Dear CareerDoctor,What opportunities are there for researchers who have moved into this area later in life? What chances do you realistically stand as a mature scientist?Pat
Changing career and undertaking a qualification later in life already demonstrates a great deal of commitment that should appeal to employers. Having said that, you may discover that some of them need educating about the value you can bring to their organisations. You are right to be concerned about age discrimination, as it is, unfortunately, still alive and kicking in all employment sectors. The good news is that it is to be challenged by a new European legislation that will come into effect in 2006. Sadly, in the meantime, you will continue to feel excluded from some vacancies because of the language those "young, dynamic" companies use, or application forms that seem to expect only part-time or voluntary work as previous experience.
In this column I am going to point you towards resources which should help you identify and overcome the key issues facing mature scientists, making you better able to recognise and seize opportunities.
Perhaps the first step is to accept that discrimination is out there and has to be factored into your job search strategy. You need to be prepared to grit your teeth on occasion and smile sweetly at the idiotic misconceptions. These frustrations are not unique to mature, early-stage career scientists as many groups are discriminated against in equally insidious ways, including women of child-bearing age, parents, career changers, scientists with disabilities--I could go on!
The second big point is that your personal attitude will go a long way towards addressing those misconceptions. It will help if you are realistic about them from the start, and Prospects sets out the cold facts. I'll leave it up to you to learn how to articulate the benefits of a mature workforce from sites such as the government's Age Positive and to find advice on how to present your varied skills and qualities elsewhere on Next Wave, as well as from the Open University and Prospects Web sites.
You also need to face up to the fact that you may not be able to convince an employer to put a value on your experience in other fields--in other words you are likely to be looking at the same starting salary as other entrants, even though you may make a better, earlier contribution to the company. This might involve taking a pay cut on your pre-degree salary which is particularly galling, but try to take the long view. You can either springboard into a better paid job later, or negotiate a better package once you have proven your worth--and it may well be the only way to launch your new career.
So, down to reality--what is the labour market like? That it is difficult to find clear statistics on mature applicants in scientific fields may indicate some precariousness in their situation. However, you will be able to read both positive and negative personal experiences on Prospect's Mature Students pages and other Web sites, and I do not think there is anything out there that will convince you that the situation as a whole is better or worse than for "traditional" applicants.
A sure way of increasing your chances is to start your job search by identifying companies with positive attitudes to all applicants. I would visit your Careers Service (you will be able to access support and advice for up to 5 years after graduating) and ask for their perceptions of local employers and any personal contacts they have in relevant companies. There are also lists of "understanding" employers on the Campaign Against Age Discrimination in Employment and the Age Positive Web sites, although these are not specific to science. The advice I gave in my previous columns on speculative applications and job searching in a particular geographical area may also help you to build up a healthy list of potential employers.
As well as approaching companies directly, look into recruitment agencies and find out their attitudes towards your situation. Agencies can be rather ruthless so it may be better to use your professional body as a "buffer". Indeed many of the larger bodies have developed relationships with particular agencies, which usually leads to a higher level of service. For example, the Job Seeker Service operated by the RSC works with three recruitment agencies to offer a range of opportunities to all interested members. Agencies can also help you to overcome the key problem for all fresh graduates--a lack of work experience. Look into agencies offering short-term contracts so you can demonstrate your ability to perform in various "real" situations. From personal experience, I know that agencies often offer new applicants rather unappealing posts. Try not to take this as a comment on your employability--more of a chance to prove yourself. Most scientific jobs are practical so if you can show you are willing to get your hands dirty and you perform well as a scientist, more opportunities are likely to come your way.
Another familiar job search technique that is particularly valuable for mature applicants is networking. You need to build your professional network, using the contacts provided by a Careers Service, Alumni Office, professional body, or your department. Make sure you gain additional insight into what employers you are interested in think of mature applicants and how they recruit. I would also suggest that you preface any application with a phone call to the recruitment office to discuss your situation. Remember this isn't a random chat--it is the start of your marketing strategy and you are getting ahead of the rest of the field by engaging with the person short-listing for interview. Again it has a lot to do with your attitude--make yourself difficult to reject by being positive, professional, and enthusiastic about the post.
Finally, like anybody else looking for a job, you are far more likely to succeed if you believe in yourself. Never lose sight of the fact that there is a strong business case for employing a mature workforce, and without becoming too evangelical, make your benefits over youth and inexperience crystal clear to any prospective employer.
Good luck in your career,