Fitbit for Cows

A couple years ago, a friend asked if I’d talk with his daughter about her resume and interviewing technique.

She was a talented student in her junior year of college. I don’t recall her major, but it was in the field and her GPA was respectable. She had been successful in obtaining several first interviews for analysis internships but was not getting called back for the second interview.

I asked that she send me her resume and that we set up a time to speak.

Her resume contained the traditional accoutrements; school, major, anticipated graduation date, GPA, some part-time jobs she had during the summers in high school, etc.

And like many students, she included a list of classes that she thought would impress prospective employers. Calculus, english, statistics, etc. Again, all with good grades.

When we sat down I asked her to tell me about herself.

The conversation was pretty typical; naming classes, extra-curricular activities (running, swimming, etc), future goals.

I asked if she had been involved with any projects in her classes that were more than just homework. Maybe group projects, projects with a professor? Anything like that?

Her: well, actually I did do this one project last summer, but I didn’t think it would count because it wasn’t really about analysis.

I inquired further and she elaborated about how one of her professors was involved in veterinary research and had been conducting a study designed to measure the activity levels of cows while they were in the fields.

She was on the field team that went out to the farms and installed fitness trackers on the cows. From there, she and her team also engaged in the perfunctory research steps of documenting which cows were tagged and which ones weren’t. They did some preliminary testing to make sure the trackers were working, and then they turned the rest of the project over to another team.

To her, this didn’t qualify as applicable experience because she wasn’t involved in any of the subsequent analysis of the data.

But here is why that experience is so valuable:

  1. First and foremost, this experience gave her exposure to the research process in a real-life setting. She may not have known the importance of what she was seeing, but she was able to see the process and that will serve her well later.
  2. Second, she was able to see how her actions (attention to details, etc.) contribute positively or negatively to the overall success of the project. Moreover, how the work of her and her teammates was a direct factor to the quality of the final analysis.
  3. While other experiences (namely sports) had given her exposure to working as part of a team, this exercise gave her experience into how those principles apply to research.
  4. It showed initiative on her part for volunteering for the project. And by virtue of being selected by her professor to be part of the team, she also received a tacit endorsement of her value for research work.
  5. And here is the real kicker, most of her peers hadn’t done this. So, this work became a HUGE differentiator in her portfolio. While all of her peers could claim statistics or calculus only a small handful could claim actual research experience.

She re-worked her resume and her talking points for her next interview and she nailed it. True story, she went from not discussing this point at all, to leading with it in her introduction and highlighting it on her resume.

The result? She was offered an internship three hours after her next first interview!

The lesson here is that most applicants out of undergrad don’t have any research experience, much less analysis experience. But if you have any experience at all it is usually better to highlight that work than to focus on your grade in a class that all of your peers also took.

Post script note – if you don’t have similar research experience then class projects are also good to discuss in an interview. Just be sure to explain what you did as well as why the project was laid out that way.

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