend my usual meetings (many of which had free registration or reduced prices for those unemployed due to the pandemic) and try some new ones. While it’s harder to network given the restrictions of many platforms, it is still possible. I continued to submit proposals for panels and accept speaking engagements to remain visible. I also kept up writing articles and blog posts for the same reason.

One thing that really helped me was a Job Council group started by my friend Tommy Doyle, who was also looking for a new gig. The weekly meetings included about a half dozen folks from scholarly communications and adjacent industries. We shared leads, asked for intros, and talked through options. It was so useful to bounce ideas of folks and even practice presentations. I always knew there was a core group I could turn to for quick feedback. I highly recommend this process!

I was fortunate to pick up some consulting during my search – nearly all of which resulted via leads from my network. It’s a great way to showcase your strengths and build skills in new areas; in my case around data. Not finding something permanent right away gave me time to think about what I wanted to do and, most importantly, what I didn’t want to do. Did I want to stay in the non-profit space or return to commercial ventures? Did I want to remain in scholcomm or take a detour to another industry? I wouldn’t have predicted how much I would like the variety of the projects I was able to work on. From research interviews to writing to business development, I enjoyed meeting new people and reconnecting with old friends.

I ultimately decided to stay in the consulting space, but to join an established consultancy, Delta Think. It’s great to be part of a team again, and working with the Open Access Data Analytics Tool ticked the ‘open’ box for me and let me start to flex my data skills! Just a few weeks in, I’m already learning a lot. Some projects go on indefinitely, and other jobs are always on the horizon. Every day can bring something new.

I wouldn’t have chosen to do a pandemic job search, but I’m thrilled with how it turned out. Our industry has always been fluid, and the impact of Covid 19 has changed us in unexpected ways. I hope that virtual interviews and more openness to remote work are here to stay.

Tip-top tips from the top

In your own home there is so much you have control over, so use it to your advantage. Here are a few tips:

• No travelling to and from locations means you can have more control over what time and date your interview is. You can better organise your diary and potentially not have to interview after a fully loaded day at work – or even better, not have to take a day off!
• Have your comfort items with you – your favourite mug, water bottle, or a cute pic of your pet or loved one on your desk. Or how about some aromatherapy oils diffusing to keep you zen?
• For you instagrammers, if you have a ring light, this might be good if the light in your room is a bit dim. If you don’t normally use the camera function on your PC be sure to check how the room looks and give it a tidy. If all else fails, see if you can use a suitable background filter.
• Close extra windows on your computer and switch off unneeded programs--this will make sure your machine has the power it needs to function at its best. Turn slack and emails OFF.
• Always have phone numbers handy in case your internet fails – but a big plus from the pandemic workarounds is that people are more understanding around technology failures.

Manisha Bolina is Product Solutions Sales Manager – EMEA – at Dimensions. Heather Staines is Director of Community Engagement and Senior Consultant at Delta Think.