How to (Not) Get a Job in Science

Over the years, I’ve probably looked at thousands of CVs.   In that time, I’ve come across a few themes that I thought might be worth sharing.   Perhaps others will find this useful, maybe I just need to get a few things off my chest. It’s my hope someone will benefit from, or at least be amused by this little rant.  I’m writing this with the caveat that these are my personal opinions and biases.  Following my advice could have disastrous consequences with other organizations.

Show some self-awareness
I have to admit that I find it off-putting when someone claims to be an “expert” in a dozen different areas.  In fact, I don’t like the word, expert.  Tell me what you’ve done, I’ll figure out whether you’re an expert.   If you’ve just finished your Ph.D., you’re not an expert in anything, yet. Be realistic about your experience. Don’t claim to have “7 years of experience in drug discovery" if you’ve just finished a 5-year Ph.D. program and a 2-year postdoc.  People are going to read down a few lines in your CV and realize that you’re exaggerating.

Show me what you’ve done
I can’t overemphasize how important this is.  When I’m evaluating a candidate, I want to see some examples of how a person thinks and what they've worked on.  The way that you approach a problem is far more critical than the specific problems you’ve worked on.  If you’ve listed publications in your CV, create hyperlinks to the papers. If you have preprints that are available on Arxiv, even better, link them.  At the very least, I’ll look at the abstract to get a better idea of what you’ve done.  If you don’t have papers (even if you do), put your presentations on Slideshare, Zendo, or some other public platform where I can look at them.  Do the same thing with posters that you’ve presented at conferences or symposia.  If you’re applying for a position that involves programming, provide a link to your GitHub repos.  This shows me that you can code and that you care about making contributions to the community.  

Your cover letter and answers to website questions are VERY important
Many people think that their cover letter will simply end up in some digital wastebasket, and the questions on a company’s jobs website don’t count.  I can’t speak for the broader world, but for me, this isn’t the case.  We’re going to be spending a lot of time together.  I’m probably going to be spending more time with you than I do with my family.  I’d like to know a bit more about you.  Talk about why you are applying for this job.  Don’t make it look like you’ve simply sent your resume to every posting on Indeed, Glassdoor, and LinkedIn that matched a keyword search.  

Do a little bit of research on the company, why is this company interesting to you?  Who is working in the group that you’d like to join, and what have they done?  Explain why you’re excited about the company.  Don’t just parrot a few key phrases from the company’s website.  Trust me, it’s obvious when people do this.   My company’s jobs website has a few questions that tell me a lot about potential candidates.  
  • “Why do you want to join our company?”  As I mentioned above, I’d like to hear about your goals and how what we’re doing fits with those goals. 
  • “What will you bring to the group?” You don’t need to list all of your qualifications.  I’d like to know the unique qualities and capabilities that you’ll bring to our work. 
Don’t try to game the system
One trend I’ve noticed lately is people putting a long list of seemingly random keywords on their resumes.   I suppose this is oriented toward large organizations that are using “AI” to screen CVs.  I’m not an NLP system, and this doesn’t help.  In fact, it makes it look like you’re on a fishing expedition. 

Build your network!
You have a much better chance of standing out from the sea of resumes if I’ve at least seen your name before.  Students frequently ask me how to build a network.  There are a multitude of ways. 
  • Go to conferences and present a poster.  People seem to think that giving a talk at a conference is the best way to gain exposure, I disagree.  In many cases, the people you want to meet will have a conflict or will have to dash off immediately after your talk.  Posters provide a great way to have a relaxed conversation, let people know about your work, and get to know about theirs.  When I was presenting posters, I would be on the lookout for people I wanted to talk with and would do my best to engage them. 
  • Get in touch with people who are doing work that you find interesting.  If you see papers from someone whose work you find interesting, send them an email and ask questions.  Ask them if they can provide you with advice.  One of the best things I did when I was a graduate student was to get in touch with Adi Treasurywala, who at the time was head of the molecular modeling group at Sterling Winthrop Pharmaceuticals.   Adi and his group had published a series of papers on conformational analysis, a topic that I was working on, so I emailed him a few questions.  That email exchange led to some great phone conversations about science and loads of valuable career advice.  
  • Publish.  It’s important to get some papers out so that people will be able to see what you can do.  I realize that the time frames associated with publishing in journals can be geologic, but that’s the beauty of preprints.  Write your work up and put it on Arxiv.  Heck, you can even blog about it. 
  • Make something useful.  I got many of my first job interviews after grad school because I co-wrote Babel, a program for interconverting file formats used in molecular modeling.  A lot of people downloaded and used that program.  When I went to apply for jobs, people knew who I was. It opened a lot of doors.  If you’re publishing a paper, release the code for the method.  People using your code will remember you, people reading a paper without a corresponding implementation may not. 
  • Use social media.  We now live in a highly connected world where it's possible to share your ideas with a lot of people.  Social media presents an unprecedented opportunity to connect with like-minded scientists.  Post links to papers that you like on Twitter, post your papers on preprint servers, share your presentations and posters on slide sharing sites, post your code on GitHub, start a blog, there are a lot of things you can do.  Some may consider marketing and self-promotion unseemly, but I think it’s essential.
At this point, some of you may be thinking, “I can’t possibly reach out to talk with people; I’m far too introverted.”  Trust me, you can.  Every time I do a Myers-Briggs assessment, I’m about as far on the introverted side of the scale as you can go.  It isn’t easy, but it’s doable. Like a lot of other things in life, talking to people is a skill that can be cultivated.  Just get out there and do it, you’ll be glad you did.  

I want to reiterate the point I made at the beginning.  These are my experiences based on more than 20 years as a hiring manager in organizations ranging from small biotech to medium-sized pharma.  I don’t have AI robots or minions who pre-screen resumes, I personally read every application that is submitted (maybe that’s why I’ve gotten so worked up about this).  Other strategies may be more effective when dealing with other organizations.  To me, it’s pretty simple, as a hiring manager I’d like to know that you want this job, not just a job.  



Comments

  1. Valuable information to me. Thanks so much!

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  2. I didn't realize babel was your fault... ;)

    A lot of this advise translates to grad school applications as well.

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    Replies
    1. As I’ve said before, if you're not appalled by code you wrote two years ago, you're not making progress. Hopefully mine has gotten a bit better in the intervening twenty-five years.

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  3. The most informative post i ever have come across, thank you. Post more and more.

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  4. Thank you for your valuable insights. I see nearly all (if not all) biotech jobs want some experience in industry for the candidates. For a recent graduate it's difficult to pass that barrier even with some reasonable work or research skills, albeit from academic research. If you could share your thoughts on this I would really appreciate.
    Thanks,
    Reza

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    Replies
    1. This isn't the case for all biotechs, we've hired quite a few people in all disciplines who had just finished their degrees. If you're coming directly from school, it's especially important to let the hiring manager know what you'll bring to the job. You can do this in your cover letter or in the questions on the company's jobs website. Another good way to get your foot in the door is to intern at a company. We've ended up hiring a number of our interns. Also, as I mentioned in my post, network, network, network.

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  5. It was a pleasure to read your input of resume writing and reach out strategies. I look to transit out of academia for some time. long time post doc researcher and find it very difficult to stand out. I hope to use your approach to make smooth transition. Thank you.

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