Regular readers of this blog (all five of you, guys) have probably noticed that nothing appeared here in the past two months. As one could guess from the energy conservation law, my activity was mainly concentrated offline during this time. As a quick summary, I have left academia and landed an industry job as a research chemist in a small biotech company. And, quite surprisingly, this blog played a crucial role in this dramatic transition.
I have started looking for job about a year ago, and firmly decided that I will move from academia into industry. This decision helped to stay focused during the job search campaign. Although I should confess that I had a couple of weakness moments when I considered to do another postdoc*. My plan A was to find a research-related job, and plan B was to explore some alternative career options in industry. Since plan A worked, I don’t have too much to share about the plan B. Below are some ideas that I learned during the last year, organized in a form of advise that I would give to my past self.
1. Papers are not everything
While working in academia, we learn that publications are the ultimate measure of success, if not the only one. Ask any professor, and they’ll repeat this mantra again and again. But think about it, they succeeded in academic environment and carried this value system through their entire career. They probably want to give the best advice they can. But the problem is that it’s not as helpful outside of academic domain. Even worse, it actually is misleading. Focusing on getting the papers instead of training other skills easily substitutes the goal for the means and drives one off the shortest path to getting a job. Don’t get me wrong, papers are important but their marginal value for the purpose of getting invitation for interview decreases pretty quickly.
2. Ask for help but rely on yourself
If you are lucky and your boss supports you in the job search, cool. You’ll most definitely get your first phone interview pretty quickly. However, more typical situation is when your professor is not that supportive. In the latter case your journey to the interview will be longer. But you’ll eventually get to that point somehow because − guess what − nobody cares about recommendation letters from you previous boss! So while having the recommendation will help, not having one is not a disaster.
So where can one get help if not from the advisor? Turns out, there is a whole industry out there, helping confused PhDs to get the jobs outside the academia. If there is supply, there must be demand, right? So you are not alone. Learning this simple fact helped me a lot in overcoming self-doubt and frustration of everyday postdoctoral life. I attended a couple of career development events and they really helped in building up my self-esteem and confidence in chosen career path. In the solitude of the lab, it’s easy to become disheartened after countless failed experiments, so everyone needs to get a little cheering up and self-appreciation. Even though sometimes such events resemble support groups for alcoholics.
And don’t forget to leverage you network, no matter how small it is. Without support of my previous advisors, collaborators, colleagues, and friends I’d probably never get to the finish line. But be prepared that nobody will tell you exact recipe how to get a job. Because there is none. So you’ll need to come up with your own way. The most popular pieces of advice I heard were to build my own network, to do something special (like writing a blog), and to master ‘soft skills’.
3. Communication matters
Many job vacancies demand ‘communication skills’ as a necessary asset. When I tried to figure out what does that mean in the very beginning, I was given a couple of laughable explanations. Something like ‘we all can speak, so we all have communication skills’. This explanation is so harmful because it makes one to ignore this set of skills at all. The difference between speaking and good communication is like difference between knowing something and being able to explain it clearly to others. Or like having a skill and being able to persuade someone else that you actually have it. I learned it hard way, from the confused feedback the interviewers gave me.
4. Learning from failures
Applying for a job in many aspects is very similar to setting up an experiment. For instance, both activities rarely give the optimal outcome from the very first time. So in the next attempt you can tweak your cover letter or resume, add or remove some slides from the presentation, change the tone of you voice or whatever you feel was a problem. The worst strategy would be to leave everything as it is and hope that the next time it will work. So be more Bayesian, less frequentist, and get as much feedback as possible. And be prepared for lots of failures. My overall statistics were following: 60 applications, 8 phone interviews, 2 on-site interviews, 1 job offer. The distribution of phone interviews (I got half of them in the last two months of job-searching campaign) makes me think that eventually I learned how to sell myself in the job market. And this was learning by doing.
5. Catch your personal Black Swan
One can regard getting the first job offer as a sort of positive Black Swan moment amidst outnumbering rejections. To catch my Black Swan, I diversified the strategies as much as possible. I was applying for advertised positions on LinkedIn, visiting some networking events, sending unsolicited applications, and writing this blog. While the purposes of the first three approaches were straightforward, I had no clue how would writing a blog help me to get a job. Obviously, I could list it as an example of my communication skills, but it seemed to be rather low output for the commitment. Honestly who would choose out of two equally qualified chemists the one who writes a blog? Yet it worked, but in a different way. The blog served as a proxy for online networking. Frankly, I’ve got only one connection out of it but it was all I needed.
Several times I’ve been given advice not to apply for advertised positions and to focus on networking. While I do agree that building professional network is crucial, I can’t completely deny the sporadic applications for interesting positions. It’s because I was very close to getting a job after online application without any connections in the company. I just screwed up on-site presentation and delivered a wrong message.
Does this mean that everyone should write a blog now? Of course not. My story was a lucky coincidence. But if I didn’t start this blog, it would never happen.
* Thanks to my friends who persuaded me not to do this wrong step.