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Tooling Up: A Job-Search Plan for the Person Without One (Part One)

You're beating yourself up again because nothing is happening on your job search. You've had a couple of replies to various applications but no real interest yet. There's always the postdoc -- the fallback option -- but that principal investigator doesn't know he's your plan B and he's starting to push for a response. If something doesn't click soon, you're going to get stuck doing a third postdoc, which you know isn't going to improve your marketability.

It's beginning to feel like you have no plan at all.

This is the time for gutsy, no-holds-barred cold calls and e-mails.

If this comes anywhere close to describing what you're going through, it may be time to shake things up a bit. In this month's Tooling Up column, I'll lay out a framework for a job-search plan that anyone can implement. If you're in the middle of your job search, play close attention to this article, and next month's Tooling Up column. If you haven't yet started your job search, save this article for later.

I'm not advising you to set aside everything you've been doing and start from square one. You still need to be reviewing journal ads, scanning the Web, going to job fairs, and doing in-person networking at meetings and such: the bread-and-butter activities of looking for work. Instead, this column contains precise tips for honing your job search -- for doing those basic things better. Pay attention and you will not only find your ideal job sooner but also build a valuable set of skills in the process.


It's important to develop a good CV and to write compelling cover letters. You can read more about these topics in previous Science Careers columns; see, for example, "Focus Your Industry CV," "Résumé Rocket Science," and "The Commandments of Cover Letter Creation." But remember, aim for a good to very good CV, which is always preferable to a perfect one. That's because you can produce a very good CV in an evening or two, whereas the perfect CV takes months of fine-tuning. Even a perfect CV is no good if it never leaves your desk, or if you spend valuable time -- time you should be spending on other job-search tasks -- perfecting it. All the CV needs to do is to get your foot in the door. Your interview skills will do the rest.

In addition to a good (to very good) CV and cover letter, you'll want to prepare a networking-contact database. Some people keep this information on their computers using a simple address-card file; others take a more sophisticated approach, storing contact information in a database linked to relevant documents: the CV you sent, related correspondence, and so on. If you use Microsoft Outlook or a similar program, the contacts section works well for this -- but consider keeping your job-search contacts in a separate folder from your other contacts so that you can access them easily.

I get a lot of value out of index cards. You can buy plastic 3-ring-binder sheets that have sleeves in which to store index cards and inexpensively fill a binder with 3" x 5" cards, one for each person you've made contact with, with plenty of room to log a few facts such as where you met the person and your mutual connections. Attach the person's business card and save room for information such as areas of mutual interest, your last date of contact, what you discussed, personal details like children's names, and so on.

Regardless of whether you have your material on a laptop or in a binder, you'll be prepared when the phone rings and it's "Bill Smith calling to discuss that project we spoke about in our last conversation." If you're prepared, your first mental reaction won't be, "Ack! Who is Bill Smith? What project was that?"

Use your scientific society

It doesn't matter if you're just starting a job search or are well into one: take advantage of professional societies. Although I'm not a big fan of making your CV public on open Web sites, your scientific society's job-seeker Web site is one of the best places to post these documents.

On a recent search, I asked a human resources manager if she ever looks for CVs online. "The only place I'll go to look, even before I call a recruiter, is at the scientific society for that niche," she told me. Her company recently had an opening for a food scientist, so she went to the Institute of Food Technologists's (IFT's) Web site and checked the resumé database. There were thousands of to look at. "Experienced people don't use these, but when I need an entry-level scientist, I always scan the societies," she said.

I checked out the IFT database myself and saw some people who shouldn't even have bothered (because they'll never get a call) and others who are sure to pop up whenever someone's doing a search in their area of expertise. Members of the former group often had nothing but the site's boilerplate profile page with a few general areas of expertise noted, such as "Molecular Biology." Others had profiles chock full of data about their expertise, along with a downloadable CV. The latter group will get the opportunities.

Build your network up around your job interests

Do you have a clear idea of exactly what kind of job you are qualified for and what the duties and responsibilities of that position are? Probably not. Chances are, you are as muddled and confused as most people are at this stage. Hopefully, though, you've at least discovered some categories of jobs that sound interesting. If you haven't, you've got some homework to do. Start looking around immediately.

Next, you'll need to identify people you can approach who are already in jobs like the ones you are attracted to. Choose contacts who are not too far along in their careers. Ideally, these people will be just a couple of years ahead of you, proximate enough to the entry level that they can still talk about what the transition from academia was like.

How do you locate these people? Start by brushing up on your networking skills. You can review networking skills elsewhere on Science Careers, in articles such as "More than Just a Job-Seeking Skill" and "The Informational Interview." Then search the contacts you've made at conferences and within your professional society. Ask your friends and co-workers whom they know in these fields. Learn to use the advanced search function on LinkedIn and other networking sites to search for people with specific job duties. And be flexible: If you can't find a regulatory affairs person to talk to, look for something close, like a quality lab scientist.

Now is not the time to settle for contacting people with whom you have a mutual acquaintance. This is the time for gutsy, no-holds-barred cold calls and e-mails. This also isn't time for "Do you have any openings?" conversations; that subject will come up once rapport is built. When you first make contact, don't make the call about you; make it about them and what they do.

Here's a reminder list of my "Golden Rules" for the initial networking contact:

1) Always respect the other party's time by asking first, "Do you have a moment for a brief question, or am I catching you at a bad time?"

2) You're doing a research project, so treat it like one: Tell the person you'd like to know more about that person's career choice and how he or she made the transition from academia. Choose appropriate questions.

3) Always be succinct. Almost everyone you contact will be willing to spend 5 or 10 minutes -- but usually not more -- if the caller is polite and asks an interesting question or two. Take small bites.

4) If you must use e-mail, use it only to set up telephone or in-person contacts and to set the stage for a good conversation.

Continue this process right up to the time you receive the job offer you intend to accept. After that, keep in touch with these people because these networking contacts may be a part of your professional life for a long time to come.

Next month, we'll work on fine-tuning your approach when applying for ads in journals and on the Internet.