Shared Shoulders and Shared Resources: Using Support Groups and Custom Databases in Your Job Search


"I've never felt so alone," the candidate confided in me. This woman was in the process of an extended job search, and the recent rejection letters were sending her into an emotional downslide. My client company had added to this burden--the job wasn't a good fit, and I had just delivered the bad news. This wasn't a personal condemnation of her abilities, but she was taking it that way.

"This job search seems to be about to go on forever. It feels like I am working without a net, and the rules have been made up by someone else without my knowledge," she disclosed. As I spoke to her about her predicament, it seemed to me that her comment about the lack of a "net" was a good one. ... If she could find some way to develop a support system, it would serve her well.

Later that week, I attended a meeting in Southern California where 200 scientists of the San Diego Pharmaceutical Forum gathered to discuss career issues. At this meeting, I heard similar comments from many audience members about their feelings of isolation during the job search process. Even the speaker that night--Phil Bloch, publisher of the Los Angeles Biotechnology Calendar--touched on the importance of a support system. It appears that there are few people who feel quite as lonely as job seekers.

Developing a Local Support System

One reason that job seekers feel this way is because looking for a job is like being thrown out of a nest. It is that time in your life when you must leave the shelter of a familiar "family" and head toward parts unknown.

But there is no reason why you cannot solicit the support of others when you are going through this process. For years, local support groups have been popping up in the wake of layoffs in traditional U.S. companies. In the defense industry cutbacks of a decade ago, for example, thousands of workers were let go. Many of these people found that banding together for once-a-week meetings in smaller groups gave them a great place to swap leads and have their attitudes positively readjusted after unsuccessful interviews. A few of these groups developed their own resource materials for participants and, in effect, became a valuable part of the job search arsenal, providing their members with much more than emotional support.

The activities of these groups serve as a useful model for job seekers everywhere. In fact, they can even be applied in the lab environment.

So, have you given any consideration to the development of a job search support group in your lab or within your department or school? If not, you certainly should. It doesn't matter a bit that you and your colleagues are working on unrelated projects, because there is no real difference in the job search process for a cell biologist or a bioinformaticist. Everyone who is looking for work in industry will have common concerns and a common interest in resource materials that your group might gather to share with all.

If this all sounds a bit daunting, here are some ideas that you could apply as you develop a job search support group:

  • Discuss as a group what each member has learned about the interviewing process, and debrief individuals who have just returned from an interview.

  • Gain valuable interviewing practice through role-playing exercises. Get someone in the group to bring a camcorder so that you can videotape the interviewees and evaluate how they come across to the interviewer.

  • Share information on individual hiring managers and swap leads about companies that are hiring.

  • Get group members who go on interviews to post and share information about other positions that may be open where they are interviewing. HR departments will cooperate with this effort.

Your Shared Resources

As your job search support group grows, you'll need to develop a pool of shared resources for members. For example, you will want to create a file containing the annual reports of prospective employers (the more the better). Chock full of names, contact information, and details on company research programs, these reports are a tremendous resource for the job seeker. And they're not difficult to obtain. An afternoon set aside by two or three group members to call the HR or investor relations departments at the companies your group has targeted should produce a stack of annual reports two feet high--as well as a list of potentially useful contacts!

The most important shared resource to create, however, is an employer database. This database may start in a very modest way, with details on company contacts provided by each of the individual job seekers in your group. But as the group develops some history, the employer database likely will expand swiftly, and it will quickly become the core resource that members use to target companies and even specific hiring managers.

A database must be actively maintained if it is to be worthwhile, so one of the most important jobs to be assigned in the group is that of the database manager. In addition to getting their hands on the latest employer skinny, this individual will have the opportunity to develop their computer skills, demonstrate initiative, and otherwise impress prospective employers, so it shouldn't be too hard to convince someone to take on the task. She or he will no doubt have a preferred format for handling this information, but I would strongly recommend using a well-respected database (best) or spreadsheet (ok) program.

Here's the kind information you'll need to collect, collate, and keep up to date as your job search support group develops its own shared employer database:

  • The names of department heads and HR personnel. These names, along with contact information from business cards and scientific publications (if possible), should be provided by each interviewee after they return from an interview.

  • Extract employer information from professional and trade journals, biotechnology industry organizations, and classified ads. Make sure that all group members are continually scouring these sources, and not just the database manager.

  • Find a source of financial aid for your group and use the funds to purchase databases that are already available, including those inexpensive CD-ROMS that feature listings of all businesses, searchable by SIC code (see sidebar from Phil Bloch). You may find that the campus outplacement office has funds available for this purpose, and/or they may be able to give you the software you'll need to build your database. If not, count on spending something less than $100 on each CD-ROM.

Building Your Shared Employer Database by SIC Code Search

The U.S. Census Bureau originally created an indexing system known as the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) which assigned a four-digit number to represent each type of business. More recently, however, a new system called the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS) has been developed, which uses 6 digits for greater specificity. A code with a first digit of 0 is for agricultural businesses, 3 for manufacturing, 7 for services, and 8 for life science and biomedical research (e.g., 873108 is for Pharmaceutical Research Laboratories). You can use these categories to build your database using a wide variety of directories and Internet resources once you identify the number strings that include companies of interest to your group.

It is a good idea to visit a library to take a look at a hard copy of this system. (Or, if you'd prefer, you can check out the relevant tables at the Census Bureau Web site.) The indices also contain information such as company description, location, number of employees, executives and phone numbers.

I was able to create an address and phone list for over 800 life science-based companies in the Los Angeles area using a CD-ROM business directory. A number of such directories are available at office supply and computer stores. Before you buy one, make sure that the listings are searchable by code.

Phil Bloch, Ph.D., Capital Idea Scientific Marketing, La Mesa, California

The Advantages of Working With a Net

There will be some great advantages in working with others on the process of building a support group. Not only will your own job search proceed with less stress and perhaps even more opportunities, but you will also be developing something for yourself that can address a phrase you will find on almost every job posting in industry: "Evidence of strong teamwork skills is a must." Now, where have you seen that before?

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