Non-academic job postings, part 1

Non-academic job postings differ from academic job postings in several ways.  Here’s part 1 of a guide to understanding the differences and what they mean for a non-academic job search for someone with academic training.  (Part 2 decodes some common job-posting terminology.) Don’t see your question answered here?  Email it to me at

Who writes them
What they are for
Basic format and elements
Company description
Job description
Required qualifications
Desired qualifications

Who writes them.  They are written by one or more of the hiring manager (the person who someone will actually work for); someone in Human Resources (HR); someone from the recruiting team.  Small companies will often have only HR or recruiting not both, and really small workplaces have no HR at all. If people other than the hiring manager helped write the description, some elements of the job description may be more important to the hiring manager than others.

Who they are for.  Job descriptions are written for both internal and external candidates.  Jobs are usually open internally for a period before they are offered externally, which is why many jobs seem to be filled moments after you see them online.  Jobs are also often written for internal audiences, including HR (to prove that the recruiting meets company and legal regulations), Finance (to prove the salary and level are within budgetary targets), and the hiring manager’s boss (to prove the job is needed).  That means some elements of the job description may be more important to the hiring manager than others.

Basic format and elements: company description.  Often job descriptions will start with a high-level description of the company, or of the part of the company where the job is located. Pay attention to what the company says it values highly: a firm valuing multi-channel customer communication may well need your social-media skills.  If you do not find such a description, so some research online, both of that company and of that job title at other companies. Sometimes a sentence or two about the company appears in the job description itself.

Basic format and elements: job description.  The job description typically enumerates the job holder’s primary responsibilities and primary colleagues in the context of the group’s overall goal.  So a usability designer, for example, might be charged with representing the needs of the end user or customer, describing those needs to the product and development teams, and working with lead engineers to improve product designs so customers have a better experience with the product.  Your job as a candidate is to show how your skills enable you to fulfill those responsibilities, be a good colleague, and contribute toward achieving the company’s or team’s goal, and that you have experience (not necessarily paid jobs) that demonstrate your skills.

Here is a job description live as of June 2015:

The XXXXX UX team is seeking a junior User Experience Designer to help build customer experiences that have the right balance of elegance, simplicity and functionality. As an established XXXXX brand and subsidiary of XXXXX, working at XXXXX is a unique opportunity to learn from the best in a friendly, collaborative environment and develop your skills and knowledge.

You will learn, embrace, and extend our User Experience Design to take our products to the next level. As a key member of our agile team you’ll tackle a wide array of challenges including:

  • Representing and advocating on behalf of end users at all times
  • Working closely with our product managers to transform business requirements into well-articulated functional requirements
  • Documenting detailed user flows, creating wireframes and other visual assets
  • Providing direction and feedback to a diverse team of programmers
  • Communicating with other stakeholders in the company to facilitate knowledge transfer and continuously improve our products
  • Iterating designs to meet changing requirements

The core of this job is improving the end user experience through usability and design in collaboration with a range of other people with different skills, including technical skills and business skills.  This job could be held by someone very strong in design and usability, or by someone with adequate design and usability skills but strong leadership, organization, and communication skills.

Basic format and elements: required qualifications.  No single part of the job description makes academics more anxious, but very often hiring managers are open to people with different blends of skills.  Here, for example, is a list of required qualifications (in this case called “must haves”) for the usability designer listed above:

Proven track record building quality online experiences

· Talent for communicating ideas visually
· Experience working in an agile environment
· Experience working directly with software developers
· Leadership experience

Note that these requirements do not specify how these qualifications are acquired or demonstrated.  That is because there are many, many ways to acquire them, through paid or volunteer work.  If you can demonstrate that you have worked in this area, building, say, a conference’s or a professional organization’s website, those are “quality online experiences.”  If you can demonstrate how you improved the experience with before and after visuals, so much the better.  Demonstrating talent for communication can also be done in many ways, so you will find a portfolio (in this case, links to work you helped develop) and a writing sample for a general audience necessary.

The requirements also do not specify how long a track record or how much experience.  it also does not specify that the track record or experience was acquired while that was your primary job.  In other words, if you acquired these skills while working on your PhD, even in an unrelated field, you can credibly apply for this job.  For an entry-level job like this, I would apply with, say, three or four projects on which you have worked, two of which you led, if you also have worked with agile development and directly with software developers.

Will it be more difficult to make your case than it will for someone who did this as a job, if you did not? Probably.  Is it possible to do that?  Certainly.  Do you have other skills that you can also bring to bear, that you can describe well?  Very likely.

Finally, notice that the required qualifications do not include degree specifications, undergraduate or graduate.  In this and many other cases, employers care much, much more about what you can do than what degrees you hold.

Basic format and elements: desired qualifications.  Here are the desired qualifications (in this case called “bonus points”) for the same usability designer job:

· Background in visual design
· Experience formalizing processes associated with user experience design
· Passion for reading and book culture
· Ability to prototype functionality in HTML/CSS/JavaScript
· Experience building products with front-end frameworks like Bootstrap
· Knowledge of web browsers, their limitations and best practices associated with building web based interfaces

Notice that the desired qualifications are far more specific than the required qualifications.  You should mine these desired qualifications for guidance about the relative importance of the required qualifications: in this case, the hiring manager wants strong design skills but also strong organizational skills (to get through product development cycles) and the ability to do hands-on prototyping.  You should also mine them to see what qualifications you might be able to learn, if you are interested in this type of work.

Strength in a desired qualification, such as the passion for book culture, will not substitute for lack of the required qualifications, but it can help compensate for the lack of one or two of them.  For example, if you created great online experiences and led the group doing it, but someone else worked with the developers or did the prototyping, you can make a case that you can do this job, especially if you show that you have learned some of the prototyping skills, for example.  After all, making a case on the basis of data and research is what you did to work toward a PhD.