Educated Woman, Chapter 51: Search. Scour. Capture. Job

Possibly the most stressful time in a graduate student's life (aside from trying to make your research work) is trying to find a job. In our spare time--while our code is compiling and our experiments are running--we search with bleary eyes. We fantasize about how wonderful life will be AGS (After Graduate School). We wonder, bitterly, if (and when) we will ever graduate. We wander around in the dark, bumping into things, wondering where the next great opportunity (okay, any opportunity, it doesn't have to be great) will come along. We imagine what it will be like when we make that fundamental advance in our field some day--maybe tomorrow, maybe in a few years. We go to conferences and ogle the bigwigs, hoping they might notice us. We fantasize about entering the land of bigwiginess ourselves. But in the end, what really matters most to us is getting the hell out, escaping to a possibly better place and maybe making enough money to dress, eat, feel, and be treated like card-carrying Homo sapiens, rather than our current subspecies, Graduentia studentus minimus.

It often feels much more bleak than the rosy future we imagined for ourselves when we started graduate school. Applications for postdoc positions at high-powered academic labs go unanswered, maybe unread. Advisers are occasionally helpful with the job search but more often not. Even if you've got one of those advisers who can pick up the phone, make a call, and land you a job--and I don't--that doesn't mean you'll like the job he or she finds for you. And it doesn't mean they'll find you a job you want.

Fact is, we've been in the lab so long we don't even know what the real world looks like anymore. Do you realize that over the last few years many of those high-powered industrial labs that made so many of the advances of the last century have been dramatically scaled back or completely dismantled? That companies that started life at the same time we started graduate school have become minibehemoths, employing hundreds of scientists and paying them well (or starting off that way, and then laying them off)? That specializations that were in demand when you started out aren't really marketable anymore? The playing field has changed while you weren't looking!

I think I first realized how much things had changed when I started talking to some friends that chose not to go to graduate school. Many of them have been laid off or relocated twice, maybe three times in the last 5 years, or been sent overseas on business. If you started school before or during the tech-bubble slowdown, you may have noticed this too. But, you say to yourself, "I'll have a Ph.D. That won't affect me!" Yes, Dorothy, it very well might. When the bubble burst, it wasn't just little dot-coms that were hurt; a lot of corporate research labs closed, too, and many of those experienced, skilled corporate scientists are now competing with you for faculty jobs. Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.

The ground has shifted. Companies, profs, and government labs are hiring people with the skills they need right now. If you don't fit, you have to sell yourself pretty well (or pretty cheaply) to convince them that you're worth hiring, even if you'll need some training in specific job skills. My friend Natalie wants to do something biological, but her Ph.D. research has had nothing to do with biology. Still, she managed to convince someone at a national lab to hire her. My former lab mate Laura wanted to be an academic, but she didn't want to do a postdoc. It was a long search, but she ended up in an industrial position doing work very similar to what she did for her Ph.D.

Maybe the worst part about the job search is sending out an application for a job you just know you're well suited for and getting an unceremonious rejection or even a nonanswer. A few of my friends trying for academic postdocs were not even offered the courtesy of a negative reply--just a deafening silence. You're never sure whether to completely give up hope. It's cruel. And it can be especially infuriating when you know that you would be a fabulous catch for any organization--so why isn't someone--anyone--clamoring for your attention? Are there that many people out there who are as smart/hard-working/creative/kind/good-looking as you?

Then, all of a sudden, the silence bends with a flurry of activity. You're off, interviewing, feeling loved. And then you wait and wait. The waiting is the hard part, isn't it?

In a perfect world, we would be able to establish ourselves calmly, thoughtfully, and not in a panic. We would make the kind of methodical decisions career advisers recommend instead of just jumping at whatever we're offered because our Visas or fellowships or advisers are expiring. Who can afford to wait?

As for me, I found my job by networking; apparently, talking to strangers is good for you when you're all grown up. I met a scientist at a conference, and we started talking about his lab, my research, and opportunities at his institution. I was invited out for an interview a few weeks after the conference ended; I was shocked.I also had another job offer--in industry--as a result of a different contact made at the same conference. These networking opportunities arose mainly because the conference was small and fairly informal; I've become a big advocate of smaller conferences. You get a chance to make connections, and you don't feel like a herded cat.

If you're still afraid of contact with others, grow up and get over it. Learn how to conduct a conversation. You never know whom you might meet, or what opportunities they have to offer or know about. If you chose science because you thought you wouldn't have to talk to people, you chose poorly. You should have been a data-entry specialist instead--just you and the spreadsheets, all day long. Come to think of it, maybe science wasn't such a bad choice ...

In the end, I passed up the industrial job in favor of a postdoctoral position, not in an academic environment but in a national lab. What's the difference, you say? The environment is more (and hopefully better) managed. There aren't any graduate students and undergrads to do your bidding or to get underfoot (except the occasional summer student), and I expect to have relatively unfettered access to fellow researchers and resources. There's also a little more cash as well (cash for research resources as well as cash for me and the furniture I want in my own apartment).

During my postdoc, I plan to be more involved in my own training than I was as a graduate student. I intend to call the shots. Graduate school should have been an opportunity to decide what I wanted to learn--and to learn it. But because I was less mature, scientifically, than I probably should have been (who isn't?), it turned into more of a "do what your adviser wants you to do and you'll get yours on the side" kind of experience. I don't intend to make that same mistake again; I know what I want now, and I've set things up so that I can get it. I've chosen a lab that is set up on a 75-25 system. I'll have a few projects to work on, which will claim 75% of my time. The other 25% will be devoted to contemplating the scientific or societal questions that I want to address.

My postdoc is another opportunity to figure out what I want to do and adjust my course toward that place. Now that I'm grown up enough to take on this problem, I intend to calmly, while not eating ramen, figure out what I want to be when I grow up even more. Being able to start fresh, with all the new resources I've acquired during graduate school, is immensely appealing. I can't wait. And of course there will always be more to write about. Who says fun and dysfunction are only limited to graduate school?

Comments? Queries? Rantings about your own job search? E-mail:

Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is a pseudonym.

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