I’m sure there are many good, decent scientists out there, especially in academe, who are asking themselves, “Just how did I get myself into this mess?” You all know who you are….the Ph.D.-ers, now well into their third and fourth (and maybe more!) years as a postdoctoral fellow, seeking to get out, to do anything, ANYTHING, rather than another Western blot, or PCR, or, God help you, IHC. And so you ask your colleagues, your mentor, and your relatives about career opportunities outside of your laboratory. Now, your colleagues, your mentor, and maybe even your relatives, are all well-meaning people who do refer you to a few good companies and institutes. You get your hopes up and start cranking out your resume. In that resume you lay out your entire scientific life, all the details of your research, and every lab technique you have picked up since, well, since you first thought about entering the world of science. The resumes go out to your dream places and you figure that, given your education and experience level, someone is bound to offer you a position.
Except that it never happens. Days, then weeks, go by, and aside from the usual reply of “Thank you for your interest in XYZ Corporation”, no company calls to ask for an interview. You send out a few more resumes, to companies that were not your immediate favorites, and wait again. Still, no takers. So, what went wrong? Were you overqualified? Underqualified? Are the positions being advertised not real? Or, is something else screwing up your chances of getting hired?
I bring up such questions in this article because such questions did in fact cross my mind when I myself was seeking to get away from the postdoc life. I submitted my resume to several companies in town and waited, thinking that in no time I’d have a great job lined up and money coming in left and right. Well, nothing happened. I sent off some more resumes, and even applied with two headhunter agencies. Still, nothing. I became worried. I needed a job….why couldn’t I get one?
Around that time, I read of a biotech industry panel discussion group that was going to meet at my (now) former place of employment. I went to it, curious about what exactly would be discussed. The panel members were: an HR generalist, two industry postdocs, and an industry scientist. While the scientist and postdocs gave some good information about their work, it was the HR generalist who caught my eye (or rather, ear). She stated that every incoming resume she received was definitely looked over and read by her, but that most applicants had no idea how to properly market themselves, and that is why they were rejected. When asked to elaborate, she mentioned that scientists applied for biotech jobs as if they expected other scientists to read over their resumes. However, instead of scientists, most biotech companies rely on HR personnel, who may or may not have a scientific background. Furthermore, even if they did, they would rather know how the applicant planned to contribute to the company’s bottom line, not how many blots or immunoassays he or she has performed since graduation. Unfortunately, most applicants send resumes that discuss only their own qualifications and research, stating nothing about how those qualifications and research can be applied toward the company’s objectives. It’s this self-centered outlook that hurts most applicants, costing them their dream job.
After this panel discussion, I went home and looked over my own resume. Sure enough, it was riddled with self absorption. Not one iota of my entire resume could relate to anything that any company was doing. It was all just about me and my research (which was not even that interesting). No wonder that companies were not hiring me.
I sat down and completely gutted my resume. Since there was a certain company I had had my eye on for some time, along with a certain position being offered through that company, I tailored my resume to that job and that company exclusively. I then composed my cover letter, referencing that job post several times.
I did this again, with another company and another job. And several other companies/jobs as well. It took a good amount of time to completely redo my resume for every separate position, but I figured I might as well try this approach. And guess what? Within a week, I had a short phone interview lined up. And then that short phone interview turned into a second phone interview. Several other interviews also popped up. Eventually, I was going in person to do face-to-face interviews. And then I received an offer, which I whole-heartedly accepted.
I learned much from that experience, which I’ve tried to set down in several easy-to-follow “rules”:
1) Include a career objective in your resume. This objective must, in some way, relate to what the company is doing. Do not provide generic career objectives that discuss only what you wish to learn/attain/develop professionally. Your objective should not just be about you, but rather, about your vision for the company once it employs your services.
2) Remember your audience. Unless your resume is being sent off to a lab group leader or scientist directly, do not bore an English major with a long list of all your core lab competencies! Quite frankly, if you’re a scientist, it is assumed that you know certain lab techniques anyway. What is more useful is knowing how you can use those techniques to find something out, or apply your current knowledge to something that the company is already working on.
3) Provide past jobs with a list of accomplishments/duties, not more lab techniques/research objectives. Remember, no one at XYZ Corporation is going to care that you were able to dissect fruit flies with a pair of old tweezers (unless you’re applying to a fruit fly manufacturing company). Companies want to see results, not attempts, and action, not description. And speaking of action….
4) Start all past job accomplishments/duties with an action verb. Examples: Directed twenty undergraduates; Supervised a team of technicians; Created and edited several grant proposals. This format establishes that you are a person of positive, goal-orientated action.
5) Always include a cover letter with every resume. Even if you’re applying online, and don’t know where to include a cover letter, do not make the mistake of not adding one. You can add the cover letter to the resume if need be. But if you send along a naked resume, no one is going to bother with deciphering for what position it is intended.
6) If at all possible, find out the hiring manager’s name and proper title, then address your cover letter with his/her full name and title. This tells that respective hiring manager that you are genuinely interested in the job post, and your resume is not being sent out as one of a hundred carbon-copied resumes to a hundred other such hiring managers.
7) Be genuinely interested in the post for which you are applying. If you feel no passion for the work, but are applying simply out of desperation, the cover letter and resume will reflect that. At that rate, you might as well just work at a fast-food joint until you find something you would really like to do.
In any case, these are my words of wisdom for finding life after-postdoc. I hope that they help you, as you seek to find your way out of never-ending mouse tail tip and gel stain land. Good luck!