The Lazy, Hazy Days of Summer

doing work

I have a friend who isn't 100% thrilled about his job. After whining about it for a couple of months--he is not generally a whiner--I told him to quit whining and DO something about it. After a bit of self-reflection, he told me "No. This isn't the time." He has decided that summer just isn't the time for him to worry about his professional life. He wants to take it easy this summer. He has made a valid, reasoned choice. And, thankfully, he's also stopped whining.

Numerous factors influence the timing of a job search. Mulling over a few of these factors is a good thing to do some afternoon when you're lying on the beach--or maybe when stuck in the lab on a beautiful summer evening waiting for an experiment to finish and you know the rest of the world is outside playing.

Category I: "It's over a year or two before I need to find a job" or "I'm thinking about doing something different, but I'm not sure what."

You guys can chill out the rest of the summer. No need to pass up BBQ's and camping trips to deal with the job search. It's okay if you opt not to take advantage of times when your work life is stable to think about your career; we all need some downtime, and summer is a good time to decompress.

Then again, when fall comes, things won't be quite so serene; this is a valuable time to explore the job market, learn about yourself, and take stock of where you are and where you want to go. Here's a list of things I'd suggest doing until your job search draws nigh:

  • Review the job postings every few weeks. Find your professional association's job sites, major journal postings, companies you think you might like to work for, and so on. You might even want to consult your local newspaper. This type of review allows you to see the skills that organizations are seeking; you also learn about the variety of positions available.
  • Update your CV or resume. It doesn't have to be in perfect shape--not yet, anyway--but you should add your new accomplishments and skills. It's a good idea to do this regularly; CV's, in particular, should include everything you do professionally, and it's easy to forget about the little things. If you have nothing to add, then maybe you've been spending too much time lying in the sun. ...
  • Talk to people about how they ended up in their current jobs. These stories can help you think creatively about what you might like to do and how you might get from here to there.

Category II: "I want a faculty position," or "I need a job in about a year."

Let's break this category down into two subsections: a) seeking faculty position and b) seeking everything else.

  • Why are you wasting your time reading this? With most faculty positions advertised in the fall, it is definitely time to get your act together. First, determine the type of schools to which you intend to apply. Your application materials will need to be targeted not only to the type of institution but also to the needs of the particular departments. Have you had your CV critiqued by several people? Have you thought about what to write in your cover letter? Have you written your research statement? Have you written a statement of your teaching philosophy? Do you have a clue on how to write any of these things? Well-drafted supporting materials take time to create--and multiple rewrites and variations are usually needed. You want to have everything ready to go when those job ads start appearing. Don't miss those first great openings because you aren't prepared to apply!
  • Relax a bit--you can still enjoy summer fun, but it's time to ramp up your job search activities, or else you might end up spending more time than you would wish taking it easy when you don't find that job in time. Not to worry, though: I understand the quality of daytime television has improved in recent years. While academic positions are typically arranged 6 months to a few weeks in advance of their start date, most of the rest of the world is looking to fill positions immediately or within about 3 months of placing an ad. Folks who find themselves in this subsection of Category II need to commit regular time to the job search. When your ideal job comes open, you don't want to miss it, and you have to be prepared to fight for it.
  • Visit your campus career center. Don't overlook on-campus recruiting opportunities. Company presentations may spur ideas and provide networking resources, even if the company isn't on campus to recruit a person like you.
  • Do some self-assessment. If you've been reading my column, you know what I mean.
  • Present your work. Submit a presentation to a conference. Then, while you're there, get out and talk to people; don't hide in your hotel room. Conferences are great for networking and job placement.
  • Network wherever you can. Everyone you know should know when and what type of job you are seeking. People underestimate the job insight and networking opportunities available within their own academic departments.
  • Decide what you want to do. You can't apply for jobs if you don't know which ones you really want. Don't know what you want to do with your life? Then what you need is information! So get started doing some self-assessment and studying the job market.
  • Polish your job application skills. Write/revise your CV or resume. Do a practice interview. Learn how to write a cover letter.
  • Have a talk with your PI. A good estimate of when you will finish your PhD or postdoc project helps you manage your job search. And then there is the matter of letters of recommendation: Some grad-school advisors don't like the idea of their PhD graduates going into industry; they want them to follow in their footsteps. Since a letter from your advisor will probably be required for any decent job (not counting Burger King), this element of your relationship might require some care and feeding.
  • Establish your back-up plan. What happens if you find yourself jobless? Are there companies who place individuals in temporary lab-support positions in your area? Can you stay on in your current for a lab for a while after you finish your degree? The rent must be paid.

Category III: "Help! I need a job in less than a month."

Sorry, but your summer vacation is over; you've missed your chance to get that tan you were seeking. Your job search should be occupying several hours each day at a minimum. If you've been applying and finding yourself rejected, it's time to seriously reconsider your approaches and attitudes and perhaps develop a new strategy. Maybe your cover letter is a dud. Maybe you have unrealistic expectations of who might hire you. Maybe you are seeking a job in a very tight job market, with few openings in the area (geographic or otherwise) that you're targeting. It's time to seek help and advice. Enlist the advice of your PI, career counseling professionals, and trusted mentors. With a short timeframe, you need to utilize as many resources and avenues as possible.

Another possibility is to poll some of the people who rejected you; find out why they didn't like your application (although they often aren't very forthcoming with this sort of information). Check your pride and negativity at the door--you need creative thinking and a positive attitude at this point.

There is no formula for calculating the amount of time and effort it will take you to find a job. And while there are several poor approaches, there's no one right way. Some people are constantly keeping their eye on other opportunities, networking, planning their next transition, or learning skills to take them in new directions. Others focus on their career only when it's urgent. It's often a personality trait--did you stop and plan for a week that cookout you held last Saturday night, or did you call your friends late that afternoon and then run to the store? Either approach can be successful, but neither will work if you forget essential ingredients--like forgetting the buns and ketchup for the burgers.

Despite a bit of sarcasm early on in this piece, there really is something to be said for taking it easy, for decompressing, before taking on a major new challenge. But some summer evening soon, stop and think about how you plan to approach the job search--and then maybe you'll find a way to have it all--time in the sun and the job of your dreams.

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