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Business & Education Professional Development

Making the Leap

Have you ever gone to a party and felt like you were invisible to everyone there? Or worse, waited in vain for an invitation to a party you were longing to attend? Life as a job-seeking grad student can leave you facing the same sinking feeling.

There’s a cynical STEM joke out there that has an air of truth: “Undergraduates who can’t find a job go to graduate school. Graduate students who can’t find a job get a postdoc, and then another postdoc, and then another...”

The problem that many graduate students face upon finishing school is actually getting that first job or postdoc position. In my case, I was seven months out of graduate school before a postdoc offer came, and I was definitely feeling like I would never get an invitation to the party. It was fortunate the call came when it did because, an hour later, I received another phone call – an offer to work at a home improvement store... 

Finding a permanent job after graduate school is not an easy process these days, at least for the majority of students. Gone are the days when you could apply for 20 jobs, get 10 requests for interviews, and entertain at least three offers. (If you are currently a grad student or postdoc and you have employers fighting over you, there’s no need to read any further!)

The problem that many graduate students face upon finishing school is getting that first job or postdoc position.

In the past five years, I have attended several career advice seminars and job fairs, in the hopes of gaining insight on how to stand out and get interviews. Unfortunately, these events seem to be exclusively targeted at undergraduates. Instead of finding valuable advice, I was nauseated by speakers pontificating about their surefire method of online networking and how to use bullet points properly on a resume. Another annoying practice of job seminars is to share optimistic statistics that suggest there are many jobs available and that unemployment rates are low in STEM. However, these statistics often describe scientists who answered a survey – not people like me – unemployed and therefore not part of the professional society that ran the survey.

When I was in full job-search mode, I figured out how to write my CV and a LinkedIn profile by looking at what other people were doing, but it was not a straightforward process. There is a perception that people with a graduate degree can learn to do anything, and require no help. In fact, many of us would benefit hugely from mentors who could offer practical advice on how to make a smooth transition from graduate school to the real-world workforce.

Many of us would benefit hugely from mentors who could offer practical advice on how to make a smooth transition from graduate school to the real-world workforce.

In looking back on my own journey from grad school to faculty position, my impression is that there isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” approach. In theory, it should be easy (hasn’t every analytical chemist heard that one before?). Careers fairs sell the idea of a template solution, and many graduates enter their job search with unrealistic expectations. In reality, early-career job seekers need to work hard, be persistent, and keep an open mind when searching for a position.

At this year’s SciX conference, for the second year in a row, I will be moderating an honest and practical panel discussion on how to establish your career trajectory after graduate school. I will be joined by six scientists who will share their unique stories and provide perspectives on the common questions that job seekers and early career scientists face. The panel session, “Making the leap: pathways from graduate school to a permanent position” will be held on Wednesday, October 11, at 9:15am. I encourage everyone attending SciX who’s thinking about the job search process to stop by for some or all of this discussion. And come armed with plenty of questions!

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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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