Self-reflection, skill building, researching of job markets, and setting goals are part of a successful job search strategy.
Contributor Prital Patel
As exciting as it is to see a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel, for me the future after my medical biophysics PhD is still an apprehensive unknown. Despite having spent over half a decade specializing in an infinitesimal aspect within the grand scope of science, in some ways, I do feel that the range of options of what I can pursue, be it entrepreneurship, academic science or law, are as open to me as they were before I started picking classes at 16. What I have repeatedly learnt from attending career talks is that a PhD arms you with a number of transferable skills that make you amenable to many jobs and job settings. This then begs the question: How can PhDs or postdocs be more strategic about their job search?
In February this year I co-chaired the 11th annual networking reception for the Life Sciences Career Development Society (LSCDS) at the University of Toronto. I invited Lauren Celano from Propel Careers to give a keynote speech on the job market and strategies for successful job searches (she also gave a great talk about informational interviewing). Although the scope of the talk centred on life sciences, many of the strategies discussed can be extrapolated to other fields of expertise.
A strategic job search requires an amalgamation of self-reflection, proactive skill building, research of job markets and organizations, and setting goals. Celano pointed out that PhDs have a whole ecosystem of companies in which they can secure employment, including companies of different sizes that they can work for (global, local, large, medium, and small) and different types of companies (biotechnology, venture capital, law firms, marketing and communications etc.). Celano articulated some useful strategies for making informed decisions in a job search. I found them particularly helpful, so I wanted to share them with you.
Strategy #1: Self-reflection
Career searching is a journey. Start by asking yourself the right questions: what are you passionate about?; what do your peers think you are good at?; what motivates you?; and what location do you want to be in? Evaluating where your interests lie is important in determining whether the position you land, academic or not, will ultimately be a fulfilling one.
Strategy #2: Identifying and developing sought after skills
Once you’ve realized what it is you want to do, it’s time to think about how you’re going to get to that next stage. BioTalent Canada’s 2013 report looks at what skills companies predict will most likely be needed in the next three years. The top three skills were leadership, interpersonal skills and business development.
Building those skills in academic settings can be done quite readily. To develop teamwork skills, you could participate in multidisciplinary projects, collaborate on experiments with lab members, and be active in groups such as academic committees and industry associations. Leadership skills can be developed by taking initiatives to train students/interns, lead projects with industry partners, setting up new techniques and protocols and providing scientific input for non-profit organizations.
I spoke to some of our guests at the networking reception to find out what Canadian leaders (and probably those from other countries too) look for in potential employees. “Leadership and organizational skills, strong motivation and enthusiasm, and having a likeable personality,” said Peter Lau, president of Lumawiz, “It may be cliché, but it’s no longer just about standing out from hundreds of applicants, it’s more about telling your story and why you are the best fit for the job.”
Ella Korets-Smith, Principal of EKS Business Development, puts emphasis on communication skills. “The ability to effectively communicate is critical. To me this means both being able to bring across your message but even more importantly listening to other points of view,” she said. “As scientists, we have the advantage of being able to appreciate uncertainty and opportunities created by varying viewpoints, and through effective communication can add a lot of value to employers of all kinds.”
Once you’ve worked out what skills you need and what employers are looking for, it’s time to think about what employers are out there.
Strategy #3: Follow the investments
If you’re interested in where the money is, the Ernst and Young Beyond Borders report is a great source for information regarding which geographical areas raised the highest innovation and venture capital in 2013. It outlines areas of highest capital investments, for example, in the USA: New England, San Francisco Bay area, and San Diego captured 60% of all national venture capital and also raised US$9.1 billion of the US$14.8 billion in innovation capital.
In the same report, similar data are also available for Canada, with Ontario and Quebec taking the lead in total capital and venture capital raised respectively.
Strategy #4: Becoming savvy about industry and organizations
Celano recommends reading reports put out by EvaluatePharma, Ernst and Young and PWC to scope out the industries and organizations in your field of interest. “The value of these reports is that they cover many sectors and topics,” she says. “These range from specific reports such as the oncology market in Italy, to more general topics covering financing trends shaping the life sciences sectors.” She also pointed out that these reports can often help identify organizations that you can add to your target list and provide a rich context for questions to ask during informational interviews. The EvaluatePharma report, for example, shows that the highest market share and sales growth forecasts are in the oncology therapeutic area. Complimenting that data, major companies that occupy various therapeutic areas including the anti-diabetes, anti-rheumatics, vaccines, anti-virals, and oncology areas are displayed relative to percentage market share and expected sales growth.
There are many other sources you can use to identify organizations to work for. These include: connecting at conferences with exhibitors, sponsors, presenters, and conference career fairs. Journals, grant documents, industry reports, personal connections, and incubator spaces such as Mass Challenge, Tech Stars, and Dog Patch labs are other great sources you can tap into. Creating a list of organizations that you are interested in and keeping track of whether or not you have applied to those places is a great way of staying on top of job applications.
Strategy #5: Setting Goals
Setting monthly and weekly goals is key to allowing your mind to actively take charge and responsibility for your job search. These goals can include learning about a certain number of organizations per week, attending a networking event, and informational interviewing with a number of professionals. Refining your Linkedin profile, resume and elevator pitch (avoiding highly technical jargon) should also be included in your list of goals.
The Director of R&D Alliances at GlaxoSmithKline, Amyn Sayani, also shared some advice on strategic job searching at the event. He emphasized the importance of being proactive. “You have to take ownership of your own career, no one will do it for you,” he said. “Be flexible and find ways to differentiate yourself from your peers and colleagues.” He added what I thought was an excellent piece of advice to keep in mind when we find ourselves in the market for a job after a PhD or even as we move on to new positions after our first job, “While charting your career path, be aware that it may not necessarily be linear and sometimes you may have to take turns that don’t initially appear to take you to your career goal.”