PETER IS THE AUTHOR OF THE BOOK, "TO BOLDLY GO: A PRACTICAL CAREER GUIDE FOR SCIENTISTS"

PREVIOUS COLUMNS

It's 3 a.m. You've been at the bench for 18 hours finishing up your final set of thesis or postdoc experiments. With hard work and a little luck, you will be able to finish your project in 3 months, just in time to graduate or move on to the next position.

Then the dread sets in. Here it is, April, and you still don't have a job offer. As if you weren't busy enough, now you have to handle a job search--and find a position--in 90 days ...

AAAAAaaaaaaa!!!!!

Even if this isn't you, you probably know at least one or two people in this situation. And boy, what fun they can be around the lab or office!

So, in the spirit of lab and office tranquillity, this column is about the Accelerated Job Search: the type of job search when you don't care what color your parachute is, you're just praying that something happens when you pull the ripcord!

Step 1: Don't panic!

I know, I know: Easy advice to give. But I do want to reassure you that things are probably not as bad as you think, for three reasons:

A. You are not alone: Less than 50% of the grad students I have spoken with had firm employment plans 3 months before they graduate. For undergrads, only about 25% have firm plans in hand at this time.

B. Not all openings are filled yet. Many companies, national laboratories, and even academic departments find themselves in the same position you are in: facing a deadline with no firm candidate in sight.

C. Overall, it's a great job market right now. Although there is a glut of Ph.D.s in some fields, there is an expanding range of alternatives. With a national unemployment rate of 4.8%, the chances are good that you will be able to find something to tide you over.

Step 2: OK, you can panic a little!

Before you begin to feel complacent, let me assure you that you have a LOT of work to do to land that job. This column has stressed, again and again, the need for scientists to actively manage their careers and to engage in career planning as a constant low-level subroutine in their lives. You, for whatever reason, will not have the time to engage in a rigorous battery of self-assessment tests, career exploration, networking, informational interviewing, etc. You will have to develop multiple options and make progress on them in parallel. And you may have to settle for something, in the interim, that is somewhat different from your ideal situation.

Step 3: Get your C.V. and résumé in order.

I assume at this point that you have some sort of résumé or C.V. and that it is up-to-date. Check out my column on C.V.s and résumés and make sure that yours looks good, is accurate and up-to-date, and in general follows the advice I have outlined. Don't spend all day doing this! It may seem satisfying to spend a weekend tweaking the fonts and margins of your résumé, but it's really not worth spending more than an hour or so. FAR more important is having a set of résumés that are well-focused on the specific targets you have in mind. (Again, see my previous columns for more advice about this.)

Step 4: Figure out where you are now.

Part of your sense of panic may be because you lack a complete perspective on the status of your job search. So, you need to make a map, of sorts.

Start by listing all your various plans, from the most concrete to the most tenuous, in ranked order of preference. A list might look like this:

Plan A: Faculty job

Plan B: Research postdoc

Plan C: Industry postdoc

Plan D: Management consulting

...

Plan R: Temp at biotech company

Plan S: Teach high school

Plan T: Work in a bookstore

Plan U: Move in with parents and keep looking.

It's OK to have a REALLY BIG list. In fact, it may show you that you are considering a number of options. It should force you to write down all the various paths you might take, and it might help jar your thinking about new pathways.

Step 5: Get organized.

A haphazard or disorganized job search will not help. Not only will it stress you out even more, but it will probably waste time and may cause you to blow important deadlines. Therefore it is critical to develop a concrete organizational structure that will help you keep track of details, deadlines, and actions. Below is my suggested strategy, but feel free to adapt it in any way you wish.

Start by making a table listing each job opening you have applied for, are planning to apply for, are thinking of applying for, or might possibly apply for. For each one of these, list any deadlines involved, the exact actions you have taken, and the dates of those actions. Finally, list any results so far. Part of your table might look like this:

Things I have applied for

Deadlines

My actions

Results

Postdoc at Merck

2/28/98 application due

3/98 First round of interviews

2/20/98 sent application

3/19/98 no interview

DOE Distinguished Postdoc

1/30/98 application due

1/15/98 sent application

3/19/98 followed up with phone call

Postdoc possibility at BYU

none

2/28/98 sent e-mail to Prof. M.

3/6/98 called Prof. M.

3/1/98 response from Prof. M.

3/9/98 sent C.V. to Prof. M.

This is your master table. Print out a copy with additional blank rows so you can fill them in as things develop. Put it up on your wall and consult it EVERY DAY. Because you will be pursuing multiple options at once, deadlines are an issue. Keeping this table will help.

For each prospective job, label a file folder and put in that file folder ALL information about the job. This will include:

  • a copy of the job ad

  • information about the company, laboratory, principal investigator, etc.

  • a copy of the application and C.V. you sent in

  • a copy of EVERY correspondence, e-mail, etc.

  • notes from every conversation

  • notes containing your thoughts and ideas with respect to this particular job.

Now, keep these folders with you so that you will be able to access them whenever you need to. The goal is to enable you to handle multiple job applications and leads seamlessly, saving you time and allowing you to pursue as many options as possible.

Step 6: Talk to your adviser.

Many panicked Ph.D. job hunters forget, or dismiss out of hand, their adviser or PI as a potential resource. Although your adviser or PI may be too busy or indifferent to do more than send letters of reference on your behalf, they may be motivated to play a more active role, especially if they understand your deadlines. One way they might help is by giving you an additional 3 months of stipend or by opening up postdoc support for you. Unlikely? Hey, have you asked yet?

Although these conversations can be a bit uncomfortable, you'd be better off summoning your courage and doing it. If your relationship with your adviser is terrible, go and have the same conversation with the department chair or division leader. What's the WORST thing that could happen? They could say, "Sorry, but we have no way to extend you." They could also say, "Hey, I think we have enough room to support you for a final quarter." But they can't allocate the resources if they don't know about your need.

Step 7. Talk to the people in your network.

Even if you have completely spurned my advice about networking , you probably know a few people who might be helpful in identifying potential openings. They can't help you if they don't know your status and your deadlines. Alert them to your current status and employment goals, and they might just turn something up for you. Many people fail to be clear with their network contacts about their time frame.

Step 8. Apply for jobs!

I know what you're thinking, "Duh! Bonehead! What do you think I'm doing!?!" Let me explain. Many people find themselves 90 days from unemployment because they have been shooting for their ideal job and ignoring all alternatives. Why apply for postdocs when what you want is a faculty job? Well, as a long-term strategy, this is entirely correct. But if you are facing imminent unemployment, it is time to do more than think about other options--it is time to act. If you aren't already searching the relevant literature or Web sites for job ads, get started. Blanketing the planet with your résumé is not an effective way of landing a job. But neither is applying only to "dream job" openings.

Step 9. Hit the spring job fairs.

Springtime is panic time for both job applicants AND employers. Many companies try to complete their recruiting in the winter, but they rarely are able to fill every opening. Sometimes companies decide to raise their hiring targets midway through the recruiting season. Similarly, academic departments and national labs try to fill jobs with plenty of time left until fall classes begin, but things sometimes fall through: The #1 candidate takes another job, there are visa problems, etc. Organizations can find themselves up against a wall and desperate to find someone else. Spring job fairs are one place where companies desperate to hire can go to find people who still aren't situated. And they are often prepared to make offers much more quickly than during fall job fairs.

Step 10. Promise yourself that, next time, things will be different.

A panicked job search is rarely enjoyable and often limiting. There are many good reasons why people find themselves in a tight bind, especially as they are finishing school. But if you keep up with a regular series of career planning activities, such as networking , informational interviewing , and exploring your options you will be better prepared to make career moves on your timetable and with YOU in control.

And, believe me, it's a lot less stressful that way!

Hang in there! Good luck! And write me with any questions--or if you just want to scream for a while.

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at phds.org) on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.