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Good Job Hunting

If only the professional job search was akin to an experiment in freshman-level general chemistry. Remember general chemistry lab? Just follow these 10 clearly-written steps for success! At least in theory –  for the lucky few. I was not one of them; I was a math major, and struggled in general chemistry. And yet, somehow, after taking a very circuitous path (1), I ended up with a PhD in analytical chemistry, then a postdoc, and now a tenure track position in forensic chemistry.

When I was looking for my first job after graduate school, I would ask faculty members, “How did you get your job?” One told me he applied to 150 different positions and got a handful of interviews. Many of the others simply said, “I don’t really remember.” A question I often ask people in management is, “How do you decide which candidates to interview for a job?” A common answer is, “It’s a black box that I don’t understand.”

Now that I am on the proverbial ‘other side’, I can more clearly understand why it seems so mysterious to get a permanent position, but it needn’t be that way.

“It’s a Trap!” (2)

All too often, scientists fall into the trap of trying to follow the experimental procedures of others, especially when on the job hunt. I remember the era of looking for jobs in the weekly newspaper and having to fill out an application by hand. Nowadays, you elect to have your email inbox inundated with daily job listings and apply to every single one online. The process can feel very much like total information overload, or it can feel depressing if you go a day without any new openings to apply for. Postdocs, on the other hand, can be hard to find, because very few are advertised online.

Another modern approach is the overhyped and ambiguous world of “online networking!” To me, it seems to have all the ‘qualities’ of online dating: a few random people get lucky while 99.99 percent of people do not.  But there is some truth in the adage ‘in it to win it’ – and I guess the more people you know (or know you), the better your chances of wonderful serendipity...

Social media is also rumored to be a place for finding jobs, but I am unaware of any scientist positions that are only posted on social media. I personally use LinkedIn only as a cloud-based Rolodex to keep track of colleagues and HR professionals, but many scientists can’t be found there. So what’s a sensible approach to securing a permanent job as a scientist?

“Know thyself” (3)

This simple wisdom has myriad interpretations, but it is advice that shouldn’t be taken lightly by job seekers. Everyone imposes their own criteria and barriers when looking for jobs, just as they did when selecting a graduate school. Common considerations include: location, distance from family and friends, the ‘two-body problem’ (what about your partner’s career?), cost of living, pay, benefits, student debt, opportunity to advance, start date, type of job, altruistic vision, whether it’s your dream job, and so on.

Before entering the throes of a job search, it is crucial to carefully outline your priorities. For example, in today’s economy, it’s easier to find a job if location is a low priority. Willingness to relocate can also open doors to move up the ladder. And yet, many job seekers limit themselves by making location a top priority. The key is to be open-minded to the possibilities during the seeking stage, but also to be strategic.

A useful exercise to understand yourself better is to write your criteria down on paper before your search begins and revise it later as necessary. It is also worthwhile to consider contingency plans in case of a slow job hunt. Some students are fortunate enough to take extensive time off after graduation, but that leaves a gap on your resume and in your bank account. Taking on a temporary position – teaching at a small college, for example – can grant you more time to look for permanent work while providing you with experience and money.

Willingness to relocate can open doors to move up the ladder. And yet, many job seekers limit themselves by making location a top priority.

Knowing yourself is critical in attaining job satisfaction over the long run. As Mike Rowe so eloquently explained (4), don’t expect to get your dream job, and don’t let the idea of a dream job prevent you from taking a good job. Focus on applying to jobs within that central sliver of a Venn diagram, where your expertise and job opportunities overlap. You’re more likely to stand out from the crowd and find satisfying employment if you study the job market and understand your personal selling points. Furthermore, your work should enable you to grow and change over time. As a result, you will prepare yourself for new roles and more responsibilities.

“Big things have small beginnings” (5)

Prepare early. Have a resume and CV on hand before filling out an application. Once you have a standard resume prepared, you can update it and apply for an industry or government position at a moment’s notice. If you are leaning towards a career in academia, prepare by writing out your teaching and research statements. The earlier you begin, the more time you will have to perfect these documents.

Talk to lots of people – preferably in person (old-school networking!) – and build relationships with them. But don’t overly rely on stalking strangers on LinkedIn, aka “online networking.” It’s important to have real conversations with people outside your immediate circle of colleagues, and the earlier you start those conversations, the better. If you have met someone face-to-face, then it’s easier to turn to them for practical help when you enter the job search.

Few graduate students spend time speaking to non-academic scientists while in school, but look for opportunities to meet people who work outside of academia. Professional scientists can offer you a different perspective on life as a working scientist. They can often provide you with job leads and more professional connections. In some cases, you may even be able to ask them for a facility tour or resume advice.

Don’t expect to get your dream job, and don’t let the idea of a dream job prevent you from taking a good job.

Similarly, it’s easier to secure a postdoc with a professor who knows your work. Every professor gets spammed with emails from students wanting a postdoc. I once saw a student chase down a professor who was about to speak at a conference, just to hand over a resume. Whether you reach out to a professor by email or in person, be kind, be courteous, and keep your message short. Explain why you are interested in the professor’s research and provide a snapshot of your current work. If your current advisor knows the professor, ask your advisor to introduce the two of you. Securing a postdoc is often about timing and funding, so consider applying for research fellowships while also looking for a position.

But is a postdoc truly necessary? This is the million-dollar question on everyone’s mind.  If you see an appealing job posted, apply for it, whether you have a postdoc or not. Typically, you won’t need a postdoc to work in industry or at a teaching college. And yes, sometimes it’s even possible to get hired at a research university without a postdoc.

However, if you really want to work as a postdoc, first understand your reasons why and avoid the traps. A postdoc is not a miracle cure for securing a permanent job, nor is it a good place to hide from an economic downturn. It’s a brief layover where you should grow and prepare for your next position. As soon as you start, you need to be thinking about your exit strategy, but you also have to conduct research. Many people use a postdoc as a time to learn lab management and grant writing, but it should also be a time of meeting more new people and developing your own research ideas.

“Through the Looking Glass” (6)

As a parting thought, when I was in graduate school, I spent many Saturdays with a friend who works as a glassblower. He would start each new piece with a plan sketched on paper, but oftentimes he had to adjust his plan on the fly. Hot glass has a mind of its own. After he finished a major piece, we would share our thoughts about the experience. It actually makes for an excellent analogy for the job search. You hone your skills in school, make a rough plan about the future, and see where the process leads you. Sometimes your skills or your curiosity will lead you, and at other times, opportunities will show you the way. It’s a different journey for everyone, but it’s a better journey if you involve others and permit yourself to be open to the possibilities.

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  1. After finishing a BS in Math, an MS in meteorology, a certificate in forensic science, 10 years in retail, and a lifetime of hauling manure on the family dairy farm, I decided to get a PhD.
  2. A quote from Admiral Ackbar in Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.
  3. A saying that pre-dates Socrates but is often attributed to him.
  4. “Don’t Follow Your Passion,” by Mike Rowe and Prager University (
  5. A quote from Mr. Dryden in Lawrence of Arabia.
  6. The title of Lewis Carroll’s sequel to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
About the Author
Anthony Stender

Anthony received a Ph.D. in Analytical Chemistry from Iowa State University in 2013 and spent two years working as a postdoc at Rice University. He is currently an assistant professor of Forensic Analytical Chemistry at Ohio University. His current research revolves around the use of microscopy as a platform for collecting images and spectroscopy of nanomaterials and forensic trace materials. Anthony also mentors students on how to communicate science to non-scientists.

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