We’re taking a break for the time being from our research entourage series, with the final installment to be delivered next week, due to a slight change in how I’ve spent my spare time writing. I’ve been sending off a flurry of job applications, with more to be done in the following days, due to some uncertainty in my project’s contract extension. The year started off with positive news, and a draft of the contract even made it to the University to be signed by our legal team. But with industry budgets being as they are it was soon on the 2016 budget chopping block, and my fate went from certain to unknown (cue dramatic music!!). While I’m still duly optimistic about my project’s fate, I’ve also recognized the risk of my current post-doc project money ending in June and having nowhere to go but to begin my blues guitar career at the Liverpool Docks.
Initially I felt really uncertain and nervous about my prospects and a bit lost at the thought of looking for a job when I thought I would have another year until I needed to start. It was at this low point that I followed my husband’s recommendation and started reading ‘The Alchemist,’ the story of a young shepherd from Spain who sets out on a quest to find his treasure, buried in the pyramids of Egypt. Along the way things range from going really great to sucking pretty badly, with everything from successfully evading desert henchmen to getting all of his money stolen the first day he arrives in a city. In the book, there is a lot of talk of finding your Personal Legend, with it frequently mentioned that ‘when you work for your Personal Legend, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.’
I thought about the shepherd these past few weeks, a person brave enough to leave his happy home and venture forth for his dream. I pondered if by changing my mindset at this potential juncture in my life that looking for a new job could feel the same way. While I am still nervous about what happens next, I am trying on a new attitude for my job hunt: envisioning the search as an opportunity to think about what I want my career to look like next and what I can do to get there.
While working out exactly what my Personal Legend is will probably take a while, in thinking about my current career and where I want it to go in the future, I’ve realized that I like research, but don’t always love it. I enjoy doing good work and in working hard, I enjoy making connections, and I enjoy talking about research and hearing other people get excited about my work or their own. In looking back on the moments of my own career that stood out the most, it wasn’t the number of publications or how many people attended my conference talks: it was bringing ideas and findings together to tell a story, and it was listening to other people’s excitement and enthusiasm about science that kept me at it.
For this reason I’ve decided not only to look for post-docs or research-oriented positions (as I still enjoy what I do and want to keep doing it while I can), but also to keep an open mind and send in a letter (or seven) for science outreach, public engagement, and science writing positions as well. It might be a tough sell in terms of my experience vs what other more traditional candidates bring to the table, but I figured it’s worth a go, and might even lead me to my own bit of treasure at the end of the desert (someday, at least!). And while it may seem like a long-shot at the moment, I’m not the first person with a Ph.D. who’s thought about doing something else, so if other people can do it then so can you (and I)!
As I go through my own rounds of applications and cover letters, and trying to keep myself motivated and not become overly pessimistic about the situation, I’ve come up with a few talking points on how to get through the job application process. I’ll refer to them as talking points instead of tips, since ‘tips’ would imply previous success, which in my case has still yet to be determined:
- Never stop looking but keep your focus. I have a favorite couple of job websites that I peruse on a bi-weekly basis; if you're in the UK and looking to stay in academia or a university setting, then jobs.ac.uk is a great place to start. If you have a university or area in mind and are looking for academic prospects you can also check directly on a university’s website. I have a tendency to just start opening tabs on everything that sounds vaguely promising, but then make it an effort to select the best few and make a note of when the application is due so I don’t miss the deadline. It keeps me aware of the jobs that are out there, with new ones coming in to my view a weekly basis, but in the end I don’t apply for all of them and instead focus on ones that seem the most interesting or the best match to my profile.
- Don’t be afraid to go outside your comfort zone, or qualifications. You can easily tell if you’re not qualified for a position if they name an essential degree or X number of years of experience that you don’t have, but for a lot of entry-level type of work, the requirements are a bit more vague. Even if you feel that your application would be a bit of a stretch—for example, maybe the position is in the health sciences and your degree was in Ecology—don’t be afraid to go for it anyways. You can highlight the other parts of your profile that are a strong match and how your unique skillset is a good fit for the role, even if you’re not a 100% match on paper. The good news is that if you over-extend yourself, it’s not going to come back and bite you. You won’t get in trouble or have to pay any application fees if you apply for a job you don’t get. And if you never applied for the job in the first place, you definitely wouldn’t have had a chance. So the odds are in your favor to just go for it and see what happens!
- Read the post in detail and learn about the company/organization. You only get a resume/CV and a cover letter to get your foot in the door with an interview, so how you set things up and the words you use really matter. If the position calls for a specific technical skillset, then make sure that’s clear and upfront on your CV. If the job is looking for someone with managerial or leadership experience, put any work you’ve done in extracurricular leadership, volunteer activities, or certifications/courses that fit the role. If the job description mentions that they need someone who’s good at ‘strategic planning,’ then bring this phrase into your cover letter with a short description of how it applies to you. Having the key sections or phrases laid out for the application reviewer to see easily can give you a leg up when it comes to making the first cut.
- Have someone critique your letter and resume, and if possible use a different person each time. Before you send your carefully crafted letter and CV, have a friend or colleague take a look at it. And by ‘friend’ we don’t mean your friend who tells you that everything you do is full of sunshine and rainbows. In this situation, you need a friend who will be honest in telling you if the way you phrase something doesn’t make sense, if your letter is too long/too short, if things need rearranging, etc. Having a friend with a critical eye at this stage can help you beat the more severe critics later on down the line. If possible, for each letter try to get two people to read it over, as having another perspective can help you find things that aren’t clear or readable, and your second reader may find something that the first one missed.
- You’ll get a lot of ‘We regret to inform you’ replies…and that’s OK! Even when it’s a job you weren’t really that excited about, getting the email that you didn’t even make it to the interview stage will deal a small blow to your motivation and confidence. Unfortunately, part of the process of applying for jobs involves not getting a lot of the jobs, and being constantly rejected is not something that any of us enjoys. It is frustrating, but it’s just part of the process. I recently heard that a friend of mine from grad school who recently became a professor went through 17 unsuccessful job applications before he got his current, tenure-track job. I’m sure none of those 17 rejections was fun or desirable, but in the end he got to somewhere good and likely learned a lot about the process along the way.
- Get feedback if you can. Whether it’s an application that didn’t get through the interview stage or you made it to the interview but didn’t get the position, ask for feedback on yourself and your application. You might not get feedback every time, but when you do, the information can be helpful for figuring out what you need to address or bring forward more in a future application. Just like with the amount of rejection you’ll likely encounter, it will be hard to read critiques on you and your work, so try to look at the words as a means to move forward and to grow from the experience as a whole.
- If you have a type of job in mind, do some informal interviews to get some behind-the-scenes info. Sometimes the key to getting into a new field or area of research is to get info from someone behind the front lines. Especially if you have an idea of where you’d like to end up, find a mentor from your own network or cold call someone from your university/city that has the job you’d like to have someday. Set up an informational interview with them, where you can ask questions about what their job is like, how they got there, and what resume reviewers in the field are looking for as they go through pile of job applications. It won’t guarantee you a position anywhere, but having some inside information on how things work and what’s important in the field can help you have a leg up when it comes to structuring your application materials.
- Don’t forget to talk to your references beforehand. Your personal references likely won’t be contacted until later in the application review process, but before you click ‘submit’ make sure to ask them if they can be a reference and let them know the type of jobs you’re applying for. There’s not a lot of things more embarrassing then having a prospective employer call a personal reference and surprise them with news of your job searches and questions about you and your working style.
With this week’s shorter post to set you on your way, I’m back to juggling job applications while doing what I need for my current job, and looking forward to the day when I can have my writing brain back in full again. Until then, I’ll keep on putting myself out there, learning from applications that didn’t make the cut, and staying optimistic (as much as possible) in the face of what I’ll refer to as a life opportunity instead of a career challenge!
If you’re interested in additional discussions or have a question about career transitions, you can join the #withaPhD chat moderated by Jennifer Polk on Monday Feb 22nd from noon-1pm EST on the topic “Surprising jobs and careers.”