Here at Life Science Network we talk a lot about the fact that not all STEM PhD graduates can stay in academia and so academic trainees should have official career development plans and mentors who support all types of career training.
Until that happens, it is up to junior scientists to map out their own career paths and find their own training and opportunities. That is not an easy task. Whether you want to stay in academia or transition to industry, you need to be strategic, know where you want to go and what steps you need to take to get there.
STEM career consultant Alaina G. Levine has helped thousands of scientists and STEM professionals find their dream job. Here are some of Alaina’s tips on how you can decide on the right job for you and how you can land that job:
Recognize your own value
Many life scientists don’t think they are valuable outside of the lab. They don’t realize how valuable they are in the marketplace. STEM students and STEM-educated professionals can potentially go anywhere they want. The career opportunities are limitless. Having studied science at the higher levels has given you fantastic transferrable skills that are coveted by almost every industry. Science trains you how to think, look at the world and solve problems. Every job is designed to solve problems. Who can solve problems better than scientists?
Know what you like
It starts with an internal evaluation. You need to know what skills you enjoy using, tasks you love doing, problems you like solving and also what tasks you absolutely hate doing. If you hate using a microscope all day, it will do no good to look for jobs that require you to do that – you will be unhappy.
Find people doing what you want to do
Do targeted searches on google and LinkedIn to find professionals using the types of skill sets that you would love to use. For example, search for ‘pharmacologist and management’ or ‘biologist and intellectual property’ or ‘chemistry and technology transfer’ or ‘chemistry and marketing’. This will give you a first batch of people with whom you can start building a relationship.
Engage in high impact networking
You need data. You need to know about the different organizations and career paths out there, and the only way to get that is by reaching out to people and trying to understand what they do. You have to build mutually beneficial alliances with people where both of you provide value over time. It’s not about emailing people saying, “I am looking for a job at your company.”
The value you can provide is in the form of inspiration, ideas and potential collaboration. The value that you get is information about how you can position yourself for success. People are more likely to respond to a request for an informal conversation or informational interview rather than if they think you want them to give you a job.
Access hidden opportunities
Networking is the only way to access hidden opportunities. When you ask for informal conversations and you build alliances with people, you are also providing them with information about your brand. Your brand incorporates your attitude and all your experience, expertise and knowledge. Showing people this while working with them is an appropriate form of self-promotion.
This is the way you show people how you could solve their problems and it is also how you hear about jobs that aren’t advertised, that haven’t been advertised yet, or where you are given the first opportunity to submit an application.
It is also how you can create jobs for yourself that didn’t exist. It gives you the chance to say, “I didn’t realize you have a problem related to pharmacology and communications – I ran this committee on ‘x’ and learnt ‘y’, so I could help you with that.”
Tailor your resume or CV for each country
Resumes and CVs are different in regions around the world – they are not the same in Australia, Germany or the States. Find out how resumes are formatted in the country where you are job searching and use the appropriate format.
Make use of the top real estate on your resume
The top of your resume or CV is very valuable real estate. Use that to tell the reader what you can do for them. Don’t have an objective there. That space should not be about what you are looking for. It’s not about what the reader of your resume can do for you, it’s about what you, the job seeker, can do for the decision-maker. List 3-5 key words under your contact information that show the kinds of problems you can solve e.g. molecular biology, heart disease, communications. Make it easy for the reader to see what you can do for them.
Use ‘problem, solution, result, quantification’
Use the resume to tell the reader about actual problems you have solved, not to just list your accomplishments. People are hiring you to solve problems no matter what the job is.
Use each bullet point to tell the reader what was the problem you faced, the solution you came up with and the outcome. Showcase the macro problem you were hired to solve. As a grad student or a postdoc, your project will aim to solve a particular long-term macro problem. On a day-to-day and week-to-week basis, you are also solving micro problems so you can eventually solve your macro problem. The micro problems are what you hightlight using the problem-solution-result format in each bullet point.
Always quantify your results. Did you increase the efficiency by 50%, lead a team of 10 people, help secure a $1 million grant? Quantifying your success gives the reader the context and significance of your problem solving. Even if they don’t want you to solve the same problems in their ecosystem, they can understand what you can do for them.
Show what you can do – that’s not bragging
Don’t be afraid to tell the full story of your value on your resume. A resume is your most important marketing material. If you got a grant or a fellowship or worked with one of the leaders in your field, you have to tell the reader that. It’s not bragging because it is true. It’s strategically important because the reader is going to make a decision whether or not to engage you further based on your resume. A lot of scientists tend to undersell themselves on their resumes because the culture of science tells us to hold back and be humble.
Customize your cover letter
You have to write a cover letter but you never know if a person is going to read it or not. Of the two, I think the resume/CV is the most important but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t put the effort in to write a cover letter that aligns the mission of the organization with your skills and your brand.
In your cover letter, you can shift the potential in your favor for getting an interview by telling the reader about a problem you faced, your solution and your results, in the context of their organization. This is what I call the “spin-back”, where you customize the cover letter by discussing yourself in terms of the employer’s needs. For example, I could write that I read in the Wall Street Journal you are expanding into Manchester or Western Australia or Texas and I studied there so I could potentially help you. Use this to shine the light on the reader, the decision maker, and show them why they should hire you.
Research the company before the interview
The spin-back goes into the interview as well. Make sure you know a lot about the organization so you can reference that in the interview and show them that you have invested time into your research.
Research the company and the people who work there. Set up google news alerts for that organization - find out what is being said about them in the media. Read their marketing materials, annual reports and press releases. Start thinking about your achievements in the format of problem, solution, results and think about what you could do for that company in the future. The interviewer/s will be able to picture you already in their organization when you do that.
Prepare mini stories for the interview
Typical interview questions are asked in almost every interview no matter the job. Formulate answers to these questions in the form of mini stories of how you were presented with problem ‘x’, came up with solution ‘y’ and result ‘z’ so you learned ‘a’ which you can do for this company.
For example, if asked, “Why do you want to do this sort of work?”, you could say, “I had this experience doing ‘x’ and came up with this solution that allowed me to learn ‘y’ about myself which will allow me to do ‘z’ for you.”
If your perfect job doesn’t exist, create it
Your dream job or career may not exist yet. You may have to create it yourself. That’s the most exciting thing about being in science right now, you can create something that brings you happiness.
For more tips and stories from people who have created or landed their ideal job, check out our ‘How I Got My Job’ and ‘Startup Stories’ interview series or join the LSN Careers Community.
Contact Alaina via twitter @AlainaGLevine, or www.alainalevine.com and find more networking and job search tips in her book 'Networking for Nerds'.