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Job Steps


Seven Steps to Finding a Job

Fortunately, even in times like this, mathematics majors as well as computer science majors are in demand. There will always be a need for entry-level candidates with training, ability, and confidence in mathematics. But that need alone doesn't automatically translate into job offers. The secret to securing a good first job is in the search itself. It's not always the most qualified person who gets hired; it's the candidate with the best job search skills and strategies. So take the time to do it right. Start at the beginning.


Too many students launch into the job search skipping what may, in fact, be the most crucial step of all: self-assessment. If you ignore this stage of the search, you proceed at your own risk.

In a survey conducted by Northwestern University, 500 employers were asked to note job applicant behaviors, responses and activities which were counterproductive to the job search. Among the top weaknesses listed was applicants not knowing themselves. Particularly at entry-level, self-assessment encourages the job applicant to engage in a systematic evaluation of interests, skills, attitudes, and values.

You can choose to use a computer assisted program in your college career center (DISCOVER and SIGIPLUS are popular) or a paper-and-pencil assessment survey (the Campbell Interest and Skill Survey, the Holland Self-Directed Search, and numerous others), but spend some time identifying what it is you most enjoy doing, what you do best, what's important to you, and how you feel about various kinds of work functions and environments. Figure out what you have to offer and what factors are important to you for job satisfaction, not just as a math major but as a whole personality. Not only will this analysis provide direction for the remainder o the job search, it will also prepare you for that somewhat intimidating and often-used first interview question: "So, tell me about yourself."

Identify the skills you have developed both through your academic and co-curricular experiences. It is here that math and computer science majors and minors have a decided advantage. Employers are actively seeking women and men who have developed quantitative reasoning, analytical thinking, and problem-solving skills. You know how to manipulate and crunch numbers as well as to conceptualize and theorize. Your discipline has trained you to think logically and to attend to detail. You can deal well with abstractions; and you can apply theory to practical problems. You know the language of both business and the sciences. While these skills are among the most highly valued by employers, they are not enough.

Today's employers are looking for mathematically inclined women and men who also have developed excellent skills in oral and written communication and effective interpersonal skills. Successful job candidates have proven they can work on a team, organize projects, and deal with stress. Employers look for candidates who strive for excellence in all aspects of their lives. Spend some time carefully considering your interests, attitudes and values. This will help you to determine where and how you want to use your abilities.


Once you've articulated the skills you have to offer, it's time to move ahead in your search and set some specific goals. You will need to determine the functional areas and the environment within which you want to use your skills as well as the geographic area.

Even in a tight job market, math and computer science majors are competitive within a broad-almost limitless range of job areas. Private business and industry, the public sector (local, state, federal government), education, and non-profit organizations all provide opportunities for candidates with a strong mathematics background. Positions are available in underwriting, banking, investments, marketing, research and development, programming, systems, consulting, actuarial science, and a myriad of other arenas.

The secret is to research those job options which appeal to you and to focus on several which match what you've learned about yourself through self-assessment. College career centers typically offer library resources about career possibilities for the math and computer science major. Public libraries as well may have career resources for your use. Hopefully, an internship or a co-op experience has already given you the kind of information you need to narrow your search to a manageable number of relevant opportunities.


Since employers receive numerous resumes for each position and may spend only 30-45 seconds glancing at each one, it's extremely important that your resume be quickly and easily digested, attractive and powerful.

While standard resume advice is readily available in guides, a few hints might be helpful to the math major. If you are clearly focused on one or even a couple of functional areas or job titles, write a crisp objective which articulates the kind of position you hope to attain. Be sure to emphasize what it is you have to offer the employer, not what you want for yourself. If you are not yet focused, don't include an ambiguous or multidirectional objective. Instead, articulate your objective for a particular position in the accompanying cover letter. Or consider the possibility of using a summary of qualifications rather than an objective, making sure in either case that you emphasize your skills in quantitative reasoning, analytical thinking, and problem solving.

Within the section of your resume describing your educational credentials, list "relevant coursework," including titles of math and computer science courses you've taken. Or include a section on "computer expertise," listing the various languages you've learned whether in the classroom or on the job. Be sure to include senior research or other research experience. In listing your internship, summer job, or part-time work experience, tell the reader what you've learned (including computer software programs), not just what you've done. Show evidence of your skills, noting specific achievements and accomplishments both in your experience and your activities sections. Use quantitative measures of your achievements whenever possible. Remember, the employer is trying to determine if you are a good match for the position and needs to be convinced that your past experience, both educational and work, is relevant and a good predictor of your potential.

Now that you have a strong tool for marketing yourself, what do you do with it? Gone are the days when sending out 300 copies of an entry-level resume to a list of potential employers resulted in a good response for follow up. It's just not that easy. You need to establish a "hit list" of employers, based on your self-assessment and your focus on particular jobs, environments, and geographic areas. To create such a list, you will need to continue your research and to begin to develop a network.


Though already overworked to the point of becoming a buzzword, "networking" is an important and effective tactic. It's been said, "It you don't network, you may not work."

While some students continue to find success in on-campus recruitment, many more secure their first position through a series of connections with college alumni, faculty, family, friends (and friends of the family), acquaintances, community contacts, and previous internship or job supervisors. These connections can be used to establish informational interviews, access to good career advice, general support through the job search process and even actual job interviews. Just remember that these contacts are volunteering assistance; don't take them for granted or act as though you are entitled to their help. Send a resume and a letter in advance of your meeting or phone conversation. Be prepared for the interaction with a clear focus, articulate questions, a specific request for advice, job leads, information or names of other professionals in their network whom you might also contact. Be persistent in pursuing network leads. And, finally, follow up with thank you letters or friendly phone calls to keep your network contact informed about your progress.


To launch the actual application process, you will want to get job listings from a variety of sources. Your college career center or placement office will offer on-campus recruitment programs as well as job listings. Professional mathematics journals or magazines may have appropriate postings. While newspaper ads are limited in their helpfulness, don't ignore them. Participating in a regional or national data base and attending job fairs in the area of your geographic focus may also be sources for job leads. Your network contacts are also likely to produce information about openings.

Prepare a specialized cover letter for each position, highlighting specific aspects of your educational, work or co-curricular experience relevant to the job. Indicate in your letter how references may be secured. Also, be sure to mention when you are available for an interview. Unless directed otherwise, indicate that you will be following up with a phone call; keep "the ball in your court. "

Keep copies of all of your job search correspondence. Systematically follow up each job application with a telephone call to confirm the receipt of your letter and resume and to inquire about the prospects of a job interview. The purpose of your phone call should be to show an interest in the job opportunity, to gain information regarding the timeline of the job search and to assess your prospects for an interview. While it's good to be persistent, be careful not to seem demanding or overbearing. Above all, be polite and professional.


Having achieved your goal of attaining an interview, now you must prepare for it. Do your homework on the organization or company with which you are interviewing; if you don't, it will show. (Lack of knowledge of the employer was a second glaring weakness noted by the interviewers participating in the Northwestern University survey.) Use your career library and the public library, check industry directories, talk to folks in your network, read magazines and journals to research the employer. Again, there are more interview guides available than you will ever need, but find a good one and review your basic interviewing skills or attend an interviewing workshop offered by your career center.

Anticipate questions; many are predictable. Formulate possible answers; practice with a friend. The trend in interviewing today is toward situational interview questions. Well-trained interviewers will ask you for examples of situations in which you used your skills. You'll be asked to describe a situation, the action you took to address it and the results. Choose examples from your academic work, from internships or summer jobs, or campus activities. Have ready descriptions of situations in which your quantitative skills and problem solving abilities were particularly effective, for example, tutoring other students or participating in mathematics competitions. Interviewers are looking for self-confidence, enthusiasm, good communication skills, career direction and flexibility. Be ready with evidence of your teamwork, your dependability, your perseverance, your eagerness and ability to learn, and your willingness to work hard. You need to convince the interviewer that what you offer and what the employer needs are a good match.

Have good questions ready to ask the interviewer, indicating a sincere interest in the employer and an awareness of the employer's needs. Ask about the growth of the organization, new products/technologies, company culture, management style, career paths and opportunities for advancement, and training programs. You are being judged by the quality and content of the questions you ask the interviewer as well as by the responses you give. Save questions about salary and benefits for the second or on-site interview.

Finally, convey to the interviewer that you really want the job, that you would be excited about working for the employer, and that you look forward to talking with them more about the opportunity. Within a day or two follow up with a thank you letter, reminding the interviewer of something specific about you and your conversation and reiterating your continued interest in the job prospect.


Once you are extended job offers, evaluate them based on how well they match your interests, skills, values, and attitudes. Determine if the environment is one in which you can do your best work. Consider the opportunities for professional growth the positions may afford you. Don't hold out for the perfect job. There are none! Since a first job is not forever, think about whether or not the position will provide a good foundation, a launching pad for your career. In evaluating geographic location of job offers, remember that employees who are open to relocation early in their career are highly valued and will have the benefit of geographic stability in later career stages.

In evaluating salary offers, be realistic. The July 1993 College Placement Council Salary Survey reports salary offers extended to 1993 graduates at 402 career centers at colleges and universities across the country. Offers to Bachelor's Degree Candidates in mathematics, including statistics, averaged $26,100, while offers to candidates with Bachelor's in computer science averaged $30,900. What quoted salaries don't reveal are benefits, profit sharing options, bonuses, commissions, relocation reimbursement, tuition reimbursement for graduate or professional school courses, among others.

Once offers are extended, you will be provided with details on the entire remuneration package, which may provide a different picture than salary alone. Complete your job search with courteous follow-up correspondence to all who helped you. Express your appreciation for assistance and support. You may want to stay in touch with some of your contacts. And once you have established yourself in your own career, pay back the system by offering to include other young jobseekers in your own growing network.

A Boeing advertisement in the College Placement Council Annual magazine boasts: "You can go as far as you want ... It's a matter of discipline and degree." As a math major, you're in a good position. Your discipline and your degree provide you with a set of skills which are in demand, skills that are transferable and flexible even in a challenging, job market. The opportunities are there, waiting for you. Take your job search seriously, work on it systematically, and remain confident. You'll be pleased with the results.

MARY SCHILLING is the Director of the Career Development Center at Denison University in Granville Ohio.

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Copyright 1993 Math Horizons The Mathematical Association of America