The Agony of the Job Search: Complications and Ideas to Get You Thinking

A job search is one of the toughest projects we face in our professional lives. It is the only project that seems to require virtually every muscle in our body, every brain cell we can tap, and, unlike projects in the lab, this one touches all of our emotions. One reason for this is that job searches are so intimately connected to our identity. For those of us who by either circumstance or desire are "in the market," we know well the agony of the job search.

At a recent conference, attended by both new graduates and professionals with many years of work experience, each person who commented on the job-search experience indicated that it was a gut-wrenching process. (There always seem to be a few hot career fields in which people are exempt from this experience, but it's usually someone else on that particular track!)

After this meeting, I started to wonder why it is that two people with more or less identical backgrounds and education can have wildly different job-seeking experiences and thought it might be valuable to analyze the various side issues that have an impact on the process. Quite often, the reasons for the differences can be tied to the unique circumstances each individual brings to their job search. Sometimes you can change your circumstances, and sometimes there is nothing you can do beyond recognizing the effects they might have on your job search.

Factors Affecting Your Job Search

The Location Factor

Location, as realtors will tell you, is everything. But your location need not limit your options. Academic programs in the Midwest, for example, graduate scores of excellent scientists who have few local career options. Biotechnology companies, on the other hand, have grown in geographic clusters, and this cluster effect means that increasingly the companies can often find new employees from within the local labor pool. Although this used to affect only B.S./M.S. graduates, many Ph.D.s are now finding that they have a hard time getting interviews when employers are so successful with applicants from their own backyards.

Companies don't have any objections to relocating good people; it's just that they can often find the "right" person locally. The best thing to do under these circumstances is to go on information-gathering and interviewing trips to specific areas in which many prospective employers are located. Even if you must use your own money, plan to spend a week visiting with as many firms as you can. Face-to-face meetings will help you break through this local workforce bias.

The goal of these visits should be to meet with and talk to people, not to find a job. That should come later. You want to find the individuals with whom you can connect; those people will later act as your champion and help you get your foot in the door when there are openings. Learn more about informational interviewing and the backwoods of biotechnology from the Next Wave archives.

The Immigration Status Factor

If you are not a permanent resident or U.S. citizen, your job search will be substantially more difficult. Motivated hiring managers can sometimes make a difference, but most firms have predetermined policies regarding applications from those without permanent residency.

Immigration difficulties are not insurmountable; every biotechnology and pharmaceutical company employs top people who began work on student visas and had to be sponsored. I am often surprised that individuals who can predict that they may face visa-related problems at some point don't work harder to develop a network of U.S.-based scientists from their own country early on. Foreign nationals often come together to network, and so younger scientists would be well advised to contact groups such as the American Association of Indian Pharmaceutical Scientists (a unit of the American Association of Pharmaceutical Scientists).

For more information on this topic, see Visas and the International Postdoc and Flag Waivers in the Next Wave archive.

The Two-Career Couple Factor

Thousands of dual-career science couples, many who met while in graduate school, are pursuing careers in the biotech or pharmaceutical industry. In many cases, they are employed at the same company: enlightened firms that don't see any problem with having spouses employed in the same organization. Not all companies feel this way, however. Many employers report that dual-career couples are difficult to place and view this "potential recruitment issue" negatively. Although this is unspoken, I believe that couples with dual science careers are often placed behind other candidates with similar qualifications.

My advice is to never give the impression that you are looking for a "twofer" deal. I think that you should bite the bullet and make a career move based on one job offer, preferably to an area that offers decent prospects for your partner. Many couples decide that the way to make the move is to leave behind one party, who will continue to look for a job. Although it may sound great to have someone back at the ranch holding down that second income, these long-distance job searches don't work well in my estimation. Months later the newly hired employee is still conducting a long-distance romance that can't go on too much longer before it gets old, really old. Employers know this and try to avoid the situation.

Again, this topic has been covered by Next Wave. Here are some resources for dual-career couples.

The Age Factor

You don't have to be old to experience age discrimination. I know a fellow who had repaired electronics for several years before he decided to go back to college for a degree. He chose to specialize in biotechnology, as his dream was to help develop cures for disease. But by the time he was finishing up, he found himself competing for jobs with other recent grads 5 to 10 years his junior, and he could feel the drag on his job search. Similarly, a person completing a third postdoc--and so with an extra 4 or 5 years on the competition--may find a good deal of resistance from employers.

Age discrimination is alive and well in the U.S. workplace, and as Roland Smith wrote a while back, there is not much that you can do about it as an applicant. I can tell you that hiding dates on your résumé or deleting entire chunks of your background will not help you. Sure, it might get you past some first-stage screening, but do you really want to work for an employer that would discriminate if they knew your age? Concentrate on what your age brings to the table. What additional experiences have you had in your career? Be sure your age is represented as a value-added trait on your résumé. The older and more nontraditional you are, the more you have to offer--so make sure the prospective employer knows it. That fellow I mentioned revamped his résumé to show how his electronics and mechanical repair ability could be a great resource for any lab manager with a countertop full of expensive instruments.

In Closing: There Is a Happy Ending

Yes, there is happiness at the end of your job search. Despite whatever difficulties you have faced, whether it is one of the four I've listed above or something even more unusual, you will still find that with persistence comes success. What a tremendous relief it is to get off the fence and into your first well-paying job!

In my life I've experienced two unforeseen events that suddenly forced me to go out and look for work. I know what agony it is to be flexing those rarely used job-search muscles--networking, for example. But I can tell you that each time this has happened I have emerged on the other side as a happier person. There's something about this particular mission of job seeking--it's almost like a trial by fire. But on the other side of the agony of the job search lies the ecstasy of renewed enthusiasm for your professional life.

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