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How to Separate Ideal Employers From Bad Ones During Your Job Search

Imagine your dream job. It's the place where the people are great, the compensation is excellent, and the challenges and the freedom know no bounds. You wake up every morning eager to get there and you leave at the end of each day satisfied and stimulated. Wouldn't it be great to have a job like that?

I know what you're going to say: I am a scientist! Any employment at all would be a blessing!

The abundance of Ph.D.s searching for gainful employment in science has led many scientific job seekers to ignore loftier goals for employment and stick to a strategy of simple survival. Get a postdoc, any postdoc; get a job, any job.

Before you succumb to such desperate thinking, realize this: There is that perfect job waiting somewhere for you. You may not find it on the first fishing expedition, but that does not mean that you never will. However, your chances of finding the perfect job will be close to zero if you don't adopt a long-term strategy in your career development and your job search. There are ways to zero in on that perfect job if you prepare yourself right and know how to look.

What Is Your Passion?

Perhaps the most important part of looking for the perfect job starts with an understanding of who you are and what you most enjoy doing. The process of figuring this out is called Self-Assessment. We have talked about methods for elucidating your skills, interests, and values in past columns, but often people don't begin such exploration until they are already in the throes of their job search.

Self-assessment is more than just figuring out what you like to do. It also involves issues related to your interests, values, and your preferred lifestyle. Let's face it: Not everyone with a Ph.D. or a Master's degree in science has the same set of values. Some people love doing science and are happy to forgo a high salary and a fancy office in exchange for intellectual freedom. Others hate working alone at the bench and would prefer team-oriented projects. Others have serious family considerations, which they are not willing to push aside in order to get tenure. Different people are after different things in their careers. Remember: If you don't like what you're doing for a living, you probably won't be very good at it.

Seeking an EOC or an FPW

The other side of professional fulfillment is finding a great place to work. It does you no good to find an ideal job if your co-workers are morons and your boss is a jerk! Most job seekers (scientists included) think that such factors are unknowable before you accept a job. This is simply not so. There are all sorts of ways that you can find out if the work environment is a good match for you. Be on the lookout for an EOC or an FPW.

An EOC (Employer of Choice) is an organization that is widely recognized to be a good employer and one that top applicants, people who have a choice, end up choosing. An EOC is a great place to work because your colleagues are likely to be of the highest caliber. These are the people from whom you will learn the most. In addition, having an EOC on your resume means that you will be more marketable in the future. How do you find an EOC? Just ask around. What institutions command the best reputations? Where have top people gone in the past? One thing scientists seem to have no problem with is rendering opinions about which institutions and companies are better than others!

An FPW (Fun Place to Work) is, as its name suggests, an organization who's environment and lifestyle is fun for its employees. The work is engaging, the people are friendly and enjoy what they are doing, and the management knows how to create a productive and enjoyable atmosphere. Often an FPW is involved in interesting work, is a young organization, and has interesting and committed people. Every employer will advertise themselves as an FPW. Finding the ones who are telling the truth requires some research.

Sleuthing an Organization

Finding out what a company is really like requires some research. It is important to know some facts before you start asking questions. The company Web site is extremely helpful. In addition to finding out what the company does, how big it is, and what sort of growth it is expecting, some companies post the text of speeches and press releases from the senior leadership along with annual reports. These documents can provide great information about the atmosphere, areas of growth, and future direction of the company.

Informational interviews are a great way to get inside information about an organization, seeing the work environment first-hand, and getting to meet some people. You can tell a great deal about a company in a single visit just by talking to a few people and observing how people are working. Is the environment pleasant? Are people running around harried and freaked out? Are people too busy to talk? These are all indicators of environment.

The other source of "insider information" that may be even more candid is people you know in the organization. In most cases, you will not know anyone in an organization directly. But your friends and network probably do. The people whom you talk with through these personal channels may end up giving you an earful about what the company is REALLY like on the inside. Anecdotes from the people you speak with and from the corporate literature can provide a valuable window on the organization. Which people are identified as "heroes" of the organization? What did they do to become recognized as such? What are the common elements for success in the company? Threading all these bits of information together can give you a rich view of the company as a place to work.

The Final Element: The Potential Job and the Potential Boss

Even in an EOC or FPW some jobs are better than others. The specific job is, of course, a major consideration. However, an equally important consideration is the boss, PI, or team leader.

A successful manager in a high-tech firm once gave me surprising advice about looking for the right job: "If you're applying for a job for which you are fully qualified, you are applying for the wrong job!" What she meant was that the best job opportunities are those that require you to stretch and learn new things. Furthermore, the best bosses tend to be those who hire smart, motivated people, rather than people who simply have all the requisite skills.

It is often hard to tell from a job description which jobs will give you opportunities to learn a lot. Jobs with fixed assignments which involve little interaction with others in an organization may not give you nearly as many opportunities to learn compared to new positions in growing organizations. Even in an established organization you should look for where the growth is: You will often find new job opportunities that will be defined by the job holder as much as by the management. It is possible to turn an OK job into a great job if the organization gives you some flexibility in defining the job for yourself.

The other important consideration is your boss. Perhaps the rarest element in the entire universe is the GREAT BOSS. A person who is a natural leader, enjoys mentoring, and is committed to success is a wonderful person to work for. Unfortunately not only are such people rare, they tend to advance rapidly. Nevertheless these people are out there -- and you only have to talk with a few of their employees to find out who they are.

Ingredients for the Job From Hell

Just as there are perfect jobs out there for you, there are also jobs that would be exactly the wrong thing for you. While this depends a great deal on who you are, it also depends on the job, the boss, and the organization. Here is my list of five ingredients for a perfectly hellish job:

  • Bad management: People who have no vision, have poor communication and organization skills, and lack enthusiasm for the mission of the organization are suprisingly abundant in organizations. Figure out who they are ... and avoid them!

  • Bureaucracy: Be on the lookout for a process-laden organization. Often the absence of a profit motive can allow companies to bloat to the point where it is difficult to get even the most mundane task accomplished.

  • Lackluster colleagues: Just as in graduate school, you will learn more from your co-workers than you will from anyone else. If you visit an organization and come away feeling that you would be the smartest person there -- beware!

  • Poor resources: Even the most dedicated and motivated workforce will eventually fail if they lack the resources to get the job done. Slim budgets, unstable funding, and second-rate equipment all spell trouble.

  • Stress: The above four factors can all conspire to make an extremely stressful work environment. A little stress is not a bad thing -- especially if it is for a good cause. Constant stress isn't good for anybody, and it's a symptom that the underlying health of the organization may be at risk.

Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

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