Professional Development

Advice for new grads entering the job market

"In this age of rapid technological changes, you have to be open to continuous training — to be ready to reinvent yourself."
Nestor Concha
By Nestor Concha
June 1, 2013

The caps and gowns have been returned, and the diplomas are in the mail. New grads nationwide are on the hunt for jobs that will both pay the bills and yield personal rewards. Here are some thoughts on how these emerging professionals should approach this challenge.

Have a plan, and expect it to evolve

First and foremost, it is important to identify your personal, long-term goals. The answer is not static, of course, and it may take awhile to arrive at a satisfactory one. At the same time, contemplate that any goal is a tentative one, and it will be rewritten many times over. Serendipitous (not random) opportunities will be important factors that will influence your goals. But even a plan that carries intrinsic uncertainty is preferable over not having a plan at all.

Your plan is a blueprint to guide the activities that are under your control: the specific actions that you will execute and that will move you closer to your goal. At the same time, the plan will provide the context and the background against which to identify opportunities, to influence people and to position yourself in circumstances that may not be totally under your control but will allow you to realize your goal.

In summary, there is an immediate result of your activities but also an important influential aspect on everything that surrounds those activities. Drawing the plan is a most personal endeavor, and the seriousness of it calls for not only a hard introspection but also consultation with a network of mentors, friends, colleagues and family members.

Assess your experience and your motivations

The next aspect to reflect on: the training you have received. This, too, will change. Indeed, it should change.

For biochemistry and molecular biology graduate students, the formative years in graduate school, followed by a few more years as postdoctoral trainees, lay down the path to a career as scientist. There is no better time in a young scientist’s life. During these years, we get ever so close to the pinnacle of the scientific endeavor: the seducing prospect of being the first to describe an as-yet-unknown phenomenon, the rigor of scientific inquiry, the love (and frustrations) of experimentation, and the testing and falsifying of hypotheses.

We form a vision of ourselves — the incredibly appealing vision of becoming an authoritative voice in the area of research that happens to be also of profound personal interest. In this vision, we become leaders of labs filed with bright students and postdocs. Some will realize that vision, but most will not. The reality is that the open positions at universities are very competitively fought over and that funding for research is scarce.

You have options, so keep an open mind

You have been trained to do academic research because there is no better way, but it does not follow that academic research institutions are the only places where intellectually challenging science is being done and that only academic labs have the interesting problems to be tackled.

If discovery and challenge is what you are after, look into the past at Bell Labs, where scientists of varied fields, working together, came up with probably the most far-reaching set of discoveries that we enjoy today. Far closer to the present are ubiquitous high-tech companies at which intelligent development and use of technology has brought us new ways of working and communicating.

The future is even more promising: Intricate biological pathways, rare and complex diseases, and new medicines are at the frontier and many nonacademic labs and institutions are hard at work trying to unravel them, diagnose them and discover them. In other words, there are many opportunities to perform intellectually challenging work, be part of discoveries and perform otherwise rewarding activities in the company of respected colleagues.

Internships, co-ops, summer programs and the like provide terrific opportunities for both students and employers to get know one another. For the organization, these arrangements help identify talent and complete small projects; for the students, they provide the chance to sharpen interpersonal and technical skills.

Develop a top-notch résumé and work on interviewing skills

You want to end up on the short list of candidates. Here are some pointers:

  1. It is of utmost importance to have a list of contacts who will help you find open positions.
  2. Put together a well-prepared, succinct résumé highlighting your achievements, their impacts and your skills. Consider, as nonsensical and perverse as it may seem, that a list of citations does not speak for itself and that, although it is the most important section, it is not the only section the hiring manager will evaluate.
  3. If a telephone interview is offered, underscore your interpersonal skills and leadership ability and demonstrate that you are able to communicate complex thoughts in simple terms. (There is a chance that a nonscientist, a person in human resources perhaps, may be making the call.)
  4. Articulate the impact of your work, why it was important to pursue, what is the big picture and where your piece of work fits in.
  5. Practice, practice, practice.
  6. Be prepared to talk about these points during a face-to-face interview.
  7. Devise a well-prepared seminar — paying careful attention to both the content and the delivery. It is unfortunate, but not uncommon, for people to present an attitude of almost contempt for the audience. It may not be deliberate, but don’t make that mistake.
  8. Pay attention to your audience’s needs. Who might attend? Are they all experts in the same field, or will there be others who may not be familiar with certain terms and experimental approaches? Find out, and tailor the presentation. You want people to come out of your seminar not only with an understanding and appreciation of your work and scientific skills, but also with a sense that you, not your supervisor, understand the context and the long-term implications of pursuing your line of research. You want them to be confident that you have the reins, the knowledge to do the science and the skills to lead others through the arts of persuasion and communication.

Embrace change, for it is inevitable

In this age of rapid technological changes, you have to be open to continuous training — to be ready to reinvent yourself. You need to be open to carve your own future according to your plan and to be ready to grab the chances of making your mark and making a living.

Those opportunities may come in the form of doing research in an academic institution; doing research aimed at drug discovery in big and small pharma, startups, biotechs and contract research organizations; offering technologies to customers; or working with customers to find what their needs are to develop new technologies.

Just be ready to contribute where the contribution will be most impactful — for you and for society.

Nestor Concha
Nestor Concha

Nestor Concha is a research scientist at GlaxoSmithKline.

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