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Three key elements of a successful job search mindset

As an advanced-degree holder in the sciences, you don’t have to be on the job market to feel beat down. All you need to do is listen to the job search horror stories being passed around by the senior postdocs in your lab. This negativity, admittedly born out of real workforce challenges, could lead you to believe that you are doomed to a lengthy and unproductive job search.

But that may not be your situation at all. There are opportunities out there—and these tips for focusing your mental energies on the right things will help you find them.

No. 1: Recognize your value

The Ph.D. brings so much more than the ability to perform technical tasks in a laboratory. Recognize the value that you bring to the table: your analytical abilities, your critical thinking skills, your writing skills, and everything else that came along with your degree.

Appreciating this big picture will help you see how you might fit into various job types, including some unexpected ones. Have you done a real brainstorming session to consider all your options?

Years ago, at a career summit I organized, creativity and thinking expert Edward de Bono spoke about the keys to brainstorming and how to apply them to identifying your talents and possible futures. Here are two of his suggestions that have stuck with me:

  • Ask others what they see as your career strengths. Don’t limit yourself to your labmates and scientific colleagues; go to Uncle Ted and your nonscientist friends, too. They may recognize something in your nature that you hadn’t considered—strengths which may lead you in interesting directions.
  • Try “rapid ideation”: coming up with ideas and writing them down quickly, thinking fast and not being afraid to go outside the lines. Even silly ideas are welcome. Just start writing, no filters.

Be as open and creative as you can. Explore where your capabilities and interests might put you, including in different industries or job types than you’ve considered up to this point. And consider reading de Bono’s book Six Thinking Hats—it’s a classic.

No. 2: Put in the time

When I ask people about their job searches, most say that they are fully committed to getting out of their rut and moving into a new job. But when I inquire about the actual time they are putting into it, I often find that they are dramatically underestimating the level of commitment required. Sending out a few LinkedIn invitations and submitting online applications to two or three jobs is not a job search that will soon result in success.

If you are sincere about making a major career transition, such as moving out of your academic role and into industry, you need to put in some serious time. There’s no doubt that it’s tough to do this while you have a full-time job working 40-plus hour weeks. But you must find a way to carve out 10 to 15 hours each week to invest in your future. Because that’s what it is: an investment. Your first big job search sets the stage for future decades of work experiences. So shift your mindset about the job search. It’s not just an annoyance on your to-do list; it’s critical for future success and happiness.

And when you make the time, use it wisely—don’t waste it! There are some job search activities that have a very high payoff, and there are others where you could simply be going through the motions without much to show for it in terms of real results. It’s crucial that you recognize the difference.

One high-payoff activity is meeting people face-to-face and building “real” networking contacts, as opposed to social media networking. Submitting online applications for jobs you fit perfectly is also time well spent. Filling out a general “here’s my CV” application on a company website, on the other hand, is not.

No. 3: Manage your fears

I’ve never met a person who didn’t have some fear about the change that comes with a new job. This fear can manifest itself before you’ve even landed the job, leading to shaky interview performance. You can’t eliminate the fear of change, but these approaches will help you minimize the negative effects:

  • Do some self-analysis about the issues that you are most concerned about. Write down your fears and take a good, hard look at them. Then, go into research mode to determine whether there are facts that support them. Use this list to develop questions that you can ask in informational interviews and other venues.
  • Talk to people who have made changes similar to what you’re considering. You’ll feel much better having spoken to those on the other side about what they experienced. Perhaps you have a concern about the job location if you’re moving to a new city, or you just don’t know what expectations the company has for success in the job. Either way, the best way to defuse fear is to learn from others who have been there.
  • Determine to accept some uncertainty in your future. There are aspects of your life and career that you control, and nothing about the new job can change that. For example, no matter the environment, you’ll still be in control of the effort you put into your job and the people with whom you associate. If you stay in control of what you can, the fear will go away.

Half of success is mental

There are two ways you can go about your job search. You could sit at your computer and mechanically start sending out emails and applications, hoping that something you’ve thrown against the wall “sticks.” That’s OK—even the person using a shotgun approach will eventually hit something.

But the far better method is to home in on a range of targets. You may have started your scientific training thinking that you’d end up working in a particular research area. By all means, continue pursuing that original goal if it still motivates you—but at the same time, exploring a few sideline ideas about other industries and other kinds of jobs can’t help but put more options on your table. If you combine this creative thinking with a bit of structured time and effort, you just may walk away with a very interesting next step in your career.

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