Applying for a Ph.D. or postdoc is tricky business. If you do your homework, you can get a good impression of the research and reputation of the group you're applying to, but without an interview and a site visit--which usually come late in the game--you generally get little insight into the group's atmosphere and facilities. The Job Opportunity Market at the Nijmegen Centre for Molecular Life Sciences (NCMLS) gives prospective scientific employees an earlier, more intimate look at the opportunities on offer.

Looking for a Ph.D. or postdoc--or any job--is not so hard. But finding a nice, challenging, and fun one is a bit harder. Job ads provide specific information about the project you are applying for, and web sites may give an impression of the research group. Yet, the atmosphere at the department, the facilities it houses, and the supervising capabilities of the professor are usually not so obvious. Issues like these can make or break your research period--indeed, your whole career.

The Nijmegen Centre for Molecular Life Sciences ( NCMLS) is the first in the Netherlands to open its doors to potential applicants before they have applied. Each year in January, the centre organizes the Job Opportunity Market (JOM), at which young scientists can apply on spec for any of the positions available within the NCMLS or the Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre. "It's like an open house," says Carl Figdor, director of the NCMLS and the brain behind the JOM, "but this time not for the interested lay person."

The Idea
Within NCMLS, the JOM, which focuses on would-be Ph.D. students, technicians, and postdocs, has been the main job-vacancy marketplace for 3 years. Each year in January--right after the announcement of national and local grant winners--the NCMLS invites 120 to 150 young scientists for a sneak preview of the new grant-supported projects. This works well for the students. "Participants get the scoop," says Figdor. Jacques Peters, organisor of the JOM, sees a big advantage for the centre as well. "The spin-off is much bigger," he says. The JOM has another advantage: It saves the NCMLS at least half its advertisement costs.

What is the JOM?
Instead of merely responding to a job ad, young scientists are invited to the NCMLS to look at the facilities, talk to the professors, and meet some of the staff. The day is divided into a morning plenary session and an afternoon session in small groups.

Morning
Group leaders get 10-minutes each to present their research projects and job opportunities. For the candidates, this is a chance to:

  • Get an impression of NCMLS (type of research, facilities);

  • See their future supervisors in action;

  • Catch up with old classmates;

  • Pick the most interesting projects.

Lunch
This is the first chance to chat with the group leaders and the other candidates. Representatives of the medical centre also provide information about job and training opportunities.

Afternoon
The afternoon session provide a true chance to check out three of the available projects. Candidates can register for three 1-hour sessions to:

  • Discuss the research project with the group leader;

  • Check out the competition;

  • Leave an impression with the group leader.

Success is…
Last year Pauline Verdijk found the postdoc of her dreams, thanks to the JOM. She participated with one clear goal in mind: obtaining one of two openings at the Tumor Immunology Group, headed by NCMLS-director Figdor. "It gives you a good impression of what you're applying for," she says about the JOM. Jessica van Schijndel was especially interested in one project but kept her eyes open for other opportunities at last year's JOM. She believes that applicants improve their chances by showing up in person. "When you send in your letter," she says, "it certainly helps that they have a face in mind."

Face time is certainly one advantage of the JOM, but with a success rate of less than 10% even among those with face time--the centre made 11 new hires out of 120 participants in last year's event--there's clearly more to it than that. So, what are the secrets of their success?

Three Who Made It




All three of the successful applicants interviewed agree that good preparation is the best starting point. "I carefully read the project descriptions beforehand," says Ralph Oude Ophuis, "and selected five or six interesting projects." His pre-selection strategy allowed him to focus on a small number of presentations, based on which he picked his three sessions for the afternoon. "Prepare for a considerable flow of information," adds Van Schijndel, agreeing that trying to concentrate on all the morning presentations is very challenging. Verdijk's solution to the information-overload problem was to focus on two positions within the same research group. This narrower focus meant that she was able to prepare for a talk with group head--Figdor--who is also the NCMLS director.

No matter how good your preparation is, it always comes down to placing yourself in the picture. Or does it? "I usually don't recall the faces of candidates," says Figdor, "but writing down names helps a lot." On the other hand, Colin Logie of the Molecular Biology Group said the JOM gave him the opportunity to "easily compare the interested candidates." So attracting the attention of the project leader can't hurt. "I tried to ask at least one question," says Verdijk, so "as not to sit still in a corner of the room." Special clothing is not necessary. "I wore a better shirt than usual," says Oude Ophuis, "but I wouldn't come all dressed up."

Of course the most important part of the process starts when the JOM ends. Both Verdijk and Van Schijndel sent official application letters for the positions they came to the JOM for in the first place. Oude Ophuis, who went to the JOM without any expectations, took a different approach. Of the three projects he had selected for the afternoon sessions, he picked the one he thought he had the best shot at. "I knew some of the other candidates for other projects," he says, "and some of their CVs fitted better than mine." Apparently, he made the right choice.

"The big advantage of the Job Opportunity Market," says Van Schijndel, "is that you've got a full hour to talk to the professor," even before committing to the arduous application-and-formal-interview process. Verdijk adds that the informal atmosphere takes much of the pressure off. "You're free to ask any question," she says, even though she was still a bit scared to ask silly questions. Most importantly, all agree that the JOM gives a better look behind the scenes than a job ad does.

International
In contrast to many job fairs, the JOM has a strong national character, with a small international touch. The JOM attracts people from all over the country and beyond. "Last year some people from England, Belgium, and Germany came over," notes Peters. Making it even more international by inviting talent from other countries is an idea that Figdor is interested in pursuing. On the other hand, the centre may not be able to handle many more candidates on a single day. Spreading it over 2 days might then be an option, with more in-depth interviews for some candidates on the 2nd day. While developing new plans for future expansion, NCMLS keeps coming back with the JOM. "It is a successful formula for this target group," Figdor says.