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Finding a job sounds and feels like a logical, linear progression: You search for a job; you find a job posting; you apply; you interview; you get an offer; you negotiate; you begin your new job.
If only it were so straightforward.
While each individual application may proceed step by step, every engagement progresses at its own pace, some never start, and some stop short. While Job Prospect A is already approaching the negotiation phase, Job Prospect B is in the late-interview phase, and Job Prospect C just called to say they got your resume and would like to set up an interview. Of course, you’re still searching for leads and sending out resumes to additional prospects weekly, if not daily.
For the job seeker, the trick is to keep each of those engagements progressing despite the different pace and the varying degrees of effort and attention required at different stages.
"You have to think of yourself as a juggler, with many balls in the air, and you have to keep them all moving," Arlene Barro, founder of executive search and coaching firm Barro Global Search Inc. of Los Angeles, who holds a doctorate in education and is the author of “Win Without Competing.” "A lot of people will keep waiting to hear from somebody; that's not effective. If you haven't heard within a week, pick up the phone and find out what's going on so you can close the gap with that employer. You need to continue your search; you can't sit and wait."
The life cycle of a search
Your job prospects typically follow a standard progression. Each stage requires a unique amount of attention and effort. However, there is room to add or subtract time and effort at each stage.
Search: You hunt for available jobs using job listings and networking. This phase is ongoing, and time and effort vary based on the method used and each prospect. Much of the time and effort are outside your control.
Apply: You choose the most promising and appealing jobs, and you apply. This usually means adjusting your resume for the specific position, writing a cover letter and submitting the application. This stage requires the least time and effort and remains almost entirely within your control.
Interview: You meet, often multiple times, with representatives of the prospective company. This stage can involve travel, extended preparation and focus and will vary wildly from job to job. It is the most consuming stage of the job search in terms of time and effort.
References: A prospective employer will check your references and perform a background check. This requires little effort on your part other than coordinating contact with your references. The time and effort required is largely outside your control.
Offer-Negotiate-Accept: The search doesn’t end with an offer of employment. The offer must be reviewed. It may require research and several rounds of negotiation. You may also wish to delay accepting while you keep other job prospects progressing.
A successful job search requires you to keep as many prospects as possible live at all times, including a range of prospects in various stages of development – from initial contact to final negotiation. That means jobs at different stages of the search are competing for disparate levels of time and effort.
The process resembles the workflow of a salesperson, said Lynn Berger, a career coach, licensed therapist and author of The Savvy Part-time Professional, which examines issues of work-life balance. In a single day, a salesman might cold-call a new contact, do follow ups on prospects with whom he or she has talked several times but are not ready to buy, and negotiate a price with a customer who has finally sealed the deal, Berger said .
That doesn’t sound like a terrible challenge to a lot of people, especially those who have worked in sales and are accustomed to keeping up with many customers, according to Barro.
However, it's all too easy to get distracted by a single job prospect, to lose your motivation to pursue new prospects when an existing one looks like it might succeed, or to focus on things like consulting work that help pay the bills while you search for jobs. In Barro’s juggling metaphor, it’s easy to focus on one ball that needs attention and drop the other balls.
Where juggling jobs can hurt you
Since long delays are common between the initial interview and a job offer, it's easy to forget who you're supposed to be talking to, or even confuse the details of one job and another, Berger said.
It's also easy to get detoured by a likely looking job that ultimately won't come through and put off generating new prospects, Barro said. That’s a serious tactical error; you'll end up having to choose – or be chosen – from a much smaller pool of job prospects than you would if you were more consistent in generating new prospects.
Even if you're staying up to speed on your networking, job applications and interviews, it's easy to get off track doing too much research in an interesting area that has few job prospects, neglecting new prospects while waiting for a really promising offer that might not ever arrive, or even doing work around the house that makes you feel good but doesn't help you get a job, Berger said.
"If you have a tendency to respond to issues at hand, if you're really good in a crisis, there's a really good chance you're not paying enough attention to the shorter term," Berger said. "You have to put some structure in place to make sure you're attending to the things you need to -- something outside yourself that can help you make sure you're attending to other things."
Right at the beginning of your job search, write out a blueprint of what you want to do, how you want your search to progress, and list the things you need to do to keep it on track, Barro recommends.
"Put down all these things you want to do and weight them according to what's most important to you," she said. "If you give consulting a 30-percent weighting, that's almost a third of your time. What are you going to do with the rest of your time? Spend it on the job search? Spend part on follow up? What allocation do you give each activity?"
After that, keeping on track is strictly day-to-day time management. "I tell people to revisit the blueprint about once a month to make sure your priorities are always current," she said.