Educated Woman, the Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse Chapter 40: Directions, Anyone?



Well, since I've given myself enough of a head start on my job search to take my time--or enough rope to hang myself--I guess the question is now where the heck to start looking. Attempting to begin a job search without a clear picture of the current climate (and your own needs) is like trying to fish without bait; you might get lucky and hook something, but don't count on it. In the interest of improving the odds and with some self-awareness in hand, it's time to start seeking a sense of direction.

I'm facing the same decision many scientists face: to flee or not to flee the bench. I'm not crazy about my current research, but I'm not sure if I'm ready to leave bench work behind and the prospect of an academic job sometime in the near future. I love to help people learn (including classroom teaching), but I'm not sure I want to continue to postpone my non-career life while negotiating the long postdoc-to-tenure-track road (i.e., relationships, kids, family).

In my younger days, I swore off industry, but I'm thinking about swearing it back on again. The question is: if I go into industry, what kind of work would I have to do to maintain my viability for academic employment? In addition to trying to decide if I'm fleeing the bench, I'm also trying to decide if I can be bought for just a little while, remain satisfied scientifically--monetarily shouldn't be too much of a question--while remaining viable for a research post.

The main value of a postdoc is that it allows you to broaden your research skill set and learn new techniques, which makes you a better candidate for most research jobs. Then again, in an industrial job I'll likely learn other things. What is a prerequisite for what? Do I need a postdoc to get an industry job? Will the experience gained in industry serve as a postdoc? So far, the answers I get from industry people I've talked to (recent graduates from my department and others) is that you'll need flexibility more than you'll need hard experience for some industrial positions. You may never encounter your thesis work again.

I've started searching the Internet for industrial biotech/biomaterials opportunities and it's not a pretty picture: where are all the jobs? If, as Dave Jensen suggests in "Ten Traits of the Job-Search Rebel" only 15%-20% of the positions are officially listed in either publications or online, I'm in for a long ride. I'm trying to refrain from early angst because Jensen brought up an excellent point just last week--a bad attitude about your job search will send potential employers running for the hills. I'm trying to start and remain positive and optimistic. If so few opportunities are posted, maybe things aren't as bad as they seem. But how do you apply for jobs that aren't advertised? How do you find those jobs?

I realized recently that there are some very valuable people in my life, even in my department. It's strange: once I let it be known that I was starting my job search, my professors started being, um, inquisitive and (oh my goodness!) helpful. In addition to the faces in my department, I've started reaching out to people from former lives: professors from my undergrad years, and people I've worked with during summers and the year that I took off before starting graduate school.

This is where my network begins. It pays to keep in touch with people, especially if they seem genuinely interested in your success. I've found that one of the most difficult things to do in graduate school is to keep up with the outside world, but as I embark on my next journey, I'm glad I did. Staying in touch has been one of the most helpful things I could do. I've written a number of e-mails letting the world know that I'm ready to start looking for my next lily pad and that any assistance they could offer would be greatly appreciated.

I've starting digging to see which companies and labs--university and government--do the scientific work that piques my interest. I've also been researching here on our beloved SNW how to do an in-depth investigation on a company and how to successfully complete a job search. I highly recommend a number of columns that I'll detail below.

Another of Dave Jensen's many columns-- "Tooling Up" from January 2001 presented two ideas that were new to me: creating a job-search support group and a database. Jensen suggests developing a job-search support group to help widen your network and pass along information to help yourself and others as you embark on a job search. If we all must do a job search at some point, wouldn't it be nice to have resources available so you don't spend the first parts of your search haphazardly learning the ropes? I'm seriously considering proposing such a group to my department or the departments in the college of science and engineering. There is something daunting about searching for a job alone, and résumé posting on Monster is not my idea of looking for a job.

As for the next task--scoping out companies--two other Next Wave writers--Charles Boulakia and Peter Fiske--have taken on this topic, in "Zeroing In on a Company" and and "How to Separate Ideal Employers from Bad Ones During Your Job Search". Boulakia focuses on how the nuts and bolts of company-digging--size, location, international status, financial statistics, and reputation--can help you decide whether to even *apply* for a job, and then goes on to describe how to collect information during the interview process. Fiske gives more detail on the kinds of places that you might want to work, as well as a list of items that can make a work situation a job from hell. All of this is very useful information that I wish I knew when applying to graduate school.

In addition to the articles highlighted here, there is a treasure trove on Next Wave about different career paths to consider, from patent law to science policy to bioengineering and myriad other career options. In case you haven't found it yet, there's an index to recent features.

Once I've done my homework and gotten my job research settled, I'm looking forward to doing a little informational interviewing. (I'm doing my job by the book, folks!). At least two other articles in Next Wave give great hints on how to conduct informational interviews: Peter Fiske's "Informational Interviewing: How to Be an Insider at Every Opening" and David Bomzer's Insider's Edge column, "Informational Interviewing: Getting Information You Can Use".

Fiske focuses on the importance of an informational interview, why a company would actually submit to an informational interview, and provides some practical dos and don'ts. Bomzer takes a more systematic approach: Where to start, what you might ask, and how to analyze the data you get from the interview. Remember friends, we must be like scouts in the wilderness--be prepared at all times. The opportunity to have an informational interview with someone can arise at any time--who knows who you might meet in the airport? Just ask one of Peter Fiske's friends who found the perfect opportunity by chance.

I don't know about you, but I have a lot of work to do, a degree to finish, and a job to find. As always, stories of triumph, tragedy, hope, and despair are welcome, just drop me a line at Good luck, and may the force be with you!

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