By Beryl Lieff Benderly
“Come back when you have experience.”
That, as many a dispirited job seeker can attest, ranks among the most frustrating comments that employers can make to someone trying to find employment in a new field. How on Earth are you supposed to get experience if you can’t get hired in the first place? For Ph.D. scientists hoping to find work outside academe, one source of answers to that perennial conundrum is ReSearch: A Career Guide for Scientists, which was published in May.
Throughout the book, Teresa Evans of the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, Natalie Lundsteen of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, Nathan Vanderford of the University of Kentucky in Lexington, and contributors draw on their personal and professional experience helping Ph.D. students make career transitions to answer a large number of fine-grained questions—some of which probably wouldn’t occur to job seekers until late in the game.
Knowing the rules
It may be all too easy for science trainees to focus on their day-to-day activities in the lab, but ReSearch makes it clear that being aware of the broader landscape is a prerequisite for future career success. Today, the tremendous oversupply of Ph.D. researchers means that only a small fraction of students will become tenure-track faculty members, and the rest will need to make their careers elsewhere. Yet, as ReSearch notes, the majority of beginning grad students don’t know about the range of career options available to them after graduating. Many students simply assume they will have an academic career. Approaching the end of a graduate program without realistic expectations and clear career plans can generate much confusion, anxiety, frustration, and wasted time. Whether it is to follow new professional interests or adapt to the academic job market, finding an appropriate and satisfying career is a demanding multi-stage process. You can and should start preparing at the start of graduate school.
ReSearch goes on to offer a step-by-step approach to identifying and pursuing a nonacademic career after graduation, echoing the advice in various other worthwhile guides.
In short, what you should do is this: First, examine your interests, skills, needs, preferences, and values to discern which types of jobs and working environments would suit you. Next, you should learn about the broader job market to home in on careers that attract you, and to understand their specific requirements. Then, take steps to fill in the most relevant gaps in your knowledge and skills. Finally, identify the types of employers or openings you would like to target and prepare appropriate documents—resumes, cover letters, and the like—that present you in an accurate but positive light.
Only once you have all these elements in hand, and have further tailored your documents to specific openings, do you begin to reach out to prospective employers.
Although graduate students may worry that such an investment in time and effort could interfere with their doctoral work, the book shows that taking the time throughout graduate school to work on your career planning can actually help you focus your efforts and move more effectively toward completing your degree.
Becoming job search savvy
One other value of the book is the detailed answers it gives to many practical questions, which can often make the difference between getting the job and not getting it. Here is just a sample of the advice ReSearch offers.
One of the important questions is what the difference is between a CV and a resume, and which you should send to whom. In the United States, a CV is an exhaustive and often lengthy account of one’s academic activities, while a resume is a focused, concise, and strategic selling document. Universities and other academic institutions will expect a CV from their applicants, but other prospective employers, for example in industry, expect resumes. One difficulty with resumes is that they must be no longer than one or two pages, so you must select material strategically to convey skills and experience that are relevant to a particular employer. To help you do this, the book offers examples of real documents by successful job seekers.
Relevant experience is a key selling point, so how can you get it before securing a job in your sector of choice? ReSearch describes many tactics that enterprising scientists can use to get the hands-on workplace exposure that most employers seek. For example, volunteer work—such as contributing articles to publications and taking part in educational outreach or STEM literacy programs—can give you valuable experience as well as resume-building credits. The book also provides concrete leads on where to look for paid internships and mentions several organizations that offer opportunities for scientists to complete short-term assignments on projects related to their fields. Some fellowships also offer Ph.D. students experience in fields such as science policy, media, and data science.
Another crucial question, which job seekers should not be tempted to brush off, is what to wear to career-related meetings and interviews. It is important to present a professional image because “professionals get hired,” not people who appear to be students or trainees, Evans writes in a dedicated chapter. Business professional style—suit jackets and trousers or skirts, solid-color dress shirts, and dress shoes—is appropriate for many job-oriented occasions. But because “[y]ou can meet your future employer [or other important contacts] anywhere” just by chance, Evans adds, you should consider adopting a business casual style—collared shirts, khaki pants, modest skirts, and leather shoes, all compatible with a lab coat—in place of jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers.
ReSearch also addresses how to maintain your stamina, confidence, and equanimity during the long and sometimes demoralizing process of preparing to launch a post-academe career. “The challenges won’t change, but your viewpoint can. Frame your job search as the opportunity to move beyond a negative situation” and never lose sight of your goal, Evans and Lundsteen advise. To reduce pressure on yourself, start out with small steps, such as meeting with a career adviser, and intersperse these with “opportunities for successes in low-stress situations,” such as practicing interview skills with a friend.
Ultimately, in addition to guiding them through the entire process, the authors want readers to feel confident in their ability to succeed in making a career transition, if they decide to do so after graduating. Their own scientific training, after all, has prepared them well to complete their career journey in spite of surprises and setbacks. “As scientists we are trained to manage entropy and identify variables within the lab,” Evans writes. Scientists are also well trained “to not only collect useful career planning information but also … to reflect on what [they] find and apply it to [their] choices.” These skills, Evans adds, will all be “fundamental to the very existence of your future career.”
Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.