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Bounce back to stay in the game

People use the AAAS Science Careers discussion forum to gripe as much as to get advice, but from this online mix of discussions about science employment, one common thread jumps out: resilience. Resilience keeps you plugging away when that hard-fought battle to accumulate data for a new paper results in a three-page critique from a journal instead of an acceptance letter. Resilience keeps you coming back to the bench after yet another experimental setback. Resilience is a key ingredient of a successful science career—but its importance is often forgotten when it comes to finding your next job.

The three keys to resilience

#1: The job search is a numbers game.

Don’t fall into the trap of allowing your emotions to take you up and down on every 'yes' or 'no.'

In any tough job search—and believe me, science careers fall into that category—there are times when you just have to close your mind to emotion and move forward. I believe that the best way to bounce back is not to start bouncing in the first place. Don’t fall into the trap of allowing your emotions to take you up and down on every “yes” or “no.”

Whenever you find an interesting opportunity to apply for, put your best foot forward and feel good about checking off another item on your job search to-do list. It’s OK and, in fact, expected that you’ll lose out on the majority of opportunities, because finding a job is, to some extent, a numbers game. Here are some typical numbers: It could take 15 “good fit” job applications to get a phone interview; it might take five phone interviews to get an onsite interview invitation; and then, it could take five onsite interviews before you see a job offer. It’s a process, with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and you can’t jump from the start directly to the finish.

I don’t know what your numbers will be, as it will also depend on your CV, credentials, interviewing skills, and more, but there’s a job at the end of it if you persist. Track your numbers. Feel good even about rejections, because you’re moving closer to your end point.

#2: Know the rules of the game.

You may be like many of my postdoc friends who believed their ultimate job would be a professorship; now some of them find themselves reading job ads from companies because tenure-track opportunities are growing scarcer. Or perhaps you’re sticking with that academic job search. But either way, to maintain your resilience it’s important that you don’t waste energy by fighting the rules of the game. So recognize the differences between industry and academia, and know how those differences should influence your approach to job hunting.

In academia, you follow the rules outlined in an advertisement. “Submit a CV and three letters of reference.” That’s expected, and there’s a fair amount of history that says this is the way to approach academia: You must do what they request. But in industry, recruiters or hiring managers have no problem with you approaching their jobs in a completely different way; you might call this the unwritten rulebook.

Companies will tell you in their ads to apply through their online job portals, but should you leave your job prospects to a single “perfect” online position response? Absolutely not. I’d estimate that there are 20 times more positions that are not advertised than those that are advertised. Knowing the rules of the game and being resilient, you won’t count on those website portals doing a thing for you. You’ll take a much more active role.

You guessed it: You’re expected to network. Tooling Up and Science Careers are filled with articles about the networking and informational interviewing process. Read, talk to others, and participate in forum discussions. Networking is the stuff that makes or breaks industry applications. And the potential for rejection as you reach out to new contacts is another aspect of your job search that requires reservoirs of resilience.

#3: Stop labeling things as good or bad.

Do you want to be more resilient? Don’t label everything that happens during your job search as “good” or “bad.” Heck, it’s just stuff. It’s when you start labeling things that you find yourself spiraling into the wrong frame of mind. By labeling each and every outcome, you put yourself in a position where you aren’t seeing the big picture any longer. Remember, it’s a numbers game and your job is to approach your first opportunity and your 50th opportunity with similar levels of enthusiasm.

The AAAS forum discussion board is littered with posts from people who have invested huge amounts of emotion in every action they’ve taken on their search, and they’ve labeled every resulting reaction from employers. After a string of negative responses, they fall into a slump that is nearly impossible to break out of.

In a recent interview with Inc. Magazine, Srikumar Rao, the author of Are You Ready to Succeed? used a relevant analogy. Imagine that you are a civil engineer, and you’ve been asked to build a road from point A to point B. Through that 200-mile route there are mountains, jungles, and rivers to cross. Are you going to be upset with the mountain or label the jungle and curse? No. You expect these things, because they’re just a part of your job. It’s just the terrain. Now, as a scientist looking for work, your terrain will include rude people you’ll meet in your early networking attempts, rejection by companies you introduce yourself to, and lousy interviews where you’ll want to kick yourself for something you said. Your job search will also appear to be the most difficult project you’ve ever undertaken; perhaps at times it will seem insurmountable. But it’s not. It’s just the terrain of a science career.

Do you “deserve” success?

I say that you do deserve success in your job search. But it takes another giant effort—perhaps not as large as earning your graduate degree, but certainly something that no one warned you about when you were going to school. You spent a long time and a great deal of sweat equity earning that diploma that hangs on the wall. Now you need to put out a bit more to stay upbeat, positive, and resilient until you make the transition to your first job.

Your degree is really just a license. It doesn’t automatically provide you with any benefits, other than the fact that you are now qualified to talk to people about some of those hard-to-find science jobs. It’s a bit like a commercial license to go photograph big game. OK, you’ve got the license, but does that mean that bears and tigers will line up at your door?  Nope. You’ve got to go find that big game, and that’s the hard part.

One of my oldest friends (and another AAAS Science Careers discussion forum adviser), Dick Woodward, reminded me that there’s a role for failure in success. Don’t be afraid to get a “no” on an informational interviewing request; celebrate it, he said. That’s because it usually only takes four invitations to sit down with you before someone will say “yes.”

Likewise, don't feel rejected just because an interview didn’t result in a job offer. Celebrate it! You’ve learned something about the interviewing process, and you’ve brought yourself closer to the next opportunity.

Finally, don’t take these failures personally. They are just building blocks in that numbers game that we call the science job search.