Job Search Strategy

Over the past several months, I’ve gotten an incredibly large amount of advice about how to search and apply for jobs.  Sources include everyone from my advisor, recent faculty hires, and current postdocs to other graduate students in my position and helpful science/academia based blogs.  I’m pretty sure, that at this point, I can just do whatever I want and say that someone told me it was a good idea.

To me, this plethora of advice says one thing loud and clear: how I carry out my job search is almost entirely based on what I personally want out of it.  You know, once you get past the basics for everyone, such as writing a proper cover letter, tailoring each application to the specific job you are applying for, and knowing the difference between a resume and a cv.  So I figured I’d write this post, not to give advice, but to give an example of how I’m searching for jobs based on what I want.  You can follow my example, or use it to create a completely different strategy that fits what you want.

Here’s what’s currently defining my job search parameters:

My future career options.  PhD students have many options (including academia, industry, government labs, administration, science writing, etc…).  I’m not entirely sure what I want to do, but I know what I don’t want.  I’m not a big fan of teaching or of administrative duties – I would prefer to keep doing research.  Thus I’m focusing on positions that are research heavy and will expand my skill set.  If I look at a postdoc position, I want to be able to learn new skills that would be useful in an industry position as a data scientist.  For an industry position, I realize it is extremely difficult to make the switch back to academia, so I only look for positions with quality and meaningful research (i.e., not advertising).

My anticipated graduation date.  Oh, the impossible to pin down and forever changing timeline that is graduation.  My rather vague expectations indicate that I am currently applying at close to the earliest possible (yet reasonable) time to apply for jobs.  There are two main schools of thought on applying this early.  The first is that you need experience applying – sending out applications, interviewing, networking, etc… and to send as many applications out as possible.  I think that’s a complete waste of everyone’s time.  My theory is that, as I’m not at a point to be desperate yet, I only send out applications to positions that are pretty much perfect for me.  No, not pretty much, perfectly perfect.  This way I don’t spend too much time applying while I’m trying to write my dissertation.  The applications I do send out I’m excited about, and I have the time to do them right.  I won’t have the regret of passing up on a perfect opportunity, and it’s not as devastating when I don’t get it, as I know still have time to find something else just as good.

Once I get closer to graduating, this strategy will change.  I will start to compromise on what I want, and apply what I’ve learned from job rejections to make my application materials even better.  The closer I am to finishing my dissertation, the more time I will spend on job applications.  But, more on this when I reach that point.

Personal preference.  To me, this is one of the most important parts of defining my job search, but the hardest to justify to others (and sometimes to myself!).  It is very difficult to see a perfect-for-you position pop up, with great benefits, perfect timing, the works, and have to say no to applying because Florida is too hot.  I try to remind myself, that even if I’m happy in the perfect position for 8 hours each day, I have to deal with the location and the happiness of me and my family for the other 16 (plus weekends and holidays).  In the end, it doesn’t matter how big or small of an issue it is (for me it’s location), just figure out what personal preferences will make or break your happiness in any job, and then stick with them.

How’s this strategy working out so far?

You may be wondering if this strategy is any good at all.  Well, I haven’t done it enough to really know.  However, in the interest of transparency, and taking down imposter syndrome, I plan to post my job statistics, once I have enough to reasonably analyze.  At this point I’ve submitted 5 applications.  Two are pending, one was rejected after an interview, one was rejected because I forgot to ask if they sponsor visas (they don’t), and one was rejected because it was my first and I didn’t put in near enough effort.

I’d be interested to hear how others are approaching the post-PhD job search!  One of my grad school friends is taking a completely different tactic – she is not applying for anything, preferring to spend all her time finishing her dissertation.  Her focus is on getting a postdoc position through networking and possibly submitting a grant, not through previously funded and advertised positions.  What do you think about the difference in our strategies, and what’s your strategy for job searching?

Starting the job search early

I’ve made enough progress, finally, in my grad school career, that my advisor suggested I should start looking for postdocs.  It’s probably still too early to apply, he said, but if I find a perfect position, they might be willing to wait for me to graduate.

Little did he know that I’ve been keeping tabs on job openings for several years now.

Early on I realized that I didn’t have a good grasp of what sort of jobs I could apply for once I got my PhD.  Yes, I knew I was looking for something with a strong research component, but I needed more information.  Could I do the sort of research I wanted in industry, or in a government lab as well as academia?  How applicable are my skills to other research areas; can I change my focus at all and by how much?

Instead of waiting until it was time to apply for jobs and researching the answers all at once, I decided to slowly gather information as I went.  It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

Here’s why.

Know where to look.  Every time someone mentioned a job search website, a database, or an email list, I took note.  Every time a professional organization advertised their job board or search site, I signed up.  Instead of starting the search from scratch, I’m already getting notified about all the positions I’m eligible for – no extra effort required.

Know when to look.  Each of those email lists or job sites I signed up for sent out notices about various types of jobs.  Skimming through one or two interesting ones each week gave me a good idea of the lead time required for different positions.  A postdoc position in my field, for example, is typically advertised 1-2 months before the application deadline.  Start times are typically 1-6 months after that, although ASAP start times are quite common.  However, if I wanted to apply for my own funding, grants are only available at certain times of the year.  Also, I would have to find my own mentor, and start dates are closer to a year after applications are due.

Learn the right skills.  For each position, there is typically a list of required and desired skills.  Take a mental note of what is listed, and pretty soon you’ll have an obvious subset of skills you need for your desired job.  For example, I work with certain software and coding languages now, as a graduate student.  However, to do the same exact work at a different university, or in a different country, they require knowledge of different software.  Instead of waiting until I apply to make the case that I can learn these skills, I know ahead of time that I need them, and can take the time to learn them now.

Understand job options.  After you’ve been casually skimming job postings for awhile, you start to notice some trends.  Places that hire frequently become familiar to you.  A too-good to be true job sticks out like a sore thumb as soon as you glance at the salary range and realize its 20% below typical ranges for that geographic area.  And the best part is, you don’t have to put much effort into understanding these options.  You don’t have to perform extensive calculations on cost of living and value of benefits.  By the time you are ready to look for real, you will have seen enough that you know just by looking how the job fits in with what you expect.

Convinced yet?  Considering trying this method?  If you want to get started now, here’s how I carried out my job search way before I was actually searching for jobs.

Sign up for email lists or feeds.  A lot of sub-disciplines have their own email list to announce jobs, conferences, data requests, etc…  Find the ones that overlap with your interests and sign up.  Or, wait until you hear someone mention certain ones, then sign up.  Also, most websites that list jobs have a way for you to sign up for email digests or use a feed reader to notify you about new postings.  Sign up for these too.  And, while you are at it, go ahead and sign up for email notifications from professional-based forums that post jobs as well.  If in doubt?  Sign up.

Be prepared to skim and delete.  So now that you’ve signed up for a ridiculous number of emails, you need to manage them.  I redirect all of mine into a specific folder, bypassing my inbox completely.  Then, just scan the titles.  Anything that mentions a job you aren’t eligible for (too qualified, under qualified, wrong field) gets deleted.  Same with anything in a geographic location you aren’t interested in (although you may want to keep your options open at first).  I typically get 5-20+ emails in this folder per day, and at max I read maybe 3 of them.  And by read, I mean glance at the location, salary, basic requirements, and start time.  Then I delete those ones too.

Bookmark universities, companies or labs.  Since you aren’t actually searching for jobs, you don’t need to save interesting opportunities, because they won’t be there when you are ready.  However, as you go, you may notice certain universities, companies, or labs reappear quite often in the listings you actually read.  Go ahead and bookmark their websites (or add them to a list) for future reference.  Even if they don’t have job openings when you start searching for real, their past history suggests they might soon, or they might be open to talking to someone with the same interests.  These are the people and places you can contact even without a job opening, to possibly collaborate on a proposal, or just to express your interest.

By jumping on the job search years before you graduate, when it doesn’t matter so much, you can save yourself a lot of stress and learn ahead of time what you want to do when you finish.  So go ahead, put in the very little effort now.  It’ll pay off later.

What do you think about this method?  Have you started job searching for your next position yet?

Alternate Careers

I’ve never been much of one to have a career plan.  I studied what I found interesting in school.  I’m one of the lucky ones though – I’ve been considered smart enough to be allowed to just keep on learning.  Thus I avoid all encounters with the dreaded job market.

This isn’t really the best strategy though.  Sure, it feels easy to slide through life and grad school this way, but that’s because this is the path of least resistance.  Think about it.  You are only exposed to people (professors) who finished that career path one way.  In terms of statistics, it is most certainly NOT a random sample.

The issue is that there are way more PhDs awarded than there are academic positions for them above the postdoc level.  A good portion of graduate students will not end up following a path similar to that of their mentors and advisors.  There’s a good chance that could be you.  So, have you thought about what you can do outside of academia?

First, let’s get over the term “alternate career”.  Sure, if you want to do a search on the subject, that’s probably the best phrase to use.  But it implies that a career in academia is the “right” end to a graduate school start, and all other choices are second-best.  This stigma is still present, especially among older faculty members, but it no longer makes sense.  In a society focused on work-life balance, your career choice is no longer a strict indicator of your intelligence.  Never feel like choosing an non-academic career path is a step down.

Now that your head is in the right place, you need to figure out your options.  This will depend on your field, and also on what degree you end up with.  And any extra experience you may have.  It’s not always obvious at first what you can do with a grad school degree besides academic work.

The first option that typically comes to mind, at least in the sciences, is science writing or outreach.  You can also consider a job in industry.  Almost every science-based field has a corresponding industry, but it may not be clear at first.  I found some of the best information in library books and by signing up for job boards and email lists.  Another option is to consult a career counselor – and there’s a good chance your university offers a service like this.

In the end, it’s up to you to choose the career that best fits your skills and lifestyle.  The first step in this direction is to know what your options are.  So don’t be taken in by thinking academia is the only path.  Find people who have done something different with the same background.  After you know what’s out there, you’ll be able to make much better career decisions.