Reader Question: Recent PhD Grad Seeks Advice on Job Hunting

Reader E has a question for the blogosphere. I am retelling the original email to better anonymize the case (as per E’s request). I think I managed to capture the gist of the experience; E, if something is incorrect, please let me know.

*******

E completed their PhD in a physical science field at a tippity-top university (ranked 1 or 2), it seems quite recently. The first three years were spent on experimental work, while E was supported on a fellowship (I am guessing NSF); by the end of the fellowship, external funds for the continuation of the project did not come through. In the meantime, the advisor took a part-time position elsewhere and has been largely unavailable to E. At the end of the fellowship, E was advised to leave due to lack of funding, then it was decided E would switch gears and do computational work (I was unclear how that was funded, I am guessing on advisor’s other funds or perhaps a TA-ship). So, E spent the last 2.5 years learning how to do computational work with the help of another senior person (not sure if another faculty or postdoc/researcher), because the advisor does not have expertise in computation.

While E completed the computational project successfully, and defended their PhD recently, they don’t feel like the PhD experience has made them competitive for jobs. “While I produced several articles (2 journals, 1 proceeding), I wouldn’t call any of them career producing (the best was a mid range journal).”

I feel like I learned how to apply a very narrow set of computational skills to an even narrower problem. I have a hard time showing employers (postdoc, industry, gov, etc…not picky at all at this stage…have a growing family and need a job) that my skill set would be beneficial to them. My advisor has no way of helping me get employed (knows no one in the computational field…) and my mentor [the person who helped get E started on the computational front] is too busy with new professional developments. I would like to know, do you offer students (without a network to rely on) and struggling to get employed how to sell themselves? I would love to stay in science, but accept the fact that it is very unlikely that someone will take a chance on me.

*******

I will leave this open for blogosphere discussion. But I can get the discussion going by sharing what I do with my students.

I tell this to all of them, early and often:

This is not MIT or the like, and I am not famous. Just getting a PhD from here with me as advisor does not magically open doors. I tell them that I am very good at what I do and we will do good science together and that they will be well trained to be good PhD scientists and communicators, technically strong, who can write and present their work. But, I tell them that I also really want them to be able to get jobs when they are done. So they are encouraged from the get-go to get an MS in another field of their choice in addition to the PhD, and to take classes in other areas. I seem to be unusual in this respect, as I recently found out — most of my colleagues seem worried about productivity and want their students focused on research 100% of the time. I don’t. After the first 2-2.5 years, the students are done with classes for the major, and the resulting lack of class-induced structure to their days and weeks can be disorienting. I strongly encourage them to take 1 and sometimes 2 classes per semester in whatever they want until they are done; not only does this increase their knowledge base and potential employability, but I strongly believe is helps productivity on their main projects (alternatively, they TA when they are senior; regular contact with chirpy undergrads is good for the grumpy senior grad student). Nearly all of my students have taken the opportunity to get an MS in another science or engineering field while doing a PhD in our field (and also they get a “MS in passing” in the major, but that’s rather trivial for a well-performing student, just a bit of paperwork).

I also have some (not many) connections in industry (e.g. my grad school buddies and other people who were students when  I was), and now that I have placed some students in industry, they could (and do) further help other students. From my standpoint, all I can do is help as much as I can with the connections I have, and otherwise let the students know early on what the lay of the land is, and then let them figure it out for themselves. I am about to graduate a student who has a job lined up at a major software company. It has been a great experience: he interviewed, they gave him an offer, he asked and they agreed on a start date several months into the future, so he will both finish his project and his dissertation without a rush, and will then start at his great new job.

My industry students seem to do a few interviews to get a job, but not many. 1-3 is the norm before first offer. I had only one student several years ago who had like 12 interviews before the first offer, and eventually landed at a company that he had always dreamed of working for (I helped there by forcing him to go give a talk or two at venues where I knew the company would be having representatives). It has never been an issue that my students can’t get interviews. The student who is about to graduate, the one I mentioned in the previous paragraph, is part of an international community, and he appears to have access to a lot of job opportunity announcements through the network of his compatriots. Kudos to him, I say!

I think it’s impossible to get a job without some sort of network, but I it needn’t be your advisor and his buddies. Former group members are great, compatriots are great, checking websites of companies in the area or the companies you’d like to work with in general is great. In my experience, while job search is scary, it has always ended very well for my students and it didn’t take long. As advisor, I know that the last 6 months of their time here will be low productivity, because they are distracted and interviewing, and that’s fine; I plan on everything being done beforehand anyway.

As for postdocs, those are either awesome or awful in the physical sciences (I don’t have experience in the biomed world, but it sure seems to be a strange and scary place, based on the blogosphere). A great postdoc will propel you, an awful one will kill years of your life and, in some fields, might make you less employable in industry.
The worst part is you don’t know that postdoc opportunities are available until they are (i.e. notice of funding comes through) and then they are filled quickly and usually through personal connections (e.g. I will prioritize a student from a group whose leader I know and respect over a random other applicant).

Another issue: when it comes to advising, it seems to me that people with fellowships, especially graduate students but sometimes also postdocs, tend to have a crappy time disproportionately often. Unfortunately, I am guessing it’s the case of “well, I don’t have to pay the kid, so why not?” My rule is that if I wouldn’t work with a student/postdoc under the assumption that I am paying them off my grants, then I don’t take them (this doesn’t imply poor quality of student postdoc, but rather that they may be a poor fit for the group, or that I already have too many people and cannot effectively mentor another one). The same thing holds for the research topic: too often, people on fellowships end up working on advisor’s pet topic that may or may not be half-baked; they also end up being poorly supervised, because there is no funding-agency pressure that the advisor feels for regular grants. Obviously, that’s a recipe for disaster: before you know it, three years have passed, and the student has spent them on a poorly defined project with inadequate advising. Likely, it doesn’t help that most fellowship holders flock to tippity-top schools, which are competitive places and not known to be the oases of  warmth or fuzziness in student advising.

So, what’s the moral of the story?

E, I am really sorry for your experience. But, you got a PhD from a fancy school, and that won’t hurt in the long run.
Right now, pull all the strings you can — whomever you know, whomever they know, look at online postings, anything you can find. You don’t necessarily expect people to get you jobs, but rather to help point you towards jobs or places where jobs might be opening, and generally just meet people. It’s never too late to develop a network, and a network can be built in ways that you don’t expect: e.g. there are lawyers and doctors and professors and entrepreneurs among the parents on my kid’s swim team; sure, I know them because of swimming, but I know them now, and didn’t before, and if need be I could and would call upon our acquaintance in another context, and I would be happy if they did the same.

I also recommend consulting this great book “Navigating the Path to Industry” which helps exactly in your situation: finding a job upon leaving academia, as written by a biotech manager (the writer is awesome IRL and online, and sometimes comments here under a pseudonym, but I know doesn’t want to link work with personal blog, so I am not linking here).

Blogosphere, what say you? Do you have words of wisdom for E?

12 comments

  1. As a fellowship student for 5 of my 6 years… “Another issue: people with fellowships, especially graduate students but sometimes also postdocs, tend to have a crappy time disproportionately often. ” rings incredibly true. I’m lucky to have a postdoc tied into one of my fellowships, and luckier still to have it be in a group that will put me in a great position to transition to industry, or the type of academic position I actually want.

    However, having helped several other students in my lab with their jobs searches recently, many students forget about the network they developed as undergrads. Your peers who left with bachelor’s degrees and have been working in industry are incredibly valuable contacts. They are people who can get your resume directly onto the desk of a manager, instead of lost in the bowels of HR. If your resume and background is impressive enough to get a major fellowship while a senior, then it’s likely those peers remember you as a very smart person that hopefully they’d want to work with.

    This one came from my mother, who is an IT director at a Very Large Company and advises interns most summers. For 15 minutes, write down everything they think they’ve learned to DO in their program . Most of the time, this winds up being a very specific list of things, like use R to statistically analyze underwater basketweaving methods in squids. Then, take all those very specific tasks, and try to find the next level up towards bird’s eye view. Taking a more systematic approach seems to really help identify the more general and transferable skills that have been developed, especially among technical personality types.

  2. missmse, yes! Excellent advice! I guess I don’t usually think of it as I didn’t go to undergrad in the US, but by all means — undergrad buddies make excellent network “nodes”!

  3. I don’t see the fellowship students as having a terrible time getting jobs—the fellowship students are usually the brightest and most motivated students and are the ones most sought after by the top advisers. That continues for them after they finish their PhDs—they have a relatively easy time getting postdocs or jobs.

    I don’t have good contacts for my students, but I do make a point of posting any postdoc or job ads that come my way to a mailing list that contains all the current grad students, many of the undergrads, and many of the alumni of the program. Alumni of the program routinely post job ads for the companies or universities they work for.

    Disclaimer 1: I’m teaching in a top-notch bioinformatics program, which straddles the fence between biomed and computational cultures. Bioinformatics currently has a fairly strong job market compared to fields like physics. Several of our grad students have ended up in start-up companies (including ones started by our grad students).

    Disclaimer 2: I was a fellowship student for many years, dabbling with this and that, and not getting a “real” adviser until my last year of funding. That breadth of interest worked well for me, and I would be in a very different field (pure math) if I had just focused on what I had originally set out to do. My breadth of skills and interests has never hurt me in finding a job, but I’ve been at the same University now for about 29 years, so I’ve not been looking for a job lately.

  4. This is all very thought provoking… My DH was a fellowship student but started in a lab right off. He’s in an interdisciplinary field and all his labmates found it kind of annoying the way their adviser made the people with EE undergraduate degrees essentially become experts in ME and vice-versa, rather than playing up to their strengths. But maybe the above reasoning was the method to the adviser’s madness, especially given that a larger percentage of his students ended up going into industry instead of academia. (And several of his former students are tremendously wealthy now, having moved to Silicon Valley and been on the ground floor of products you’ve heard of that are only marginally related to the specific phd area.)

  5. E: You can spin your history in a very good way for potential industry employers. You have both experimental and computational experience, and have shown that you can switch gears to a completely new project and be successful. Many industrial positions aren’t hiring you so much for your exact skills but for a proven record of brains and resourcefulness (especially if you have the cachet of a Ph.D. from a top school). This is especially true for physical scientists – no one really cares that you measured the linewidth of the X->A transition of atomic Unobtanium , they just want to see that you could solve a problem and communicate the results well. If you got a paper out of the experimental work, you’re even better off since you can say you were successful in two different areas. I know of two people who got jobs at Intel with research about as real-world-relevant as the example above. Talk with the career counselor folks for all of the physical departments on campus – they may not coordinate their industry visits well but probably won’t mind if you crash recruiting events.

  6. “The same thing holds for the research topic: too often, people on fellowships end up working on advisor’s pet topic that may or may not be half-baked; they also end up being poorly supervised, because there is no funding-agency pressure that the advisor feels for regular grants.”

    So true! I once argued this on a (biomed) blog and was shot down by “the experts,” but I knew I was right. I’ve seen it too often during my relatively short amount of time in grad school.

    There are some aspects of E’s story that I find a bit confusing/surprising:

    First, don’t tippy-top places usually have tippy-top Career Services? My (undergrad) school sure did. But I’ll give E the benefit of the doubt and assume that surely he — sorry, I’m just going to go with the masculine pronoun here — has availed himself of anything like this on campus. Though it wouldn’t hurt to look at his alumni group on Linked In, for example. That seems like a pretty painless way to network, and this is from someone who hates networking herself! (He *is* on Linked In, no?)

    Second, what kind of top program recommends that a student just leave after their fellowship!?

    Third, just how competitive is E’s record (2 articles, 1 proceedings)? If this is substantially less than what his peers are graduating with, then I can see why he’s struggling, especially if trying to get a postdoc. So the first order of business, it seems to me, is for E to develop a realistic sense of what his strengths/weaknesses are and how to highlight/downplay them appropriately. Can E go talk to members of his dissertation committee or sympathetic faculty he got to know during his grad studies (presumably he was a great student)? He needs to stop being an orphan and recruit someone to help him. Is E getting interviews and no call-backs? What is he doing for references?

    Also, I agree with this: “Many industrial positions aren’t hiring you so much for your exact skills but for a proven record of brains and resourcefulness (especially if you have the cachet of a Ph.D. from a top school). ” So what happened to the experimental skills that E developed? Why is the focus just on computational stuff?

    A long time ago, after my undergrad, I once got a job for which I felt I wasn’t particularly qualified for. After working there for several years, I asked my boss, the guy who’d hired me, why he gave me the job. He smiled and acknowledged that perhaps he had taken a bit of a risk with me. But then he said, “I was pretty sure you’d work out, though. Not too many slackers graduate from XX.” I guess what I’m saying is that name recognition goes a long way, especially in industry. So if it’s not working for E, he needs to figure out why. For example, if his school is considered 1 or 2 in his field but those outside it haven’t heard of it, then he needs to forget about this aspect and find another way in.

    As for getting a postdoc without connections: I emailed the Nobel laureate whose group I wanted join. Pretty sure he’s never heard of my advisor — my school is not even top 20 in his field. I had to email him twice, but he now seems interested and has requested my references. Who knows if anything will come of it, but the moral of the story is don’t rule yourself out!

    I wish E all the best. Remember, all you need is one offer!

  7. All…I am the person that originally emailed xykademiqz.
    First, waned to thank you for your advise! Will take some into consideration.
    Second, wanted to make a few clarifications:

    * My fellowship was a smaller one (ie not prestigious). My point was to convey that after several years of free labor, my advisor was still unable to secure funding (during my experimentalist stage I worked on 4 different projects). When I joined the group it was active (postdoc, several senior student and a few mid range). In less than 3 years, the group had been reduced to a couple of (poorly funded) students.
    * According to US News, my department is consistently 1-2. However, we are better known for other subfields (not mine). There is another prof in my subfield very well known. His students go on to do fairly well. I guess I chose the ‘wrong’ group. (Notes: according to USNews my college is ranked top 10 and the university top 30 (undergrads, couldn’t find a grad ranking). While we are not Ivy, we are usually recognized).
    * My U and college (there is a career center specifically for my college) do have career centers/resources. I have hesitated from using these as you usually get ‘blanket’ advise that is aimed at undergrad students. This depiction is based from previous interaction with HR-like people and could be completely wrong. I will look more into this.
    * The first thing that I tried was approaching my group’s alumni. That’s when I discovered that my advisor had mostly graduated students from another department and from their shared country of origin, ie many returned and obtained professorships. The lone American, after a few postdocs decided to leave science and is doing something completely unrelated. In retrospect, this is what I should have been asking about during visits.

    I realize that I need to learn how to better sell myself as an asset (I hate using this type of jargon) to X, Y or Z. I have made many professional mistakes that I need to work on, eg messing up standard questions over phone interviews. Guess this is where those career centers come in handy with their mock interviews and whatnot.

    Again thanks for all the advise!

  8. @AnonE– Major universities often have multiple career functions in their advising office– my grad university even had career help for professors who weren’t going to get tenure(!) So not just undergrads. Some of our grad friends found the universities’ career interests and skills inventories to be useful, and your university may even pay for the testing, which is a huge value.

  9. @E: By “alumni group” I was referring to the Linked In group for your entire school, not just your research group. You need to think bigger! Yes, it’s a tenuous connection, but it’s an opening nevertheless.

    Have you tried reaching out to the well-known prof in your subfield? Did you ever take any classes with him? Even if you haven’t, unless you know this person is an a$$, I would try setting up a meeting with him. Let him know that you are struggling with finding ways to convince potential employers that your skills are valuable and relevant, that you are aware that his students are very successful in this regard, and ask for his advice, as someone who has an intimate understanding of your work. May not result in anything, but then again, he might have some useful advice for you. Good luck!

    P.S. And yes, you definitely got a raw deal with your fellowship situation — truly sorry for you! Even if you do your HW and ask all the right questions, winding up in a good advising situation is part luck. But don’t waste time feeling sorry for yourself now, or beating yourself up over all the what-ifs. Focus on the future … your career, your family, your research! Not necessarily in that order 🙂

  10. Thanks for the shout out to my book, @Xykademiqz (and the nice words). I appreciate it!

    @E- you got screwed in your PhD experience, there is no doubt about it. But- at least you got the PhD! Focus on that part if you can.

    I am not sure what you are doing now, and whether or not you have some time to spend figuring out your next steps. I hope you do, but if you don’t, there is no shame in finding a job outside your field to pay your bills and keep you fed while you figure out your next steps.

    It doesn’t sound like you want to try to get an academic position, so on the assumption that you want to do “something else science” but don’t know what that it is, here is what I would recommend:

    1. Do the work to make sure you can talk about what happened in grad school without sounding bitter. You got screwed, and probably have every right to be bitter, but sadly, bitter people don’t get many job offers. Put yourself in the shoes of the people making the hiring decision, and the reasons for this will probably be obvious! So, you have to work through any angst about what happened BEFORE you start seriously job searching. I think you’re well on your way to this, if you aren’t there already, because you don’t sound bitter here- maybe a little lost and overwhelmed, but not bitter. So I’m only mentioning this because I’ve seen good people destroy their job search from the get go by coming across as quite bitter in their networking attempts.

    2. Build your own network by doing some informational interviews. The suggestion to look at your alumni groups (in the broadest sense- as mentioned above) is a great one. But once you have identified potentially useful fellow alums, you still have to meet them, and this is where informational interviews come in. You can also check your “second level” LinkedIn network for potential people to interview. Informational interviews are intimidating to set up, but are the best way I know to build a network “from scratch.”

    I usually post here under my pseudonym, but I’m going to post this one under my real name and link to my professional blog, because I want to direct you to a post I wrote there about networking and the purpose of taking some time to figure out what sort of job you want, which might be helpful:
    http://beyondmanaging.com/2015/02/networking-soul-searching-alternative-careers/

    There is also a link in that post to a page w/non-Amazon ways to buy the book, if you’re interested but don’t want to go through Amazon. And there is a link to an excerpt about informational interviews, which might help you even if you don’t want to get the book.

    (If you’re curious about the pseudonym, googling the book name will probably lead you to that blog- but I keep them separate because I talk about my kids on my pseudonym blog and want to hide that link from Google, not because there is anything scandalous on my pseudonym blog!)

    Good luck!

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