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How to avoid cognitive shortcuts that may hinder successful job search (opinions)

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For a long time, I thought I had no prejudice. There is no doubt that it was someone else, not me, who was hijacked by their cunning brain.I even took one Implicit correlation test Coming from Harvard University to check if I have unconscious prejudice against women in the science field, I was relieved when the scores told me that I was okay. Not surprisingly, because I grew up in the Soviet Union, where quasi-equal representatives of men and women in the field of science, especially engineering, demonstrated equal opportunities.

However, when I learned more about neuroscience, cognitive psychology, and mindfulness, my outlook on life became blurred. The last one, mindfulness, made me notice small inconsistencies in my behavior and thoughts similar to other people’s patterns. I realized that, like everyone else, I am susceptible to distorted thinking, which is used by the brain as a shortcut to save energy on complex decisions. While working in an international and interdisciplinary environment, I have seen researchers all over the world use the same shortcuts, which shows that this is not a single cultural phenomenon.

Therefore, I want to explore three cognitive shortcuts that may hinder successful job search and transition. Now let’s take a look at confirmation bias, mistakes, and GI Joe’s fallacy.

Confirmation bias prevents us from exploring opportunities outside our comfort zone. Confirmation bias describes the search and interpretation of information in a way that confirms our beliefs and values. In explaining the polarization and tribalism of the 21st century, this prejudice has received a lot of attention in the media and other areas. But confirmation bias also exists in other fields, including career management. I often encountered this idea in my first meeting with graduate students and post-doctors when I started to apply for a job. This prejudice is more prominent when the trainees are difficult to determine the position due to their limited knowledge and experience.

For example, if you are a STEM graduate, you tend to look for jobs in three areas: faculty, teaching, and research and development. Therefore, you enter these keywords in the search engine and receive a “certificate” proving that the only jobs available to you are indeed in these areas. Other vacancies in science policy, student affairs, etc. simply do not exist.

Another example is the belief that it is difficult to obtain non-academic positions. With this belief, trainees no longer look for titles of “new opportunities for PhDs” or “low Ph.D. unemployment rate”, but instead look for articles that confirm the lack of jobs and unbearable competition, leading to unnecessary stress and anxiety.

What to pay attention to: Only a limited number of job types can be seen in the exploratory job search process.

Countermeasures:

  • Expand your knowledge by talking to people from outside your professional and personal network.
  • Interested in finding a non-traditional career in your academic and/or professional field.
  • Use an incognito browser window to avoid using already “trained” search engines.

Using past experience and your current mental state to infer future results may lead to decision-making errors. In the book Happiness stumbling block, Daniel Gilbert calls our brain the “next machine”, and its main job is to predict our future feelings based on our past experience and current mentality. For thousands of years, this cognitive strategy has protected our species. However, like a double-edged sword, it hurts us by introducing false memories and projection biases into our psychological arsenal. The projection bias assumes that we will share the same values, beliefs, and behaviors in the future with the current state. As for mistakes, the research is clear: our memory is unreliable, and every recollection will change, leading to a convincing illusion of true past experiences.

Working seamlessly, projecting deviations and changing memories may hinder any job search, as shown in the example below. Suppose a few years ago, you conducted a series of interviews for a certain industry position. In a conference call, a hiring manager seemed indifferent to social issues and cared more about the company’s profits than the team’s well-being. Very disappointed, you decided to take a postdoctoral position. When thinking about the next step, you will only think of ruthless managers, not interviews with team members. In addition, compared to leading a talented team and well-funded and ambitious research projects, you may overestimate the importance of your commitment to social issues and company profits in the future. Being fooled by your brain, you may unknowingly avoid the R&D department, thereby missing opportunities and reducing your job search.

What to pay attention to: Avoid attractive opportunities based on a single past experience or current emotional state.

Countermeasures:

  • Check your memory carefully and objectively for any missing information.
  • Embrace a future-oriented learner mentality; it does not have to be the same as your current state.
  • Since humans can make appropriate predictions for others, imagine what a “normal” person would do in this situation.

Knowing how to do it does not mean you are doing it. This is by far one of my favorite cognitive distortions, sometimes called GI Joe’s Fallacy, Or knowing that is not half the battle. The most direct example is that I know that a healthy lifestyle through intuitive eating, constant exercise, and eight hours of sleep is good for me, but I don’t live in it. The same logic can be well translated into work-related problems. In my coaching practice, I have met students and postdocs who eloquently explained to me and others what needs to be done to get a job, but they did not follow their own advice.

It was puzzling at first, some explanations for this strangeness came from this book chatter By Ethan Cross. The author explained that it is easier to provide advice due to the perceived distance between “me” and “them”. This distance creates space for the objective and provides details for looking at the big picture. However, when we try to apply the same strategy to ourselves, we tend to zoom too close and get caught up in the internal narrative. Wrapped by too much personal information, we have lost the ability to view the situation from an external perspective and determine alternatives to achieve the desired results.

What to pay attention to: Know what to do to reach the goal, but somehow your advice only works for other people.

Countermeasures:

  • Create some distance by adopting an outsider’s point of view.
  • Suppose you are providing advice to a friend in a similar situation.
  • Find someone who can help you see the big picture.

Finally, our brain challenges us with hundreds of cognitive distortions and shortcuts every day. Although it is unrealistic to grasp each one, the first step is to understand our thinking and behavior patterns by constantly reflecting on our experiences and checking the motivations behind our actions. Unfortunately, this habitual thinking is difficult to grasp. Therefore, I recommend looking for a career counselor or coach to help you discover unhelpful patterns that are triggered during the job search process. These well-trained experts can directly ask you questions and hold you accountable for the steps towards a new shiny job and career transition. As for the liar’s brain, please proceed with caution and enjoy the benefits that this kind of reflection and awareness will undoubtedly bring.

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