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Job hunting advice for theoretical physics PhD

No.

The real problem is coming in with this attitude when, in reality, you are probably underqualified for the position.
I don't have a Ph.D.

I have, however, come across some rather nasty attitudes towards people with physics/math/engineering backgrounds when they interact with scientists with non-quantitative backgrounds (think biology). I only have a B.S in physics, and there have been a LOT of positions that I've been pretty much optimally qualified for (as in, I don't think it would be possible to find someone else that matches their job requirements as closely as I did), and I wasn't even contacted for an interview. Luckily I found a supervisor that views physics positively, and the difference in how he treats me vs. co-workers (supervisors included) in previous jobs is unbelievable. I personally find it hard to believe that this attitude doesn't carry over when making hiring decisions, and I don't think you'll ever hear someone in a hiring meeting say "wtf this guy has a physics Ph.D. he's too smart for us to hire", so you kind of have to read between the lines sometimes.

Additionally, if a Ph.D. implies so much about work ethic (rather than intelligence), why is it so hard for people with intermediate or better programming skills to find a job? Shouldn't companies really really want to hire people with an excellent work ethic and solid programming skills who obviously have a capacity to learn difficult material quickly?
 
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Additionally, if a Ph.D. implies so much about work ethic (rather than intelligence), why is it so hard for people with intermediate or better programming skills to find a job? Shouldn't companies really really want to hire people with an excellent work ethic and solid programming skills who obviously have a capacity to learn difficult material quickly?
If there is a problem having a Ph.D. and applying for a programming job, it is probably that the perception that the only reason the person is applying is that he or she is desperate for a job and will leave as soon as a physics position becomes available.

Being able to learn difficult material quickly is a plus, of course, but not as much a plus as already knowing the material. There is a big difference between writing a few thousand lines of simulation code and being able to debug someone else's code in a large collaborative project.
 

jk

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I don't have a Ph.D.

I have, however, come across some rather nasty attitudes towards people with physics/math/engineering backgrounds when they interact with scientists with non-quantitative backgrounds (think biology). I only have a B.S in physics, and there have been a LOT of positions that I've been pretty much optimally qualified for (as in, I don't think it would be possible to find someone else that matches their job requirements as closely as I did), and I wasn't even contacted for an interview. Luckily I found a supervisor that views physics positively, and the difference in how he treats me vs. co-workers (supervisors included) in previous jobs is unbelievable. I personally find it hard to believe that this attitude doesn't carry over when making hiring decisions, and I don't think you'll ever hear someone in a hiring meeting say "wtf this guy has a physics Ph.D. he's too smart for us to hire", so you kind of have to read between the lines sometimes.
I haven't come across such attitudes. If anything, having a degree in any quantitative field seems to give people impressions about the capability of that person that are not always warranted. The reasons you were not called back for the interview can be many, including that there were people who applied and were more qualified than you.
Additionally, if a Ph.D. implies so much about work ethic (rather than intelligence), why is it so hard for people with intermediate or better programming skills to find a job? Shouldn't companies really really want to hire people with an excellent work ethic and solid programming skills who obviously have a capacity to learn difficult material quickly?
Because there are many more people with intermediate or better programming skills and excellent work ethic than there are jobs.
 
I haven't come across such attitudes. If anything, having a degree in any quantitative field seems to give people impressions about the capability of that person that are not always warranted. The reasons you were not called back for the interview can be many, including that there were people who applied and were more qualified than you.
Like I said, unless the job ads were completely fabricated and had nothing to do with the actual job, it was really not possible to be "more qualified" unless the additional education in physics was viewed as a negative.

On at least one occasion I knew some of the candidates that received interviews. There was no way it was because they were more qualified. On one of those occasions I had insider information on the selection process. Trust me, sometimes people are threatened by people with backgrounds in fields like physics if it is not typical for those jobs.

I have no knowledge of the software industry though, and I can see how it would be different there because of the strong correlation between math ability, abstract reasoning skills, and programming. This isn't as necessary in the non-bioengineering fields of biology, and I think people with quantitative skills are not viewed in a positive light by some in those and similar fields. I could have just had terrible luck at my previous jobs, but that is what I observed and my hypothesis was pretty much confirmed in several ways.

Because there are many more people with intermediate or better programming skills and excellent work ethic than there are jobs.
I acknowledge that the attitude in programming may be very different. However, are there really so few jobs and so many outstanding candidates that people with at least an intermediate knowledge of programming and a Ph.D. in a field as difficult as physics can't find reasonable employment? I thought programming jobs were relatively abundant -- and I hear stories all the time about how novice (yet employed) programmers can't program a lick. It just doesn't quite add up to me that physics Ph.D.'s can't find jobs and it's only because there are all these other excellent unemployed job seekers out there who are more talented and more skilled than a Ph.D. level physicist.
 
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Like I said, unless the job ads were completely fabricated and had nothing to do with the actual job, it was really not possible to be "more qualified" unless the additional education in physics was viewed as a negative.
More qualified means you have more experience or the right experience. Fresh outs are generally the least qualified, even in the upper levels of PhD holders.
 
And sorry for the derail. I guess my point would be don't necessarily emphasize your physics background too much and don't get too abtract and technical when talking about your work in the application process if 1) the job doesn't call for that skill set, and 2) it would be over the hiring manager's head.

I acknowledge this is probably less of an issue in the programming industry. I guess it all boils down to don't let yourself be viewed as a threat by people with the power to hire you (or promote you should you get the job).
 
More qualified means you have more experience or the right experience. Fresh outs are generally the least qualified, even in the upper levels of PhD holders.
I wasn't fresh out. Just relating my experience on how people with physics/math backgrounds are often times viewed by people without such a rigorous background in quantitative fields.

If you really think this phenomenon doesn't exist at all such that you can explicitly ignore it, I would suggest reading some books on social power dynamics. It's actually probably particularly useful to know this type of stuff in a bad economy where jobs are scarce.
 
Work your network and show initiative. That's the best advice for getting a job you'll ever get. A surprisingly large number of job listings aren't real in the sense that the organization already has a candidate in mind and they are just satisfying employment regulations and requirements. I have seen that so many times it boggles my mind.

There are exceptions, but the best way to get a job is to ask around. Ask people you know if their organization is hiring, or if they know anyone who is. Get introduced to people who can help you. In my job, I've never hired someone who just sent in a resume responding to a job listing. They either reached out through channels or I reached out to someone who impressed me at a conference or similar.

You can do it, but you need to get your advisor to pry open some doors for you.
 

jk

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And sorry for the derail. I guess my point would be don't necessarily emphasize your physics background too much and don't get too abtract and technical when talking about your work in the application process if 1) the job doesn't call for that skill set, and 2) it would be over the hiring manager's head.
You should always emphasize those things in your background that are useful to the employer. Otherwise, why would they be interested in you?
I acknowledge this is probably less of an issue in the programming industry. I guess it all boils down to don't let yourself be viewed as a threat by people with the power to hire you (or promote you should you get the job).
I have never seen a situation where anyone was seen as a threat for being smart or capable. Are you sure you are drawing the right conclusion from your rejections?
 
You should always emphasize those things in your background that are useful to the employer. Otherwise, why would they be interested in you?
As I specifically said in the reply you quoted: "the job does not call for that [specific] skill set". They would be interested in you if you convince them you can do the job they want you to do, and, additionally, they feel you won't cause any disruption in their ascent up the corporate ladder.

I have never seen a situation where anyone was seen as a threat for being smart or capable. Are you sure you are drawing the right conclusion from your rejections?
Then you are lucky. This is actually a well established phenomenom, and is relatively common.

I'm not sure that I'm drawing the right conclusion from my rejections because no one told me "we didn't hire you because we're threatened by you". It is possible the person I knew who was in the meetings where they discussed candidates for the job was lying to me. And it is possible that the fact I was systematically pulled off projects that I was extremely successful at happened to coincide right around the time I was incorporating ideas from fields close to physics in my work (and invited to give a presentation by another group for this work). It could be a further coincidence that I was specifically told that my physics ideas weren't welcome in my performance review (nevermind it was encouraged right up until I could demonstrate results). And it could also be a coincidence that all of this success coincided with my former research group beginning to repeatedly talk down to me and act like I was an idiot at every possible opportunity, and everyone else being blown away that I was being treated like this.

But yeah, I'm not completely sure I'm drawing the right conclusions. All of these things could be coincidences and my friend was lying to me to top it off. Like I said, if you don't think this ever happens, you believe people are perfectly rational and never try to outcompete you for scarce resources (promotions, power, money, status), then feel free to completely ignore the possibility that hiring managers ever view people with a demonstrated capacity to master theoretical physics as a threat.

Are there really so many amazing unemployed people out there that physics Ph.D.'s with good programming skills struggle to find a SINGLE relevant job and remain unemployed for months, sometimes years? I know a lot of people who successfully found technical jobs at the peak of the recession, and didn't have too much difficulty. They were not, I repeat were not, as capable, smart, or qualified as some of the physics Ph.D.s I know or that post on here. Why is that?
 
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Then you are lucky. This is actually a well established phenomenom, and is relatively common.
Several people here, including myself, think you’re really, really wrong. You disagree. Fine. You’re not adding anything new or interesting arguing with everyone.

Stop derailing what was a really good thread and let it go.
 
Let's get this thread back on track.

I've partitioned job-search methods into subsets. Pardon the violent analogies; we do not intend to actually shoot anyone. If I forgot anything, please say so.
  1. Buddy method: Ask friends/colleagues/family to introduce us to potential employers. Alas, this method is limited by the people we happen to know already.
I think you are not exploring the Buddy method enough. It is most assuredly *not* limited to people you know already. It can be extended to people your network knows but you may not. There have been several times when someone has been referred to me by someone whom I don't know.

For example, I got an email recently from a professor at Michigan I don't personally know, but we have a mutual friend in a professor at Stanford. This prof. at Michigan had a graduating student who he thought might be a good fit for my group. Unfortunately we did not have the funding to add a postdoc, but I most certainly would have accepted this as a strong referral.

My point is your network can do a lot of the work for you. This student's CV ended up on my desk even though I didn't know his advisor. Your network is your key to getting a job.
 
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I have no knowledge of the software industry though, and I can see how it would be different there because of the strong correlation between math ability, abstract reasoning skills, and programming. This isn't as necessary in the non-bioengineering fields of biology, and I think people with quantitative skills are not viewed in a positive light by some in those and similar fields.
I am a physics PhD who has worked in IT security for about 15 years. I tend to say your physics background can be valued by hiring managers, but for the same reasons other 'exotic' backgrounds might be valued as well (humanities e.g.).

Though it's hyperbolic I would say that physics is valued because it gives you some geeky extra - but only if this is an extra: on top of your required proven track record as a programmer or other IT professional.

When I turned to IT it was very common that you had any strange degree whatsoever. You were judged based on your skills, not by your degree - because applicants with the proper degree were an exception.
Hiring processes have become more standardized and "professionalized" but I believe particularly "nerdy" fields do still reflect that type of thinking. I can vouch for the "hacker community" of security experts.

But I think it would have been detrimental if I ever would have tried to convince hiring managers or potential clients that the PhD in physics would give me any advantage. "Hackers" detest any type of showing off any type of degrees or certifications.

Again hyperbole ... but I rather tried to 'hide' my background when talking to new clients (I have been self-employed for years) - they hired me because of an endorsement or other proven record. Someday I made coffee breaks more entertaining by talking about my physics background and this probably made me stick out of the crowd of nerds a bit. But I bet I would have been perceived as arrogant if I mentioned it at the start of a project or in the hiring process.

One former client once told at the end of a large project that he had googled my CV before me first met and that our very first meeting came as a positive surprise to him - because he expected me to be arrogant and detached because of my degree. (He had no university degree - "self-educated hacker").

So this anecdote might probably confirm your theory in a sense. But I don't believe people are 'threatened' by physics PhDs - they rather believe you are arrogant if you put too much emphasis on your degree although you lack the required skills or experience (in IT). Probably very similar to the biased type of judgement I might apply myself to young graduates with business degrees and without technical background or experience who believe they can "manage everything" and tell the "technical ressources what to do" because they have some theoretical knowledge of management methodologies.
 
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I'm not sure that I'm drawing the right conclusion from my rejections because no one told me "we didn't hire you because we're threatened by you". It is possible the person I knew who was in the meetings where they discussed candidates for the job was lying to me. And it is possible that the fact I was systematically pulled off projects that I was extremely successful at happened to coincide right around the time I was incorporating ideas from fields close to physics in my work (and invited to give a presentation by another group for this work). It could be a further coincidence that I was specifically told that my physics ideas weren't welcome in my performance review (nevermind it was encouraged right up until I could demonstrate results). And it could also be a coincidence that all of this success coincided with my former research group beginning to repeatedly talk down to me and act like I was an idiot at every possible opportunity, and everyone else being blown away that I was being treated like this.
I don't think you are drawing the right conclusion at all.

You sound like you are being very arrogant and difficult to work with.

Do not underestimate the importance of getting along with people at work. The most brilliant man I ever met never had much of a career because he consistently burned bridges and alienated management until he had to leave and start over somewhere else. Where, being stubborn, he continued to make the same mistakes.

The best person for the job might not be the best programmer.
 
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Let's get this thread back on track.

Your network is your key to getting a job.
I completely agree with this. Even being a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-former-coworker is a better recommendation than having the best resume in the slush pile.

I've had quite a few jobs, but I've only found *one* of them by sending in a resume cold to a place where no one knew me or even knew anyone who knew me.
 
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I've had quite a few jobs, but I've only found *one* of them by sending in a resume cold to a place where no one knew me or even knew anyone who knew me.
Same here! I agree with you and carlgrace re networking. My very first job was due to a letter sent to a cold place (though based on thorough research of the needs of this cold place) - and all future jobs as an employee and any job I ever did as a self-employed consultant were based on networking.

One caveat: Having been employed by very well-known company once I know that 'networking requests' from your extended network can become annoying - definitions of networking versus spammy behaviour do vary, and it is hard to tell how persons will react you do not know that well.
I believe it is most important to offer the person 'being networked at' something in return - ideally it is somebody whom you had helped out earlier.
 
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I believe it is most important to offer the person 'being networked at' something in return - ideally it is somebody whom you had helped out earlier.
Many companies offer their employees bonuses for referrals that are hired and stay for a certain period of time. So it's common that the person being "networked at" will benefit!
 
Several people here, including myself, think you’re really, really wrong. You disagree. Fine. You’re not adding anything new or interesting arguing with everyone.

Stop derailing what was a really good thread and let it go.
Yes, Locrian. I started the arguing when someone else implied I had no idea what I was talking about, as if they were the individual who attended the hiring decision meetings who directly spoke with me. Get over yourself.

Just because you and a few other people think I am not adding anything new or interesting does not mean no one does. If you didn't think I said anything worth arguing over then don't reply. Again, get over yourself.

PS -- google "hiring manager feels threatened" or "boss feels threatened" or something similar if you think I'm making this up for some weird reason.
 
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Someone off-topic but related question: Does anyone feel that part of the problem physics Ph.D's have in finding employment in industry outside of their field of expertise is that a lot of hiring managers feel threatened by Ph.D. level physicists?
I've definitely seen a version of that in academia. For example, all professors sometimes screw up and write test questions or lecture notes with wrong answers. That's natural. But the worst professors also retaliate against students who answer correctly. This has happened to me, and it was done quite flagrantly to other people I know.

As for private industry, I don't have enough information to answer. I got rejected for one position because, according to the recruiter, my "background was too heavy in theoretical physics." (I even deliberately avoided the word theoretical on my resume as keyword-filter insurance.) But I suspect that was a polite lie, and the real reason was something like this: "We got dozens of applications from people who have already done more machine learning. Hiring them is less risky than gambling on you."

I've also seen the inverse: math/physics PhDs who try to intimidate everyone else, often including other math/physics PhDs. A professor who I knew and respected called it "trying to be the alpha male." Sometimes it's not even deliberate hostility, but the result of fooling ourselves into thinking we're smarter than everyone. My favorite summary: we all have the potential to catch the ******* virus and must be ever-vigilant.

Most people don't spend much time around physicists. So if a manager met a few arrogant physicists, he/she might suspect that we all act like that. Or worse: they might think we all act like the people on Big Bang Theory. But now I'm really dragging us off topic.
 
I am a physics PhD who has worked in IT security for about 15 years. I tend to say your physics background can be valued by hiring managers, but for the same reasons other 'exotic' backgrounds might be valued as well (humanities e.g.).

Though it's hyperbolic I would say that physics is valued because it gives you some geeky extra - but only if this is an extra: on top of your required proven track record as a programmer or other IT professional.

When I turned to IT it was very common that you had any strange degree whatsoever. You were judged based on your skills, not by your degree - because applicants with the proper degree were an exception.
Hiring processes have become more standardized and "professionalized" but I believe particularly "nerdy" fields do still reflect that type of thinking. I can vouch for the "hacker community" of security experts.

But I think it would have been detrimental if I ever would have tried to convince hiring managers or potential clients that the PhD in physics would give me any advantage. "Hackers" detest any type of showing off any type of degrees or certifications.

Again hyperbole ... but I rather tried to 'hide' my background when talking to new clients (I have been self-employed for years) - they hired me because of an endorsement or other proven record. Someday I made coffee breaks more entertaining by talking about my physics background and this probably made me stick out of the crowd of nerds a bit. But I bet I would have been perceived as arrogant if I mentioned it at the start of a project or in the hiring process.

One former client once told at the end of a large project that he had googled my CV before me first met and that our very first meeting came as a positive surprise to him - because he expected me to be arrogant and detached because of my degree. (He had no university degree - "self-educated hacker").

So this anecdote might probably confirm your theory in a sense. But I don't believe people are 'threatened' by physics PhDs - they rather believe you are arrogant if you put too much emphasis on your degree although you lack the required skills or experience (in IT). Probably very similar to the biased type of judgement I might apply myself to young graduates with business degrees and without technical background or experience who believe they can "manage everything" and tell the "technical ressources what to do" because they have some theoretical knowledge of management methodologies.
Thank you for the anecdote. Crazy that someone can actually provide a thoughtful response without immediately dismissing things I have directly experienced. It's almost like not everyone thought I did not add anything interesting. Well, except Locrian, and since he is everyone and no one else matters I better hurry up and log off.

Anyway, back to actual discussion relevant to the thread, rather than derailing by attacking people who post personal experiences that someone doesn't think really happened or something. I find it curious and interesting that they thought you were "arrogant" before they even met you, simply by virtue of the fact you held a Ph.D. It seems like this is another data point confirming that people aren't always rational about their hiring decisions and may judge people who hold an advanced degree in a quantitative field in a negative way, when it's not typical for the job.

Why did you feel the need to 'hide' your background when talking to new clients? Wouldn't additional skills (in a field as difficult as physics) impress them even more and give them more reason to hire you?

I seem to remember ParticleGirl writing some time back that she would have much better luck with interviews when she left her Ph.D. off her resume. Based on my limited interactions with her through a message board, she is clearly in the upper echelon of intelligence. You would think someone that smart who has completed an advanced degree in a field as difficult as theoretical physics would at least be getting some interviews here and there for technical jobs. Why would removing something as impressive as a physics Ph.D. from her resume result in a drastic increase in frequency of interviews granted?

I'm not sure there is much difference between automatically thinking someone is "arrogant" because they have an extremely impressive credential and feeling threatened by that person.
 
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I don't think you are drawing the right conclusion at all.

You sound like you are being very arrogant and difficult to work with.
Can you explain why you think I was being arrogant and difficult to work with? Do you have any idea where I even worked or what I did at my job? Are you still trying to imply my friend was lying to me? How on earth do you have any idea how I behaved at my previous job? Why do I get along with everyone at my current job, and why were the only people who treated me like crap at my previous job the ones that specifically wrote in my performance review that my biophysics/bioengineering related ideas were not welcome?

Do you just assume everything you can possibly assume to arrive at your preconceived conclusion, or have you actually worked with me at some point and I just don't know about it?
 
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A surprisingly large number of job listings aren't real in the sense that the organization already has a candidate in mind and they are just satisfying employment regulations and requirements. I have seen that so many times it boggles my mind.
I totally believe you, though it does seem absurdly inefficient. From a game-theory point of view, there are huge opportunity costs to ignoring cold applications and/or only hiring experienced people. It's somewhat like a sports team giving away all its draft picks for free and only signing free agents who have recently played against them.

Ask people you know if their organization is hiring, or if they know anyone who is.
I've been doing that continuously for two years, including my neighbors and high-school classmates on Facebook. Many of them kindly offered to help, but not so many of them have access to people who hire physics PhDs. This has happened many times: a friend/colleague/whatever works with people from a company that does work related to mine. He/she gives them my resume, tells them what I do and how it relates to them, and says I'm interested. I haven't heard back from any of these.

One colleague still thinks he can probably get my resume in front of the right people at his company. They have a notoriously difficult and time-consuming hiring process. I'm fine with that, but I need to find alternatives because it's far from a sure thing.

My advisor is great but has keys to all the wrong doors. His contacts are almost all academics who have no positions available, or who have postdocs which pay so poorly that I would need to take out more loans to work there.

I don't mean to say "your advice sucks." Rather, I mean it's a perfectly good idea which I'm already using as much as possible.

Many companies offer their employees bonuses for referrals that are hired and stay for a certain period of time. So it's common that the person being "networked at" will benefit!
One of the first people I talked to gets a referral bonus just like what you described. That was about 18 months ago, and they wouldn't even interview me for an internship. But I re-applied recently and they've scheduled a preliminary phone screening, so there's a chance he'll get his bonus after all...
 
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I don't believe I've ever worked with you, Diracula, but from your descriptions of your interactions with hiring managers and coworkers, all I feel is empathy for them. And I honestly believe that you are shooting yourself in the foot. Repeatedly.

I could be wrong, of course. Maybe they *are* all out to get you. You are right, I have no way of knowing.

I do know that if you act this way at a job interview, you will be shown the door rather quickly.
 
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I totally believe you, though it does seem absurdly inefficient. From a game-theory point of view, there are huge opportunity costs to ignoring cold applications and/or only hiring experienced people. It's somewhat like a sports team giving away all its draft picks for free and only signing free agents who have recently played against them.
The problem is that it's nearly impossible to *really* evaluate a potential employee with a one-hour job interview. You can eliminate the obviously insane or unqualified who can't hold it together for even a short period of time... but then what?

As I said before, you don't need to find the best candidate... you need to find a good candidate who will work well with the other people in the organization. Personal connections are the best way to ensure that the hire will work out successfully.
 
Diracula said:
Why would removing something as impressive as a physics Ph.D. from her resume result in a drastic increase in frequency of interviews granted?
My mental model of the job market looks like this- there are orders of magnitude more intro-positions than technical positions. A phd basically disqualifies you from those intro positions, and if your phd was in an area that isn't immediately industry relevant, you haven't opened many new doors, which makes job searching somewhat kafka-esque.

="NegativeDept"]Many of them kindly offered to help, but not so many of them have access to people who hire physics PhDs.
I ran into this a lot to, and my adviser was an absolutely worthless reference for jobs, though he would have been a great help at landing a postdoc. One suggestion I got from a headhunter is not to ask for a job, but to get in touch with someone at a company for some mentoring. If you meet someone doing work you think you could (and would want) to do, ask to meet for lunch and get info from them,etc. I believe this is good advice, and though I have a job, I have used it to expand my network, and it was advice like this that landed me my current job.
 

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