Ask Kathie: Smooth Operator

Safety goggles, dirty lab coat, and pocket protector. Sloppy jeans and T-shirt. Awkwardness at parties, except when talking about their research. Difficulty making eye contact and connecting sentences coherently in a casual conversation.

It's an unfair stereotype, and it's largely untrue; but there are, indeed, more introverts with weak verbal communication skills in scientific research than in many other occupational fields. If you're one of them, this is a luxury you can no longer afford. It's time to develop those skills if you want to find the ideal job!

My last article introduced some ways to learn about the world of work via written materials. But, fact is, despite the best efforts of publications like this one, much of what you need to know is not in print. It's only in people's heads, and you need to get it out where you can see it. There's only one way of doing this: You need to find those people and talk to them.

Hundreds of articles are available about informational interviewing and networking as ways to learn about jobs and uncover insider information about hiring processes and available positions. (See the sidebar for a sampling of those articles.) But reading about it is one thing; actually doing it is another. Whatever you want to call it--informational interviewing, networking, or just asking questions--you need to start talking to people if you want to learn about the huge variety of positions that are available to scientists.

Personally, I'm a big introvert. When I used to read articles about networking or informational interviewing, I got a little panicked. I didn't think I could do anything like that. But I could, I did, and it wasn't so bad. In fact, it's fun, once you get started. My goal in this column is to present ways for you to get started talking to people about their careers and your possible futures. This will allow you to develop both your knowledge and your skills; you'll learn about the world of work and gain confidence by talking with others about jobs. For those of you talkative extroverts who can start a conversation with a stranger with no difficulty, your conversational skills may not need brushing up, but you can still benefit from these suggestions; the idea of making an effort to explore the world of work isn't obvious to most people, no matter how comfortable they are in their skin and how much they like to talk. And if you are uncomfortable initiating conversations with people about their jobs, these suggestions--especially the first ones--will help. And even if you dread the thought of initiating conversations, you're likely to get lots of help from the people you approach, because everyone likes to talk about their career path and offer advice!

Free Advice!

Career Choices is looking a volunteer to be a case study in a couple of upcoming columns! Behind the scenes, I'll work with you closely and confidentially about exploring your career choices. Publicly, I'll use you as an example for fellow readers in a couple of my columns. While you'll have final say on anything that is reported about you in a column and I won't use your real name or locale, I do ask that you be willing to share some things about yourself with the world, or I'll have nothing to write about. To apply to be a volunteer, please send me a resume or CV (it doesn't have to be perfect) and when you intend to need a job (greater than 6 months from now and less than two years, please) to Email me if you have questions.

Casual Interviewing

If you're an introvert, this is a good place to get started. But casual conversations with social groups are more valuable than just that: A surprising number of job leads arise from casual interactions. There are all sorts of casual groups where you can talk to people about the job market, career paths, and other job-market topics. This will also give you practice expressing your own career goals. Be polite, listen well, and respect the time of the people you're talking to. And enjoy the conversations!

  • Family and nonscientist friends. You may think Uncle Joe, who works as a manager at a local shipping company, has nothing to offer you in the way of career advice. Think again. Joe likes to pontificate, and he knows some things! Uncle Joe has something you don't if you are still in grad school: a real job! The fact that he got himself--and kept himself--hired suggests that he knows some things about employment, and he's more than eager to share his wisdom. What skills does Joe use in his daily work that might be important to you ... but that you might not have thought about if you hadn't talk to him? How he was hired in the first place? Does he like his job? What's good and what's bad? What would you like about it if you had that job? What would you hate?
    Conversations like this, whether with family, friends, or total strangers, help get you started talking and thinking about careers in a useful way. They help you define your preferences and give you practice asking questions. After several of these conversations, you'll begin to recognize skills that are common to many different kinds of jobs. You'll also learn strategies for getting hired, many of which you probably hadn't thought of; chances are Joe didn't find his job in a newspaper. These conversations are also great opportunities to pour yourself a drink and have a pleasant conversation ... and that's nothing to sneeze at.
  • Postdocs and graduate students. Don't overlook the career knowledge of your immediate peers. Instead of just griping about "the job market," share information. Maybe someone has already investigated a field you want to know about. Maybe the person's ex-college roommate works at a company you'd like to investigate. Maybe the postdoc in your lab, or the one next door, has been through a search for a postdoc, or even a faculty job, that's similar to the search that you anticipate in a year or two. Why did that postdoc accept this position instead of another one? Was it for the reputation of the PI, the technical skills the job would likely teach, or the research topic--or was it something personal, like opportunities for a spouse? Was it a good decision?
  • The technical support guy, sales representative, and departmental administrative and technical support staff. Many science graduate students consider careers in technical support or sales at some point, especially when the research isn't going well, or Ph.D. written exams are approaching. Even if they aren't as sexy as a research scientist position, those jobs have a lot to offer, and many of the people who hold them were just like you once, science graduate students contemplating an uncertain future. So ask them about their jobs! What type of background do they have? What's a typical day like? How did they land their first professional job?
  • Formal Interviewing

    When you begin to approach individuals at a higher professional level, or complete strangers, it's important to be a bit more careful. Be clear about your intentions, respect their time, and be prepared with questions. And don't ask for a job; that's not what an informational interview is for.

  • Your PI, collaborators, committee members, and other faculty (including faculty from your undergraduate institution). To this day, I can't tell you how any of the members who served on my dissertation committee got their start in science. I never asked those questions! Sad, huh? Advising and mentoring is part of the job description. Ask how they ended up where they are today.
  • Alumni. Career centers at educational institutions maintain databases of alumni who have volunteered to serve as contacts for students looking for information about careers. While it's quite likely that you'll have no idea who any of the people are, you have something in common: your alma mater. Be polite. If someone sounds exceptional busy and doesn't have time for you, don't be pushy, and don't take it personally.
  • Campus visitors and seminar speakers. It's frequently not possible for you to meet with these individuals one-on-one during their visit, but brown-bag lunches are often arranged, and it may be possible for you to follow up later. If there are no scheduled, informal events for grad students, ask the person hosting the visitor if it's possible to arrange a meeting. Even if you end up phoning or e-mailing later, a "letter of introduction" from that host on your campus may help make the visitor more responsive.
  • Referrals. Whenever you find a lead, it's a good idea to follow it up, even if it doesn't seem promising. You never know what you might learn!
  • Don't wait until you're desperate for a job; get out and talk to people now! If you're uncomfortable doing it, that's OK; but do it anyway! I've emphasized the importance of collecting information, but there's another advantage: You're establishing a network of people who know you and who know you're serious about your professional future. That can only work in your favor.

    A sampling of articles on the web about informational interviewing and networking.

    From Harvard's Office of Career Services:

    Next Wave Articles:

    From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

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