You may not know it by name, but I’m sure you’ve heard of the Pareto principle. It’s that turn-of-the-century formula by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, who famously wrote that 20% of your effort will produce 80% of your results—or, more accurately, that there is a great imbalance between inputs and outputs and between causes and results. It’s remarkable that 120 years later it still explains so much.
Take a look at how retail stores operate: 20% of their goods produce 80% of their profits, and 20% of the sales year produces 80% of their revenue. Car insurance companies will tell you that 20% of their insured drivers cause 80% of accidents. In your home, 20% of the carpet gets 80% of the wear, and in your automobile, only 20% of the energy gets transferred to the wheels (combustion chews up the other 80%). When I come into work in the morning, 20% of my actions are going to result in the bulk of my paycheck. And I’ll bet that 20% of your papers produce 80% of your citations!
Don’t you wish that you could simply be happy with that 80% output and work just 1 day out of 5? The problem with that logic is that we can’t recognize which 20% of our actions are the ones that will lead to the big payoffs. But for you, as a scientist seeking an opportunity to move into a new phase of your career, perhaps there are some ways to use this 80-20 principle to your advantage in the job search.
1) Prioritizing your job search activities
A job search requires a variety of different activities, including researching, applying, and networking. Figuring out how to prioritize them can be a challenge. But in light of the permanence of the Pareto principle, it’s clear that the best approach is to focus on the high points from each category. In other words, don’t throw all your efforts into the networking column, even though that’s often a productive use of your time. And neither should you put all of your effort into responding to job advertisements. Instead, recognize that the job search requires that you engage in a range of activities, and that the returns on your activities will vary. Even though you won’t be able to discern the difference between low-return and high-return actions immediately, it will come to you with experience. As you begin to realize what your “big reward” activities look and feel like, you can then fine-tune how you prioritize your job-search tasks.
Here are the five categories of activities that fill out anyone’s time spent job searching, along with my tips on how to maximize the 20% of action that results in 80% of your success.