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A Spot of Bother


So there I was, applying a carefully concocted credit calculus to determine the positions of family, friends, and colleagues on my Acknowledgments slide, when my thesis committee decided to diverge from its steady diet of belt-high fastball "requirements" and toss me something with a little movement on it. Not a meaty Byung-Hyun Kim slow roller that I could crush into a triumphant Ph.D. trot around the seminar room, mind you, but a nasty Curt Schilling splitter that had me looking for the gaping hole in my pointer as I took that slow stroll back to the bench.

Instead of tweaking the shade of that ubiquitous blue backing on my thesis defense slides and becoming acquainted with the finer points of "business casual" attire, I've spent the last couple months frantically running about the lab completing the tasks set by my all-powerful minders. Not that the job before me is particularly onerous, but 2 additional months in the lab have thrown one whopper of a monkey wrench into my tightly orchestrated plans for graduation and employment.

While my sad tale certainly qualifies me for induction into the disgruntled Ph.D. hall of fame, there is a career lesson to be found here: how graduation uncertainty affects job search strategy. You can imagine the problem in practice. An employer extends an offer, anxiously asks when you can start, and you answer, "Hmmmm. Not sure. I should be all set by May, but you never know how those experiments are going to turn out." Not something a hiring manager looking to fill a vacant position wants to hear.

So what's an ambitious grad student to do? Do you wait until your diploma is safely enshrined in an appropriately majestic frame? Risk it and hope your thesis committee is having a better day than mine? Demand that graduate programs make at least a passing attempt at defining objective standards of what makes up a complete dissertation?

OK, OK, I'll stick to realistic scenarios.

The first place to look for answers is from the perspective of hiring managers. Put yourself in their shoes. From what I can gather, the ideal candidate actually already has a Ph.D. in hand and can jump ship from his or her current position with the standard 2 weeks' notice. Apart from this, the most important factor, beyond qualifications, is the need for some degree of certainty with regard to start date. In order for a law firm or any other corporation to invest the time, energy, and money needed to bring you on board, it needs to know with some degree of confidence that you will indeed actually be able to show up on the agreed-upon date. Although it may be your skills that get you the job, your availability is a definite prerequisite.

A recurring theme in my discussions with those in the field is the need to be prepared to hurry up and wait. On the off chance your CV finds its way into the hands of a hiring manager who is desperately looking for someone with your exact qualifications to fill a job that needed to be filled yesterday, you could find yourself breaking in a cushy new chair by the end of the week. Odds are, however, that things will move slowly, so an early start to the job search will serve to minimize the number of weeks you spend cooling your heels as a "postdoc" in your graduate adviser's lab.

In patent law, the normally slow pace stems from the hiring pattern. Lacking a formalized recruitment system for nonlawyers, law firms engage in two general hiring schemes. The first is sporadic hiring of new technical specialists within the context of an established training program. In this scenario, most candidates are likely hired specifically for their scientific skill set and "fit" within the firm and its ongoing efforts to attract and build a core group of technically trained professionals. Consistent with this agenda, some degree of flexibility with regard to starting date is likely to be on the table.

The second scheme is a periodic hiring putsch predicated by a specific need. This can occur when a firm lands a large new client, recruits a new partner with a substantial book of business, opens a new practice area, or simply finds itself with more work than it can deal with in a timely manner. Generally, the candidate is needed immediately. Yesterday, in fact. So, the individual who can start ASAP will have a distinct advantage over one who is facing several months of writing, defense preparation, and corrections. And the candidate who isn't 100% sure of the specific availability date is pretty much out of luck.

For me, this means it is time to regroup and take care of business on the grad student front before I renew my attack on the job market. I'll continue to monitor potential employers for leads and openings, and I'll be sure to keep nurturing my network. But the main objective will be to finish up those last few experiments and finalize a graduation timetable. And although when I walk into that seminar room to face my committee, I'll count on receiving mostly fastballs, you can bet that I'll also keep my eyes peeled for curves.