Sunday, July 31, 2011

Rumors from the Job Hunt

I am in the fortunate position to be very open about my job hunt, both that I am looking for work and for a career in general. I am fortunate because this means people all over the place are generously sharing their experiences and tidbits with me. However, if you are also a graduate student, there is a good chance that a lot of the tidbits are more like rumors. Sometimes these rumors are surprising, so I'll share these because I have no reason to distrust their sources, but I'd like to get some confirmation. If you have any reason to know better than I, please leave a comment!

Don't apply for too many different jobs at once. If you are applying to a big biotech, there is a good chance you'll see lots of jobs you think you can do, might like to try or want to know more about. If one hiring manager receives your applications for 20 positions from sales to research to tech to lead, they will assume you are unfocused and throw them all out. I'm not sure what the magic number is, but try to stay focused on specific types or responsibilities. Not sure how this sits with recruiting firms.

You don't really need to qualify for a government job. That's not totally true, you absoloutely must meet the minimum requirement; if they want a degree, you need to have one. But most government job postings will have qualifications, and Minimum qualifications. If you don't have 2 years of GS10 experience but still believe you can do the job, you need only convince the hiring manager, you may as well give it a shot.

You need to switch institutions for a post-doc. I know there are a few qualifiers on this rumor, this is only important to explain to NRSA Fellowships (although you'll inevitably apply for this if you plan to continue on the professor-training track), and if you have not switched institutions, you have space in your application to explain that choice. I am not sure what the NIH feels are compelling reasons to stay. But I am sure that at a very large research university like mine, I have not used ever opportunity for training available on campus, which is the standard argument for switching.

Do you know of other rumors? Are these ones true?

Friday, July 29, 2011

Don't forget the National Labratories!

Right now, I am taking my career search three directions:

1) I'd like to get a job in industry, probably drug discovery or development. But that is hard to do without any previous work experience.
2) I'm looking at jobs in Public Health Labs, because it would give me work experience, and exposure to the world of public health- which might tickle my fancy if I knew more about it.
3) I'm looking for a post-doc/fellowship to facilitate doing one of the above.

Why the three-pronged approach? I have no idea which of these I am capable of succeed at, so I am testing them all in parallel, as we like to say. Today, I want to focus a little more on option 3- post-docing, namely, cool places to do yours.

As I've alluded to, I am really interested in virology and infectious diseases, so I was looking for places that might give me opportunities to develop the skills to break into track 1 or 2 at some point. People often suggest the NIH or NSF as great places to develop your scientific track record, which I always pictured this as WA DC, naively forgetting about the National Labs. Namely, Rocky Mountain Labs and Oak Ridge National Labs are both places with a strong history of success in bio research. Rocky Mountain Labs houses one of the few Biosafety Level 4 labs in the country, so if you want to work on pathogens as scary as Ebola- that's the place to be! And Oak Ridge has a long history of working on bio-things, that isn't the major area of focus there now, but look around their website. There are occasionally FDA postings there, too. Both of these locations are intramurally funded, like working at the NIH, but are in less urban environments (Montana or Tennessee). There may be other labs, but these are both places I've seen postings recently. To me, this seems ideal, you can take advantage of the re$ource$ available to intramural labs, without having to put up with the busy city that sprang up around the thousands of researchers in Bethesda.

That being said, I am still a big proponent of figuring out what you need to learn/accomplish during your post-doc before you find labs that are interesting. The post-doc is supposed to be a stepping stone to other career opportunities, right? But do you have other thoughts on interesting places to do a post-doc?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Use your cover letter to score an interview

Let's take a break from this general job hunting stuff and talk about what happens after you'd found the job you'd love to do. It's time to apply, hopefully you have your CV in great shape already, so you just need to dash off a quick cover letter and submit it! Well, maybe you can do better than that. After I submitted a few cover letters that read more or less "I am pretty great, and you are looking for someone awesome, so..." or the one I wrote for the dairy fermentation tech "I brew beer, so I know a little about fermentation. And aseptic technique is a lot like food handling skills, right?" I've been looking into what really should go on a cover letter. There is lots out there about the format and etiquette of a cover letter, so let's focus on Content.

Much like the first year graduate student who answers questions to prove that they know lots, my first cover letters were very reactionary. My attempts to address how I fit the job requirements were just that, a binary assessment of the parallels between who they want, and who I am. This isn't helpful for either me or the person trying to hire me. Instead, I am trying think a little more about why there are these job requirements, and how I can help meet these same goals. The career seminar I went to last week was quite literal about it, "If you are applying to work at a company, they care about the bottom line, you need to explain how you will help turn a profit." Although it made me cringe after years of hanging out with academics, it is more valuable to show how I can meet the goals of the organization. If you are applying to a post-doc in an academic lab, the same is true (not about profit, but tone). Your letter should address how you and your experience can help the lab in general.

This gives you a bit more flexibility in how you describe your experiences- the job may say they need an expert in immunology, but really they need someone who can jump right into the histology with some understanding of immunology, and get expert along the way. (Because you should be applying for jobs that you might not be perfect for one day one.) This gives you a chance to highlight not only why you are great, but also that you understand the needs of the position and have given it serious thought. This isn't the same as selling out. Granted, if you don't agree with the goals of the organization or believe you have the skills or ambition to meet them, you shouldn't be applying. But if you can provide a good faith genuine explanation of why you are interested and will be successful in the job, you will be a stronger candidate for the jobs you actually want.

I've heard similar, more aggressive, advice for interviews. Specifically, at the interview, take the time to lay out how you'll start making an impact in the first 100 days. I don't think I have the confidence for that, but it is pretty easy to imagine how someone who could demonstrate that much interest and understanding during an interview is likely to get hired, right?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Some things I learned already about Twitter

Here is a quick update on Experiment 4: Twitter. At the aforementioned advice, I searched for science recruiters, science jobs boards and HR sites. There were actually quite a few in science. Some of these literally provide tinyurls for job postings, some of them are HR staff who send out useful links and updates on their mani-pedi. Some of them are general PR voiceboxes with occasional job info, such as @OakRidgeLabNews. Some are well followed because they are a constraint stream of cool news, like @NSF, some have as many followers as I do: @NIAIDCareers.

One thing I picked up on quickly is that with the flat social structure of Twitter, 1) you can direct tweets directly to anyone, anywhere 2) I am following a bunch of UK recruiters. It just so happens I am open to the idea of living abroad, but if you aren't, there isn't always a profile identifier to clue you in that @jobsacuk, @ScienceJobs, @ParamountRec and @PeopleInScience will only be listing European jobs.

A couple of the very active job posters I'm following are @scienceposts and @ScienceJobs, but this experiment is only a couple days old. Considering my interest in drug development, I should probably see what is on Pfizer's twitter feed, and if they have one. As I mentioned, given the flat structure, I can imagine if you were reasonably embedded in the community that this might be an easy way to direct questions to hiring managers or others (Like what is GLP?).

For now, my Twitter timeline is reading like reasonably curated job board with occasional interruptions from Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome). I still have mixed feelings about this whole experiment, mostly because I am afraid I will make a fool of myself in 140 characters or less. If this experiment were a complete success, I'd have a job, but if it were a total waste of time, I would give it up.

I'm answering all my calls

Clearly I am being too optimistic, but I have my resume/CV out so many places that anytime my phone rings, I answer it. Any email with "Job" in the subject, I read and believe me, these are mostly not fantastic job offers.

Actually, I am getting a lot of contacts from the Insurance industry. I don't know if they are hurting for warm bodies or if this is a common transition, but I wrote off "Insurance Salesman" a long time ago. I must say though, sometimes it does feel nice to say "That's just not the direction we've decided to go."

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Get it on your resume: Anatomy and Physiology

Are you interested in teaching? In teaching at a small college? Then I must encourage you to find some way to get experience with Anatomy and Physiology (A&P).

Universities and Colleges attract many students who are (or want to be) pre-med. All of these students have to take A&P, and very rarely do A&P students stay on track to become professors at these types of institutions. I've heard it from many different sources, schools all need instructors and professors for A&P. Having some experience or confidence in teaching A&P (by TAing it or taking the course) would be a major gold star on your application which you should highlight.

And if you are in a position to be teaching A&P, let me direct you towards the Human Anatomy and Physiology Society (HAPS). They offer resources for teachers and graduate credit for students who want to learn about teaching A&P. Are there other ways to get A&P credentials, if you, like most of us, are not an A&P researcher?

Monday, July 25, 2011

Jobs at the FDA- Interview with a PI

When you start getting advice about where to do a post-doc, most faculty members will tell you, "Do the best post-doc you can with the best mentor." This is very sound advice, but I haven't yet found it actually helpful. There are lots of kinds of post-docs out there, and as someone who is currently looking for more specific experience in a post-doc, I need more guidance. So I keep doing what has proved to be so helpful in my career/job hunt: I keep asking people.

One of the people I has a chance to sit down with is and FDA PI that I met at a scientific meeting. He had an abstract in the meeting book, but when I suggested his job must be a lot like working at the NIH ("C'mon, you get intramural funding, right?"), he gave me a look reserved for the naive and offered to explain it to me.

Yes, as a PI, he runs a lab with scientists who work on projects and publish in peer reviewer journals, and yes, they are funded intramurally. As an FDA scientist, his research tends to be on important issues of public interest that either aren't high impact or narrative driven enough to be performed by either academic or industry scientists. For example, recently, he tested whether the naked DNA in vaccines can be incorporated into cells, and whether this was a risk factor for transformation. He holds his lab to a similar standard as other high functioning labs, they publish about 1 paper/person/year, (although he says it might be hard to move to a faculty position afterwards because there isn't usually a defined project to take with you).

But, that is just a portion of what he does, his other major role at the FDA is to be the guy on study sections where the data from clinical trials is weighed for FDA approval. Companies think they've found a miracle drug, collect a decade or so of data, and then the whole giant pile (imagine him, holding his hand a meter off the ground to demonstrate) gets sent for review to people like him. They read through it, both to make sure that all of the appropriate experiments have been done and regulations met (and he will ask for more if something is missing) and to think very critically about the science. Much like being a program officer, the FDA trusts that the best reviews come from someone who is actively doing research (although there are also people who do full time review with no bench component). This is a severe peer review, and because the stakes are so high, he is really passionate about the role he serves in this important but bureaucratic process. And, he told me, they need more people in these roles- if you post-doc at the FDA, you get some training in how to read these types of documents and make recommendations- the regulatory science aspect. As PIs tend to do, he made it seem straight-forward to transition from a post-doc to a staff scientist position that would have a regular commitment to the regulatory aspect of the job. He likes the dual nature of his job, he goes to both science meetings (where I met him) and regulatory science conferences, and sends people in his lab to both as well.

How can you pursue this type of job? If you want to enter as a post-doc, the usual post-doc route is open to you. Investigate the PI of interest, send them a letter and start a dialogue. It probably would help for you to be clear about your interest in learning about regulatory review. I've just run across this fellowship program for research/review training in oncology, there may be others like it for different broad fields. This particular program is for those with 3 years of post-doc experience, and the fellowship program suggests you will "develop skills of value to academia, the pharmaceutical industry, and government agencies." And this was his main complaint (although you should see it as an opportunity), the people who get trained to read these documents at government wages tend to get lured away to write them at drug company wages.

Here is a list of the many FDA opportunities, for everyone from current students to research faculty. I'll point out that a lot of these positions are in Washington DC, but there are some at the Oak Ridge National Labs, and I've seen various FDA jobs pop up all over the country on USAJobs (particularly inspectors).

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Experiment 4: Twitter?

The test of a great idea: if you are embarrassed to explain it to a blog you don't think anyone is reading, it might not be one. Whatever, I promised you foibles- consider this a return on investment.

Regardless, in the interest of exploring the resources available to me as a scientist for finding a job, I've just signed up for Twitter. You are probably thinking the same thing I thought when my dear uncle first mentioned it to me: Score a job off twitter? No thanks, I want a legitimate career. But it keeps coming up. Most eloquently on this post as biojobsblog, which includes a quick tutorial on what you might be doing to use twitter to your advantage. The summary, find people giving out job information, re-tweet liberally, and this should gain you fame and affection, both of which may help you get an interview. It misses the key feature about interacting with recruiters though; if a recruiter is good at placing people in jobs they like, they constantly need new people for the empty jobs they have to fill. You are the commodity they need, so make yourself open and available (and don't tweet anything you'd be embarrassed to say in real life). I'll talk more about recruiters in the future, but for now, yes, job hunting via twitter seems to be a thing in general. But does it work for scientists?

While I don't have the Recruiting Animal's zeal for gaining twitter fame and popularity, I was surprised to see that there are a number of Science Recruiters on twitter who appear to use twitter for that sole purpose. I'll keep an update on this running experiment. With luck, science recruiters will be filling the space between Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Zimmer with hints and leads I will share with you.

In the meantime, feel free to follow me on twitter @SandlinSeguin

Experiment 3: Job Fairs

On the short list of ways to get a job I am not convinced work for scientists, "Job Fairs" come right behind "Dropping your CV off at some internet black hole." This is certainly because I've been going to the wrong job fairs, and quite likely because I have no idea what I am doing there. Regardless, I am compelled to share with you my take and experience on this- I might not be great at sniffing out every job opportunity, but I have scored some interviews after job fairs.

I recently went to a "National Careers Fair" which is not as giant as you might expect. Regardless, I followed all the usual advice. Once the list of employers attending was listed, I look up the opportunities available at each website. I used that information to tailor my resume (in this case more transferable skills than literal science), printed an excessive number (in this case 5), put on my nicest clothes and headed in with a faceful of optimism. Of the 12 employers, I found 3 I wanted to talk to, and because I am a sissy, an extra one I wanted to "warm up with." (Tell me about the opportunities available at your insurance company...) It is really hard to just walk up to someone and explain who you are as a scientist. Even though recruiters at job fairs are usually very friendly, something about swimming in a sea of sweaty suited people tries my confidence.

The ideal interaction here would be for you to introduce yourself with a smile and a firm handshake, and then give the two sentence explanation of who you are that prompts the recruiter to want to pepper you with questions about what a great fit you are for the company. Lately I've been trying variations on "Hello, I am a recent graduate with a Ph.D. in molecular virology. I've spent the last 5 years doing drug discovery, and I am very interested in using my skills in drug development" or "I am a biologist with a Ph.D., I am very good at understanding complex technical information and communicating it and I am excited to help you better connect your clients with the information you create..." I find it difficult to be specific, but still imply I am flexible about the type of opportunities I am looking to pursue. For example, when I have tried the "Hello, I am a scientist, can you tell me about opportunities you have for people like me," the recruiter will usually panic- People like you? Who are you? Imagine being that recruiter, they are facing an unending sea of slightly desperate but highly skilled people and they are probably there to fill a variety of jobs. Don't forget your audience, help them help you.

My most recent success was when I approached a large Clinical Trials Contractor that focuses on drug development. Although the HR person was not recruiting people to perform trials (she was looking for healthy controls), she gave me the names of the places that usually award them contracts, since those large pharmaceutical companies might be hiring. Arguably, this is more successful than the interview I scored with a growing Midwestern software development company from the Pitt Career Fair.

Because if we are going to be perfectly honest about what happens at a job fair, most of the interactions I've had, the recruiter/HR person will recommend I check out the jobs posted on their website. As I said, I did that already. They might rattle off some variation from the About Us page, and they are vary rarely looking to fill a variety of positions that are appropriate for a Ph.D. They are really there to soak up people with Bachelor's degrees, or scout for interns. If you go to a job fair, which I still recommend you do to practice this type of professional interaction, don't expect to find a plethora of opportunities. This should liberate you to focus on what you actually want to get out of the experience.

However, I am told that major biotech hubs, like Boston or DC, have job fairs that are more targeted towards the Ph.D. set. I'd love more info on these, if you know of them or have been there.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Experiment 2: Could I be a deputy director?

One of the venues that comes up while looking for government jobs in science is Public Health. I run across postings that look interesting but are ultimately frustrating, such as Health Scientists or Public Health Microbiologists. These sound like fairly heroic jobs. Diagnose and track diseases of public health interest; these are definitely the scientists who will be called into to detect the zombie outbreak, and they are certainly responsible for tracking seasonal flu migrations. Or so I imagine: despite the fact that I am fairly sure I can run the routine diagnostics (PCR and ELISA) that these jobs call for, I don't qualify. These want some type of Public Health Microbiologist Certificate. Although I was starting to wonder who was filling up these jobs if not people with degrees in microbiology, this seemed like something people with Public Health degrees might be equipped for.

I didn't pursue that at all until this week, when one of these jobs came up somewhere I would really like to live. So I screwed up my courage, made some calls and got a sent a job announcement for a Director of the Public Health Virology Lab. Now, I know having a Ph.D. earns you a certain respect in some sectors, particularly the Family Member sector. But just because my own mother believes I am certified as smart doesn't mean any self respecting Actual Public Health expert is going to look twice at my CV. Let's be serious, I am not even sure I know what Public Health means!

Being sent a job announcement is many steps away from a firm offer, but I couldn't pry myself away from this one. This job sounds compelling, exciting and heroic in a way I'd forgotten science jobs could be! Among other things, the director is in charge of "overall budgetary and program planning, establishing goals for the State Lab, providing consultation in clinical and medical virology, preparing in-depth reports, position papers, research studies and testimony before special or regular legislative committees, and providing consultation visits." To me (and I can feel my mentors rolling their eyes in horror), this is such a spectacular job that would keep me intimately involved in Science, while allowing me to facilitate other peoples understanding of science, and all in the important context of the well being of the public. I love this job! Could I possibly do it? Can you really go straight from Recent Graduate to Lab Director?

Actually, both the Vice Chancellor of Research and the State Director of Public Health were very happy to talk to me about this position (Lesson learned, just make a quick phone call), and everything seemed fairly promising if I could just pass the Lab Director Certification. The certification for this job (and similar Public Health positions) are Board certifications, not additional degrees. Not unlike the "Boards" that instill so much fear in training Medical Doctors, there is a governing body that sets a standard for the field, which in most cases includes a combination of experience and passing an exam. The governing body for each agency sets the standard, and lest you think that you cannot meet this standard without more training, I would encourage you to check out the specific requirements for each job.

For this particular job, I would need to pass the High Complexity Lab Director Boards- Try the American Board of Bioanalysts for details. In addition to the exam, it requires 2-4 years of Clinical Experience (working with humans or human tissues), and an advanced degree. Some states have their own institutions for certifications, I suggest you look at the State Department of Public Health for more information.

This in and of itself is not that mind blowing. Its a job hunter's catch-22, how do I get certified for a job that requires experience in the job to get the certification? What blew my mind was this: to work at the state public health lab, you need to be certified at the end of your one year probationary period. That's right, you can get one year of experience, and THEN take your certification exam. This may not be news to other people who have had jobs before, but it really made me feel like there were a lot more opportunities for me out there- not just ones that require certifications. Of course I won't be perfect for the job on the first day, but I can absolutely apply for jobs I know I could GET good at in short order. I found it quite liberating, even though I don't quite qualify for this dream job yet.

Jobs at NIH- Interview with a Presidental Management Fellow

This week I had a very informative informational interview with a Presidential Management Fellow (PMF). The PMF program was designed to encourage graduate students from many disciplines to develop leadership potential, specifically in government. This is a fantastic oppurtunity to rotate through a variety of experiences in government agencies. If you are interested in this program, you should know that this fellowship has an academic timeline, and that you MUST start the process while still a graduate student. Which is why I'm not going to say anything else about the fellowship, I'm not eligible, and that isn't what we talked about.

What we did talk about were non-bench positions for scientists at the NIH. In the past, when I have mentioned that I am interested in science policy, my well-intentioned mentors always put me in touch with their Program Officer (PO). If you don't have a trusted working relationship with your PO, you may be missing out- this is the person who receives your grant after submission, finds reviewers, and a study section and ultimately recommends it for funding. This person is also inevitably a former tenured professor who has the credibility and experience to deal with the diversity of challenges at this job. This is a really interesting way to be involved with shaping research in this country, but I am rather more interested in a job I could get this decade, so PO has been off my list for a long time. (I am exaggerating- not all NIH Institutes require POs to be tenured faculty.) Also, this is more of a policy implementation position- funding objectives are already set and these blessed souls are responsible for finding some way to meet those objectives.

Perhaps now is a good time to mention my motivations for looking at policy at all. I have the impression that Science should be used for good, and that the tax payers who have funded the ~$250,000 investment in my training deserve some return on that investment. Further, I feel strongly that a strong nation must build policy based on credible science, and that not every politician may be in a position to understand that Science. I see a real need for scientists to get involved in policy development, both as Science for policy and policy for Science.

I had heard that this particular contact was also a Ph.D. in biology and planned to stay at the NIH after the fellowship. In fact, she told me that there were many jobs, policy or otherwise, at the NIH that could be filled by someone without post-doc experience. Specifically, each of the 27 NIH institutes has some type of office for Policy, Communication and/or Program Planning. This office is full of people with job titles like Legislative Liaison or Policy Analyst, who can be involved in policy development. As a recent graduate with minimal other experience, I should keep an eye out for jobs in the GS-11 or possible GS-12 grade. As expected, these jobs are always posted at USAJobs.

She also recommended that a common way scientists end up in policy is through one of the fellowship programs designed to help with the transition (such as the PMF). The most common is the AAAS fellowship, but she sent me this link to a host of others. These are all quite competitive, and strong applicants have some demonstrated interest in policy or evidence of leadership skills.

Career sites I am using

I applied for my first job in January 2011, and have become very aggressive in my job search for the last couple months. Now that I've defended my Ph.D., I am acutely aware of the need to get a job, and feeling profoundly naive about how to do that.

Here is a quick list of the job sites that I have used or have profiles on. I want to put this up early in the game because one thing I really wish I had done a long time ago, maybe even before I went to graduate school, was to look at jobs I might want to get some day. If I'd had a job in mind I wanted to do, it might have helped me to focus of developing the skills that would make me a better candidate to do the jobs I am interested in. For example, being a Health Scientist with the CDC sounds really exciting, and as a molecular virologist, I am confidant I could do that job. But I would make the CDC much more confident if I had some experience working with human specimens or doing clinical research.

Check out some of these places. I promise to explain later the government bent, but for now, just peruse a few of these places. And if there are other sites or job boards you've found helpful, please add them in the comments! (Caveat: I can't confirm that all of these are high brow business entities, please use your own judgement).

Government Sites
Job boards
General Recruiters

Experiment 1: Writing a blog

This has been a strange week with regard to my job hunt. There were highs and lows and I've learned such an inordinate amount in between. Really, this very week I applied for a job as a cheesemaker in the Netherlands, was nearly recruited to a faculty position in the Arctic, and finally figured out which Series and Grade a Ph.D. qualifies for in a federal job (GS 11, 12 if you've postdoced). Initially, I thought this all would just make for an interesting chapter in my memoirs, but I didn't want to wait until I am old to share what I've learned with my peers and colleagues who might benefit from my experience. And some of this stuff I simply want to get off my chest without boring my friends and family.

On the blog, I'll try to cover:
1) Exciting and less well known jobs of interest to scientists (especially biologists).
2) Career skills worth developing, and resources to do that.
3) My personal foibles in the job hunt.
It may be a bit trial and error from here, but as a scientist, I am interested in logging my explorations and sharing my findings with my peers. This will certainly all be colored by my particular career goals and interests, but I would like somewhere to collect the information I know would be valuable to someone else's career search.