While many Williams physics majors go on to pursue careers directly related to the physics major, the skills that you learn and gain during your studies provide you with the opportunity and capability to pursue a wide variety of fields. So, if you choose to enter the workforce directly after receiving your undergraduate degree, you will still want to draw on your physics experience during your application process. Many fields differ in how they treat the application process, however. In addition to reading the general tips and guidelines to being a successful applicant, be sure to read the suggestions specific to your field of interest.
Throughout the process, keep in mind that applying for jobs is a marathon, not a sprint. Work steadily and consistently and you WILL eventually find something. The process can be long and frustrating (it’s not unusual to apply to >20 jobs) but keeping to the grind is the best path to success. And hey, you went (go to) Williams. Williams Physics even. You’re smart. You’ll figure it out. 🙂
Deciding What to Do
If you’re having trouble deciding what sort of work you’d like to do, here’s an idea to get you started. Imagine an ideal work scenario, considering factors including but not limited to location, what you are doing, what you have the potential to learn, who you would be working with, how many hours a week, how much work is done in a team or individually, how much travel, work environment and culture, work dress, living in a city/rural area, and proximity to friends and family. Get the juices flowing and think about what you would do if everything would go your way and there were no restrictions. Then you have a frame work of things to look for when you are applying to jobs. Obviously no job will match your ideal scenario perfectly, but you will know what is important to you when considering where to apply.
Coming into this process, many people have an incomplete knowledge of where to find jobs, what types of jobs are out there, and what they want to do with their lives. Luckily, Williams has many resources available to students regarding job placement. Williams’ alumni network is one of the strongest in the nation, and you can access the alumni database through the Career Center website. Many times, simply seeing what other alumni have done helps to give you direction. In addition to the alumni network, the Route 2 system is a great resource: employers interested in hiring Williams students will post job openings in the system that often bring Williams candidates to the front of the applicant pool. Many of these companies also come to the Williams Job Fair every fall. Attending this event is a great opportunity for you to speak in person to more than 40 employers in many different fields. If neither these nor the career center offers any guidance, don’t be afraid to tap into your own pool of contacts; sometimes, connections your friends or parents have could lead to potential employment. Through the process, though, it is important to keep in mind that your first job won’t be your last job: even if you aren’t sure what you want to do with your life, the job you end up taking after college doesn’t determine what career you ultimately make for yourself.
Building a Successful Candidate
Before sending out applications, you need to make sure that you are representing yourself in the most professional way possible. Remember, a company doesn’t just hire for skill; they also want to hire somebody who will represent their company well and fit into their work culture. There are several ways to go about this, and all are essential:
- Building a Resume: The first and most important step. There are several important factors that go into building a successful resume:
- Have worthwhile experiences. Most businesses expect you to have spent at least the summer before your senior year doing substantial work, if not the summer before your junior year as well. While many strong candidates fulfill this by obtaining internships with big name companies, there is no set standard for what this work should be.
- Explain your experiences well. Employers are interested in the work experience that you bring to the table, so make sure you present it in the best light possible. Highlight only the noteworthy elements, and do it clearly and concisely. Avoid describing yourself in these roles with words such as energetic, confident, professional, or anything that is subjective and fluffy. Focus on the results of your work instead. DO NOT LIE.
- Make it visually appealing. If a resume looks sloppy or cluttered, employers are less likely to take it seriously. Likewise, if it is longer than a page, most employers will throw it out on principle. Check for spelling and grammatical mistakes, and then check again.
- Seek help. While you may feel that a resume is a personal thing, it is still important to check your resume against others. You can do this by looking online, getting together with a friend, or going to the Career Center on campus. You can see example resumes here and here from former Williams physics majors who joined the business sector after graduation.
- Building an Image: Looking and acting professionally are both key elements to making an attractive candidate; remember, an employer has to like you to hire you. Here are some guidelines:
- Watch Your Social Media: Watch what you put on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. HR departments will look through the profiles of candidates to search for potential red flags. These include (but are not limited to) clearly illegal activity, racist, sexist, classist, homophobic, or otherwise offensive comments, and inconsistencies between what you tell them and what your Facebook tells them. Clean it up. The last thing you want is to be denied a job because of your Facebook.
- Make a LinkedIn: Having a good LinkedIn page helps you in many ways. Every connection that you make links you to potential employers that may find you interesting. You can join groups such as the Williams Alumni group or the Williams College Physics/Astro group to network with other alumni. Also, an attractive LinkedIn page makes you look more professional to employers, especially if you have recommendations from former bosses/coworkers.
- Take advantage of the Williams Job Fair: every fall the Office of Career Counseling will host a job fair which many different employers attend. Getting to that first interview can be (it was for me) the longest, and most frustrating part of the job application process. Part of that difficulty arises from the fact that HR/recruiters often receive tens, up to hundreds of resumes and cover letters a day. Making a good impression strong enough to make that recruiter put you through to the next step in the application process is really hard when your resume, no matter how well crafted, is just one of dozens that a recruiter has to deal with. A job fair gives you the chance to stand out in person. This is the first impression you will be making to these potential employers, so you want it to be a great one. Be dressed in at least business casual clothing; for guys, a tie and suit coat (if not a full suit) is appropriate. Look the companies up before you go so that you have things to talk about and relevant questions to ask. Bring copies of your resume to give them; a resume given after a good conversation will put you on a company’s radar. Get the e-mail addresses of the people you talk to, and thank them afterwards. If you want even more guidance, the Office of Career Counseling hosts sessions about how to conduct yourself at job fairs.
- Build Contacts: Unfortunately, the vast majority of job seekers will not end up working for the first company they apply to. So, it is important to build up a group of potential employers. It is not unusual to apply to 20+ jobs. Beyond this, it is important to network with everybody you meet. Even if one person cannot hire you, chances are that they know somebody else who can. Speaking with alumni is very helpful, as most have accrued contacts from many different fields and locations. Williams graduates are, on average, rather successful, so don’t hesitate to tap into that success.
- Make Time For Applying: Job searching isn’t a small endeavor. You should treat the job search as a fifth class and devote to it the same time and energy you would another class. There’s more to do than you might think: editing your resume, writing cover letters, applying, e-mailing, looking for openings, interviewing, case study practice (for consulting jobs)…the list goes on and on. Once you are invited to conduct onsite interviews, be prepared to miss class. As long as you give them advance warning, professors are generally understanding and will help you make up missed classes. Don’t think you need to do this whole process alone, however; it can be helpful (and quite fun) to work with other friends on the application process.
Writing a Cover Letter
Though not all job applications require a cover letter, it is good practice to always include one (as a loose rule, the larger the company, the less important the cover letter, but still, it doesn’t hurt to include it). The cover letter serves as a writing sample (pretty much any job you apply to wants strong written communication skills) and gives you an opportunity to enhance your application by giving the recruiter information that is not available in your resume. It is an introduction to who you are and why you are applying for the job.
A cover letter should:
- Demonstrate your interest in the company. This often goes hand in hand with showing that you are a good fit for the company. Companies want people who care and are interested in their work, not employees just looking for a pay check.
- Identify specific ways your experience and skills will benefit the company. The cover letter should point to your resume, but not rehash it. Look to enhance the information already in your resume.
- Differentiate yourself from other job seekers. What makes you special? How do you stand out?
- Demonstrate your personality. A resume is mostly a list of skills and accomplishments. The cover letter gives you a chance to come across as a human being, not a list of jobs and programming languages. Put a little of yourself into the cover letter. Share your personality in a way that’s relevant to the job you want.
- Generate enough interest that you get that interview. Always keep in mind that the purpose of the cover letter and resume is to get you an interview.
Avoid using generic or mass produced cover letters. Each cover letter should be customized for each individual employer. Before you begin writing your letter, learn as much as you can about the potential employer. The more you know about an organization, the better you can tailor your cover letter to the firm’s needs.
How to Write a Cover Letter
Keep in mind that a cover letter should always reflect your personal voice. The tips below are not meant to be hard rules to follow. If you’re not sure where to start, check out an example cover letter from a past (successful!) applicant.
- Tailor the letter to the company as much as possible. Address the cover letter to the person responsible for hiring. If you’re not sure who to address your letter to, do some research online or make a phone call to find out who the hiring manager is. If you have met and talked with an employee of the company before sending this cover letter, mention that. Talk about what you learned from that interaction and what got you excited.
- In the first paragraph, in one or two specific sentences, describe your overall work experience. This helps give the company an idea of who you are and what you have done.
- Mention a recent accomplishment of the company and how it gets you exited to work there. This shows that you appreciate the work the company does and gives the hiring manager insight into who you are and what you care about.
- If possible, relate your desire to work there to a personal anecdote or experience in your life.
- Give concrete, specific examples of personal achievements that illustrate how you could advance the company’s agenda and fulfill the duties of the position. Remember, you want to express what you can do for the employer, not what they can do for you.
- Don’t cut and paste from the job description. If you’re applying for a posted job, do keep the requirements in mind as you craft the letter, but don’t use the exact wording.
- Err on the side of formality. Overall, you want the tone of your letter to be appropriate to the company you are addressing. If you’re not sure exactly what the atmosphere at the company is, then a more formal letter is a good idea.
- Close your letter by outlining your next steps. Be proactive by stating when you will contact the hiring manager to follow up. Don’t forget to include a phone number or e-mail address where you can be reached in case the firm wants to get in touch with you first. Follow up with the employer via phone or email in 2-3 weeks if you have not heard from them. Reiterate your interest in the position, ask about the status of your application, and ask if they need any further information from you.
After reviewing the steps outlined above, you should be ready to begin the full application process. It is important to note that, while there are many similarities between them, most job fields have unique interviewing and application processes. Outlined below are details on how these different sectors differ from one another.
Applying to Consulting
Consulting firms often pay extra attention to math, econ, and science majors, so the physics major will give you a head start in the consulting field. A normal consulting firm will have several rounds of interviews, each containing both “fit” questions and case studies. Fit questions are what they sound like: they are questions designed to see whether or not you would fit in the team. These can be anything from “Describe your leadership experience” to “What question would you least like me to ask you?” Case studies, on the other hand, are timed exercises in which you are asked to tease out an approximate answer to an in-depth question. Case study questions can range anywhere from “Estimate how many people ride the subway each week in Boston” to “Using this data set, decide how to make Company A profitable in the face of Company B’s recent growth.” Applicants are judged based not upon how close they are to an answer, but rather on the soundness of their assumptions, the speed and precision of their calculations, and the creativity of their solutions. Learning how to answer these questions effectively takes hours of practice and preparation. Consider buying a book of practice case studies (Case In Point is a good place to start) and finding a friend to practice with.
Most consulting opportunities that come out of Williams are centered in Boston, New York City, and Washington, D.C. If you are to advance in the interviewing process with a consulting firm, be prepared to make a day trip. Luckily, however, some firms conduct first (and sometimes second) round interviews on campus. In 2012, the list of firms that interviewed on campus included Bain, Deloitte, OC&C and Parthenon Group. The consulting application process begins right away during fall semester, so be sure to come prepared; most firms will have made their hiring decisions before December. Consulting jobs generally expect you to work around 55 hours a week and pay between 50k-75k at entry level, with normal contracts lasting two years before you are eligible for promotion.
Applying to Engineering
Engineering firms typically look specifically for engineering majors, but will occasionally make exceptions for math and physics majors. This is because engineering majors will come with a more work-ready background (they, unlike most normal physics majors, will know how to solder and use CAD). So, to make yourself a stronger candidate for an engineering job right out of Williams, try to have experiences that give you these work-ready skills. Designing an engineering-themed independent study is one way to achieve this: make sure to familiarize yourself with Michael Taylor’s workshop. In general, during an engineering interview, stress how your physics education has laid a groundwork for you to build upon: you know the theory behind it all, and you know how to problem solve, you just need a bit of training on CAD (or what have you).