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Career D-Day: Setting Career Plans in Motion


Battle stations! Battle stations! This is not a drill. The time has come to put all the long hours of preparation and training to the test. The masts of a fruitful career have appeared on the horizon: It's time to attack!

It's hard to believe after all these years, but my thesis is coming together, my papers are taking shape, and the heavens have aligned in my favor: Graduation is just a few months away. And despite the frenzy of last-minute experiments and administrative jockeying, it's time for me to map out and set in motion a plan for the active phase of my career search.

Identify the Targets

No surprises here. As anyone who's been reading this series knows, I've spent considerable time during my training as a scientist also acquiring the skills and qualifications I'll need to launch a career in patent law. As I've described in previous columns, many law firms with a biotech intellectual property practice hire Ph.D.s who prepare and prosecute patent applications while they also attend law school. So, having compiled a relatively comprehensive list of law firms in my target cities that have technology specialists (or "patent agents" or "student associates," depending on the firm's preferred vernacular), I've zeroed in on the best options.

Choose the Weapon

Sword versus spear. Nuclear versus conventional. Phaser versus photon torpedo. An effective attack can only be mounted with the right arsenal, and when it comes to a job search, the standard issue is your resume. Of course as scientists, we've been trained to target an academic position with the CV, a tool that wonderfully emphasizes the accomplishments of a researcher. But with its long-winded descriptions of research projects and multipage format, the CV may not be ideal for a nontraditional career. Conversely, a standard, brief resume with its emphasis on work experience may not accurately reflect the accomplishments of a scientist, which are often best demonstrated by a detailed list of publications and presentations.

No need to panic. Whether it looks more like a resume or a CV, the key is to present yourself in the best possible light, which means taking into account the preferred format of your target. Consider your strengths. Do you have four first-author publications in Science (As if!), a stack of secondary author papers, and 15 poster presentations at national conferences--but only one job working at the Circle K while an undergrad on summer break? If so, a CV will best represent your accomplishments. For those of you who have taken the time to broaden your skill set, but who have only a couple of significant publications, a resume may be the best bet.

My situation merits a hybrid approach. While my publication record isn't exactly bursting at the seams, I want to be sure that a potential employer sees what I've accomplished in the 5-plus years I've spent training for my Ph.D. At the same time, I think it's crucial to emphasize the outside activities that I feel set me apart from the average new grad. Furthermore, most law firms hiring technical specialists recognize they are hiring scientists--in fact, many of the practicing patent attorneys may be bench refugees themselves--and are therefore receptive to somewhat academic-oriented resume formats. To this end, I've constructed a two-page resume that lays out my education and experience. On the first page, I detail the skills that I feel are specifically applicable to a career in patent law, and on the second, I list publications, presentations, awards, and research skills. In this way, I can present all the relevant information without overwhelming the reviewer.

Form a Battle Plan

Job-hunting is an unpredictable process. Consider, for example, the following scenario: You receive an offer for a position soon after you initiate your resume blitz. It is a package that is less desirable than what you've been told to expect, but you take it because the job market looks shaky and you haven't heard from any other target companies. But 2 days later, a company known to pay well calls to see if you're interested in coming in for an interview for a position working on a dream project. ...

The horror!

Well, if you plan ahead, you ought to be able to avoid getting stuck in this trap. My goal is to time the process such that interviews and offers arrive within a finite window of time. Couple this goal with my theory that the speed of the applicant evaluation process is directly proportional to the strength of the internal connection at the company (in other words, an anonymous resume will take longer to filter through the pipeline than your best friend's enthusiastic recommendation), and a plan begins to take shape. ...

I'm going to begin the attack with the standard artillery barrage: a resume mass-mailing to firms where I have no internal connections. OK, OK, we've been reminded a million times that this technique is woefully ineffective, but it certainly can't hurt. And if you are clever, you can reduce the chance that you'll automatically receive a letter beginning "Thank you for your interest, but ..."

Stealth Tactics for Beating Filters

Who's Doing the Hiring?

Check the company Web site and find out who runs the department you want to work in. Most law firms provide small profiles of all the associates and partners. Identify a big cheese or, alternatively, someone who's background looks similar, and approach them directly.

Fire Away

Two options here: e-mail attachment or standard snail mail. I suggest both, with a heads up in the e-mail cover letter that a hard copy is on its way, too. Many partners will have their secretaries screen their mail for this sort of thing or delete anonymous e-mail as a matter of course. Using both weapons increases your odds of success.

The Secret Weapon

Express mail. Overnight letters are delivered directly and are less likely to fall prey to the brutal screening process. A pricey option, but well worth it if it results in a job offer!

The next step is to send in the infantry by working the network. First, a nice e-mail and attached resume to the "friend of a friend" contacts that I've been collecting over the past couple of years should go a long way. Although I've not pulled this bunch into my own personal network, they each know people I have. Remember, most firms and companies provide a cash award for finding a new hire, and most people are willing to pass your resume on to the right people as long as it doesn't arrive totally anonymously. Even a small connection can make a big difference.

While I hope to generate at least one or two interviews from the first two groups, I know that the most effective (and expedient) job search tool is someone going to bat for you on the inside. So finally, I'll send in the elite forces by approaching my friends. These are the folks who will actively bug their boss, vouch for my skills, and speed the process along, hopefully generating some leads while the occasional positive response, and inevitable rejections, trickle in from my first two assaults.

There you have it. I've identified my goal, chosen my tools, and hatched my grand plan. With a few butterflies, a bit of uneasiness over the strength of the job market, and a hint of sentimental sadness that grad school is nearly over, a whole new battle has finally begun.

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