Lessons Learnt: First Professional Job Search In The US As An Immigrant

I came to the US (SF Bay Area) from Belarus in 2016 having 4 years of work experience from “home”. I wasn’t sure how big of a career throwback I had to make to stay and work in my field. I had very few friends here, my husband has been working in a different, military world, so I had to navigate my first job search as I go.

I was looking hard for my first job in the US. Second job was slightly easy to find, third job found myself. Tomorrow I start my new challenge in the US as Program Manager in a digital healthcare agency.

There are a lot of success stories out there from developers, engineers, designers, who got employed by, let’s say, Facebook or Google in the Silicon Valley right away. That’s true, if you are a developer and can sell yourself according to the local standards, the demand in this field very often exceeds the supply. But I found it pretty difficult to break the first ice if you target more soft-skills niches like Sales, Marketing, Operations, Account or Project Management. Here, especially in the Bay Area, you face an enormous competition from local specialists with the US education and work experience.

Many people ask me how difficult it was to find the first job, how long it took. 1,5 months is my answer. Of course, I googled everything I could google back then for tips and tricks, but there were a few things that I learnt only through the prism of my own search.

I took a more down-to-earth approach. It worked for me and I believe it can work for many other immigrants out there who are just stepping onto the path of looking for their first job in the land of opportunities.

My background before coming to the US

  • Bachelor’s Degree in PR and Communications from Belarus
  • 4-year work experience in Business Development and Account Management at Belarusian outsourcing development companies=> my skills and experience were applicable in the US

1. Cold networking/referrals.

No, I am not going to talk about their importance, not for the first job in the US.

During my first and second job search, I was told countless times that networking and referrals are the only things that work. Let’s distinguish cold referrals vs. warm. If you think you can reach out to people on Linkedin/at webinar/workshop etc. and ask for a referral/feedback after a 5-minute small talk — that’s cold, and there is a 90% chance it wouldn’t work. Think for yourself, would you recommend a person you don’t know who doesn’t have either local experience or local education? There is “show me who you refer and I’ll tell you who you are” type of thing, especially at the smaller companies/agencies. I am not saying networking doesn’t work — it does, but when warm — if you volunteer somewhere for at least 3–6 months, or there is a referral from your former co-worker (where’d you take it for the first job?). It’s cold networking that I don’t personally have faith in and think that contribution-result ratio is poor. If you have time and energy to do quality resume send and networking — that’s great. If need to choose, I found it more efficient to focus on tangible things like searching for the right openings and customizing your resume.

2. Lowering expectations.

There are 2 paths as I see it.

1) Lower your expectations and take the job that might be low-paying in a small company, but corresponding or contributive to the desired title/position and beneficial for the resume in the long-run. You need local experience in your resume, “get your foot in the door” type of thing. Fast forward ing— that’s the path I took.

2) Target bigger companies with recognized names. Everything is possible, but … it will take significantly more time (for a number of reasons I will not outline in this particular post). Think if you have it. Also, remember, the bigger there is a gap in the resume, the more unfavorable it will look for a recruiter, especially, again, for a candidate without the local experience.

My first US job was in a small digital agency (~10 people). Great people, low pay for Bay Area. I started with Client Services Manager position. After the agency was acquired by a bigger e-commerce company, I got promoted to Project Manager role. In 1,5 yrs, I managed to gain the experience, adjust to the local working culture and get a promotion. I was ready for my next job search.

3. US interview rules and practices.

I had fluent English when I came to the US — both business and conversational, but I terribly failed my very first interview here. 2 reasons -

First, my ego. Back in Belarus, I was a specialist in demand, I already got to the point where job offers were coming without me sending out resumes.

Second, I wasn’t fully realizing local interview rules and differences in mentality. I did read the articles like “10 most popular interview questions”, they didn’t seem hard, so I was thinking “pffff, with my experience and language level, it’s not a big deal”. Well, it was. My first interview was the biggest interview failure I’ve had. If at the beginning I could somehow scramble through “Tell me about yourself”, I got totally blindsided by “accomplishments, advantages and disadvantages” and “why we should hire you above everyone else”. I should have mentioned it was a group interview, which, on the one had, was a total disaster as everyone could see me mumbling, but, on the other hand, it gave me a great insight into how Americans were handling it. In post-Soviet countries, we’ve been taught since childhood that you need to be quiet, not “boast” about your wins and accomplishments. While in the US, children are taught that they are unique, each of them has voice and ability to do something extraordinary in life. So, while I mumbled about me being nothing really special, my American co-interviewees were telling a convincing story of their advantages and accomplishments starting from the kindergarten.

I came home that night, took a pencil and a notebook, opened all the articles with “the most common interview questions”, wrote down each and every answer and learnt them by heart. And then practiced. Aloud. Every single day.

Also, remember, in the US, recruiters and hiring managers pay a LOT of attention to the cultural fit. Even if you are being interviewed for the technical position, you still need to do well in the “soft skills” part of the interview. Practice.

Other tips. Summary. Lessons learnt.

1) That’s written everywhere, but I will not be tired of repeating this as a mantra — customize your resume for the position. Make a few templates if you target different titles.

2) No need to confirm/reevaluate your diploma. I have never been asked for my diploma here. At bigger companies, there will be a background check. But you don’t need to waste your time and pay some agency to reevaluate your diploma unless you are a doctor, nurse, lawyer and need/want to continue your education.

3) Do not underestimate the seeming easiness of the common and soft skills interview questions. Even if your language is super fluent, think through, write down your answers and learn them by heart. We tend to forget our names when in stressful situations, if you don’t think through “the challenge you had on your project and how you overcame it”, 90 out of 100 you’ll mumble something useless.

3) Do not let your ego guide you. Something that I see quite often especially among Russian-speaking professional community. You might have been a top talent and performer in your home country, here you start (almost) from scratch, so you’d better learn the rules and play by them.

4) Cold networking and referrals work poorly. If need to choose, work on more tangible things with your resume.

As a result, I did not have to go back far in my career. I managed to change out 2 jobs in 4 years, having been promoted twice. Remember — everything is possible if you know certain rules. Knowledge is power. Good luck!

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