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Career Advice:

Understanding hidden career opportunities

By: Alaina G. Levine

I recently participated in a lively discussion on LinkedIn about the hidden job market, a subject I have touched on, but not yet detailed, in a previous column about social media. The virtual conversation reinforced for me the significance, power, and extent of hidden career opportunities in an overall career plan, no matter what industry you desire to join.

Understanding, accessing, evaluating, and ultimately harnessing hidden career opportunities are keys to surprising professional benefits for both you and your coworkers. You must constantly be alert to these finds.

But before you start looking into every nook and cranny for hidden jobs and other advancement opportunities, there are a few key aspects of hidden career opportunities that you must comprehend. First and foremost, know that game-changing career opportunities are everywhere, and come in many forms.

A career opportunity could be as direct as an invitation to apply for a job, or something that requires more cultivation, such as the chance to collaborate on a short-term project, serve on a committee, or simply engage in conversation.

Don't dismiss an invitation to go out for a cup of coffee as less valuable than an offer of a job itself. On the contrary, the chance to discuss mutual interests with a colleague can help you craft a strong partnership. As I discussed in my column on networking, such alliances can and do lead to actual jobs.

Sometimes an opportunity that appears open, such as a vacancy advertised on a company or university website, is in fact hidden. Many jobs are promised to candidates "under the table," but due to legal or other constraints, the organization must publicly advertise the position. The practice becomes noticeable when, for instance, a job ad is posted and then removed within a week. Did the organization really find and hire a qualified applicant in seven days? It is more likely that the successful candidate found out about and landed the position through the hidden market.

Here are some principles for entering and exploiting the arena of hidden career opportunities:

  1. Don't try to quantify the hidden job market. Resist the urge to develop a statistics-based approach for pursuing and applying for jobs. Depending on which career expert you consult, you'll probably hear a different number as to what percent of the total job market is clandestine—anything from 40% to 95% of jobs and other career opportunities. My hunch is that the right number hovers around 90%, based on my own experiences and other factors (see below). Instead of spending valuable time trying to analyze exactly how much the hidden job market encompasses, I recommend that you simply recognize that it exists alongside the open job market.
  2. You access the hidden market only through networking and reputation management activities. To find out about hidden career opportunities, you must make yourself and your brand (promise of value) known in your community or industry. Networking can do this. It is designed to build win–win relationships between parties, and the more you know about each other, the more you will realize what hidden opportunities exist that you can both seize. For example, you might meet someone at a conference and ask him out to lunch. While chatting over tuna salad, your lunch partner learns that you speak Spanish fluently. It turns out that he has a project in Buenos Aires and he is looking for someone with your technical talent and linguistic acuity. You have now uncovered a hidden career opportunity that you might never have known about. Look for opportunities to network and to demonstrate your experience, skills and expertise, such as giving talks, volunteering on committees or reviewing journal papers. As people get to know you, they will begin to offer you hidden opportunities.
  3. You contribute to the hidden market, too. Like any other scientist, you have access to information, ideas, people, collaborations, and actual jobs. Given that networking entails exchanges of value between parties, you can provide access to hidden career opportunities for the people in your network. Doing so will help establish your reputation as a thought leader in your field and will encourage others to want to network with you. I discovered this firsthand recently after I learned about a number of fellowships for scientists and science writers, two of which included a $10 000 prize. I perused my groups on social media to see if anyone was promoting these and was surprised that others had not heard about them. (I had only accidentally discovered them myself while web surfing.) So I shared them on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook. People thanked me for communicating these hidden opportunities. As a result, I could connect with people I might not have encountered otherwise. I could also demonstrate my commitment to my community, thus solidifying my brand.
  4. The hidden market can allow you to create your own opportunities. Don't forget that the ultimate hidden career opportunity, the one that may bring you the greatest return on your investment of time and energy, is the one you create yourself. Bill Gates didn't apply for an advertised job – he made one himself and launched an industry. You should always be thinking entrepreneurially. If you need an opportunity, ask for it. If it doesn't exist, create it yourself. You may just start a revolution.

Every opportunity you uncover or create may lead to another, often better opportunity. I have seen this myself throughout my own career. Many years ago, I volunteered to serve on a committee, which led to be being elected president of the committee, which led to an invitation to apply for a job. Yes, it can be that simple!

Alaina G. Levine is a science and engineering writer, career consultant, and professional speaker and comedian. Her new book on networking strategies for scientists and engineers will be published by Wiley in 2014. She can be reached through her website or on Twitter at @AlainaGLevine.