Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Finding a job/postdoc during graduate school

In the recent reader request thread, MB writes: 
As a young graduate student, I would love some advice on how and when to participate in certain "career milestones" so that I can at least be proactive about my job prospects later on. For instance, if I want to pursue an academic career, what should I be doing at certain points in graduate school, at what point should I start thinking about post-docs, when should I apply for them, and how should I go about finding them, etc, and how does this compare to an industrial route? Once graduate school is done, how can I put myself in the best position not to be unemployed? We see a lot of forecasting on this blog and a lot of "what to do after the fact," but I would find it really useful to have some perspective on how to pre-empt some of these issues.
There's a lot of good questions in there. The basic gist is this: you need to start preparing for post-graduate school employment at least a year in advance, if not more. 

If you want to go the academic route, I believe that you're supposed to send your application package (cover letter, CV, research summary) to your professor a year before you'd like be there. (This means, of course, that you need to have a decent idea of when you're done with your thesis, when your committee is agreeable for you to defend, etc.) It also means that you need to have to have accomplished something of substance by that point; a couple of papers' worth of material is probably a nice minimum goal to shoot for, although some of our more august readers will probably say that you need more. 

For the industrial route, there's probably not too much difference between what I've laid out for the academic route. That said, larger companies tend to hire on a cycle that starts with campus interviews and other applications in the autumn and ends up with site interviews (and hiring!) in the winter and spring.* The academics tend to go off of a "rolling admissions" basis, to borrow a phrase from the undergraduate admissions world. 

Readers, what do you think of my recommendations? What would you recommend to MB? 

*That also means (for site interviews) that you need to be able to give a 45 minute presentation on your work. 

8 comments:

  1. Stewie Griffin:
    I knew I was going the industry route, and I began my search one full year ahead of when I planned to graduate. So I started in June thinking I'd graduate the following May. I really didn't hear much back at all until about December from folks other than a few follow up emails asking me some basic screening questions. That time was really useful though since it forced me to get my resume/CV all spiffy, get comfy writing cover letters, connecting with people on Linkedin, etc.
    By December I had some phone interviews and lots of interest from recruiters for 6 mo contract positions, but nobody was interested once they found out I didn't have an official date set for my defense. Futhermore, the contract positions get filled so quick that the recruiters don't wait around for you to graduate. But still I had the recruiter's contact info then and kept it for later on.
    It was at that point that I realized I needed to write my thesis and defend early than May so that I'd have a better shot. Thankfully my prof was cool with my plan to write in Jan and defend in March, with the plan being that I would stick around till May/June doing research and looking for a job.
    Well after I defended I immediately updated my careerbuilder and linkedin resume and was quickly contacted by a local recruiter. I took a contract position (I left school in April. Early than my prof and I had planned, but thankfully my prof was cool about it. Plus I already had the degree). From the contract position I was able to continue the job search and finally found a full-time position.
    So take what you can from that story if it helps. I should say that it helps a ton when your prof is understanding about what you're doing and when they fully understand how bad the economy is. Good luck.

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  2. If a postdoc is what you are looking for the typical rule of thumb is apply 12-18 months in advance (that means start getting your potential PI list together in end of year 3 early year 4 - if you are lucky to still be on a 5 yr PhD plan). This allows your potential new PI to see whether there is space/funding for you. Or if you get rejected then you have plenty of time to move onto your next choice. Also regarding the funding issue, this gives you plenty of time to write and apply for fellowships. I highly recommend this route because as I have found personally in my post-doc is that although I am grateful that I am being paid by my PI, I make far less in salary and am beholden to "his time frame" for my exit (i.e. I'm on an extended stay). You need to be careful in the post-doc search and see the time and placement associated with given PIs former post-docs. You don't want to end up as underpaid and overqualified "hands" who will only end up with a job at some start-up you could have gotten with your plain vanilla PHD.

    All this said, the process is a balancing act between current PI-you-and next PI. And many times neither of the parties agree on the time frame of graduation/post-doc start date. But if your PI is chill like the previous poster than the process is not nearly as stressful as some of my peers have gone through.

    Hope that helps....

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  3. It's hard to put a universal shoe on this foot. When I was getting ready to graduate I was told that I should look about a year in advance for postdocs or jobs. My PI was absolutely no help, even in recommending people who I could postdoc with. I ended up spending about 11 months before I secured a postdoc, and I was happy to get it. I found out that people who graduated after me were able to secure postdocs in as little as 3 months, so it really depends.

    I took a similar approach with my postdoc and started looking for jobs after my 1st year. Again, my PI wasn't helpful on this end, but he was more willing to try than my grad PI and he was very supportive of my plan. Unfortunately, he only knew other PIs who I could do a 2nd postdoc with, and I wasn't interested in that. I spent quite some time looking and secured a position after 9 months (with some very close calls in between).

    I will re-iterate that my journey is unique and yours will be too. A big part of the 11 months I spent looking for postdocs was scouring job websites and figuring out employment trends, how to network, and how to construct a good resume/CV/cover letter. If you have a more senior grad student who can help you with these things, it'll go a long way towards making your hunt a bit easier. I think CJ did an entry a little while back asking people to critique his resume and post examples of their own, that'd be an excellent resource for you too.

    Most importantly, don't be afraid to reach out to people and ask for help. There was a point that I was getting so many calls for interviews that I was having trouble balancing all of them, so I started contacting people from my grad program to see if they might be interested in any of them. When I was a grad student I thought people would find me annoying if I contacted them just for help getting a job. But I can safely say from the other side of the fence, I'm happy to help people however I can (sadly, these days it's not much).

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  4. Hey MB -

    I'll start by echoing several of the thoughts the first few commenters made: 12-18 months is a good timeframe (think middle of the 4th year), and a good looking CV, research summary, cover letter, and presentation are absolute musts.

    If you're unsure of where to begin, LinkedIn is my favorite way to learn about smaller companies. Find out where members of your group / school end up. Go to their corporate websites, see what the job descriptions entail. Craft cover letters specifically for each position's needs. If you don't have the requisite experience, consider holding back your application, and figure out how to acquire the necessary skills! Collaborate with others in your department, write a review, chair a student committee, etc, etc.

    If academia is your calling, make sure it's a "vertical" post-doc move, i.e. to a better school or a more experienced advisor. Consider how you might want to fund your postdoc, and begin applications to NSERC, NSF, ACS, etc early on. Read the scientific literature closely, so you can be sure of where the "hot fields" are and how to discuss them with recruiters.

    Above all, if you don't want to be unemployed, I'd suggest three things: read, publish, network. Read everything related to your field and the current job climate (blogs, magazines, career office lit, reviews). Publish when you can, even if it means working more or trying "back of the hood" chemistry. For extra credit, writing blogs, newspaper articles, anything else counts. Network with everyone - no such thing as a bad job contact. Your chemical supplier, your safety officer, your school admin, your other group members. "Friends of friends" become critical when you look for jobs later on.

    Good luck!

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  5. Search committees are composed of human beings who usually have a lot of applications. No matter how good you are, you might still slip though the cracks. So my advice is that you get your foot in the door by contacting members on the committee, (without becoming a pest that is). Then your name is known a bit better and you might move to top few who are called for interviews. So after a strong application, you need to do a bit of social marketing of yourself.

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  6. Get hold of a copy of "How to get a Ph.D." and "A Ph.D. is not enough. I discovered them at the end of my time at grad school, and they seem to contain a lot of useful advice.

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  7. Although I have not applied for any jobs for a long time I can perhaps offer some thoughts based on my experience over 20 years or more of the other side of the employment scene within the general (non-pharma)chemical industry.

    When faced with a pile of CVs, perhaps 100 or more you need to do a (very) quick weeding out, rejecting the obvious non-starters, perhaps leaving 10 or 12 for further consideration. Does anyone stand out? Either because of their relevant expertise or because they work for a competitor whose products you know, or perhaps their CV shows some spark of life which you can direct into the channels in which my company is interested.

    After thinking more about the CV's content I try to only take forward to a meeting around 4, but no more then 6, applicants. Anyone who bothers to 'phone to discuss the position and shows some genuine interest and knowledge gets an automatic invitation.

    The first meeting can be the decider. Personality is the key, all the qualifications and expertise in the World will not get you the job. Often within the first 5 minutes, or less it is obvious who will fit. As an employer I cannot have anyone on the team who will disrupt an organisation which may have taken years to build-up. Especially in laboratories situated on a manufacturing site, as most are, the 'works tour' quickly sorts out those who cannot relate to the operators in their overalls.
    And do not forget a job is what you make it.

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  8. Your recommendations are wise ones, indeed. This is basically about laying out the entire plan (and back-ups, too) before hitting the goal big time. A person's stay in a graduate school gives him sufficient time to decide over which career move he will partake.

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