Career Development

NatureJobs put on so many good talks and panel discussions, we’re still working our way through all the information.  In this post, Dave Harris, a 4th year neuroscience graduate student, writes about career development and what sort of things you should be thinking about when you start a job search.

Dave writes:

Recently NatureJobs hosted a conference in Boston. In addition to hosting a number of companies with which we could talk, there were panels to discuss the particulars of finding a career that has a good fit. It goes without saying that what makes a “good fit” for a job is going to be different for everyone, but here are some strategies to help you find and obtain a career that’s right for you.

Finding a career

Trying to choose a career is a daunting experience. There are so many factors to juggle, and trying to find the right combination to keep one motivated throughout the years can be a touch overwhelming. The trouble is, everyone is motivated by different things, so to figure out what’s important for you, it can be helpful to make a checklist of how you want your life to look (and how a career will fit into this). This includes criteria such as:

  • geographical location
  • amount of interpersonal interaction
  • teaching or benchwork
  • specific topics of study
  • the kinds of day to day tasks you would work on
  • pay
  • or whatever is important to you

This allows you to think about which of these is most important to you as well as effectively evaluate any opportunities that come your way. Once you know what you want, you can participate in informational interviews. These are meetings you can set up with a person established in the area you’re interested in to better gauge the specifics of this career. Asking questions about a professional’s experience lets you evaluate how a job (at a specific institution or in general) measures up against your criteria.

Making your dream career a reality

So, you’ve found out what you want to do, but you don’t know how to get to that point. Once you have a general field or area of work, it’s time to look for specific jobs. There are many ways to find out about jobs, and these will differ depending on what you’re interested in doing. Using your informational interviews to learn about resources or posting locations can be a boon to your search. Meet people for informational interviews at conferences. Every panel at the NatureJobs conference stressed the importance of networking. Networking is a nebulous, scary word that just means talking to people and forming connections; established elders and newer peers can have a lot to offer, in terms of both advice and potential career opportunities. In general, reading industry news and reports, or looking at job postings in journals can provide helpful starting points in looking for specific places to work. If looking to get into a small company or organization, it’s good to look at incubators such as Dog Patch Labs, Lab Central, or Tech Stars. There are three main components to a job: when, where, and what. While it would be amazing to find a job that meets all your criteria, in reality, it may be necessary to compromise, or at least be flexible, with at least one of these.

Now that you’ve found a job opening that you’re satisfied with, it’s time to check that they would be satisfied with you. Look at the necessary qualifications listed in the job posting. It’s generally good to aim to have 7 out of 10 of these skills. This means that you will not require too much training, but you still have room for growth and learning.

It can be difficult to talk oneself up, so that you look appealing to those in control of the hiring process, but fortunately, graduate school offers a number of opportunities to develop important skills that can help you in almost any field. Graduate students are often given opportunities to speak publicly about your work. Developing the skills to discuss one’s work comfortably, smoothly, and accurately takes a lot of time and practice, so start early and do it as often as possible. Many jobs involve writing grants, proposals, or applications; try to reach for as many grants as possible. Not only does it look good if you happen to get funded, but the grant writing process itself is great practice. Managing people is another tough skill, but one that you can seek out if you help organize high-schoolers, undergraduates, or other graduate students in lab. Find ways to frame your skills in ways that your potential employer will appreciate or find applicable. Graduate school teaches you how to educate yourself; ask direct, answerable questions; how to experiment, fail, and try again; how to make and revise a good protocol, and how to make decisions using data. Find ways to customize your application to show how these skills will impact your performance at your hopeful job. Indicating how these, and other, skills may apply to your hopeful job show that you know how to apply these skills and that you’re knowledgeable about the institution and position you’re applying for. When you’ve finished writing your application, have as many friends as you can edit it. How awful would it be to not get a job because of a few typos? Happy hunting!


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