Robert Neubecker

Post-Ph.D. job searches are tough. Here’s how I escaped Dr. Seuss’s ‘Waiting Place’

In Dr. Seuss’s classic book Oh, the Places You’ll Go! he warns us that sometimes in life we may “grind on for miles across weirdish wild space, headed, I fear, toward a most useless place. The Waiting Place.” Little did I know it, but after I emerged from the “weirdish wild space” of graduate school, The Waiting Place was exactly where I was headed. I had accepted a postdoc position to develop new skills while embarking on what I anticipated would be a quick, productive search for an industry job. Instead that search dragged on, filled with false hopes and disappointments. I often felt I was going nowhere. But now that I’ve passed the 1-year mark in my first position outside of academia, I can look back and say that I learned a valuable skill: the ability to wait actively. Here are three strategies I found most helpful.

SEEK GUIDANCE. As a freshly minted Ph.D., I had plenty of material for my resume, but I wasn’t sure how to pitch my skills to potential employers. To address this, I sought out a career coach who specialized in helping people with Ph.D.s in science and engineering. Hiring a professional consultant wasn’t cheap, but I viewed it as an investment in another valuable skill: marketing myself. His guidance not only improved my resumes, but also gave me a better general understanding of how to present myself in meetings with recruiters and in interviews. I also took advantage of many free opportunities for career advice, including university-sponsored career forums, skills assessments with an on-campus career counselor, and numerous online resources for job seekers.

MEET NEW PEOPLE. At first, I felt that I didn’t know “the right people” to help me get a job, especially because I was looking for an industry position and my contacts were mostly in the academic world. However, once I started to look, I was surprised to realize how many second-degree connections—friends of friends—I actually had in industry. I reached out to many of them and asked to talk about their work. I also asked friends and colleagues for introductions to people in their networks. And I found ways to meet people outside my niche research area, for example by attending presentations by startup companies, meetings of technology interest groups, and on-campus socials.

As a freshly minted Ph.D. ... I wasn’t sure how to pitch my skills to potential employers.

It sometimes felt awkward to put myself out there, but networking helped me learn about many companies and industries. It also led to job interviews, including with a Silicon Valley tech giant, a premier children’s hospital, and a highly ranked liberal arts college. Organizations like to hire people they can trust, so having someone on the inside vouch for you can help you rise to the top of the applicant stack and get an interview.

PLAY THE LONG GAME. In the end, I got a job I didn’t even apply for. During my first year as a postdoc, I applied for an opportunity I found on an online job board. This led to a promising email exchange, and I had a very positive interaction with one of the company’s researchers at a conference. Unfortunately, the opportunity fell through. Another long year passed. I followed up with the company once or twice, but mostly I pursued other leads. Then, out of the blue, the researcher I had met contacted me about a new opening. It turned out I was a perfect fit for the company’s current projects, and after a couple short phone calls I had an offer. It took almost 2 years to come to fruition, but the effort I had invested in building and maintaining a relationship with the company ultimately paid off.

The Waiting Place was frustrating, but I learned it doesn’t have to be useless. Perseverance pays off. As Dr. Seuss reminds us: “And will you succeed? Yes! You will, indeed! (98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)”

Do you have an interesting career story? Send it to SciCareerEditor@aaas.org. Read the general guidelines here.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers