August is always a time for me to review the past year and to set goals for the next. Since I work at an academic institution, for me, August is the end of summer and the beginning of the school year. It's a time to look back at the past and plan for the future.
Last year I used several columns to encourage you to look inward: to explore your values, your passions, and the type of work environment you'd like. Now it's time to look outward: My next few columns will suggest ways to learn what types of jobs are available, help you decide which of the available options might suit you, and use a case study to demonstrate how an undecided scientist might make choices. And remember, I always welcome your feedback as to topics you'd like to see me cover.
One of the most common questions I see is "How do I find out what types of jobs are out there for me?" Career counselors call this "exploring the world of work." The easy, cheesy, common-yet-unsatisfying response to that question is "by networking," but that's hardly a meaty answer. Here's an answer that's slightly better, if still a bit vague and abstract: Finding your perfect job is like running an experiment. First, you read "the literature"--that is, you familiarize yourself with the research that has already been done. Then you decide what other information you need, design an experiment, carry it out, analyze your data, and--hopefully--reach a conclusion.
Let's start with the first step, reading the literature. So what is the job-search literature? Is there a journal out there that you can check? Well, there's always Next Wave, but you'll need to do more work than that. So where else should you turn?
1. A major-city newspaper employment section. I know, you probably think I'm nuts. Nobody hires Ph.D.s from an ad in the newspaper. But that's not the point. This activity is designed to expand your thinking, not to get you a job. Do you really know what jobs are advertised in your community? Do you know how people obtain real estate licenses, what qualifications are necessary to teach people computer skills, or the variety of skills needed to be hired as an administrative assistant? The point is that all of these jobs, even the most humble, require some specialized skills ... skills that you very likely don't possess. It's humbling: Even if you have, or nearly have, a doctorate, there are many, many jobs you aren't qualified to do. Even jobs for which you are, in many ways, overqualified may require skills that you lack. This allows you to begin to think about the type of additional training you may need if you decide to seek employment outside your particular area of research science. This exercise is really just a way of starting to think in detail about what a future employer may like--and dislike--about what you bring to the table.
2. General job-related Web sites. One of the most underutilized Web sites for job information is the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. There's a very useful tool on the site called the Occupational Outlook Handbook. The OOH has job descriptions, educational requirements, and future outlooks for thousands of occupations. It's interesting to read what they're saying about your current field. Are there any other fields mentioned that you might be interested in--and qualified for--that you hadn't thought of before? Another good site to look at is Monster.com. Peruse the job ads; search on key words relevant to your field. See what kinds of jobs are listed and what kinds of requirements they carry. But Monster.com isn't just about job and resume posting--it has a collection of articles and message boards that can help you gather preliminary information.
3. Science career Web sites. Next Wave is an obvious first choice--you're already here! Next Wave has been publishing every week for years, so you can find a huge collection of articles about career options for scientists right here. Take your time. Use the search option. If you know of an occupation that is not described on the site but you think might interest many young scientists, let the editors know!
Another Web site of potential interest is www.phds.org. And don't overlook the Web sites of the professional association for your scientific field. While some associations limit themselves to job postings, others provide labor market trends, career advice, and links to other resources of interest.
4. Web sites of major employers. If you have always wondered how people get hired at (insert your favorite big-name company here), it is time to go visit its Web site. How does it describe the hiring process? What types of positions does it list? What company values and insights does it provide? Although sending your CV, unsolicited, to the HR database of this company probably isn't going to land you an interview, it can provide insight into the skills you'll need if you decide to seek employment there. Large national laboratories also have a fair amount of information for job seekers on their Web sites.
5. A trip to your favorite online bookseller. Several books are available for scientists and other Ph.D.s looking for occupations outside academia. These are great sources of advice, and also of encouragement: Profiles of others who have found jobs they love are great motivators for the job seeker. We all model our behavior on what we learn from others, and books can be a useful tool for imparting that knowledge--especially for those who don't personally know people who have taken less traditional routes along their career paths. (See my February column for a couple of book ideas.)
In closing, I'd like to make two points about my advice in this column.
1. Sometimes simple advice is full of wisdom. Most of us are quite uninformed about the job opportunities that exist. I often hear how hard it is to learn about occupations; yet we often ignore the easy-access information around us. By following the suggestions in this column, you can learn quite a bit about what kind of opportunities exist and how your qualifications match up with the jobs that are available. Think of it as practice: It allows us to begin to recognize commonalities about the positions that interest us, eventually helping us select positions to pursue. And remember, even if you didn't find a perfect match, don't be discouraged. The job you're seeking--and that you're perfectly qualified for--may be out there, even if you haven't found it yet. You only need one job.
2. Each suggestion in this column involved the written word. Most scientists do a quick literature search when investigating a new research topic, often before they start to talk to people who might be able to help. It's a good way to start, because, when you finally get around to talking to people, you'll be more likely now to know what questions to ask. But asking people is the next, essential step. More on that another time. ...