Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Mixed feelings for my peers: Network!

Over the summer I caught up with a colleague, I had just defended, and was winding down my work as a bench scientist, and he was gearing up to defend.  I told him about my struggle finding a job, given my limitation that I didn't want to teach at the university level (even in the short term, I worry about getting tied to a contract) and therefore I don't want to post-doc.  But how to get an in with a company?  How do I make myself appealing? Like me, he is married to someone with a normal job, so a few months off the payroll weren't a panic for him, so he could empathize with my desire to stick to my guns on the post-doc issue.  But he said after graduating he was just gonna get a job with one of the companies his adviser consults with and enjoy living in Europe for a while.  That made me really frustrated.  Had I really mismanaged this whole process, were other people not worried about jobs??

Fast forward a few months, I still without a formal job, but managing to make my own way and quite enjoying the adventure (if not the frustration).  And his LinkedIn profile is getting an overhaul: post-docing in town and looking for a new position.  While I have to say I'm a little relieved that I didn't miss the boat here, it's not like every other graduate is having their first pick of jobs and I am out in the cold, I am frustrated for both of us.  Our training was similar enough that we both presumed we'd find jobs at drug companies, he even had some good contacts and really relevant experience.  If he can't get a job with his training, what am I supposed to do?

While others of my peers have gone on to adjunct teaching positions and post-docs, these aren't permanent positions either.  Just look at the post-docs in my old lab whose funding is running out.  Where do they go?  I'm not the first to notice this disconnect, and despite my anger and frustration for myself and my peers, I am trying to take a positive spin on it.

That is one thing about meeting more working professional scientists that gives me some faith, people DO get jobs, a Ph.D. is not unhireable.  But why must this transition be so unnavigable?  I actually thought I was well ahead of the curve on this.  I had been thinking for years about what I wanted to do, and worked on ways to indicate those interests and strengths on my CV.  I ran a networking group for grad students and post-docs to talk about learning relevant professional skills.  People often blame the ivory tower to failing to adequately prepare students for the real world.  But I am starting to get annoyed with the industry as well.  Those of us trying to do right by hiring managers and future bosses could benefit from more transparency about what they need, and how we can prepare for that.  Most of the things that distinguish my CV were things I did on my own anyway (designing my own course to be taught at night, attending conferences on science policy and algae), I was perfectly willing to go above and beyond my experience in graduate school to ensure a job at the end.  But how was I to know what to do?

I think the lesson from this is that students (at all stages of training, dear readers) should seek out successful scientists with real professional jobs to learn about what they do and how they got there.  And if someday you find yourself as a real professional scientist, please reach out to the confused graduate students who are about to navigate those choppy career waters.

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