Dissecting Job Descriptions: What Employers are Really Looking for

By Eliana Spiess
February 17, 2023

Regardless of your age, experience, or background, looking for a job is never fun. The search can feel endless and infuriating, and even when you do find what could be the right fit, you’re crossing your fingers (and toes) that the hiring manager sees your potential. 

A major part of this stress stems from an integral part of the job search, the job description. Descriptions written by hiring managers and recruiters can be incredibly overwhelming – what skills are the “nice-to-haves”, and what are the “must-haves?” Do they really want someone with 3 years of experience in a certain area, or is there wiggle room? We consulted with Sean Rae, Managing Director at BioBuzz’s sister company Workforce Genetics, to learn a few tips and tricks for how to dissect a job description.

When it comes to the job search and deciphering what hiring managers truly want, the landscape is significantly different for more experienced professionals compared to younger folks. The advice in this article is applicable to people of all professional levels, but it’s important to start with some distinctions. 

For those that are more tenured members of the workforce, things are usually more black and white. The more experience you have working and going through the hiring process, the better understanding you have of your own abilities and whether or not they fit a job description. At this point in your career, you’ve likely learned how to be honest with yourself about you’re qualifications and you know how to accurately evaluate your experiences. The most important thing to remember is that you don’t need to check all the boxes, just have a majority of the heavy hitters. 

When it comes to younger individuals, such as those right out of college and graduate school, navigating the job market can be significantly more complicated. It can often feel like all the jobs you’re seeing, even those that claim to be “entry level”, require years of experience and criteria that you don’t have. This is when dissecting a job description comes in handy, as does some good old-fashioned humility. 

When it comes to years of experience, it’s important to be honest with yourself and apply for roles that accurately reflect your current standing (whether that be entry or mid-level). Especially for those who have just graduated or are about to, be strategic about where you begin so you can continue to grow. Your first job out of college is a foot in the door – it won’t be the job you’ll retire from. Even if you do have some sense of direction in terms of your future career (which many don’t after just graduating), you might need to take a job you don’t love in order to get the experience you need to eventually move on (and also pay the bills). Your first job is really a way to learn about the field and figure out whether it’s a fit for the long term. Be honest with yourself about your qualifications and be open to new experiences. And if there’s a job that you’re really interested in, a great way to stand out is to reach out to the hiring manager and express your interest (I promise it works, that’s how I got the job I have now).

Perhaps the most daunting aspect of a job description is the sheer amount of expectations and responsibilities outlined. Many job seekers look at these bullet points as boxes that employers expect to all be checked, but that isn’t necessarily the case. Companies have a tendency to list out everything they want in a potential employee, and I mean everything. Not just the nonnegotiables, but the things they’d want from an ideal, too-good-to-be-true candidate – a unicorn, if you will. Knowing that you’re not necessarily expected to meet all of the outlined criteria can be reassuring, but how do you know what is and isn’t a non-negotiable? 

First, it’s important to evaluate the language. If a specific experience or education level is listed as “preferred”, usually the qualification isn’t mandatory and the hiring manager will still consider your application. 

Second, look at the “responsibilities” section compared to the “qualifications” section. The responsibilities tend to outline what you’ll be doing in the role on a day-to-day basis, whereas the qualifications outline a background that the hiring manager has decided is relevant for the position they are trying to fill. You might find that you have experience with most of the responsibilities outlined, however, your qualifications are not of the desired caliber (or vice versa). More often than not, having the experience they’re looking for is more important than meeting all of the qualifications, so if you believe your background to be sufficient for the role, there’s no harm in applying. 

Lastly, remember that many companies (especially start-ups) don’t have dedicated HR professionals writing job descriptions – rather, it’s scientists or other professionals that aren’t experienced recruiters. So if it’s incredibly hard to decipher what is or isn’t a nonnegotiable, see if you can do a bit of homework to figure out if the description was posted by the company or by a recruiter. Employers will often expect to get 50-70% of the criteria listed in their description, as opposed to experienced recruiters who tend to look for a candidate that meets 40-50% of them. While recruiters do have high standards for who they show to employers, they often have a more realistic understanding of the job market and the background truly required to be successful in the position. This means if you see a job description that’s listed by a recruiting agency, there probably won’t be as much of a barrier to landing an interview if you find you only check ~50% of the skills listed in the description.

When thinking about non-negotiables, education and years of experience are quite critical. “Faking it till you make it” won’t work in this case, and you’re only going to set yourself up for disappointment if you apply for a job that requires an advanced degree or unrelated major you don’t have (however, if a certain degree is listed as preferred, you still might be considered). Similarly, when it comes to years of experience, it’s important to be specific when talking about your qualifications in your resume. Especially when it comes to more senior roles, job descriptions will often specify “years in leadership/management”. You might have 8 years of bench work under your belt, but if an employer is looking for 5 years of lab supervising experience, those lab skills wouldn’t necessarily translate. If you have experience mentoring undergraduates, graduate students, or other lab staff, though, that could certainly count.

Keep in mind that not all qualifications are black and white, as there are many skills that are highly transferable. Software experience is one aspect that is generally more flexible, because even if you have experience with a different data collection/analysis system than they’re looking for, usually if you know one, you can probably figure out the other. Flow cytometry is a great example – many companies use FlowJo, but if you have experience using another program you can likely pick up on FlowJo quickly.

The job search is all about balance. It is just as important to remember that the perfect candidate will never exist as is it to remember to be honest with yourself. Exercise some level of humility when applying for jobs so that you don’t put yourself in a position to fail, but don’t feel the need to check every box, otherwise, you’ll only be able to apply for a handful of jobs. Exercising this balance in addition to a healthy dose of patience is crucial to successfully landing a job and not losing your mind along the way. 

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