Contributor Scott Chimileski
No matter how tough you are, everyone needs a little pep-talk once in a while. Dr. Peter S. Fiske, science communicator and CEO of PAX Water Technologies, Inc., knows exactly what it is like enter and navigate a complex and sometimes challenging scientific job market. After paving his own way through many jobs and career advancements, Dr. Fiske offered advice to early career scientists by suggesting 6 strategies for “putting your science to work.”
Twenty years after finishing a PhD at Stanford, Dr. Fiske has seen the number of available science positions rise and fall several times. Like any market, the job market is cyclical. And for that reason, he believes that no matter what the career landscape looks like right now, “you will find a great job, really, you will.” All researchers finishing a PhD in the life sciences need is some good advice and a little confidence boost.
Strategy #1: Know yourself
Science jobs aren’t generic, and neither are you. Every position is suited for some personality types and backgrounds. There are many positions you can fill and companies you can work for; your goal as a job seeker should be to find a job that maximises your strengths, and even your weaknesses. A certain personality trait, interest or value viewed as negative in the context of one position could be your stand out factor in another.
Every job search should begin with some serious brainstorming and self-assessment. Ask yourself questions. What projects or tasks have brought out the most in you? When have you been the happiest or most effective in a work environment? What did you not like about the jobs you have had?
Keeping a career development journal can help you collect your thoughts and recognise patterns. As a physical object, it can serve as a constant reminder of your professional goals. To get the most out of your journal, be sure to include entries on the career events you attend, interviews you conduct and information you gather about companies.
Strategy #2: Know your worth
Getting a PhD always comes with some degree of personal struggle. You set out to discover something new, and when you started, you had little idea how you would do this. By the time you finish, you will have survived a few natural highs and lows. Despite your advanced degree, you may lack confidence. Although you have expertise in a specialised area, you now know that the more you know, the more questions there are. You have also been so fixated on a narrow scientific objective, that you may overlook the many additional skills you have acquired during your training.
In actuality, you are much more than just a research scientist and you are qualified to work outside the scope of your PhD thesis. In fact, you have some of the highest valued skills in today’s work environment. You have built something that never existed before with limited resources. This experience has prepared you to stay in an academic setting, to become an entrepreneur or to pursue a variety of other career paths. You are an intelligent and independent problem-solver, a teacher, a writer and a public speaker. You have experience working in teams. You have developed interpersonal skills enabling you be productive in a high stress environment or with sometimes difficult people. Feel accomplished. Make sure you are conscious of all of your skills, and present yourself with confidence.
Strategy #3: Know your friends
Networking is nothing more than developing relationships with people. You already have a network, even if you don’t realise it. Your network starts with your friends and family, and as a scientist, you have been networking for years. Every time you have talked to another scientist at your poster, went out to lunch with an invited speaker, or worked with colleagues at your university, you have been networking. It is often not the people in your network, but the people in their networks that can help get you a job. Finding a job is a somewhat stochastic process, so, the larger your network, and the more people you interact with, the faster you will find the right position.
Strategy #4: Show yourself well
You have accomplished a lot, and you need mechanisms for communicating what you have done to your peers and potential employers. You have probably already compiled a traditional resume or CV, and making sure these traditional documents are well-crafted is important. However, a LinkedIn profile and a bio may also be tremendously helpful.
A bio is a three paragraph narrative form of the same information in your CV, and is a great way to present yourself objectively not just as a job-seeker, but as a professional. In today’s job market, most hiring managers recommend having a LinkedIn account. LinkedIn is a great way to grow your network, and may also lead to opportunities available through your current network, by giving you a sense for who your friends already know. For example, you may suddenly realise that your aunt works for a company that also offers positions in your area of expertise, and you may be able to set up a meeting with someone at that company through a simple phone call.
Strategy #5: Informational interviews
Informational interviewing is a job-finding strategy that has not been implemented widely within the PhD community. Many graduate students have not heard of informational interviews: these are nothing more than conversations, short meetings with people at a potential future workplace, initiated not by a specific job posting, but to learn more about a career path, an industry or a corporate culture. Informational interviewing has been an accepted way of building a network among medical doctors, lawyers and the business community for some time. It is best not to approach these informal meetings explicitly looking for a job. However, after a number of informational interviews, most people are able to find a position indirectly.
Strategy #6: Show your best self
Like any educational background, both positive and negative cultural stereotypes are associated with PhDs. Are you a rebel? A lone-wolf? An idealist? Impractical about time? A genius? Some of these qualities (like your perceived supernatural intelligence!), you will want to leverage further, whereas the negative associations are largely superficial and can be easily dispelled. Be sure to present yourself professionally in an interview; have personal stories negating unflattering stereotypes at the ready, as well as examples showcasing leadership skills, team-building experience or your ability to complete a project on time.
If you take these six strategies seriously, you will have a great job in no time. Reflect on all of the skills you have gained, realise your strengths as a scientist and communicate your achievements. Write a bio, make a LinkedIn profile, and aim to go on at least a few informational interviews per month as you research companies and expand your network. You won’t even believe where you will be ten years from now.
Based on the keynote talk presented by Dr. Peter S. Fiske, CEO of PAX Water Technologies, Inc., at the Naturejobs Career Expo in Boston, MA, May 20, 2014.
#NJCEBoston journalist competition winner Scott Chimileski is a PhD candidate in Genetics at the University of Connecticut. Scott studies biofilms, extracellular DNA, and gene transfer in extremophilic archaea. He is interested in all forms of interaction between microbes and promotes the field of social microbiology on his blog, Animalcule. He is passionate about photography and the connection between art and science. In the summer, Scott likes to backpack through remote wilderness with his sister Lindsay and brothers Andrew and Brock